It’s the 20th anniversary of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), which you co-founded and chair. Why did you set it up?
The issue was to honour women’s creative work. In those early years, when we were looking at setting up a prize, fewer than nine per cent of the novels winning major literary awards were by women, despite the majority of novels being written by women.
There was a disparity. A lot of that stems back to what was traditionally studied in university and on school curriculums. These things change but sometimes they need to change faster.
You are best known for your 2005 novel Labyrinth, which became an international bestseller. Is it harder writing in your fifties than it was then?
I think middle age goes from 30 to 60. Nobody would be expecting to you do less or slow down in your fifties. The issue is that bits start creaking and you’re not as young as you were. But I don’t think there is ageism. Many people in their 70s and 80s are having the time of their life.
Do female novelists have to hide their gender behind initials to get their children’s books published?
People make different decisions about those things. There is a truth about boys often being encouraged to think books aren’t for them and so having a neutral set of initials [helps]. That was one of the reasons JK Rowling used her initials.
But truthfully, in terms of opportunity in publishing, the issue is a lack of diversity. Publishing remains a very white business and that should not be. Publishing should be making more effort, but it’s not a gender thing and it’s not so much of an age thing.
How have your ambitions changed as you’ve become older?
I take pleasure in the company of my friends and my mother-in-law and relationships. I always did but now, when the heat of ambition has gone, you don’t have that challenge of the work-life balance. I am no less ambitious about writing a good novel, though, and I am really excited about the play that my husband and I have written together called the Old Timers. But that heat has gone.
On a practical level, what is your working day?
I write for eight hours a day just as I did 20 years ago. I start at about 4am and I run out of steam as the day goes on. I frontload and then the afternoons are about walking the dog (and having a nap!).
I go to bed at about 9pm, so I live naturally from sunrise to sunset. My mother-in-law and I are on the same routine. The rest of the family go to bed a little bit later.
Has your approach to writing changed?
I have more time to think and brew a story. Sometimes, though, it can be very quick. With Taxidermist’s Daughter, it went right back to childhood. I had a happy childhood and am very close to my sisters and my parents were wonderful.
What gave you the idea for this gothic thriller?
I wrote The Taxidermist’s Daughter after my dad had died but before my mum had died. We used to go to Walter Potter’s Museum of Curiosities as a family a lot in the 60s and 70s, and 35 years later I thought: That’s it! I’ve got a story inspired by that museum.
When you lost your second parent, your mum, you’ve said you felt like an orphan. Can you tell us what you mean?
When your second parent goes, it’s the end of that link with your childhood. The person you were has gone. I am still grieving for my mum and it does feel like being an orphan. When people in their fifties and sixties said that to me I thought, ‘What an indulgent thing to say’. But now it has happened to me, I know that it is true.
If you are lucky like I was to grow up in a family with parents who married and stayed together for 60 years and who all loved each other, it is an enormous, enormous loss.
What is the best thing about this stage in your life?
Having grown-up children is a joy. My daughter (Martha, 25) is an artist and art curator and my son (Felix, 22) is an actor and they are both working and earning their own living. The company of grown-up children is joyous.
The Taxidermist’s Daughter, published by Orion, has just been released in in paperback (£7.99) and eBook
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