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frequently given answers
last updated November 2019
People have funny ideas about how writers live and work. I can only tell you how I live. We all live in different ways, just like other people – we're not aliens.
There are lots of questions people ask when I tell them I'm a writer. Here are answers to some of the most common. This is the bit it's usual to call FAQs – frequently asked questions. But I'm going to call them FGAs – frequently given answers.
I live in Cambridge, a small city in the Fens in England. The Fens are a flat, wet area full of cabbage fields and eels. I have written one story set in the Fens, called Off the Rails. My house is slightly big and often untidy.
I have a tortoise called tor2, and a varying number of chickens . Things wander in from the field next to the house, too: pheasants, foxes, rats, and deer. A few years ago we also had a pig, on loan for eight months. She was a kune kune pig called Nala. We have also had rescue crows, a terrapin and a lobster (plus the usual series of rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, mice, fish and prawns). We have never had a cat or a dog. (But I had cats when I was small.)
Tor2 with tadpoles
Franklin (with the bobble) and Poppy, with one of their chicks
Nala with my daughter, SB
Obama (ferret) with SB
Some writers can only work in one place. That must be very inconvenient. I write in lots of different places.
At home, I have an office in the garden, specially built in 2022.
In the summer, I sometimes work outside on the roof garden. But papers blow away into the garden or the field. The chickens are merciless if surprised by bits of paper – perfect little organic shredders.
SometimesI write in Cambridge University Library, but I use other libraries ,too, including the British Library in London, the Wellcome Library, the National History Museum Library and sometimes the Bodleian in Oxford. I love writing on trains – anywhere, in fact. I'm a peripatetic writer (or a tramp, if you prefer).
Inside (Cambridge University Library)
Outside (in summer)
OK, it's not a brain, it's a walnut. This isn't a biology lesson — use your imagination
People often imagine that writers sit around waiting for inspiration, scribble for a few minutes, or perhaps an hour, go for a walk, then spend the evening at flashy cocktail parties with literary lovelies. It's not like that. A real writer — a professional writer, who makes a living from writing — treats writing like any other job.
As a writer, you don't have to get dressed, you don't have to leave the house if you don't want to, you can work in the night, or a cafe – but you do have to do the work. I work as many hours as a full-time employee. Yes, I can meet people for coffee at 11am – but then I have to make the time up later. It's a job. It doesn't do itself when you're not looking.
Well, some of it does. Sometimes an idea needs to get on with it in your subconcious while you're not looking. Just like some people claim to have separate stomachs for dinner and pudding, writers have separate brains for composting ideas and writing.
Tardigrade - it can survive being dumped in outer space, or fried with radiation
Children are a great audience to write for. They are honest, interested, demanding and they have open, enquiring minds.
Writing for children is harder than writing for adults for lots of reasons. Young readers won't keep reading if they're bored; the language and structure have to be crystal clear; there is no space for writerly self-indulgence or showing off.
Children can cope with complex ideas and difficult themes. They need simple presentation, but their thinking is more agile, challenging and penetrating than that of many adults. They haven't been dulled and turned cynical by years of worrying about jobs and which car to buy. They will be quite happy to believe there could be fairy walruses, or that vampires worry about going to the dentist. They will be openly and honestly fascinated by tardigrades or slug slime.
Not all adults are dulled and jaded, of course — and those that are could re-enliven their minds. The books I write for adults are packed full of things that are interesting to think about. I don't see my job as telling people what to think, or what I think. I see it as getting them to think about things that are important or interesting or both. I don't mind what you think — just think!
The best is writing for children. I love the challenge of presenting a lot of information or an exciting plot in a few simple words. The best factual writing distils the essence of something complex and fascinating into an intense shot of excitement. It has to be crystal clear, but winkle out the facts that make the mind boggle.
I love research, whether it's for a children's book or an adult book. (I love finding things out) and then share all the most exciting or amusing bits. I bore all my twitter followers with lots of little snippets of information that are too good to keep quiet about.
After Michelangelo has removed the bits of not-angel
Waitrose. Or, often, the walk to Waitrose, which is my corner shop. Actually, anywhere. From something glimpsed or overheard, or even misheard. From odd little facts I come across or objects I see in museums or photos I see in magazines. Or just from nowhere at all – out of the aether (rather than ether, which would suggest substance abuse). Ideas are the only example of true spontaneous generation, of something coming from nothing.
Michelangelo used to say that he made a sculpture of an angel by taking a block of stone and removing all the bits of not-angel. A book goes through a similar stage, but it starts by trapping all the words and ideas floating around that you you think might be part of the book. Then you chip away all the words that actually are not-book. And what's left is the book.
Michelangelo felt the angel was already in the stone and he was freeing it. I don't know how many writers feel that stories already have some kind of existence and we just catch them as they float by, like motes in a sunbeam, and make them visible, but that's how I see it. They're like fairies , though — not everyone can see them.
If you can see them, trapping ideas and dressing them so that they look their best is the tricky bit. Seeing them is easy — there is no end to the number of ideas you can have. That's why writers get annoyed by people who are afraid to talk about their own ideas in case we steal them. Why would we? We already have more ideas than we can cope with. And it's why we won't, ever, agree to write your idea for you and split the money. We do the work that takes months, you do the fun bit that takes a microsecond. No. Sorry, just no. (There is an exception: some people work as ghosts, writing books for people — usually celebrities — who can't write. They get paid a lot.)
It's hard to be sure. There are some books that I don't count as books (anything published on A4 paper or with spiral binding). Some books appear in several formats. Some books are written and never published for one reason or another. I don't count books that weren't sold — but not all of those sold are published as sometimes publishers change their minds or run out of money, or the editor who was passionate about the book leaves and the person who takes over doesn't like it as much.
There are two proper books that are not on this website at all because I just don't like them. There might be some I've forgotten. The answer is about 300 actually published, including those which will definitely be published but aren't out yet.
I work on about 10-20 books each year. That doesn't mean I write 10-20 each year; many are started in one year and finished in another year so they get counted twice.
Spam fritter and chips - how school dinners looked in the 1970s
Writing in a café in Venice, Italy: sleek body and copious beer?
When not writing, I hang out in cafés, visit museums and galleries, listen to opera and go to Berlin. OK, that’s not really true. That's what I would like to do. In reality, I run around trying to stem the tide of rising stuff, and beat the wolf from the door with a large stick.
Unlike most children's writers I rarely do school visits. I sometimes give talks at conferences and that kind of thing where I can talk to grown-ups. I've nothing against children. I like them. But if you do school visits, don't you have to eat school dinners? I hate those.
I'm on the Management Committee of the Society of Authors, which takes up a bit of time.
And then there is fun time - the "paperhat hours", as the poet Dannie Abse called them. Sometimes I go to the cinema, the theatre or the opera. Often I spend happy time seeing friends and family. Many of my friends are also writers and sometimes we meet in cafes and do a bit of writing together — that's really combining paperhat hours and work hours, so it's like working in a paper hat.
I do actually go to galleries and museums. I like to travel, especially by train in Europe, and hunt for fossils. I like to swim in the sea (if it's warm enough – so not in England!) and see my daughters, Small B who is amidwife and Big B who is an evolutionary biologist in Berlin. I spend a lot of time with my grand-daughter, Micro B. I used to play the saxophone, and think I should do that again.
Do you want to find out how I live and work now, or how I came to be a writer?