Can you remember the first book you bought?
I grew up in a house full of books and was regularly presented with books for my birthday and at Christmas. As the youngest of four, I generally read my siblings’ hand-me-downs. I loved C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Roald Dahl’s The Magic Finger. I was a precocious reader and was incensed when, aged nine, my mother wouldn’t let me read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita so I would have bought my own copy as soon as I could. But the first book I probably bought was J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It’s the one book I re-read every decade and I always get something new from it.
How big is your library now?
I recently moved house and counted at least 100 boxes of books so probably 4–5,000.
How do you arrange your books?
I have books in every room and in the hallways. I’m not sure why, but I keep contemporary fiction by men and women separately and then arrange them alphabetically.
My two antique bookcases are full of books by my mother and aunts, the Pullein-Thompson sisters, and their mother – Joanna Cannan, some beautifully illustrated by Anne Bullen. I have two shelves full of my mother’s beloved Georges Simenon and Dick Francis collection. I have a bookcase dedicated to old Penguins and another for the classics. Plays and poetry are shelved together.
I’m chair of the judging panel for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award (BFNA) so have started keeping recent debuts together. Then I have a section for human rights/ free expression and another section for travel writing. In the kitchen, where most of the talking happens, I keep lifestyle, philosophical and political books. Peirene Books and And Other Stories have distinctive cover designs, and I’ve read everything they’ve published, so they have their own dedicated shelves in my bedroom. Finally, in my study I have a lot of literary fiction in translation and books that I hope to review.
Favourite reading spot in your house?
My bed or the sofa!
Do you have a regular purge?
I know I should, but I rarely do. I purged when I moved house and took bags of books to charity shops. I felt very pleased with myself but then realised I had only got rid of about one per cent.
Favourite bookshop new or second-hand?
I used to love Henry Pordes on Charing Cross and Book & Comic Exchange in Notting Hill. Now I get sent so many books, I try not to buy any more. Events at Waterstones Piccadilly and Gower Street in London have rekindled my love for browsing the big bookshops.
What’s on your ‘to read’ pile?
I’ve just finished reading for the BFNA so now have a few months to read something other than debut novelists, much as I love them. It’s an eclectic pile and includes Inara Verzemnieks’s memoir Among the Living and the Dead and Preti Taneja’s novel We That Are Young. I’m interviewing Nikesh Shukla at Felixstowe Books Festival so have The Good Immigrant and his latest novel, The One Who Wrote Destiny, to read. I’m also looking forward to reading an advance copy of Jon Walter’s novel about women’s suffrage, Nevertheless She Persisted (to be published in September 2018).
What is your favourite edition that you own and why?
I inherited a first edition of Georgette Heyer’s The Conqueror. She was great friends with my grandmother Joanna. The inscription reads: ‘Dear J’anna, with love from George, March 1931’. I read Heyer in my teens and I see this edition as a link to my grandmother’s world. She died before I was born.
To break the spine or keep it as immaculate as possible?
To keep as immaculate as possible. When reviewing I try to use proof copies so I can mark in pencil. However, a dog-eared book with well-thumbed pages often reflects the passion with which it was read … and re-read.
Do you lend books?
I do lend books but I get a bit miffed when invariably they aren’t returned. I teach creative writing at home so regularly exemplify a great beginning or brilliant characterisation from the books on hand and then lend them to the students. They tend to be better at returning books than friends and family.
Do you like to get books signed by the author?
What is your favourite book currently funding on the Unbound site?
What I love about Unbound is that they succeed in publishing books that might not have found a publisher elsewhere. So, Girl With a Gun: A Teenage Freedom Fighter in Iran by Diana Nammi and Karen Attwood. It’s about a Kurdish women’s rights activist. It’s so nearly funded and needs just a final push.
A Country to Call Home will be published on 14 June to mark Refugee Week (18-24 June)