Are you Irish?
I would say I'm an Irishwoman and an Irish writer, having spent those formative first twenty years of life in Dublin. But then I lived in Cambridge (England) for eight years. And these days I'm based in London, Ontario, in Canada - a city of 350,000 people, two hours' drive west of Toronto. I visit Ireland and Britain every few months. I hold joint Irish and Canadian citizenship and am happy to be known as a Canadian writer too.
Did you always want to be a writer?
No, first I wanted to be a ballerina, but at about eight years old I realised I was going to be too tall, so I settled for literature. This way I get to eat more cake.
How did you become a full-time writer?
In a lucky but fairly orthodox way. I wrote poetry constantly from early childhood. I wrote my first novel (over and over) from the age of 19. At 21, I found a literary agent, Caroline Davidson, who believed I had a future (that was the real stroke of luck); when I was 23, she got me a two-novel deal with Penguin, which was probably the most gleeful day of my life. Nothing is certain, and especially in a writer’s career, but so far my luck has held.
What was your PhD on?
Male-female friendship in the works and lives of some mid-eighteenth-century English novelists (Samuel Richardson, Sarah Fielding, Charlotte Lennox, Henry Fielding). I never published it, and I know of only four people who have read it (including my partner, mother and supervisor) but it taught me to feel at home in libraries, and it began my enduring obsession with the eighteenth century.
What writers have influenced you?
Sorry, I've no idea. Sometimes I like to think I'm writing in the tradition of Jane Austen, for whose novel Emma I was named, but I might be kidding myself.
Where do you fit into the Irish literary tradition?
This question’s another hard one. When I was in my teens I was reading (to pluck out a few random names) Frank O’Connor and Edna O’Brien, but also Tolstoy and Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood and Barbara Vine. It didn't occur to me to classify books by the nationality of their authors; it felt as if literature in English was a big lake that I could dive into from any point on the shore. But looking back on it, I can see I'm a rather typical Irish author in that most of my characters are gabby. (Translation for the non-Irish: they talk too much.)
What writers do you like best?
I read a mixture of fiction, drama and non-fiction (with the very occasional book of poetry) from the last few centuries, but living novelists take up most of my time. My favourites among them cover a wide range of genres: historical and contemporary fiction, fantasy, satire, children’s literature... Some American writers I love are Alison Bechdel, Rebecca Brown, Michael Cunningham, Dave Eggers, Elizabeth George, Allan Gurganus, Barbara Kingsolver, Armistead Maupin, E. Annie Proulx, Ann Patchett, Anita Shreve, Jane Smiley, Anne Tyler and David Foster Wallace (R.I.P.). Favourite Canadians include Helen Humphreys, Annemarie Macdonald, Alice Munro and the late great Carol Shields. My favourite Irish writer is probably Roddy Doyle. In Britain my top names are Julian Barnes, Michael Frayn, Leon Garfield, Alan Garner, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Diana Norman, Terry Pratchett, Philip Pullman, Adam Thorpe, Barry Unsworth, Barbara Vine, and Sarah Waters. You’ll notice from this list that most of my reading is shockingly limited to English-language literature of the British Isles and North America. Just a few books that have stunned me in recent years: Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveller’s Wife; Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance; Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin; Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle.
Who do you write for?
Myself, first, and then for anybody in the world who happens to buy or borrow a book or see a film or play of mine. I've been published by very mainstream presses so it's hard to know who my core audience might be.
Why did you leave Ireland in 1990? Was it because of its conservatism / homophobia / the Catholic Church?
No, what lured me to England was funding: full support (from the British Academy and the University of Cambridge) for the first three years of a PhD, which in the event turned into an eight-year stay. But I did feel much freer in England. I find my new home, Canada, a more diverse and just society than any other I’ve known, so I’m glad to have washed up here.
Why did you move to Canada in 1998?
I once answered this question at a reading in Ontario by saying 'Love', but the questioner then asked confidently, 'Love of Canada?' - so I had to spell it out and say 'No, love of a Canadian!' After several years of commuting between England, Ireland and Canada, I finally settled in the latter in 1998. I live in an old yellow-brick house in London, Ontario with Chris Roulston and our son Finn (born 2003) and daughter Una (born 2007).
How do you feel about the label 'lesbian writer'? Wouldn’t you rather be known just as a ‘writer’?
I get asked this question all the time, and I really appreciate the fact that so many readers who like my work want to defend me from what they see as limiting labels. But - on principle - I'm not going to object to 'lesbian writer' if I don't object to 'Irish writer' or 'woman writer', since these are all equally descriptive of me and where I’m from. And the labels commit me to nothing, of course; my books aren’t and don’t have to be all about Ireland, or women, or lesbians. (And since publishing Room, I’m mostly known as the locked-up-children writer instead…)
How political are you?
All writing is political, but only writers who belong to a minority get asked this question, funnily enough.
What draws you to work in such different genres?
Fiction is my favourite, and the one I live off. But film is an exciting new area of collaboration that I've moved into in the second half of my 40s. Theatre has provided many of the most enjoyable moments in my career, because working with a company is so stimulating and sociable, and I get to watch my work directly affecting an audience. In the case of radio drama, I can’t see them, but I can reach a much wider pool of listeners, and it’s a wonderfully cheap and flexible form; it’s no problem to set a scene at the Battle of Hastings, or on the moon! As for literary history and biography, it’s slow, painstaking work, but it’s deeply satisfying to feel that you’re writing something solid and accurate, especially if you’re bringing obscure people or themes to life.
Do you feel that inspiration comes directly from the Muse down your arm onto the page?
Would that it did. No, it’s plain ordinary work, I’m afraid. I was on a panel once with a writer who claimed that ‘we do our best writing unconsciously, in our sleep’, and I could just imagine how a dynamo like Charles Dickens would have howled with laughter at that one.
Do your characters take over and seem to write the book themselves?
No, I make them do what I want. (Except that occasionally they refuse!)
Do you enjoy writing?
Vastly. And the research. And going out in public in clean clothes to give readings or interviews too. It's the admin (email, form-filling, phone calls, accounts) I find boring.
Where do you get your ideas?
Impossible to tell. It's like asking someone where they picked up a cold.
Can you describe your writing environment?
Our front room. I have a large L-shaped desk I keep piled with miscellanea (orange peels, small socks, papers to be filed some year when I’ve nothing more interesting to do). I work a few hours a day walking at 2.5 mph at my treadmill desk, and otherwise sit on a sofa with my laptop. I also write on trains, planes or in hotel rooms. I really don't care because I'm oblivious to everything but the screen.
What advice would you give someone who wants to be a writer?
Write a lot, write with passion. Don’t give up the day job till you have reason to believe you can live off your writing, because plenty of great books have been written at weekends, and why put your art under pressure to be profitable?
What advice would you give a beginner who wants to get published?
If you write poems or stories, submit them to magazines. If you write a novel, rewrite it several times, and then, only when you think it's great, try to find an agent who'll sell it to a publisher. You'll find agents' addresses in publications like the Writer’s Handbook, Writer’s Market, or Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook; ring them up and ask if they’ll look at your work. Sending a manuscript straight to a publisher almost never works these days.
What do you look like?
A red-haired, blue-eyed Irishwoman, except taller than most, usually wearing bright colours to make up for the pale face.
Where do your siblings and parents live?
Ireland, England, France, and the USA.
Have you ever had a 'real job'?
No, and I hope I never will.
What are your goals for the future?
Write more, write better.
What do you do when you're not writing?
I look after our kids, read, watch films, read, sit around talking to my beloved and friends, and read a bit more. We go to Ireland, England and France a lot too.
If you had a time machine, where would you go?
Late eighteenth-century London, England. I'd be a rich spinster of scandalous habits, my hats would be enormous, chocolate drops would have been recently invented, and there'd be revolutions to provide a little excitement.