At what age did you know you wanted to become a writer?
In the sense of writing stories, as young as I can remember. In the sense of doing it professionally, I think I realised that that was potentially a thing when I was 13, and started quietly wondering if it might be possible from then.
Was your first book published or is it still lurking in a drawer somewhere?
It was published: King Rat, 1998.
What was your favourite childhood book?
Meal One by Ivor Cutler and Helen Oxenbury.
What is your ‘if you don’t like this, you can’t be my friend’ book?
None such. I’d be more likely to think ‘If you do like this…’ about certain titles.
Do you find the process of writing agony or pure pleasure?
Most of the time, closer to the former, though that would be to put it hyperbolically. And then there are the exceptional moments, for which you strive, when it is the latter, and more.
Who, in your opinion, is the most under-read author?
It’s a very long list, at the head of which for me for a while has been Jane Gaskell.
Who or what have been your most important influences?
I think one has to unpack this question. It contains multitudes. There are writers you love yet who don’t (seem to) impact your own work in particular. There are those who you consciously strive to learn from, and those you don’t but who you can feel casting deep shadows anyway. There are some whose work you dislike but who loom large, possibly as negative examples (the books you love hating), possibly, despite yourself, as positive ones. There are writers you can take or leave but who have one key text to which you keep returning in awe. Those you don’t think are much good but love and know you echo anyway. Those you’re obsessed with but couldn’t say why. Writers you’re new to but who you know instantly torque your own stuff – late influences. There are those you realise you’re influenced by at one remove, even, sometimes, if you haven’t read them. And so on. Plenty of people shift from one of those categories to another, at different times. And of course there are the countless writers you’re deeply influenced by without knowing it.
That last is maybe the most interesting group of all, but definitionally you can’t name them, except perhaps with occasional belated epiphanies.
A few of the key touchstones for me – without specifying where they might be in that continuum – would be Charlotte Bronte, Dambudzo Marechera, HP Lovecraft, Beatrix Potter, M John Harrison, Jane Gaskell, Ursula Le Guin, Franz Kafka, Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, Mervyn Peake. The temptation is to just keep adding names. Michael Cisco, Borges, Anne Carson, Ballard, Gene Wolfe, Marion Fox, Unica Zurn, Helen Oyeyemi, Iain Sinclair, Mary Butts, Lucy Lane Clifford. As for all of us, there are countless more. Julian of Norwich, Kit Smart, Bruno Schulz, Margaret Cavendish. And so on. We haven’t even got on to non-fiction.
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
How long did it take you to write the book that is shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize?
I was working on it, in hesitant bursts, for about four years.
‘Favourite’ is invidious for any form: can we have, instead, ‘A favourite’’?
‘The Murder of Fred Hampton’.
Same caveat as above:
‘Fear of a Black Planet’, Public Enemy.
And with the same qualification again: