How Magpie Lane started

10 Apr 2022

I’d never intended to write an Oxford novel. It always seemed to me that to put a hat in the ring with the greats of English literature – Iris Murdoch or Philip Pullman or any of the hundreds of brilliant authors who have written novels set in Oxford – would be foolish. But one day, a few years ago, I was in my old Oxford College when I got chatting to a tall and friendly man, casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and trainers.  When he introduced himself as ‘Steve, the new College President’, and said it was his first day in the job, I assumed he was joking. In my mind, college Presidents were dour, hunched, silvery figures – Classicists, probably – and certainly never to be seen in a pair of Nikes.

He offered to show me his new home, the President’s Lodging. It was 27 years since I’d last set foot in that ancient pink house and I had a vague, traumatised memory of ticking clocks and squeaking shoes, fusty rooms crammed with polished furniture and grim oil paintings of men in ermine. But the house I toured that day had been transformed: the walls were soft white, the Jacobean floors polished, a beautiful abstract dominated the fireplace and the light streamed in, as if the windows had somehow been enlarged. When he showed me a tiny cupboard, and explained that it was a priest’s hole, where priests from the ruthless Elizabethan priest hunters, I was hooked. I didn’t see Steve again but I was to spend the next three years in his house.

The Master’s Lodging…

Whilst there, I made some alterations of my own: I added a clever nanny, a mute child, a pregnant Danish wife, an eccentric house historian and some odd noises in the night; I moved the priest’s hole up to fictional attic, then moved the whole house to an imaginary alley, and created an entire fictional College for it. And then – perhaps biting the hand that had fed me – I turned the friendly, welcoming Steve into a Machiavellian monster, and Magpie Lane was born.

The real Magpie Lane

Inspiration for the Victorian Gothic manor in The Night Visitor

11 Aug 2017

Spooks, memories and visitors

Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare

 When I was a teenager, growing up in a village near Lewes in East Sussex, I had a friend whose house was very different from everyone else’s. For a start, it had about five times as many bedrooms. It also had tall iron gates, a long, tree lined driveway and a haunted Minstrel’s Gallery. This place – which I now know to be a Victorian Gothic Manor – looked very grand on the outside. It had tall grey flint walls and grand, mullioned windows, but the inside told a different story. The house was in coming undone.

My friend’s family was not landed gentry, far from it. Her father, a drinker, keen on the races, had won the house some time in the 1970s in a bet. It was crumbling and damp, with rattling casement windows and no central heating. There was no money to fix anything. I got the sense that nobody really cared because the family was breaking down. The house was not just physically gloomy, but unhappy and troubled in a more profound, less tangible way. And I felt, instinctively, that it was not just the container of the family’s sorrows, but – somehow, inexplicably – feeding them.

I would go there from time to time during the secondary school years. I’d marvel at the grandeur of those iron gates and that long driveway; we’d climb the sweeping staircase to what is, in my memory, an endless procession of dark and musty rooms with plasterwork damp to the touch, old quilts, a pervading chill and flitting shadows. It was thrilling for a teenager. I remember one party – twenty drunk fourteen year olds screaming across the unkempt lawns, only to end up crammed into the (surprisingly tiny) kitchen, too spooked to venture further into the house.

My friend, a tall, loyal, bright girl with a hint of wildness behind the eyes, confided to me once that she sometimes had a ‘visitor’ in the middle of the night. She would wake in the small hours to find a shrouded and malevolent old lady sitting on her, pinning her to the mattress. She was paralyzed when this happened, she said, unable to even cry out for help. This terrifying apparition, she was convinced, meant to choke her.

The friend and I lost touch when I went off to university. Her life, I heard, did not unfold as happily as mine, she has had troubles. Her family broke up and the Manor was sold. But thirty years on, I found it again, in my imagination, a huge, neglected flinty beast set in an idyllic spot beneath the South Downs, a stone’s throw from the spot where Virginia Woolf drowned herself. The Manor – which I called Ileford –  became a key setting in my novel, the symbol of how the most grand and imposing façade can conceal rotten secrets. My friend’s ‘night visitor’ came to life again too. But that’s another story.

I still long for the Sussex countryside – the chalk paths up to the South Downs, pheasants panicking across country lanes in the early morning mist, and my hometown, Lewes, slotted in the cleft of the hills. I live in Oxford, now, and people tell me I’m lucky to be here but I still long to move ‘home’. I did go back to the Manor while researching my novel. I went up to the iron gates, held them and peeked through but I could see very little. I thought about going up the drive, knocking on the door and introducing myself, trying to explain who I was, what I was doing. In the end, I didn’t dare.


Where did The Missing One come from?

4 Nov 2013

The Missing One began when I was staying at a friend’s cabin on Whidbey Island in Washington State (

We lived in Seattle for four years, my second child was born there, and we used to take regular trips north, to the islands, and also up to Canada – the landscape of the Pacific Northwest was (and still is) mysterious and intriguing to me. At my friend’s cabin one rainy day I picked up a magazine and read about a pioneering marine biologist called Alexandra Morton.

Morton was one of the first scientists to study the language of killer whales. She was also a young mother, who would take her baby out with her on the ocean, following killer whales, getting to know them, listening to their interactions. She lived in a tiny floating house on a remote British Columbian Island so that she could immerse herself in her research. It was from this magazine article that the Missing One was born.

First, I wrote a short story about a whale researcher, Elena. This then expanded into a novel draft written from Elena’s perspective. It didn’t work. I abandoned it in despair. Then, nine months later, I went back to it, and rewrote it, this time from the perspective of a daughter, Kal, looking into her mother’s past. It was a long process – about four years in all – but it eventually became The Missing One.

My Elena, of course, is nothing like the real Alexandra Morton. But what’s interesting is that a character, or a set up, or a setting, can cling inside the mind and not let go, for years and years, until it finally takes shape as a novel.