Photo: Dom Henry
When did you start writing?
My first book, Eat, Drink and Be Married, came out in 2006, but I started writing five or six years before that. I gave up my job as a journalist when my daughter was born - it seemed like the ideal opportunity to do what I’d always wanted to do: write. It was something I liked doing, that I needed to do. I’ve done a lot of unsatisfying jobs where I’d go on a lunch break and scribble - that would make me feel good. Writing would be the satisfying part of my day, and when my daughter was born I said, “I’m going to write a book.” I didn’t know if it would be published, but it was something I had to see through.
Raising a child is quite time-consuming on its own...
It is, but I’m pretty disciplined. I’d make time to write and sacrifice things that weren’t as important, like a social life. It was always a toss-up: do I write or go out? Do I write or watch TV? Writing would always win the day. I fit it in because I want to do it and because it makes me feel fulfilled.
Was it always fiction you’d write?
Yes. Usually it would come from something someone would say to me, a family story or a fact from history. Something would spark an idea, I’d then take that and build it into a bigger story.
Has your previous career as a journalist helped your writing?
Definitely. I know what questions to ask people when I’m doing research for a book, and it gave me the desire to get my facts right. It helps with the discipline of writing as well. You have to write every day.
You also teach at the university...
I do. I really enjoy it. It’s amazing how much someone can improve if you give them the space and time to write and build up their confidence. I don’t think you can make anybody into a writer, but if someone’s on their way, you can help them get there quicker. I taught for a year three years ago, moved to Cyprus for a couple of years, now I’m back in Nottingham and am teaching fiction again on the Creative and Professional Writing degree. I was born in Nottingham, left for work and travel, but I’m back here now.
You’ve called your first book a “write what you know novel”. Your latest book is very much removed from what you know. Do you think this is evidence of your progression as a writer?
My first three books were easy to write because they were about my own culture. When I started writing about another culture and the history of Armenia in The Spice Box Letters, it was difficult to get a sense of authenticity, to capture the folklore, history, customs, and language. I spent four years soaking up the culture and getting the book right, and after a couple of years, it just wasn’t working, so I put it away for a year. I needed to try something less tiring than a novel, so I decided I’d write a screenplay of my third book, Land of the Golden Apple. I knew that Cyprus had a fledgling film industry with funding available and not many filmmakers. I had no chance of getting funding in England, and since it was set in a Cypriot village with a small cast of characters, it was doable.
Had you written something like that before?
Nope. I bought the Idiot’s Guide To Screenwriting and sat down and wrote my first screenplay. Sometimes it’s better to not know what you’re doing. I sent it to a producer in Cyprus who took it on and managed to get funding. Four years later, the film is going into production in June this year.
The Spice Box Letters
It was based on your husband’s childhood...
Very much so. He had what was, on the surface, an idyllic childhood in a small village, climbing trees, exploring caves and so on. I wanted to write a story about a Huckleberry Finn-style childhood, but a shady one. There are dodgy characters who prey on children, even in peaceful villages, and I wanted to include that. I also wanted to get the best stories my husband told me into the book, like when he managed to blow up part of the village church, and the teacher at the local school who would intimidate the girls, rubbing his groin against their desks. One day, my husband stuck drawing pins to the edges of the desks. It’s easier to write a book when your muse lives with you.
Your new book is based partly in the Armenian Genocide of 1915. You write about it from a very personal perspective, exploring it through letters and journals of one family who lived through it...
Right. There are factual books on this but I wanted to write about it from the point of view of an ordinary family living through it. I did my research, but wanted that to come over in more of a subliminal way. I didn’t want it to sound like a history book with facts and figures.
What research did you do?
I lived in Cyprus for two years and am always going back and forth, so I was able to meet with relatives of survivors of the genocide and interview them. A story in the book, about an asbestos mine collapse that happened during a christening, came from someone I interviewed.
The Armenian Genocide is still a somewhat contentious issue in Turkey...
It’s still a massive issue for Armenia. Turkey is inching closer to some kind of recognition, but isn’t there yet. I never set out to write about it because it was a contentious issue. I didn’t even really know about it, to be honest. I wanted to write about a different culture, started doing research into Armenia, and realised I’d opened up a can of worms. I stumbled over it, having known nothing previously - that bothered me. I had to write about it.
The novel switches between several viewpoints through history, with Katerina in the present day exploring her family’s past and the journal of her grandmother, Mariam, writing about the genocide she lived through. Which of the character’s voices was the hardest for you to find?
The one I love is Gabriel, Katerina’s great uncle. His voice took me two years to find, and he’s the character that allowed me to write the book the way I wanted to. I was able, through him, to write about the genocide. He feels very real to me, but it didn’t come easily.
Have you started your next book yet?
The book I’m writing now is set in Cyprus in the thirties, when the first riots against the British establishment began. The protagonist is a Cypriot mystic, based on my grandmother. She was the village magus, and I’ve always wanted to put her centre stage in a story. I’ve done a lot of research into a famous mystic called the Magus of Strovolos for the book, and I’ve written about fifty pages I’ll probably have to bin. I’m at the beginning, and it’s taken me a year and a half to get there, but I know what I want to do now and how I’ll do it. For me, at least, writing’s a process.
What do you enjoy about being a writer?
Everything. I enjoy working on my own, escaping into other lives, doing research, crafting a sentence, creating characters. Writing’s a lifestyle choice. It’s not exactly fun, but I like it a lot.
The 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide will be commemorated on Friday 24 April.
The Spice Box Letters is published by Sandstone Press and is out now.