Where do you get your ideas?
They can come from anywhere: a picture, a place, a news story, a conversation. Sometimes an idea can emerge without my knowing where it comes from. It’s a mysterious process.
Do you start with characters or plot?
I always start with characters, but characters in a situation, not in isolation. In The Anniversary, a family celebrating fifty years of achievement, but also bringing their personal crises with them, which come to a head over the course of a day. In The Travellers, the people left behind after war and Soviet repression, who have to rebuild their lives. In A Running Tide, an isolated community and a young girl suddenly confronted by an outside world which changes their lives for ever. In The Testament of Mariam, the sister of a man whom some regard as a dangerous revolutionary and others believe to be divine.
How do you do your research?
With great enjoyment. I love the process of research and gather piles of books around me (too many, really, I’m insatiable). The internet is useful for checking facts or tracking down sources. Many of my own books have, at least in part, a foreign setting, so I like to buy a very good guide book with a large number of illustrations. I find that visual images help. Where possible, I’ll visit the location and take photographs and make notes. Sometimes the visit comes before the idea for a book, so when I’m abroad I always do this, just in case the material comes in useful some day. I’ll try to pick up a smattering of the language (Hungarian for The Travellers, Aramaic for The Testament of Mariam), but I also try not to become distracted by serious study of the language, or the book would never be written. Writers are notorious for engaging in displacement activities.
How long does it take you to write a book?
I’ve never written a book in less than a year. There’s a long period of planning and research, followed by an intense period writing the first draft, finishing with a long period of editing and rewriting. I once – to my astonishment – wrote a first draft of 110,000 words in under six weeks, but the whole process still took a year. Rather more than a year, in fact.
Your books have been praised for their vivid settings, which readers find compelling. How do you create them?
I try to put myself physically into the settings. All the senses are important to me, not just the visual impact of a place, but the way it smells, the sounds, the taste of food, the texture of objects. I want to feel for myself the physicality of daily life. In my research for The Testament of Mariam I probably spent as much time on the details of ordinary people’s lives as I did on the labyrinthine politics of the period.
Do you write by hand or on a computer?
I write on a laptop because it is so easy to edit and polish your writing on a computer. I prefer a laptop because it is somehow less intimidating than a desktop computer. More intimate. However, I do most of my planning with pen and paper. Not sure why. It just seems to work. I have to confess that my note-taking during research is a bit disorganised, sometimes on paper and sometimes on the computer.
Do you plan your books in detail before you start writing?
No! This destroys the creative process for me. I once had to produce a detailed synopsis for my publisher before I had written the book, and I hated it. At the outset I have a beginning quite clear in my mind and I have a fairly good idea of the ending. I know of certain milestone scenes which will take place along the way, but I don’t plan in more detail than that. As I write, I make a rough list of scenes for each chapter as I start it, very minimal, then see what emerges as I write. One of the joys of writing is to discover what happens as you go along. If you knew everything in advance, why should you bother to write it?
Reviewers have commented on how your characters leap off the page. What’s the secret?
Ah, that’s another of the mysteries. Once you start to see your characters as real people, they slip out of your hands and become real people. They start doing things and saying things for themselves. They refuse to be manipulated. It’s a very strange process, but marvellous.
Your books, even the contemporary ones, contain a lot of historical elements. Are you an historian?
No, though perhaps I’m an historian manqué. I studied Greek and Roman history when I was a classicist, and I always read a lot of history. I don’t think I would have enjoyed being an academic historian, though. I’m particularly interested in the lives of ordinary people rather than the great figures of history. However, I feel very strongly about how great (and terrible) events in the past have affected the unnoticed, unrecorded people. And I believe we all carry around inside us both the memory of our own personal history as well as the accumulated history of mankind, even if we seem unaware of it.
What are you working on at the moment?
I never talk about it. Too risky.