The Writer’s Life
So what’s the first book you remember reading?
The first book I remember looking at was a big illustrated book about Stone Age people, although at the time I was too young to read the captions. Two of the first books I actually read were Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson, and a terrifically exciting adventure about a horse, called The Sagebrush Sorrel. I’ve still got all three books.
What’s the greatest influence on your writing?
Concerning non-literary influences, I’d have to name my parents, who ensured that I grew up surrounded by books (despite not having much money at the time), and who always encouraged me to follow my interests and take risks, while somehow managing to instil a bit of commonsense about how far to go.
Where do you write?
In my study. It’s very simple but I love it, because it’s totally given over to writing. There are several plain chipboard bookshelves, two big white Ikea table-tops on trestles (which wobble a bit, but I’m used to them); a computer, and some bits and pieces from research trips. The walls are yellow, because I read somewhere that it’s hard to be unhappy in a yellow room.
Typewriter, computer or pen?
I scribble the first version of each chapter on a pad with a rollerball pen, but it’s such a scrawl that I can only read it while it’s still fresh in my mind, so I try to type it onto the computer on the same day. Then I go over it a few times on the computer before moving on to the next chapter, and so on.
Name your favourite literary hero and villain.
They change from time to time, but here are the ones that have lasted. For heroes, it’s Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings and Hector from The Iliad. For villains, it’s Dracula (the Bram Stoker one, of course), and Stavrogin from The Devils.
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Nysaland (now Malawi), but came to England when I was small, and lived in Essex till I was eight, when we moved to Wimbledon. Apart from a couple of years in central London, I’ve lived there ever since.
Did you enjoy school? What is your most vivid memory?
In the main I did, but my most vivid memory concerns my one bad year. When I was about eleven, a new girl joined the class and took such a dislike to me that she got everyone else to gang up against me. It doesn’t sound too bad, but it was miserable and very lonely to go through. My mother told me to ignore the lot of them, which I did – and after a pretty rough year, the ringleader left, and things drifted back to normal. But I’ve never forgotten it. And it probably helped make me a writer, because for that year, I retreated into my imagination.
Have you had any formal tuition in creative writing? If so, where and what? Did you find it useful?
Some years ago I enrolled in an evening class in creative writing, but I only went to three sessions. I’m afraid that I didn’t get a lot of out of listening to other peoples reading out their work; I was too impatient to get on with my own writing.
What were the first pieces of writing that you produced? eg short stories, school magazine etc.
I wrote my first stories on my mother’s typewriter when I was five. I’ve still got some of them. One was about a rabbit called Hamish and a Tyrannosaurus rex. Another, Ebany the Mouse Goddess, concerned a tribe of mice who burrowed to safety beneath an oncoming glacier. At school I wrote several plays, including one about the murder of Tutankhamun, and another about a family of cavemen.
What jobs did you do before you started writing?
I worked as a solicitor in the City for thirteen years: lots of all-nighters and weekends in the office. The challenge made it fun for a while, but that soon palled. I don’t miss it at all.
If your house was burning down, what would you save?
Nothing. I’d just try to get out alive. (And lest anyone think me callous, I should add that I don’t have any pets!)
What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you?
As an undergraduate at Oxford, I was cycling down the High Street one sunny morning, gawping at how beautiful everything looked, when an enormous bluebottle flew straight into my mouth. Coughing and spluttering, I lurched to a halt, and bent double over the gutter to spit out bits of fly. I must have looked idiotic. Or drunk. Probably both.
What do you do when you are not writing?
There hasn’t been much downtime since I became a writer, but usually I either read a book (preferably something completely different from my own, such as a thriller or a biography. These days, though, my spare time tends to consist of short spells spent sitting in the garden or going for a walk, just to clear my head.
What single thing might people be surprised to learn about you?
I can’t whistle. I just never acquired the knack.
How far back in the deep past is Torak’s world?
It’s six thousand years ago, which is after the Ice Age, and before farming reached this part of northern Europe. The land is one vast Forest, peopled by small clans of hunter-gatherers. They have no writing, no metals, and no wheel. They don’t need them. They’re superb survivors. They know every tree and herb in the Forest. They know how to make beautiful, deadly weapons from flint and bone. They know the animals they hunt, and they respect them, because without them they won’t survive.
How did you capture the way of life of the clans?
To find out what the clans wear and eat and live in, I’ve studied archaeology, which has always been a passion of mine. In Torak’s world, each clan has its own particular clan-tattoos and clothes; its own weapons and shelters and hunting customs. Torak is going to discover a lot of strange things as he journeys through his world, meeting the different clans.
But that’s not all. How do the clans think? What do they believe about the Forest, and about hunting and animals and death? For that I’ve learnt from more recent hunter-gatherers such as Native Americans, Inuit, Sami, the Ainu of Japan, and many African tribes. And again, in Torak’s world, each clan has its own ideas about how the world came about, and what happens when you die, and how to avoid demons and sickness. Sometimes these ideas are very different from those of other clans, as Torak is going to find out in later books.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring authors?
I think the main thing is to keep writing, preferably every day, no matter how busy you are with your job, children, etc. Reading some ‘How to write a novel’ books can help too, as it avoids having to reinvent the wheel. But there’s no substitute for keeping writing – despite rejection letters, frequent bouts of ‘I’ll never get there in a million years’, and well-meaning friends’ suggestions that maybe you should try something else in the interests of sanity.
One other thing: I don’t think it’s a great idea to talk about your work in detail to other people; just get on with it. I’ve noticed that people who tell me the plot of their novel-in-progress or screenplay or whatever in fascinating and exhaustive detail tend not to be the ones who ever get it finished.
Are there times when you are so absorbed in your story that you have a hard time relating to the ‘real’ world?
I find that’s the case most of the time, but it doesn’t usually bother me. It occurred to me the other day that, what with writing, watching television, going to the cinema and day-dreaming, I probably only spend a small fraction of every day in the ‘real’ world. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy travelling so much: suddenly I’m catapulted into the ‘real’ world for whole days at a time, which makes a refreshing change.
How did it come about that Sir Ian McKellen agreed to read the audio book of Wolf Brother?
It was one of those amazingly lucky chances. My agent was at a drinks party, and met Sir Ian (whom henceforth I’ll refer to simply as Ian!), and this resulted in a copy of the book being sent round to him. A few days later he got in touch, and was kind enough to say that he’d enjoyed Wolf Brother very much, and would be interested in reading the audio book. I was in Greenland, researching Spirit Walker, when my agent rang with the news. I was over the moon!
What is the most rewarding and enjoyable part of being a writer?
Two things. First, when (very occasionally) a scene comes alive the first time you put pen to paper. That’s what I write for: that rare buzz when it’s really going well. The second reason has to do with when I receive a letter from a reader, saying how much my novel meant to her. It’s an exhilarating feeling, as well as a privilege, to know that you have moved someone whom you’ve never met.
What is the scariest experience you’ve ever had?
It was a few years ago, in the Sierra Nevada of southern California, and I was hiking alone on a deserted mountain trail. Suddenly, on the opposite side of the stream I was following, a large female black bear and her two cubs appeared out of nowhere. One moment I was in the twentieth century; the next, I was back in the prehistoric forest.
An old rancher in Wyoming had warned me that a female bear with cubs is at her most dangerous. He’d also told me that as bears can’t see too well, and hate surprises, it’s vital to make a noise to let them know you’re there: his tip was to sing! The mother bear and her cubs was only thirty feet away from me, on the other side of the stream – but she clearly hadn’t spotted me yet; and my way home led right past her. I couldn’t hope to creep by unnoticed; I had to tell her I was there. So I took a deep breath and launched into Danny Boy.
To my horror, instead of just watching me go, she pricked up her ears and started purposefully across the stream – towards me. That’s when the fear really kicked in. If I made a wrong move, she might attack. And I had no defences. All I could do was try to persuade her that I wasn’t a threat. I stopped. She stopped in mid-stream. We looked at each other. She rocked slowly from side to side, as if considering whether to rear up on her hind legs and go for me. For what seemed like a lifetime I side-stepped slowly past her. She watched me all the way. Then, finally, my path dipped out of sight – and I ran like hell.
It was the most terrifying and exhilarating experience of my life. It also felt weirdly as if I’d been back in time. In those brief moments when I was facing the bear, thousands of years of civilisation were suddenly irrelevant; I knew what it was to be prey. I’d been in Torak’s world.