I was born in Gothenburg Sweden into a family of readers and writers. My father is a newspaper editor and columnist, as is my brother. My mother, who stayed at home looking after the family, furnished the walls of every room with shelves full of books. We were a family that read and discussed and whereas there were restrictions about what we were allowed to watch on TV, and comic books were discouraged, books were a different matter; basically, the rule was that my brother and I could read whatever we could reach. (It was a happy day when, standing on a chair, I got hold of Fanny Hill.)
Ours was a liberal and tolerant household but some sins, I had imprinted on me, were beyond the pale, book burning and censorship of the written word were two of them. Hanging on his wall at his office at the newspaper my father had a quote from Voltaire. Translated from French into Swedish and then by me, into English, it went something like this: ‘I may well not agree with your opinion, but I will defend to the death your right to state it.’
Growing up I was pretty well the standard embryo writer – you know the kind? Prone to daydreaming, constantly reading, feeling as if I were on the outside looking in, finding the world of books more relevant than the ‘real’ world I lived in.
Aged nineteen I married a British naval officer and moved to England. Before the move I had had just one year at university so, arriving here, I had no idea of what I was going to do with my life. But not for long as my son was born the following year and three years after that, my daughter. Life as a naval wife was a mix of periods of loneliness and periods of great fun and adventure. But as we settled in the Hampshire countryside, having decided that following the fleet was not so practical with two school age children, I began to think about writing. I had always been a great ‘trier outer’ of things, and it has to be said, also a great quitter, but almost the minute I sat down to write I felt as if I had come home. I had never kept a diary, not for longer than a week anyway (although I bought many, especially those which had a little tiny gold key) or written stories as a child- thought them up yes, but written them down no – but here I was, feeling as if I had walked straight through a doorway marked, Life’s Work.
Of course, as the weeks and months became years I realised that it would be much more of a struggle to persuade the world (other than my family who were hugely supportive) that I was a writer than it had been convincing myself. But finally, when I was thirty-five, my novel Guppies For Tea, a story about growing old and fighting back, was accepted for publication. Several other publishers had turned it down saying no one was interested in reading about old people. Luckily, as it turns out, they were wrong. Even so, if it had not been for the help of my friend the writer Elizabeth Buchan, and that of Hilary Johnson of The New Writers’ Scheme, whose interest in, and support of new writing went well beyond that which was purely romantic, I might never have been published. This taught me that luck and the goodwill and support of others is essential in the writing business as in so much else.
Oddly enough, instead of feeling the euphoria I had expected once my dream of being a published author had come true, I went into a kind of prolonged sulk. I spent many hours thinking up plans for how to minimise the humiliations I was sure would follow publication, including working out how many copies of my own book I could afford to buy up and stash away in the garage.
As it turned out, Guppies For Tea, was rather a lucky book. It was picked for the first W.H. Smith’s Fresh Talent promotion, ensuring nationwide review coverage, massive distribution and the kind of support most new writers can only dream of. Following that the book was short-listed for The Sunday Express Book of the Year and after that it was serialised on Woman’s Hour. As one acquaintance at the time said, ‘Goodness, I suppose now we’ll have to stop patronising you.’ (Well no actually, writers, especially women writers, are always patronised by someone … it’s part of the deal.)
Guppies For Tea was also published overseas, in the US, Canada, South Africa, Germany, Poland, Holland, and of course, Sweden. There especially, I’m asked about the fact that I write in English. But I never have much to say about it, other than that it seemed the natural thing to do at the time. Had I sat down to write for the first time, while on my annual summer holiday in Sweden, I might well have written my novel in Swedish.
Since writing that first book I have just kept at it. To date I have written five further novels: A Rival Creation, The Purveyor of Enchantment and after moving to London, Frozen Music, Shooting Butterflies and Aphrodite’s Workshop For Reluctant Lovers.
We have stories to help us survive the truth. I feel immensely lucky to be able to earn my living as a writer, so as long as there are readers I shall carry on, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, ‘applying the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair.’