I was born in December 1952, in Yorkshire, the second of four children. My father was the eldest of twelve, and this extended family has no doubt had a strong influence on my life, as have my own children. In a large family you hear a great many stories. You also come to understand very early that storieshold quite different meanings for different listeners, and can be recastfrom many viewpoints.
Poetry was very important to me from childhood. I began by listening to and learning by heart all kinds of rhymes and hymns and ballads, and then went on to make up my own poems, using the forms I’d heard. Writing these down came a little later.
I studied English at the University of York, and after graduation taught English as a foreign language in Finland.
At around this time I began to write the poems which formed my first poetry collection, The Apple Fall,and to publish these in magazines. I also completed two novels; fortunately neither survives, and it was more than ten years before I wrote another novel.
During this time I published several collections of poems, and wrote some of the short stories which were later collected in Love of Fat Men. I began to travel a great deal within the UK and around the world, for poetry tours and writing residences. This experience of working in many different countries and cultures has been very important to my work. I reviewed poetry for Stand and Poetry Review and later for The Observer, and subsequently reviewed fiction for The Observer, The Times and The Guardian. My critical work includes introductions to the poems of Emily Brontë, the short stories of D H Lawrence and F Scott Fitzgerald, a study of Virginia Woolf’s relationships with women andIntroductions to the Folio Society's edition of Anna Karenina and to the new Penguin Classics edition of Tolstoy's My Confession.
During the 1980s and early 1990s I taught poetry and creative writing, tutored residential writing courses for the Arvon Foundation and took part in the Poetry Society's Writer in Schools scheme, as well as giving readings and workshops in schools, hospitals, prisons and every other kind of place where a poem could conceivably be welcome. I also taught at the University of Glamorgan, the University of Bristol's Continuing Education Department and for the Open College of the Arts.
In the late 1980s I began to publish short stories, and these were the beginning of a breakthrough into fiction. What I had learned of prose technique through the short story gave me the impetus to start writing novels. My first novel for children was Going to Egypt, published in 1992, and my first novel for adults was Zennor in Darkness, published in 1993, which won the McKitterick Prize. This was also my first researched novel, set in the First World War and dealing with the period when D H Lawrence and his wife Frieda lived in Zennor in Cornwall, and came under suspicion as German spies.
My third novel, A Spell of Winter, won the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996, and since then I have published a number of novels, short story collections and books for children. Full details of all these books are available on this website. The last of The Ingo Quartet, The Crossing of Ingo, waspublished in paperback in Spring 2009.
My seventh novel, The Siege (2001) was shortlisted both for the Whitbread Novel Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction. This was another researched novel, which grew from a lifelong love of Russian history, culture and literature. It is is set in Leningrad during the first year of the siege of the city by German forces, which lasted for 880 days from the fall of Mga on 30th August 1941. The Siege has been translated into Russian by Tatyana Averchina, and extracts have been broadcast on radio in St Petersburg. House of Orphans was published in 2006, and in 2008Counting the Stars. Its central characters are the Roman poet Catullus, who lived during the last years of the Republic,