A Q&A with Prue Leith

The best book you've ever received as a gift? "Anna Sewell's 'Black Beauty', which my father gave me as a child. The first book that I could not put down

23 June 2019 - 00:00 By Sunday Times Books

Published in the Sunday Times: 23/06/2019

One book our world leaders should read?

Kate Clanchy's Some Kids I Have Taught and What They Taught Me. Since education is at the heart of social reform and essential in ensuring a civilised, caring population, this book might just stimulate education that works. Also, as it is punchy, amusing and moving, it might get read.

The strangest thing you've done when researching a book?

Researching pre-war sheep-farming practices, I talked to a Welsh farmer who remembered using his teeth to castrate lambs. They'd cut a slit in the skin of the scrotum, suck the balls out and use their teeth to sever the connection, spit the balls into a bucket - and onto the next lamb. It took seconds.

Do you keep a diary?

No, but I keep a commonplace book (actually a file on my laptop), a file for ideas, and if something is memorable I may write a private little essay on it. I find photographs hugely helpful. For my first novel, much of which is set in India, I used photographs taken on holiday to stimulate writing. And when writing my autobiography, I dipped into my mother's diaries.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

"Darling" and "Sweetheart". My mother, Margaret Inglis, was a famous South African actress and she called everyone, including the milkman, darling.

Three writers invited to your literary dinner?

Anthony Trollope because I'm a major groupie. I've read all 47 of his books, some of them twice. Brilliant on politics, small-town gossip, how women think, family tension and love. Alan Clark, for the outrageous gossip, and Nadine Gordimer because she combined storytelling with political activism. And all three wrote exquisitely.

The best book you've ever received as a gift?

Anna Sewell's Black Beauty, which my father gave me as a child. The first book that I could not put down.

The last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

I generally laugh out loud at Rod Liddle's Spectator column. He's outrageous and extreme and I am faintly ashamed of liking him, but the way he mocks political correctness, pillories some of our politicians and mocks the fads and neuroses of our times is hilarious.

What are you most proud of writing?

My autobiography, Relish, which I think is an honest and engaging book and my Angelotti trilogy. A trilogy is a slog. It covers 75 years, three generations, and by the end has a fair few characters. But I think I pulled it off. Each book is a self-contained story with pace and, I hope, believable characters that the reader will care about.

What keeps you awake at night?

Absolutely nothing. I sleep like a top, which (along with good food and happiness) has me going strong at very nearly 80. The only times I've not slept well is when I've been worried about one of my children.

What books are on your bedside table?

Paris Metro by Wendell Steavenson is a beautifully written and absorbing novel based on the Charlie Hebdo attacks and is written from both a European and a Muslim standpoint. The Poets' Daughters by Katie Waldegrave is the story of Dot Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge, easy to read and illuminating. A guidebook to Southern India (where we are going over Christmas): A South Indian Journey by Michael Wood. The President's Keepers by Jacques Pauw, an almost unbelievable account of the henchmen and cronies that kept Zuma in power.

What would you tell your writing self?

Start writing fiction sooner. I wrote nothing but cookery, business reports and a bit of general journalism until I was 50. Since then I've written eight novels and my memoir, but if I'd started earlier I'd have had some chance of using all the themes and plotlines knocking about in my head.

A character you'd choose as best friend?

I think The Warden in Trollope's book of that name. A gentle, almost innocent, but intelligent and kindly old man. He'd be a great friend.

The Lost Son by Prue Leith is published by Quercus, R325