You’ve said the setting of your novel came to you in a dream.
Yes, a dream about a country house. It seemed as if I’d been there in some metaphysical way, and the house seemed like a present to me as a writer. So I asked myself, “Who was in it?” That got me started with Sterne [the house].
But the initial tone of the book is more comic than dreamlike.
The book starts as an Edwardian love comedy; I was thinking of Shakespeare and plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream with their chamber music symmetry. But then I wanted to turn the table over and mess it up a bit, subvert the story.
What about the family who owns Sterne, the Torringtons? They’re not “to the manor born.”
I read somewhere that Britain has more movement through the socioeconomic classes than almost anywhere, which is surprising. The Torringtons are not upper-class people, and they are clinging to their home. They’re not terrible people, but they’re not the nicest people you’ve ever met. I like them.
The Uninvited Guests is a departure for you, isn’t it?
My other two books [The Outcast; Small Wars] were set in the 1950s, and the new one has an entirely different voice. It luxuriates in its language. And it’s fun putting in sex and people behaving badly.
What kind of research did you do?
To walk in the air of the period a bit, I read Vita Sackville-West and E.M. Forster and John Buchan.
You were a screenwriter for years before turning to novels. Are you still connected to the film world?
My father was a screenwriter, but he was also a novelist. I think very visually, and I just never thought I had a novel in me. I think of screenwriting as an apprenticeship, and I was learning to tell stories. I’m doing the script for The Outcast, and I’m quite brutal about it: “Oh, that can go.” There have been nibbles and flirts about a movie version of The Uninvited Guests. I’d be happy with anything that would continue its life.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just started novel number four. It’s a bit wobbly, and I’m only on page 14. It’s a completely different period, and I’ve taken off my lighthearted hat. The start’s the worse.