I am originally from Lancaster in the north of England but moved south to take up a job in the late 1990s. I now live on the edge of the Fens, north of Cambridge, with my husband and daughter. In some ways, I see myself as a northern writer, though that I am a writer at all surprises me still. Growing up in difficult family circumstances, I saw writing as something other people did (well, other men, mostly), but I always read. It never occurred to me that I could or ever would write a novel.
My first novel, The Words in my Hand, was written with the support of a grant from Arts Council England and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award, the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award and longlisted for the Prix du Roman FNAC. My second novel, The Year Without Summer, was published in Feb 2020 by Two Roads books and shortlisted for the Historical Writers’ Association Gold Crown. The novel has recently been longlisted for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Further information about the book is towards the bottom of the following page: YWS. I am a MacDowell Fellow and worked on my second novel there between November 2017 and January 2018. My third novel, Privilege, a story of book publishing and censorship set in mid-18thc England and France, will be published by Two Roads books in May 2022. My short fiction has appeared in Mslexia, The Scotsman and in a collection from The National Galleries of Scotland.
In September 2021, I will start in post as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.
I am interested in fiction’s critical function: that is, how fiction can be used as a means to interrogate the past, (and to some extent question how history has been written). The political novel is sometimes disdained. But any novel that claims to sit above and outside of politics, also makes its own point. Of course literature should comfort and entertain but I see my writing as a way to face the world and to answer the questions I have. Writing for the Atlantic in 2010, Menachem Kaiser notes: ‘If history teaches and (harshly) informs, then literature rouses and intimately disturbs,’ and, ‘The eternal role of literature is to make it new again, to make it real, to make it felt’. I couldn’t agree more.
The Words in My Hand — the story of Dutch maid Helena Jans and French philosopher Rene Descartes — questions the historiography around Descartes and the lack of curiosity many historians and biographers have shown his lover, Helena Jans. Helena knew Descartes at a pivotal time in his life — why, then, when their relationship is known of, is she almost completely overlooked? The novel decentres Descartes and turns the ‘great man of history’ narrative on its head, challenging clichés about him.
The Year Without Summer is a novel of climate breakdown and crisis. It is rooted in Fenland where I live, a low-lying region in the East of England, which faces profound threats from climate change. My thinking was also shaped by Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 work, The Great Derangement in which he takes novelists to task for largely failing to deal with the most pressing issue of our time: climate change. In 1816, most people had little or no knowledge of the Tambora eruption that devastated so much of the world that year. Those who had heard of the eruption did not understand its connection to what they were living through. Famine, disease, floods, wildfire, drought — all triggered by a small shift in global temperature. The Year Without Summer, became a way to think of climate crisis not just as separate, isolated events. The Littleport Bread or Blood riots of April 1816 seem, on the surface, little more than a local story of protest and its brutal suppression. Instead, these riots open up a much larger story: a story of sudden climate breakdown that connected local events with an event many thousands of miles away, linking the near and far. The Tambora eruption triggered a global crisis of unprecedented magnitude in modern times, the effects of which would continue to shape the world for decades. Please see my article for Historia Magazine: The Year Without Summer – fact, fiction and the climate crisis today.
My third novel, Privilege, will be published in May 2022. It is a feminist retelling of the French Enlightenment, set in mid 18thc England and France, and deals with book publishing and censorship when books required royal privilege before they could be published. The novel explores the difficulty and enormous risks associated with bringing work into the public domain at the time. The novel is therefore not only a story of the eighteenth century, but is also a story of now, and a defence of writing at a time of rising populism and the assault on reason.
I am currently writing a series of short stories, as a way to explore how the Enlightenment and chattel slavery in the British West Indies wove together through the eighteenth century. This is partly based on reckoning (if that even is possible) with the story of two of my eighteenth-century forebears, John and Duncan Glasfurd, who made their way from Bo’ness, Scotland to St Kitts in the late eighteenth century. You can read their story and how I found out about it here.
In 2019, I was writer in residence at Wicken Fen, the National Trust’s oldest reserve and a site of international importance. I was also in receipt of a grant from Arts Council England (Developing Your Creative Practice) to work on a project on ‘placemaking’ at Waterbeach New Town. I have also worked collaboratively with artists in the UK and South Africa and my work has been funded under the Artists’ International Development Fund, (Arts Council England and the British Council). Details of that project, which saw me work with fine artist Richard Penn at Nirox, Johannesburg, can be found here: http://mailout.co/cambridge-based-artists-secure-arts-council-funding-to-develop-international-projects/ I’ve since been commissioned to produce work in support of Penn’s most recent exhibition, Surface Detail, at the Origins’ Centre.
I am represented by Veronique Baxter, at David Higham Associates.
The Words in My Hand is published by:
I can also be found online at: