Junior tennis ace becomes hit writer
Interviewed by Jo Reynolds
When did you move to the area?
What do you most like about it?
I love Ravenscourt Park, and my dog walking friends.
For people unfamiliar with your writing, what have you written?
My first book was 'Another Alice', my own story. My other non-fiction book is 'M'Coben, Place Of Ghosts', a biography about my grandmother's pioneering adventures in Zimbabwe. And I've written 8 novels.
Humour is the best medicine
At the heart of each novel is a love story but I always include hard-hitting and thought-provoking themes within my storylines and my protagonists always have to overcome adversity. But even though my books tackle serious themes like addiction and single parenting and often feature disability, it's really important to inject humour too. Humour has helped me get through my own situation.
When I was 18 and on the verge of signing a tennis scholarship to America, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). You need a sense of humour to get you through the tough times. My mother and I have been to hell and back together, but we've shared so much laughter too. Humour is the best medicine. And so are tears. I want to write something moving. I want to make readers laugh and cry, to take them through a whole range of emotions.
Why did you start writing?
I was driven to it. I wanted to be a tennis champion. I'd loved tennis from the age of 11. I climbed up the ranks, trained with Tim Henman and was one of the top ten juniors in the country aged 18. But then I experienced weird pain in my hands and feet and was diagnosed with RA. I have never played tennis since, a sadness that will always be with me. Instead, I went to Bristol University. It was pretty awful because I wasn’t well and I was grieving for my old life. After Bristol I moved back to my parents as I needed surgery on my feet. A friend of my parents, Robert Cross, asked how I was doing. Usually I'd say, fine, but I told him, actually, I'm really struggling. He said, have you ever thought about writing? I dug out my old tennis diaries and scrapbooks from the attic and wrote a chapter about my really happy tennis days, all the tournaments with the pushy mothers. I showed it to Robert and he said it had great potential. I owe Robert so much.
Was writing your therapy?
It was the best therapy. I began to realize that all the grit and determination I’d had on the tennis court could be used to fight the RA and rebuild my life. Getting it published was the beginning of a new career. I dedicated the book to my parents. Without them, I’d be lost.
Do you resent having RA?
When I was first diagnosed I was angry, I thought, why me? But no, I have never felt resentment or bitterness. Only sadness that I lost those important years, from 18 to 28, years when I could have been building a career and possibly having a family. Sometimes, especially on a bad day, I might wonder what my life could have been like if I had gone to America on my tennis scholarship. If things had been different…
Has RA made you a different person?
Life changing events are going to change you. When I was young I was just a normal carefree teenager, wrapped up in my own world, ambitious to win. Since having RA, I am definitely more compassionate and aware of others. RA has also made me tap into a creative side that I didn't know I had, and for that I am so grateful.
Is writing physically painful?
It can be.
Do you actually like writing, the slog of getting the words down?
Slog is a great word. Getting that first draft down can be a real mental block for me and I’ll do anything to avoid my desk. My sock drawer has never been more organised! In many ways I prefer doing the research. But after the research you just have to sit down and write. Often I head down to my parents who lock me up in their conservatory and feed me until I’ve physically got those words down.
Do you see yourself as a champion of disability?
There's disability all around us, which is why I like to represent it in fiction. The people I write about aren't stars or angels. They have strengths and flaws like anyone else. I think it’s inevitable I do include it, as I write what I know about. I write what I see. Since having RA, I have come across lots of people with disability, many so much worse off than me. It’s been humbling and inspiring.
Do you write about the life you wished you'd had?
No. I would never have been a champion. Besides, I’ve learned you never know what life holds. None of us know what is round the corner.
Which book do you wish you'd written?
‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman. And I fantasise about writing crime or thrillers.
How did it feel when 'The Monday To Friday Man' knocked '50 Shades Of Grey' off the bestseller's perch?
Incredible. All my friends were calling me before I’d seen the charts. I was over the moon. I couldn’t sleep for days.
Do you enjoy book signings?
It's the best part. It's really wonderful when people say, your book made me think or laugh or cry.
What's your latest book about?
It's called 'A Song For Tomorrow' and is based on an inspiring true story about a beautiful and talented singer called Alice Martineau who signed a recording contract with Sony despite being diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at birth and being given a life expectancy of 10 years. It’s been the most wonderful life-affirming story to write, with such a strong message never to give up on your dreams.
If you weren't a writer what would you do?
Counselling. But in many ways writing does involve a type of counselling. When I’m researching my stories, I talk to people, and their families, often in great depth, and feel privileged that they trust me with their experiences and their precious memories. I do think it would be an enriching role, to help with people's pain and suffering.
What's your perfect day?
Being with friends and lovely food and a long walk with my little Darcy, my best buddy, with the sun on our faces.
Thank you, Alice. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
Interviewed August 2018