The Golden Rule is inspired by my enduring fascination with the gulf between rich and poor, and also with the temptation to commit that most terrible of all crimes, murder.
Unlike the Bredins in The Lie of the Land, my heroine Hannah is genuinely poor and underprivileged. With no safety-net, and nothing but her university degree, she comes from Cornwall, one of the most economically deprived areas in Europe – which, paradoxically, voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU. Although this is not another “Brexlit” novel, that fateful vote of 2016 is very much in the background, and the novel itself is set during the heatwave of 2018.
I myself know what it is like to be young and impoverished. Like Hannah, I worked briefly in advertising after graduation. It was not a good experience. I always knew that what I wanted, above all, was to write: Fay Weldon, Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis before me had shown it possible to combine a paying job with authorship. By the 1980s, this proved impossible. I lived on unemployment benefit for a year, and when that was cut, I, like my heroine, turned to cleaning other people’s homes, which at least left my mind free. Everything that Hannah experiences as a cleaner happened to me, and worse. I struggled not just to pay the rent but to feed myself on occasions. But I wrote and wrote, and I also rediscovered the love of reading that an English degree had nearly snuffed out, thanks to my local public library.
Gradually, thanks in no small measure to the opportunities then offered by freelance journalism, I crawled out of what felt like a bottomless pit. I had various setbacks with my first novel, Foreign Bodies – which included having the manuscript lost by the distinguished agent who was interested in my writing. I was too poor to afford a photocopy and had to rewrite it all. When Foreign Bodies was published, in 1990, it received excoriating reviews: by that time, I had won two prizes as a journalist, which probably did not help.
It was not easy to continue writing, but then it never is. By this time, I was happily married with two small children. My third novel, A Vicious Circle, was pulled from publication by Hamish Hamilton at proof stage on receiving a libel threat from a former boyfriend at university fifteen years previously, who believed he was identifiable as its villain. I faced ruin, ignominy, and the loss of the modest family home my husband and I had just managed to buy in North London. At this point, I was offered a contract killer by a sympathetic East End builder outraged by what I was going through. So I also know what it is like to wish someone dead, and I also know what it is like to turn away from this. It is my belief that everybody is capable of murder, especially where the protection of something or someone that you care about is concerned; but although the strong emotions wrapped up in a book are close to those of parenthood they are not (thank goodness) identical.
In the event, Penguin did not dare ask for its advance back and I received three times more from the new publisher who took A Vicious Circle on. Instead of losing my home, we were able to move to a bigger one; and my career began to improve. I have been called a State of the Nation novelist, and compared, most flatteringly, to heroes such as Dickens, Trollope, Hardy and Austen. Really, I am just interested in people, and how we treat each other. If fiction has any claim to virtue it is that of improving the understanding that we should treat others as ourselves – which is the Golden Rule, repeated in every world religion, from Judaism to Buddhism.