I’m compelled to tell the hidden stories of people who live at the extremes of life, and there are few lives more extreme than those of professional athletes. I chose sprint cycling in particular for three reasons: One, because sprint cyclists have an irresistible psychology – in addition to being extremely explosive athletes they tend to be very smart and tactically aware, which makes them thrilling to write about. Two, because track cycling is such an aesthetically beautiful sport: the athletes are so honed and the velodrome is such a sculpted gladiatorial arena that the race scenes have a built-in poetry. And finally, because for so many of us the bicycle gave us our first taste of independence when we were little, which means that cycling stands for something free and exciting in a deep part of our psyche.
I think the Olympics will hold up a mirror to the people of London. Misanthropes will see in the traffic jams and the price tag a confirmation of their own frustrations and preoccupations. Happier souls will find inspiration in the achievements of the competitors, and excitement in being part of such a huge event. Like any sufficiently big and complex story, the Olympic ideal – or a novel about the Olympic ideal – is a Rorschach ink blot in which people see aspects of themselves.
Yes, it was hard. I spent time at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children to research the novel, and it’s a cliché but you do come home from it every evening and hug your own kids that bit more. I talked with some very sick children, and of course your heart goes out to them and their parents. I try to keep two things in mind: one, that 90% of the children diagnosed with leukaemia will recover, so it is really a story of hope and progress. Two, that there is a value in trying to honestly capture on the page the struggles and occasional joys of a family coping with leukaemia, because there is a hidden strength there that deserves to be brought into the light and celebrated.
Well, thanks. I think it’s because I’m pretty quiet and small and unthreatening, and because I approach my research interviews with men and women without any agenda. I just ask open questions and let people talk. I enjoy people’s company and I’m genuinely interested in listening to them – to how they speak as well as what they say, or don’t say. I’m lucky in that people seem to open up to me, which means I can study character carefully. I just observe people intently, the way I imagine a painter must watch for a long time before they actually pick up a brush.
My novels always form themselves around a question. In ‘Incendiary’ it is “Why do the rich get more protection from the state than the poor do?” In ‘The Other Hand’ it is “Should we step out of our comfort zone in order to help someone else into it?” In ‘Gold’ the question is: “What is the greater force – ambition, or love?” I don’t go looking for these questions – they tend to be the ones that happen to be eating me at the time I’m writing. For each novel I choose a theme and characters that will help me examine the question that’s on my mind, and I try to set it against events that will be contemporary at the time of publication. I hope that my novels have the trick of making a timeless question timely.
I’m writing about an injured soldier coming home from Afghanistan, and the carer who looks after him. It’s a small story about a big war.