I was born in London in 1964 and from the age of 11, I wanted to be a writer. Both my parents are writers, but my mum in particular doesn’t think there’s such a thing as a ‘writing gene’. She grew up in a household that didn’t read books, let alone write them. But although I always wanted to be a writer, I didn’t tell anyone until I was much, much older.
I had a few jobs as a teenager, selling door to door double glazing, waiting tables, working on a badge stall at Camden Lock. Then I did a Foundation in Fine Art at Sir John Cass in London. I didn’t think I was as good or as serious as the other students so I switched from painting to books. I studied a BA in American Studies in the UK, at Sussex University, which involved a year at UC Davis in California, then known as the place that had grown the first square tomato. Then I studied English in the United States, an MA at Clark University, known for where the contraceptive pill was invented. I came back to England and trained as a secondary school teacher at Sussex University.In 1990 I moved to Maun, then a small village in northern Botswana and joined my partner, who I had met while at Clark. After a few years of teaching in Maun, we moved to the salt mine of Sua Pan, and I became a journalist for Botswana’s first tabloid newspaper, The Voice. One of my earliest stories was tracking down a talking hippo. The only problem was, I was so scared when I found it that I forgot to ask it a question.
I also worked as editor of The Okavango Observer, and won a Journalist of the Year Award, but the paper closed down shortly after I was arrested for ‘causing fear and alarm’. After 12 years in Botswana I returned to the UK.
Today I write novels, non-fiction books and journalism – sometimes, if I’m lucky, all three in a day. Four books are set in Botswana: Jamestown Blues, a coming of age story about a girl growing up in a salt mine, The Return of El Negro, the true story of the body of a southern African man stolen from a grave in 1830 by two French naturalists, Place of Reeds, a memoir, and Black Mulberries, a tale of two feuding families during the birth of Moremi Game Reserve in the 1960s.
More recent books are set in London:
- Friends like Us – a story of four childhood friends, one of whom becomes a paparazzo (Simon & Schuster)
- The Ghost of Lily Painter – based in part on the arrest and execution of two Edwardian baby farmers (Hutchinson, Random House)
- Taking the Waters: a Swim around Hampstead Heath – an illustrated history of the bathing ponds and lido on the Heath, from Tudor times to the present (Frances Lincoln)
- Camden Lock and its Market – an illustrated history of the world famous London market, where I once worked as a teenager (Frances Lincoln)
- Family Likeness – a novel about GI babies and a babysitter with a hidden agenda (Hutchinson, Random House)
- Downstream: a history and celebration of swimming the River Thames – a history of how we once used the Thames as swimmers and the reasons behind the current revival (Aurum)
I received funding from the Arts Council (for the Ghost of Lily Painter) and grants from the Society of Authors (for Place of Reeds, the Ghost of Lily Painter and Family Likeness).
I’m now working on a novel about a Victorian diver and ‘champion lady swimmer of the world’, as well as a history of Holloway Prison.
As a journalist I’ve written for Botswana publications Mmegi, The Botswana Gazette, The Voice, Marung Magazine, and worked as a stringer for Africa International Afrique based in Zimbabwe. In the UK I wrote education and careers features for The Independent for several years, and my work has appeared in a variety of publications including: The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, Sunday Express, Mail on Sunday, Daily Mail.
I am currently working as Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the University of Westminster, Harrow campus, in the faculty of Media, Arts & Design.
I’m often asked where ideas for books come from and how to set about research, so I thought I’d try and write some answers…
My agent is Robert Kirby at United Agents