Gillian Slovo, born in 1952, is the daughter of anti-apartheid campaigners Ruth First and Joe Slovo – her mother was murdered in 1982. Slovo’s 2000 novel Red Dust explored the operations of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and was made into a film in 2004. A later novel, Ice Road (2004), was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Slovo is married with one child and two stepchildren and lives in London.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

When I discovered that I enjoyed it, in my mid-20s. It started as a joke but then I tried it and I loved it.

Who is your perfect reader?

A stranger. The woman on the Underground who is sitting opposite me and reading one of my books and misses her stop because she is so fascinated.

What books are currently on your bedside table?

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild; Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil and Dracula.

Do you have a daily routine when you’re working on a book?

I have two: one where I’m in the middle of a book and I get up and write until I’m exhausted; and another where I’m trying to kick-start a book and so I procrastinate, procrastinate, procrastinate.

What music helps you write?

During Ice Road, I listened to Shostakovich. It perfectly fitted what I was writing. I was writing about Leningrad so I listened to the Leningrad Symphony.

What do you do to celebrate finishing a book?

I look at the manuscript on a pile and feel relief. And I sleep.

What would you do if you gave up writing?

It’s unimaginable. I would have to go on long walks that lasted for weeks or months, to get away from a desk. Then, in despair that my writing had failed, I’d become a telephonist.

When were you happiest?

The other day on a walk. It was a beautiful day, the leaves looked fantastic and I was lucky to be alive.

What would you change about yourself?

Legions of things. I would be calmer, particularly when writing or planning a book.

What book do you wish you’d written?

There are many. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. It’s incredibly wise and beautiful.

What does it mean to be a writer?

It’s an enormous privilege to be able to inhabit a world you’ve partly created.

Gillian Slovo’s latest novel is ‘Black Orchids’ (Virago)

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