It was sparked by the death of someone close to me. I had a weirdly comic and mystifying experience of grief and bereavement that had a lot to do with being a twin.
The idea of being cut in half but also doubled by the experience stayed with me for a long time before I began writing the book, which eventually became a novel, essentially, about the relationship between twins.
Other themes in the book, such as marriage and dual heritage, and the contrasts of comedy and tragedy, realism and the supernatural, became metaphors for twinness, for ‘two-ness’.
When did you first realise you wanted to write fiction?
I used to read a lot when I was a teenager and I was enthralled by this power some books had of enveloping you in another world, peculiar, vivid, complex worlds where anything was possible. I started off by writing poetry, but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties, working as a journalist and feeling somewhat restricted writing articles, that I began to want to create such worlds myself.
The way I read was changing. More than simply enjoying being seduced, I began to think about how and why I was being seduced. The more aware and discerning I became as a reader, the stronger became the desire to write. Good fiction, good writing, makes me want to write, and vice versa.
And what did you do before you started writing?
I went into journalism not long after graduating from a media studies degree. I was a dancer for a while, but then decided that if it was a toss between dancing and writing, writing was the thing. I worked full-time on a woman’s magazine then went freelance and began writing fiction alongside journalism.
What are you working on now?
Another novel. I’m at that agonising, chaotic conceptual stage where the idea is much, much bigger than I thought it was and I realise terrifying things, such as the small matter of having to research the entire history of the entire world, for instance. I’m also casually working on a short story about a little girl who gets sucked into a hoover.
Please could you tell us about what’s on your bookshelf? The old stuff, the unread stuff, the favourite books, the passing enthusiasm …
There are ever-mounting books and not enough shelves and I’m in desperate need of a study. Among the favourites are Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, Jean Rhys’s After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, Stardust by Neil Gaiman, short story collections by Raymond Carver, Jackie Kay, Anton Chekhov and Ali Smith, and the poems of Rita Dove and Mary Oliver. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is gathering dust on the bedroom bookshelf – I fully intend to get further than a fifth of the way through but I’ve accepted that it will take some years.
There are novels by Dickens and the Brontës, Jonathan Franzen, Jane Austen, Haruki Murakami and of course Toni Morrison. And I had a passing liaison with the Complete Lyrics of Nick Cave, until I realised that he’s better consumed with music (as are most musicians, except for Leonard Cohen, who’s an incredible poet).
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?
Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.
Why that book?
Because it had me by the throat from beginning to end and I felt bereft when it was over. It’s a marvellously idiosyncratic book.
It captures the childhood viewpoint perfectly, the fun and innocence of that world, while also succeeding in shedding a piercing light on violence and abuse, oppressive social and political structures, all the more powerfully because they are explored through the child’s eye.
It is also a book that’s profoundly interested in language. One of the best lines from it: ‘The silence was unsure about this compromise.’
Is there anything else you’d like to tell website visitors?
One of the most important things I learnt from writing 26a is that novels usually don’t come out fully formed at the outset.
It takes drafting, writing bad stuff in order to make it good, a broadness of mind so that the work has enough space to become whatever it is capable of becoming – and an awful lot of worry, swimming, and strange behaviour.