What was the last book that you read that you’d now recommend?
Russians Among Us, by Gordon Corera.
This book by the BBC’s security specialist about Russian ‘illegals’ – spies disguised as ordinary citizens and placed in the US and Britain with a mission to get close to power – is non-fiction, but reads like an episode of TV series The Americans.
Have you read any classics lately that you were reading for the first time?
I’ve actually been reading a lot of Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie lately. My favorite Christie book is The Moving Finger. The audiobook, read by Richard E Grant, is the most delightful murder book you could ever listen to. I think Richard E Grant should read everything.
Do you re-read books? And if yes, what was your last re-read?
I re-read all the time. I’ve read The Secret History by Donna Tartt at least five times. It’s one of my very favorite books. It’s a murder story where you know the victim and to an extent, the killers, from the start. It’s a “why done it”, and I love it’s inventiveness. It still disturbs me that it was written by a 20-year-old.
What are your go-to genres?
Crime, although not all crime. I don’t enjoy dark psychological thrillers much these days, I think I’ve become a bit squeamish. I love Ruth Ware’s novels, and Linda Castillo’s Amish crime series. I also like historic crime, most recently Anna Mazzola’s The Clockwork Girl, and Jack Jewers’s The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys.
I don’t love fantasy and yet I can really devour a good vampire book, and one seems to come along every few years. The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black was one of those. A hip creative take on 20-something vamps. And The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which was deliciously sophisticated.
I really enjoy non-fiction books about spies. I can’t recommend Operation Krondstadt by Harry Ferguson, highly enough. It’s about the foundation of the British spy agency MI6 in the early 20th century and it is a real page-turner. When it comes to spies, truth really is stranger than fiction.
What is your favorite childhood book?
Anything by Ruth Chew – especially The Witch’s Buttons. And the brilliant Fog Magic by Julia Sauer. Chew was a master of writing suspense for small children. And Fog Magic is the most wonderful timeslip book for young readers. I read them both of them to shreds.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
First Born by Will Dean, which is an intense thriller about a woman investigating the murder of her twin.
Girl Friends by Holly Bourne. Holly is the master of brilliant dialogue and this book about old friends re-discovering why they’re not friends anymore feels real and so familiar.
Do you bookmark or dogear your page in a book?
I dogear paperbacks. I bookmark hardbacks. I’m such a snob.
What is your ideal reading setting?
I read all of the Harry Potter books one Christmas week, which I spent alone in London, sitting by the fire, with endless cups of coffee. And I cannot think of a better time or place to read.
Tell us about your favorite indie bookstore?
Without question, Kaboom Books in Houston, Texas. I have a long and devoted relationship with Kaboom. It was my favorite bookshop in New Orleans in the 1990s, when it was in a sunlit building in the French Quarter. Later, I moved to England and Kaboom moved to Houston. I have family in Houston and every time I’m in town, going to Kaboom is like being reunited with an old friend. It has multiple rooms with very tall bookshelves filled with books on absolutely everything. The lovely owners can personally match you with a book you will love – they have never failed me. I truly believe it’s a magical place.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I learned very young that I couldn’t defend myself with physical strength, but I could do it with words. And yet, I didn’t really appreciate that power until I became a journalist. Then I found I could help people with words.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
I suppose I live in a site of literary pilgrimages, only a few miles from Jane Austen’s home in Chawton in the south of England. More pertinent to my own novels, I’ve sat in the bar at the Jamaica Inn Hotel in Ocho Rios, where Ian Fleming invented the Vesper martini, shaken not stirred.
Where do you get most of your writing and editing done?
I have a tiny office at the end of my garden underneath a hazelnut tree, and that is my writing retreat.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing gets harder with every book but a good writing day is the most thrilling and rewarding thing I can think of. Better than a massage and a cocktail.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
At least three unfinished books. No complete unpublished novels, but that is only because I can tell when it’s going badly and I walk away.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I only read good reviews, and I highly commend this approach to other writers.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Your parents are wrong. Writing can be a good way to make a living. Hang in there.
When you’re not reading or writing, what are you doing?
I collect antique books, and I love moseying through small British towns, looking for treasure.
What are your three favorite things right now?
Coffee. Chocolate. Reading by the fire on a chilly day.
Your favorite travel destination and why?
Paris. Something about it makes me feel much more sophisticated and interesting than I am.
What’s your favorite meal and go-to drink order?
Enchiladas with black beans. A Grey Goose vodka martini with two olives, very dry.
What six people, living or dead, would you invite to dinner a party?
If a movie was made of your life, what genre would it be, who would play you?
Tragi-comedy. Can Lauren Graham play me, please?
What’s the last TV show or movie you watched that was really good?
I’m obsessed with Tehran on Apple+. It’s about an Israeli spy undercover in Iran. It’s ludicrously thrilling.
You have to sing karaoke; what song do you pick?
Unless someone is holding a gun to my head I will not sing anything.
If you were being taken to a deserted island and could only bring one book, what would it be?
The Collected Works of O. Henry. I actually own a copy of this but I’ve never had the time to read it. On a deserted island, I would at last have the chance to read that book cover to cover.
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