I was born in 1962 in South East London and brought up on a small sixties urban housing estate with my two younger sisters, Amy and Emily. We read Beatrix Potter, Noel Streatfeild, Joan Aiken and made up a lot of games about imaginary countries and animals who wore bonnets.
I have written since I was a child. It was my haven, just as reading was my haven. I wrote my autobiography when I was eight because I was worried my writing talents had gone unnoticed. (I was right. They had.) When I was fourteen, I sent off a story secretly to a publisher under a pseudonym because I thought that might give me a better chance. I called myself Mary Thornton, which might sound like a box of chocolates, but was at the time a bow to Jane Eyre.
A Journey to Professional Writing
After studying English at Bristol University, I had a brief period where I worked unsuccessfully as a nanny. ( I was a nice nanny, but I was not a tidy one, and my cooking was exclusively of the baked potato and cheese variety.) I was very briefly a door to door sales person – I lasted less than a morning because I was too appalled to ring anyone’s doorbell – and then I was a barmaid in one of those champagne bars that were opening up all over London in the eighties. I refused to serve champagne, and would only pour beer – for political reasons – so that job didn’t last very long either. I then trained at RADA and afterwards I worked for twenty years in theatre, playing lead roles with the RSC, Royal National Theatre, Royal Court, Cheek by Jowl and many provincial theatres. I saw places that I would not otherwise have seen and lived, as many actors do, slightly on the edge of things, using what I knew about life to imagine what I didn’t.
I began to make the move into writing professionally when I was pregnant for the first time. I’d read a story in the paper that I thought would make a good radio play. I told a producer I knew and he said, ‘It’s a very good idea. Now go away and write it.’ That’s still one of the best pieces of advice anyone has ever given me. There won’t be a book, there won’t be anything, until you commit to it, and begin that long search for words.
The Significance of Place
These days we live in an old farmhouse on the edge of one of the five Stroud valleys. The house is built on mud and earth and is beaten by wind and rain but it has stood here for hundreds of years and presumably will stay for many more. We have – or have had – hens, ducks, dogs, cats, pigs. I grow our own vegetables, which are often stringy.
I love where we live. I love the stretch of sky from east to west. I am lucky. I work in an old shepherds hut in a field, looking over the valley. It’s a place that feels alive with light and weather, nature and stories. I am lucky enough that I can write anywhere, but there is nothing like my own desk. My own view. My own silence.