Where are we?
The nerve centre of operations: the three bookshelves and desk that I refer to as my study, in the corner of my bedroom, which was also until recently (recently? who am I kidding, she still comes in every night) my 2 year old’s bedroom. Oh and! when lockdown commenced, my husband built a second desk at right-angles to mine, though luckily (sic) one of us always has to be on in the kitchen-living room on childcare at any given time.
What are you working on?
A world that I hope – wonder – fear – is going to be the place in which I spend the next few years. Belfast, April-May 1941, just before, during, and after the Belfast Blitz. I’d been slowly accruing wisps, scraps of it for months, and then suddenly lockdown was upon us, and my retreat there for my carved-off hours every morning has become something of a sanctuary, a lifeline through all of this.
What’s that over there?
A silver owl with yellow eyes, drawn by Corinna MacNeice – yes, daughter of, but a fine artist in her own right. Above it is a rather ferocious-looking owl drawn by my 5 year old son, and below that, on my desk, a 1960s Italian alabaster owl paperweight that I found a couple of years ago at a flea market. I didn’t realise, until I wrote this, that I had such a thing for owls, though I suddenly remember that I used to collect them as a child. Maybe now they’re collecting me.
What’s that sound?
Undoubtedly a parasaurolophus, or what I am assured is a realistic impression thereof, though, who knows? it could be brought to us by intravenous Howdytoons. Don’t worry. If you can still hear me over it, we have a while yet, at least a couple of sentences’ worth. I don’t quite keep a blackthorn stick at my desk, like the fabled one of Edna O’Brien’s, to beat away intruders – maybe we all shoul
How does isolation help or hinder you?
Iso- sorry, that would be, what?
Time for a break…?
I don’t dare leave, for fear of the parasaurolophuses stalking the corridors. If I could, I would make another coffee – in the second stovetop Bialetti pot we own, because I allegedly ruined the first by repeatedly putting cardamom in to infuse with the coffee grounds. (That was the last time I wrote a novel, almost a decade ago). Actually, if I could, I would go to the coffee shop in Old Compton Street in Soho where I used to buy my supplies and have a proper cardamom coffee there. Or maybe I’d skip the coffee and go straight to the dim crush of some underground dive bar. That would be nice.
What are you [reading/watching/listening to] these days?
I have been reading the new (maybe by now it’s the old) Hilary Mantel since before lockdown – she’s been one of my favourite writers since my A-level history teacher Mrs McMinn told me to read A Place of Greater Safety ahead of studying the French Revolution. I have been a terribly unworthy reader of it – and it’s not just the 2 and the 5 year old about, it’s something more awful to contemplate, to do with spare emotional capacity. But I am now deliberately not-reading it because I am a handful of pages from the very end and suddenly can’t bear it to. Watching: The Heist, a trashy, well, heist-drama: who doesn’t like a locked-room sort of mystery right now? There seems to be no hope, but of course there has to be, because they’re going to wring two more series out of this. Listening: when not to dinosaurs or Andrews Sisters tracks from 1941, to the new Laura Marling, which has so much, thematically, tonally, in common with my new collection, Intimacies. My editor at Faber and I have promised ourselves that next year, when the now-delayed collection is finally out, we’re going to go to a gig of hers to celebrate… everything.
What [book/poem/film/album] might you revisit in times of crisis or uncertainty?
Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal couldn’t feel more prescient, both for its own time, and for now: a record of a world on the cusp of huge change, and amidst that change, but a reminder that
And I think with joy how whatever, now or in future, the system
Nothing whatever can take
The people away, there will always be people
For friends or for lovers…
which is one of the epigraphs for my thing, if it ever becomes a Thing. Life goes on.
Best advice for writers?
Right now? Don’t force it. If it’s not happening, don’t worry. The hardest lesson, always, is that it goes away, but it does come back, it does, it always does. Sometimes you have to let the well fill again, and it fills imperceptibly, drop by drop, until of a sudden – it’s overflowing.