Q: You wrote White Teeth while you were still studying. How did you manage to juggle your time?
A: I began it in college. I think I’m the kind of person who does more, the more they have to do. I was under a lot pressure in my final year and working all the time and writing what I thought of as a long short story was light relief compared to the tripos.
Q: How did you like it at King’s? Do you remember your first day?
A: I was overwhelmed on my first day. I got there very late because my mum drove me up and we got lost. She borrowed a van from work – it was bright red and had Brent Social Services printed on the side.
I was so naive I thought because I’d missed the first six hours I’d never be able to catch up again so we were shouting at each other, panicking. Finally we found the back gate. I was too impatient to wait for the unpacking of the van – I just ran in and up to the bridge and burst into tears. For me, it was the culmination of so many years of study and hope – I really couldn’t believe it was real until I was on that bridge. I realise how tragic that sounds but that’s the truth.
Q: Where were your student hang-outs?
A: I basically lived in King’s bar and the library, with occasional detours to King’s cellars to hear very overpaid London DJs play jungle. I left the premises rarely. In summer, I loved the grass verge down by the bridge and the bench by the chapel. I was pathetically unadventurous. I think I went to Grantchester once.
Q: Were you aware of people there at the same time as you who looked like they were on course for really big things?
A: I tried to avoid the sort of people who thought going to Cambridge meant they were going to rule the world.
Q: What did you think your career path would be when you were a student?
A: Teacher or an academic, a journalist or editor. I hoped to be a novelist but anything in the world of words would have done.
Q: Do you remember your initial inspiration for White Teeth?
A: It was originally a short story about Magid. Then some time late in my third year my half sister visited me and told me something about our dad meeting my mum at a party when he’d come to pick up his daughter. The idea of the end of the world party came from there, and somehow the rest of the book followed. It was a comic, hyper-real retelling of a bit of family history.
Q: How do you describe your latest novel, NW?
A: As a novel of voices.
Q: How do you feel about it compares with your earlier works?
A: Each of the books is different, I find it hard to compare them. They each represent some different times in my life. Certainly this one is darker with less fat on its bones.
Q: You’ve said you feel uncomfortable reading White Teeth again now. Do you think you’ve matured since then? Are you a harsh critic of yourself?
A: It’s not for me to say if I’ve matured or not. But any sane person would find it difficult to re-read what they wrote when they were 22!
Q: What is the writing process like for you – do you shut yourself away? How do you deal with distractions?
A: I can’t shut myself away – I have two kids. But I don’t consider them or the rest of life a distraction. If I’m going to write seriously, I need four hours. Getting those four hours can be complicated, but once I have them, I try to do as much as I can.
Q: Are you pleased to have been able to write what you want to write, rather than what somebody has told you to? Is it always that easy for first-time novelists?
A: I can only speak of my own experience. It’s been a great delight to write freely. There are so many places and situations in the world where I wouldn’t be able to do that so I’m thankful.