How did you start writing the novel?
I started writing Elmet on my phone on an early morning train back to London after visiting my parents in York. I was watching the scenery of what was once Elmet go past – a familiar landscape for me, since I was raised in Yorkshire – and I started wondering about the houses along the railway lines and the people who lived there. That was the genesis of the plot, but I had been considering writing a novel for ages.
Were you always hoping to write professionally?
I never made a conscious decision to have writing be my profession. It was more that I was keen to write a novel, but I had no idea if I would be able to finish it, let alone get it published. Writing novels has never been a particularly stable career. It’s only after everything that’s happened with the Man Booker Prize shortlist that I have reluctantly started describing myself as a novelist.
You were working on your novel for more than three years by yourself; how did you push yourself to finish it?
I actually made a pact with myself at the beginning to just keep going no matter what, even though I had ideas for different novels that I preferred while I was writing Elmet. I was working on my PhD in medieval studies at York University at the time, so I would really have to carve out moments to write in between doing everything else. I just told myself that I only had to do a hundred words in a sitting, and if I did that on enough occasions, I would have a novel. There were a lot of days when I thought it was rubbish though – and I was seriously tempted to delete everything more than once.
Tell me about how you felt when you were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
I heard that I was shortlisted just before going to a party at the Serpentine Gallery, which was lovely, but to be honest, getting longlisted was what shocked me the most. I had no idea that it was coming. I was sitting in a café in York when my editor rang me from London and told me the news. It was one of the most bizarre moments of my life. I was so excited that even my dog, Stringer, could tell and started barking like crazy.
Looking back now, what would you tell your 16-year-old self?
So many things, but most of all, just be patient. When I was 16, I was really ambitious – much more so than I am now – and determined to make something of my life right away. In my mind, everything needed to happen immediately. If I had been prepared to wait a little bit, I would have been a lot happier.
Which five novels would you take with you to a desert island?
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, which is a bit grim for a desert island but is still one of my absolute favourite novels. The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula K Le Guin, a fantastic sci-fi novella written in the Seventies. The Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, which I loved as a child. For a hefty tome, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. And Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick, another sci-fi novel.
What your guiltiest pleasure?
Lying in! Sleeping is my favourite activity. My partner is an early riser, and I’m fairly certain that that’s the only reason I ever get out of bed.
Who would play you in the film biopic of your life?
Obviously, I would go with someone much fitter than me. Maybe Julianne Moore because she’s got red hair like mine. She’s quite a bit older than me, but that’s fine. Actresses are always made to play women who are much older than them, so maybe she can play someone much younger for a change. Otherwise, Rose Leslie, who is also beautiful.
Which films could you watch over and over again?
The 1995 adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. I had it on VHS as a teenager before DVDs even existed – or at least before I was aware of them. Once Upon a Time in the West, because I’m a massive fan of Westerns, and it’s one of the best. And, for a guilty pleasure, Jurassic Park – the original.
And, finally, what album would be the soundtrack to your life and why?
A Different Class by Pulp. I never get bored of it. Plus, it’s by a Yorkshire band…