Biography and Publications
I was born in December 1952, in Yorkshire, the second of four children. My father was the eldest of twelve, and this extended family has no doubt had a strong influence on my life, as have my own children. In a large family you hear a great many stories. You also come to understand very early that stories hold quite different meanings for different listeners, and can be recast from many viewpoints.
Poetry was very important to me from childhood. I began by listening to and learning by heart all kinds of rhymes and hymns and ballads, and then went on to make up my own poems, using the forms I’d heard. Writing these down came a little later.
I studied English at the University of York, and after graduation taught English as a foreign language in Finland.
At around this time I began to write the poems which formed my first poetry collection, The Apple Fall, and to publish these in magazines. I also completed two novels; fortunately neither survives, and it was more than ten years before I wrote another novel.
During this time I published several collections of poems, and wrote some of the short stories which were later collected in Love of Fat Men. I began to travel a great deal within the UK and around the world, for poetry tours and writing residences. This experience of working in many different countries and cultures has been very important to my work. I reviewed poetry for Stand and Poetry Review and later for The Observer, and subsequently reviewed fiction for The Observer, The Times and The Guardian. My critical work includes introductions to the poems of Emily Brontë (Poems of Solitude, Hesperus Press), the short stories of D H Lawrence (The Fox, The Ladybird and the Captain's Doll, Penguin Classics) and F Scott Fitzgerald (The Popular Girl, Hesperus Press) , a new Introduction to A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor (VIntage) a study of Virginia Woolf’s relationships with women and Introductions to the Folio Society's edition of Anna Karenina and to the new Penguin Classics edition of Tolstoy's My Confession. An essay on Tolstoy was commissioned by radio 3 for the series The Essay, and broadcast in November 2010. The text of the essay is available in the Articles section of this website.
During the 1980s and early 1990s I taught poetry and creative writing, tutored residential writing courses for the Arvon Foundation and took part in the Poetry Society's Writer in Schools scheme, as well as giving readings and workshops in schools, hospitals, prisons and every other kind of place where a poem could conceivably be welcome. I also taught undergraduate, postgraduate and continuing education courses at the University of Glamorgan, the University of Bristol's Continuing Education Department and for the Open College of the Arts.
In the late 1980s I began to publish short stories, and these were the beginning of a breakthrough into fiction. What I had learned of prose technique through the short story gave me the impetus to start writing novels. My first novel for children was Going to Egypt, published in 1992, and my first novel for adults was Zennor in Darkness, published in 1993, which won the McKitterick Prize. This was also my first researched novel, set in the First World War and dealing with the period when D H Lawrence and his wife Frieda lived in Zennor in Cornwall, and came under suspicion as German spies.
My third novel, A Spell of Winter, won the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996, and since then I have published a number of novels, short story collections and books for children. Full details of all these books are available on this website. The five Chronicles of Ingo (Ingo, The Tide Knot, The Deep, The Crossing of Ingo and Stormswept are published by HarperCollins. Stormswept, the latest, is published in january 2012.
My seventh novel, The Siege (2001) was shortlisted both for the Whitbread Novel Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction. This was another researched novel, which grew from a lifelong love of Russian history, culture and literature. It is is set in Leningrad during the first year of the siege of the city by German forces, which lasted for 880 days from the fall of Mga on 30th August 1941. The Siege has been translated into Russian by Tatyana Averchina, and extracts have been broadcast on radio in St Petersburg. House of Orphans was published in 2006, and in 2008 Counting the Stars. Its central characters are the Roman poet Catullus, who lived during the last years of the Republic, and his older married lover Clodia Metelli, the Lesbia of his poems.
The Betrayal, was published in 2010 by Fig Tree (Penguin). This novel is set in Leningrad in 1952 - 1953, the final year of Stalin's life. It takes up the story of characters who first appeared in The Siege. The Betrayal was longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and was a Book at Bedtime on BBC Radio 4 in December 2010, read by Sarah Kestelman. For more information about The Betrayal, please see the News section on the Home page.
My first picture book for children, The Ferry Birds, was published in April 2010 by Mabecron Books. This book is illustrated by a brilliant young artist, Rebecca Cobb. To see examples of her work, please visit www.rebeccacobb.co.uk Rebecca Cobb and I have published two more picture books, The Islanders ( Mabecron Books, April 2011), and The Lonely Sea Dragon ( Mabecron Books, 2013) . Rebecca and I are working on a second book about the little sea dragon, which will be published in Spring 2016
In March 2010 my poem The Malarkey won the National Poetry Competition. For more information, please follow the link on the Home Page. This became the title poem of my 2012 collection from Bloodaxe Books, The Malarkey.
The fifth book in the series Chronicles of Ingo, Stormswept, was published in January 2012.
A novella called The Greatcoat was published by Hammer in February 2012. This is a ghost story set in East Yorkshire during the Second World War and the early years of the 1950s. It is a story of obsession and possession, and is about the power of the past to imprint itself on the present, and even to overwhelm it.
My latest novel is The Lie, 2014, published in hardback by Hutchinson and in paperback by Windmill Books. The Lie is set during and after the First World War. It has been shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and was also nominated for The Folio Prize.
I am a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.