What sparked How I Live Now?

It felt to me as if thousands of loose elements floating in space suddenly converged into a book: the horrible premature death of my youngest sister from cancer, a desperate desire to get out of advertising, a need to impress my new agent, the early rumblings of the Iraq war … for a start.

When did you first realise you wanted to write fiction?

Very early. I began writing stories when I was about seven (mainly about horses), but lost my nerve later on. It took 38 years for me to start writing fiction again. As Shakespeare says, ‘the readiness is all.’

And what did you do before you started writing?

I began my career in academic publishing in New York City, worked at Time Inc, and the New York Times, moved to PR and then advertising, had a stint as deputy press secretary for the NY Democrats in 1988, wrote movie titles and poster copy for Tristar films – and those are just the jobs I remember. I saw in my daughter’s Guinness Book of World Records that the record number of jobs held by a single person was 68; I think I must come very close.

I worked in advertising for 15 years, and was fired repeatedly for insubordination and general lack of commitment, but in retrospect I have to admit I learned an immense amount about writing from the experience.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing the ever-problematic second novel (about a boy obsessed with fate), and am just starting a third, based on the story of Bellerophon and Pegasus.

Please could you tell us about what’s on your bookshelf? The old stuff, the unread stuff, the favourite books, the passing enthusiasm …

The ones I’d rescue in a fire are probably Thurber’s <em>Dogs</em>, Robert Graves (Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man and Goodbye to All That), Wilfred Thesiger (Arabian Sands), MFK Fisher’s Art of Eating, Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Shirley Hazzard (Transit of Venus), Flora Thompson (Lark Rise to Candleford) and collections of Yeats and Edgar Allen Poe.

Passing enthusiasms that have stayed vivid include Kawabata and Tanizaki, early 20th century explorers, and all the wonderful Viragos: Molly Keane, Rosamund Lehmann, Antonia White, Elizabeth Taylor, et al.

Unread books? Too many to list, but next up are Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson and Q&A by Vikas Swarup.

Is there one book by a woman (that isn’t eligible for this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction) that you’d like to recommend to website visitors?

A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird is the best inspiration for anyone considering a change of life. It’s the story of a sickly minister’s daughter from Victorian Scotland who is told by a doctor that she should travel for her health.

So in 1873, at age 22, she takes a boat to San Francisco, rents a horse, and sets off into the Rocky Mountains alone, through blizzards and wild frontier towns, falls in love with an outlaw, and writes letters home to her sister about the whole adventure. Magic.