The Good Book Guide interview
1) What is the last book you read?
I just finished an Italian novel called La Bambinaia Francese, the French Nanny, set in the 1830s. It’s an imagined prequel to Jane Eyre, rather like Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, but from the point of view of Sophie, Jane’s French counterpart. I live in London and Venice, and my novels are set in both cities too, so I like to read as much Italian as possible. Apart from eavesdropping in bars, it’s the best way to refine your grasp of a foreign language. It’s also good to read the work of other historical novelists. But I am also researching my next novel, so I have a stack of reference books on my desk, by female Victorian travellers in Egypt and Italy.
2) Which book changed your life?
A book changes my life at least once every two years. It’s nearly always a sentence or image in a book that triggers an idea for a new novel. Often, a very unlikely book; usually, a one-line idea perfectly tangential to the original source. Then I can spend two years in servitude to a tiny idea that flashed up as briefly as a firework. Virginia Woolf observed ruefully that all her novels were wonderful before she wrote them. I think all writers would agree with her. The most recent book to change my life in this way was Fuller’s Pharmacopoeia Extemporanea of 1710, a book of recipes for apothecaries. In the eighteenth century medicine could be numbered among the performing arts and the ingredients were necessarily showy to capture the imagination of the public. So Fuller’s quite seriously instructs budding apothecaries to use peacock dung, balsam of peru, crushed millipedes and ‘Venetian Treacle’ – a compound of at least seventy ingredients including bits of viper. When I starting reading Fuller’s, I immediately had the idea for The Remedy, and was set on a long and fascinating course of research and writing.
3) Describe your favourite travel destination.
It is always Venice, but because I spend so much time there, I find different destinations within the town. I am always walking around ‘in costume’ – I mean mentally as one of my characters. So there are warm spots all over Venice where my various characters live. At the moment I have a warm spot in Sant’ Alvise and one at San Silvestro.
4) If you could live in any historical era/meet any historical figure, which would it be?
at my ease in the eighteenth century. Feminine values were prized then,
too. After that, in many ways it was downhill for women. The Romantic
movement allowed them only two roles: the victim or the mother of the Dark
I love the London Library, for the serendipitous discoveries among the open shelves. I am usually on half a dozen deadlines, but sometimes when I go there I allow myself the sin of ten minutes promiscuous browsing. Anything can happen then. I also love writing out of doors.
6) Do you have any routines/rituals to your writing day?
I like to be at my desk by 6.30 or 7am, as if I can startle an idea by creeping up on it so early. I usually have a lot of projects simultaneously – one novel and four or five non-fiction ones – so some days I force myself to change books every two hours, which makes sure that something is achieved on each project, whether it is correcting colour proofs, finishing a chapter, or writing a submission. If I am in Venice I always take the manuscript to my local bar at around 6am, and I spread it out on the zinc table for rewrites fuelled by cappuccino.
7) What’s in store for your future? (with regard to upcoming publications, tours, etc)
I am deep into my fourth novel, which is set in London, Venice and Egypt in the 1880s.
8) Which author do you think most deserves a wider audience?
I can’t boast to have discovered anyone – but I think everyone would do well to read more Tim Winton, Laurie Graham and Sarah Salway.
9) Which film could you watch 100 times?
I love Oh Brother Where Art Thou, the Coen Brothers take on Homer, scored with music from the Depression. Every time I see it I discover more Homeric references. It is also extremely funny.
10) Which of your characters is closest to your heart?
The character I am writing now for my next novel is someone who doesn’t quite fit anywhere but feels a curious affinity with Venice. She feels like someone I know.
11) What would you do if you weren’t a writer?
I’d make cups of coffee for other writers. Seriously, I guess I’d do what I do anyway – research.
12) What job did you hold before becoming a writer?
I did and still do compile anthologies for various publishers and retail chains in the USA and the UK. Often the subjects bleed into my fiction. I have worked in journalism and publishing all my life. I cannot imagine not working with words.
13) What is the most enjoyable step of the writing process (research, editing, etc)?
The best part – and the only part – of a novel that gives unalloyed pleasure is the idea. That descends in three seconds usually. I always say that the difference between this stage and delivering a finished book is similar to the difference between having an orgasm and having a baby. Perhaps this is why so many people talk about writing, and not so many can deliver a finished manuscript.