As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? A child’s perspective is limited by their own experiences and imagination. My relations were all manual workers, which was too harsh a world to covet. The only professional people I encountered were teachers, librarians, doctors and dentists. Simply because the holidays were generous, I decided to be a teacher, though I actually became an archaeologist and writer.
What other jobs have you had? While at school and university, I had part-time jobs in a supermarket, newsagent, electrical store and laundry. The first job where I was allowed to sit down – what luxury – was at IBM’s headquarters in Havant, Hampshire. I then became obsessed by archaeology and worked for over two decades as a field archaeologist. At the same time, I was also writing books (with Roy) and copy-editing and indexing archaeological and historical books.
What traditions from your childhood do you continue? To be honest, probably nothing much at all – apart from reading and using libraries, which is probably why I am especially incensed at the cutbacks to the public library service in England over the past few years.
Which people influenced you to start writing? From a very early age I loved writing stories and would hide myself away in a garden shed to do so, but the school examination system put paid to such creative work. I met Roy on an archaeological excavation in Milton Keynes, and because we were frustrated by the lack of a decent reference book, we decided to write it ourselves. It became The Handbook of British Archaeology – and set us on our writing career.
What’s the hardest part of your job? The most difficult aspects of writing a book are keeping to the publisher’s deadline (never long enough) and keeping to their word limit (also never long enough). Books are commercial products, and although we could easily have written twice the amount for Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England (called Jane Austen’s England in the US), the publisher knows what will sell. As authors, we have to make tough decisions on what to include.
What’s the best part of your job? Writing is a highly solitary occupation. We therefore greatly appreciate the interaction with readers and reviewers once a book is published. Especially enjoyable are the live events such as radio interviews and talks at literary festivals. Every Q&A session is different, with really interesting questions from the audience.
What is your particular expertise? We have always aimed to be general historians and archaeologists, coming to a new subject with a totally open mind and without any prejudices. After writing books on archaeology and ancient history, we moved into history with The Keys of Egypt – about the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs in Napoleonic times. That research took us into naval history and finally to Jane Austen. As a result, we have been immersed in Georgian and Napoleonic times for nearly two decades.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? It is wonderful that the book has appealed to so many different groups of people, even more than we had dared hope for, including Jane Austen fans, historical fiction writers, family historians and naval history followers.
Do you have a favourite location? Anywhere by the sea – I hate being inland for too long. I was brought up by the sea, not far from HMS Victory, so that is one favourite location.
Do you collect anything? Books – proper physical books. We have thousands of them, and they pose a huge storage challenge.
Read my review of ‘Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England’ here.