How did you write Half Life? Where did you draw inspiration for the story and the characters? How is it different from or similar to your other novels?
The experience of writing HALF LIFE was like being highjacked in a storm; when I wrote the first chapter, I had no idea of where it would lead, but once I had started, I just couldn't stop. For the months that I was writing it, I was so obsessed with the idea, so afraid of losing momentum, that I did almost nothing else; I barely ate or slept, and lost a lot of weight. My only break from writing was to look after my two little boys in the afternoons, but once they were in bed at 7pm, I would go back to writing until the early hours of the morning, and then get back up at 7am and carry on.
The suddenness with which the story poured out took me by surprise; the opening scene where Aruna walks out of her London flat and out on her marriage, came to me when I was travelling home late one night after promoting CORNER SHOP at a literary festival. The train home had taken several hours, and it was long past midnight and pouring with rain as I finally arrived at the station, and walked back to my house through an autumnal sludge of puddles, concrete, leaves and mud. I felt curiously disconnected and alone, as though I didn't have a family sleeping soundly in a warm house after all, and I wondered what it would be like to be a grown-up woman who was running away from home, rather than trudging back; I wondered where this woman would go, and exactly where she was running to.
The story may have come quickly, but I had actually been thinking about the Aruna and Hassan characters for some time, initially envisaging separate novels for them, as they seemed to belong to quite different worlds and eras in time. I imagined that Aruna would have a lover whom she had abandoned, and that Hassan had a son who abandoned him, and as soon as I started writing, I realised that this lover and son could be the same character, that in fact he possibly always had been the same character, which is how Jazz came about.
HALF LIFE, like my previous novels, looks at relationships in crisis in a multicultural setting, but otherwise it feels very different; both BITTER SWEETS and CORNER SHOP had a wide cast of characters, and the action took place across several generations. By contrast, in HALF LIFE, I focus very tightly on three voices in the novel, Aruna, Hassan and Jazz, and the action takes place across just three days and nights. This restriction was deliberate to heighten the emotional intensity, drama and pace of the novel; I wanted the experience of reading this book to be the same switchback ride that writing it was.
What made you decide to become a writer? What do you like best/least about it? What do your friends and family think of your work?
I always considered myself a writer, and when I was fourteen I wrote a novel that I sent hopefully to every publisher in town; amazingly I got some positive responses back. Then exams and college and work got in the way; even while I was working long hours in advertising, I kept writing, and still got promising feedback but no firm offers. I knew that I had to take some time out if I wanted to focus properly on my writing. My husband and I both left our busy jobs in London , and bought an old ruined farmhouse in France ; while he renovated the house, I wrote BITTER SWEETS. A few weeks after finishing the first draft, just after my first son was born, I received a two-book offer from Pan Macmillan in the UK .
I never went back to "proper work" - being a full time novelist is my dream job. I like everything about it - being able to lock myself away in imaginary worlds, being able to write any time of day and night (I'm writing this at 4am - I'm pregnant at the moment, and couldn't sleep), not having to care if I spend a whole week in my dressing gown, having the freedom to be at home with my husband and children, and the freedom to live or travel anywhere I like. The only disadvantage is the erratic income; we keep a tight rein on costs, and I've not gone to a hairdresser or bought new clothes for years, because I'm not really bothered about that sort of thing, and I'd rather spend the money on my children. Like every writer, I'm aware of how lucky I am being able to make a living by doing something that I love.
My family and friends are all proud of my success; I don't tend to ask them what they think of my work, as it might seem a little vain if they liked what I'd written, and awkward for us both if they didn't! But I do know that many of them of them enjoy my books, because they're fantastic advocates and supporters. Around a book launch, my mother hands out my publicity cards and bookmarks to every person she meets, even strangers on the subway; once when I was on a radio show in London, someone called in to say they'd just met my mother on a train, and that she'd persuaded them to go and buy my book!
Your characters have been praised as “convincingly complex” (Library Journal on Corner Shop) and “vibrant… leap[ing] off the page” (Booklist on Bitter Sweets) – how do you create such realistically flawed yet lovably well-meaning individuals?
It's important to me that my reader senses the humanity of my characters, and feels compassion for them; I want my readers to care about the journeys that my characters take.
This is why I try and draw out the flaws and fragility of each individual, the sense they have of sometimes being overtaken by events, the feelings of loss for the people that they once were, or might have been, for the lives that they might have otherwise had, as this is part of what makes them both human and lovable. I try and call on feelings that we might all have had, that are in some way universal, whether I'm depicting ordinary people in extraordinary situations, or extraordinary people trapped in ordinary situations. And I think that it's important for the reader to walk in the character's shoes, just as I do, as otherwise it would be very easy to lose patience with characters such as Aruna in HALF LIFE, or Delphine in CORNER SHOP, who might outwardly seem to behave selfishly and unsympathetically.
At its core, Half Life is a beautiful and heartbreaking love story. Without giving too much away, can you discuss the meaning of love in the novel and how it shapes the characters’ lives?
I wanted to explore the many faces of love in this novel, the passionate, the tragic, the unconditional, and most of all, the love that redeems. Aruna and Jazz are both redeemed by the love that they have for each other, that grew from their childhood friendship so gradually that they honestly don't know when they stopped being friends and started being a couple; even when circumstances stop them making a life together, Aruna is still compelled to return to him, and he is still compelled to wait for her return, even though he has no certain knowledge that she ever would. Despite their attempts to move on from each other, in other relationships and in pursuing their careers, when they are together again, they create their own world, just as they did when they were children. In one scene, Aruna watches him sleep, "in the increasingly crowded, raucous train carriage, it feels as though they are alone together in a room, and that nothing else exists beyond the ribbons of breath between them." But in their star-crossed situation, the intense exclusivity of their love doesn't bring them happiness, but rather necessitates self-sacrifice on both their parts.
Hassan's love story is tragic, and he is weighed down by guilt over the death of his first love, and by his neglect of his dutiful wife, but he too is redeemed by quite a different love, the unconditional love he has for his son. His love doesn't waver even when Jazz abandons him to die in the hospital; it is this love that motivates Hassan throughout the novel, driving him to persist in his attempts to reconcile with Jazz, to be forgiven and forgive in his turn.