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I become preoccupied with images and memory pictures. Eventually, if they hang around long enough, these images become the cornerstone of a short story or a scene in a novel. If I did not write, I would never be able to make sense of them.

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Writing has always seemed an easy, natural thing to do. But it was a long time before I thought of myself as a writer rather than an academic.

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Why do you write?

It’s the one thing I know how to do. I could never catch a ball when I was a kid, couldn’t balance on a bike, can’t drive a car – not to mention other inadequacies. It’s a relief to think that I have one area of competence, relatively speaking.

Are you a vivid dreamer?

My specialty is ghastly nightmares. In order to dream, I’d probably need to sleep more hours than I usually manage. I hate the sight of the digital clock announcing three a.m.

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Storytelling in all its forms is one way of having something curious, strange, and comforting to say to others and ourselves when we are faced with the malaise of the real.

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I write to understand the world, and also to find out what I think. When I look at something very closely (whatever it is: fruit bats or space travel or a particular situation), it seems to expand; to contain allusive meanings I wouldn’t see if I weren’t writing about it. My books are also about honouring otherwise forgotten people whom I find extraordinary.

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The idea for The Art of the Engine Driver came from a dream of my old street. It was so vivid – virtual, you might say – that I abandoned the project I had in mind and followed the dream.

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Living life in only one dimension, without having another world or set of characters to visit, doesn’t seem enough. I’m always happier when I’m writing, and not so easy to live with when I’m not.

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I write for a reader, any reader – just one – who is willing to participate on a creative level in the experience of my book. I do not plan my novels, and I think if I ever did I would lose interest in finishing them. Nor do I ever alter the order in which the narrative unfolds. Otherwise, how would I keep track of what my reader knows and doesn’t know? I don’t care about plot. Instead, the aim is to transmogrify experience. What drives me is the music of the sentence. It’s all about a shared energy with the reader. That’s what fires me up.

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It’s a thrill to build up a story and to inhabit characters. I’m alone and not alone – in touch with layers of life I’m not able to savour when I’m living it.

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During the day. I love reverie. It’s underrated. As T.E. Lawrence put it: ‘The dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream, to make it possible. This I did.’

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