Who are you?
Good question. I can point you in the direction of the ‘About Me’ section, which answers the basic questions, such as who I write for, where I was educated, what books I’ve written and so forth. Thereafter, we get into the realms of the philosophical, and I’m not too sure we need to go there.
How did you begin writing?
I’ve always loved it. At school the only subject that I was ever really any good at was English, because it allowed an outlet for an expression that just didn’t get an airing in, say, Chemistry. So I spent all my time specialising on that, which started to bear fruit at A-level.
How did your career start?
University was a very important time, because I got involved in student journalism as well as doing my degree, editing various arts sections of papers and magazines, and I loved all that as well. I had lots of fun meeting and interviewing people I admired – everyone from Bill Nighy to Julian Fellowes – and thought that it was something I could hopefully make a living from. So when I left in 2005, I did various internships at places like the Observer and the New Statesman and generally made a nuisance of myself at publications that I liked until they commissioned articles from me. Then I went to work at Conde Nast in 2006 at GQ Online on a maternity contract, and it all started from there. I worked in journalism for about 6 years full time, and then decided that I’d rather write books and work as a freelancer.
Why did you choose to write about Rochester for your first book?
I got very interested in him when I was about 21, because he seemed to be this odd mixture of entirely contemporary and very much of his time. On the one hand, you’ve got poems of his like ‘Timon’, which could have been written by Philip Larkin, and on the other you’ve got ‘A Satire Against Reason And Mankind’, which is his masterpieces and is probably the best satirical account of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the court of Charles II. But he also led a fascinating life – he served his country with honour at sea, abducted an heiress, impersonated an Italian quack doctor, was involved in all manner of sexual, political and literary skulduggery, and was a brilliant writer. And all this before dying of syphilis at 33. I always wanted to read a really good book about his life, and waited…and then waited a bit more. And then thought that I was probably about as well placed as anyone else to give it a go, and so emerged Blazing Star, which you can buy here, and judge for yourselves.
And for your second?
It made sense to revisit the historical side of the Restoration at much greater length and in finer detail, and so Restoration was my attempt to write a social history. It seems incredible that a single year would begin with the end of the Plague and finish with London burning to ashes, but that was the case, to say nothing of a messy and embarrassing naval conflict, scandal, mass bloodshed for regicides and sexual misbehaviour. It would have been a good time to live – but only for the Restoration equivalent of the 1%. Anyway, judge for yourselves here.
What about book three?
Lord Byron, from the perspective of the nine key women in his life. Thus, Byron’s Women. To call him ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ is probably an understatement. I wanted to write a feminist account of the emotional (and possibly physical) damage that he caused them, but also to explore the psyche and outlook of a remarkable series of people.
What have been the highlights and lowlights of your career to date?
Ah, so many. I was quite surprised with Blazing Star to end up having a public set-to with an academic from Wadham College in Oxford, who seemed deeply offended that I had dared write a popular biography about Rochester and not a learned tome. He is now no longer with us, so I shan’t name him, but that was an interesting experience. I had a more amusing fight when Byron’s Women came out with an – and I’ll phrase this euphemistically in case he’s reading this - eccentric man who decided that he was the illegitimate heir to Byron, amongst other things. And I don’t think that the Byron Society and I are ever going to be the best of chums, nor I and the present-day Lord Byron. But that’s par for the course when you publish something that dares question an established myth. On a happier note, I’ve loved many of the events I’ve done, and addressing a sold-out audience at the National Portrait Gallery in 2017 was a particular highlight. And meeting readers always makes it worthwhile.
I’m currently writing a new account of the abdication, called The Crown In Crisis. It’s been fascinating to research and write, and it should be out in 2020, all being well. Future plans? I’d like to write about Peter O’Toole, who I think is a much-misunderstood and remarkable figure. In fact, I gave an interview to the Guardian about my plans for the book, which can be read here. And I have another interesting political rake from the twentieth century in my sights, too.
What else do you do apart from write about literature?
I’ve had a fairly eclectic career. I’ve written quite a lot about food and drink, partly because I enjoy them and also because I find the British renaissance of both almost ridiculously exciting. It’s amazing to think how much better pubs and restaurants are now than even 20 years ago, because people care a lot more and are better informed about how they ought to spend their money. I’ve also done a lot of copywriting, most recently for the TV company Freesat, but my career has encompassed everything from working as a quizmaster for a Dutch media company to working in a couple of start-ups dealing with everything from property to cultural trends, and recently I’ve done some obituaries for The Times. You can see some of my critical and feature writing here.
Will you come and talk about your book to my school/book group/university/literary symposium?
Probably. Depends where it is, and when, but I enjoy talking with people about what I’ve written and am always up for a good chat.
Will you speak at our literary festival?
Again, probably. Please contact my excellent agent Andrew Lownie in both cases for details.
Will you come and do a book signing at my shop?
I refer you to the earlier answers.