At what age did you know you wanted to become a writer? 

Not until my twenties, when I wrote my first article for The Guardian and found I loved doing it. I will always be intensely grateful to the editor who commissioned it. 

Was your first book published or is it still lurking in a drawer somewhere? 

It is called A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits and it was published in 2010.

What was your favourite childhood book? 

I’m torn between Jane Gardam’s great and inspirational novel A Long Way from Verona and Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams, in which a sick child begins drawing to while away the time and discovers that she can enter her drawings when dreaming. 

What is your ‘ if you don’t like this, you can’t be my friend’ book?

Zola’s Germinal.

Do you find the process of writing agony or pure pleasure? 

I’m tormented by structure and relieved by writing.

Who, in your opinion is the most under-read author? 

Sorley Maclean, Ian Crichton-Smith, Norman McCaig, Kathleen Jamie: I wish everyone read their poetry. 

Who or what have been your most important influences? 

My father, the painter James Cumming. His strong arm guides me still and he was the most independent-minded, visionary and disciplined person I have ever met. His motto was Go Your Own Way.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing? 

A gardener

How long did it take you to write the book that is shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize? 

Three and a half years.

Favourite film 

Aguirre Wrath of God, Werner Herzog

Favourite Album 

Talking Heads Stop Making Sense

Favourite Artist 

Velazquez (who else!)

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