The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ (1982), Townsend’s fictional diary of an awkward adolescent, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Mole went on to star in a further eight novels and sell more than 10m copies worldwide. Born in Leicester in 1946, Townsend left school at 14 and home at 15, working as a shop assistant. She spent two decades writing in secret before completing her breakthrough work: a play called Womberang (1979). Townsend has four children and 10 grandchildren and lives with her second husband in Leicester.
What book changed your life?
The Gambler by Dostoevsky. It was the first time I realised that it was possible to have good and evil in one person. It led me to read a lot of Russian literature.
When did you know you were going to be a writer?
I didn’t ever know. I wanted to be one but it wasn’t what you did where I came from. My second husband encouraged me to go to a writing group at our local theatre. It was my “coming out of the closet” moment.
What is your writing routine?
I watch The Jeremy Kyle Show every morning. It’s terrible but I do. I work with my eldest son, and we start at 11am and finish at 6.30pm. I dictate and he types [Townsend’s eyesight has been damaged by diabetes and she was registered blind in 2001].
What music helps you write?
I usually listen to the same thing over and over again: Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major. And Leonard Cohen.
Which literary character most resembles you?
I always wanted to be Jo in Little Women. She’s a bit reckless and feckless, always getting into trouble like me. But I’m probably more like Madame Bovary.
Who are your literary influences?
The Just William books, PG Wodehouse, Lucky Jim.
Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?
Jesus. I’d like to talk to him about his father.
Who would you choose to play you in a film about your life?
It’s difficult as I’m such a mixture of different things. My husband’s answer is Meryl Streep.
When do you feel most free?
In the garden, listening to the birds. It’s somewhere I can be independent, as otherwise I can’t leave the house on my own.
What would you go back and change?
I would have taken my kids out as individuals, rather than as a big motley group. You can’t expect small children to all be interested in the same thing.
What are you most proud of writing?
Ghost Children for its subject matter – grief, bereavement, abortion, child neglect, damaged parents, lost love. It was very challenging. I’ve had two abortions so I know what I’m talking about.
What does it mean to be a writer?
It means to be properly connected to the world. Writers notice everything; they listen harder, look harder and retain impressions. I can’t look so much now but I have memories.
Sue Townsend’s latest novel is ‘The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year’ (Michael Joseph)