Currently living in: Bath, England
Grew up in: Hanworth, Middlesex, in a cottage next to what remains of Catherine Parr’s palace, which meant that we had a ruined moat in the road next door.
Studies: M.A.(Hons) in Social Anthropology from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, with a year studying Mandarin, Anthropology, United Nations, African American Fiction and White Water Canoeing at William & Mary College, Virginia. Diploma in Journalism from the London College of Printing. In 2012 completed an MA in Fiction Writing at Bath Spa University, which involved a terrific exchange with Columbia College, Chicago.
Siblings: one younger brother who got all the practical genes.
Married: In 2006, to Martin Palmer
Family: A stepson in Washington DC and a stepdaughter in Cornwall. And two step grandchildren.
Colour: There’s an orange hot air balloon that sometimes used to hover above our previous village on clear summer days. The visual effect of bright orange against ultramarine blue makes me ridiculously happy.
Frequently Asked Questions
How did you become a writer?
When I was eight I had this plan to write a version of The Jungle Book but with Mowgli as a girl. That short manuscript was, probably fortunately, lost a long time ago. At 11 I was given leave of absence from lacrosse and spent those PE hours in the library, reading The Times (which had lots of difficult words in it then, far more than it does now) and dreaming of becoming a journalist. At 21 I was accepted onto a management traineeship programme for Reuters, and a few years later I became a full-time news and features writer at the South China Morning Post.
How did you get Colour published?
I had an idea that I had nurtured for years, but was procrastinating about actually turning it into a book because – I told myself – I didn’t know how to write a book proposal. Then into the letterbox of my apartment in Hong Kong there arrived a brochure, unsolicited, from the YWCA with plenty of courses advertised including one, over three evenings, of How To Write a Book Proposal.
I signed up with my friend Nell Nelson, who got a contract for a cookery book within three months. It took me a bit longer to put the full proposal for my colour book together – with all the chapters worked out in detail – but I was very lucky to get an agent’s interest almost straight away. A short time later, visiting the offices of about six publishers in one day, I asked one why she was so interested in my proposal. “Don’t you realise! Colour is something we see every day: we are all kicking ourselves that we didn’t think of the idea first!” So it seems to me that the big trick is to find the book that everyone would commission, if only they thought of it first.
How many countries did you travel to?
Colour took me to 17 countries and Jewels to 14. And Fabric to 15, I think. Which, although some of the research was combined with other work trips, as you can imagine, used up most of my advances!
What about your illustrated book?
It’s a book with the Getty Museum in Los Angeles called A Brilliant History of Color in Art, intended for teenagers but hopefully enjoyable for everyone. It’s organised by paint and dye names through history (i.e. it starts with … no I won’t say what it starts with, though ocher is fairly near the beginning… it ends with pixels, but somewhere in the middle there is indigo and cochineal and Prussian blue and mauve… and so many others. Unlike my first colour book, this one has loads of lovely pictures. It was published in late 2014.
How long did it take you to write your books?
Both of my first books took about two years, from signing contracts to signing off the manuscripts, including all the travel. It was a full-time job. The Getty one took me about a year, while I was working part time. And then there was the editing process. I saw a lot of dawns. Fabric took six from signing to publication. In part because it’s enormous subject, in part because it was complicated. It probably would have taken five but then lockdown happened and we had an extra year to do the edits, so took them nice and slowly.