Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Yes and no. I’ve been writing (‘things’ (i.e. poems)/ plays/stories) ever since I can remember. I have always found that it’s the best way to express myself. (A very close second is painting) However, I never thought I’d actually become a writer. I wanted to become a ballet dancer, then an actress or a nun, then an opera singer, an artist, a photographer, an aromatherapist, a soap maker, a jewellery designer, an anthropologist, an archaeologist and a set & costume designer! Some of these professions I did practise for a while, and some I still keep as hobbies. But, throughout all these moments of searching, I’ve always written. Always! However, my husband was the one who prodded me towards writing seriously. That is why I applied for an MA in Creative Writing. I have never regretted it.

Did you read much as a child?

I have memories of my parents reading fairytales to me when I was very young. Then, when we moved to London, I read a lot. I loved reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Hans Christian Andersen, Brothers Grimm, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, Mary Rodgers, Anna Sewell. As a teenager, I took English Literature because I knew there was reading involved. However, at bedtime, I wanted to relax, and so read my way through all the Asterix & Obelix books, as well as Tintin’s adventures.

How do you go about writing a book?

Ideas for books can come from many different directions. Sometimes, I’ll have a dream (as in my short story The Unfolding), and then I’ll work it into a story. Other times, I’ll hear something fascinating (as in Lydia’s Letters) and want to write about it. Interesting faces and features also catch my eye, and they can spark a story. There are a few cases whereby a character in one of my novels or stories creates itself, and then I have to spend time with this persona, I have to find out more about them (as in Ané).

 Do you have a writing routine?

I didn't have a routine until very recently. I could go weeks and months without actually writing. But, for over a year now, I have realised that writing every day is therapeutic. So, even if it's for an hour or two, I will sit down at my computer and write. Often, I'm editing. At other times, I'm thinking (or percolating, as I like to call it) about a story. But, whatever I'm doing...I do it daily. This has helped me tremendously with dealing with frustrating moments of thinking I can no longer write. Even if I end up writing rubbish...at least I'm writing! And when I am on a writing roll, I then write without stopping! Ideally, I like to be locked in my room, without disturbances, so I can write, write, write. But, when the fever gets me, when words come faster than my fingers can type and ideas demand to be written down, I have been known to write in the living room, with the TV blasting, the children asking me questions and I still get everything down.

Do you have a clear plan before writing a book?

I sometimes have a general idea of how a book ought to go. Other times, I start writing, thinking I know which direction to follow, and end up writing something completely different (as in Fishtail Mountain. In fact, I read some parts I’d written and wondered where everything had come from!). Even if I do make a plan beforehand, during the writing, the original plan always undergoes changes.

How long does it take you to write a book?

I don’t really know. Being a mother of three, I don’t have the luxury of having time only for my writing. There’s always something to do in the house. Some books can take years to write, (like Ané, which took me about seven years to write!) others a few months. In the past, I used to write at night, when the whole household was sleeping. I no longer have that kind of energy, so find myself writing more during the day. This means having to squeeze everything together – cooking, cleaning, shopping, spending time with my family, writing, being on the Internet….the list is endless!

How many drafts of a book do you write?

Usually between three and five drafts. I write the initial story, then put it aside for some months. I don’t look at it at all. Then, I take it up again, edit and tear it to bits, sometimes even re-write it completely! Once that is done, I send it to two friends and they read it. I take their feedback, decide what I agree with and what I don’t, and then rework the book. I leave it aside, again, then go back to it and go through the whole process. Yes. It’s exhausting but very valuable.

Do you do a lot of research?

Yes. I read a lot of books about a subject matter that I’m writing about, or an era I’m setting a book in. I look at paintings, photographs, read articles and interviews. I also like to go to the places I’m writing about; this always helps getting a general feel for the place which is impossible to obtain from books alone. However, I do not want what I find out to make a story feel too dry, wooden or stilted. I always try to incorporate and balance what I’ve researched with the essence of the story. If the information is not relevant to the story and doesn’t serve it, then I won’t use it. If it doesn’t suit a character then, once again, I won’t use my research. Still, I think it’s very important to be able to ground a book in reality. And I’m a stickler for little details. They make all the difference.

Are your books autobiographical?

Yes and no. To a certain extent, they have to be. By that, I mean that it is good to know what a particular place or situation feels like in order to describe it better (for example, being in a hamam). However, there are certain situations which, I’m very happy to say, I have not had an experience of, such as murdering someone! There, I’ve had to rely solely on my imagination and what I think it would feel like for that particular character to witness, perform or experience that. I like to understand my characters, even the ones that are diametrically opposite to me and emotionally hard to cope with. I want to know where they’re coming from and where they’re going, what they’re thinking and feeling.

Do you have a favourite amongst your books?

Every book I write is my favourite! I become engrossed with the story I’m writing but, once it’s finished, I usually like moving onto another one. Sometimes, I actually write two novels at a time – first one, then the other, then back to the first. Having said that, Fishtail Mountain holds a very dear place in my heart. My trip to Nepal, when I was twenty-three, was life-changing. Fishtail Mountain was my way of saying ‘Thank you’ to a country and its people for the experiences they so lovingly offered me. To make matters worse, Little Dorje, (the lead character in the book), is a conglomeration of my three children, so I had a hard time letting him go, seeing him stand on his own two feet and walk out into the world. Alone!

How important was doing an MA in Creative Writing?

I think it was very important for me to do this MA. Yes, writing is a talent, but to keep this love vibrant and breathing, you have to have some technical knowledge, too. I’m an observant person by nature, but being taught to focus on just one aspect of something I’m observing, to hone in and become economical with words was a wonderful and challenging lesson. It was also very important learning how to deal with criticism. I was lucky in that my MA was a long distance one, which meant it spanned over two years (with an intense on-campus week full of workshops at the end of the first year). I had tutors’ and co-students’ comments saved on my laptrop and easily accessible for reference.

Having said all of the above, the inspiration is there, MA or no MA. The knowledge comes in handy during the editing phase, where a lot of things are changed and discarded.

Which writers do you admire and like to read?

I admire many writers, including Amy Tan, John Irving, Haruki Murakami, Tracy Chevalier, Joanne Harris, Jeanette Winterson, Elif Shafak, Orhan Pamuk, Nikos Kazantzakis, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Dan Holloway, Larry Harrison, Rebecca Lochlann, Hannah Davis, Jhumpa Lahiri, Liz Jensen, Daphne Du Maurier, Milan Kunera, Isabel Allende, Anne Michaels,  Nicole Krauss, Vladimir Nabokov, Anaïs Nin, Stephen King, J.R.R Tolkien, C.S Lewis, Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Roald Dahl, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Ivan Klima…….and the list can go on and on!

Do you have a favourite book?

Yes! My all-time favourite book is 'The Little Prince' by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I loved it as a child and I still love it as an adult. I find something different in it every time I read it.

 What advice can you give on writing?

Pay attention to detail. But, most importantly, get your story out. By that, I mean, sit down and write it. Don’t worry about it not being good or appealing to many readers. Write what’s in your head, write about what excites and intrigues you, write because it’s the best way to express yourself and because you cannot live without it. And once that bit is out of the way, go back and edit, edit, edit, until you’re sick and tired of your story and cannot look at it any longer! Also, get used to receiving criticism – hopefully constructive. Pick one friend, maybe two, you believe can give you tough but helpful advice, let them read your book and then, edit, edit, edit some more.

And read. Read a lot.