HW: Before settling in Oxford, you worked and travelled extensively in Africa. Is there any one place, experience or person who stands out in your memory from that time?
MP: No one single thing. My first experience of Africa was a year in Cameroon as a student. It's an enormously rich and varied place and one lesson it taught me was about how Eurocentric my view of the world was.
HW: My 3 years in Zimbabwe were probably the happiest of my Africa life - I was working in the countryside but had friends in Harare, so I got a real taste of both sides of Zimbabwean society, urban and rural.
I had over three years in Namibia, which was an incredible place for tourism - the oldest desert in the world, the highest sand dunes, some of the best wildlife viewing in Africa etc. One of my children was born there, so that's one experience which certainly stands out.
Probably the most interesting country I visited was Zaire (now Congo). It's a place of incredible contrasts. I met some wonderful people and was able to indulge one of my passions - listening to Congolese music.
HW: Have you always wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing? Would you like to be a full time writer?
MP: No, I haven't always wanted to be a writer. When I came back from Zimbabwe aged 27, I spent a year writing. I produced three manuscripts, two works of fiction and one an account of some travelling I'd done in Southern and Central Africa. They were all three undoubtedly unpublishable, but I think I wrote them as much for therapy as for anything else, a way of helping myself move on.
I started writing properly about 4 or 5 years ago. I had wanted to find a creative outlet, and I initially tried my hand at painting in oils. After a bit, I decided this wasn't enough and decided to try writing fiction. I didn't know what to write about, then had the idea to produce a short story based on, or inspired by each of my paintings. A year or so, and twenty-odd stories later, I felt ready to start on a novel.
I took a year's unpaid leave 2 years ago from the college where I work. During this time I finished 'Divinity Road' and wrote two further novels. It gave me an inkling of what it must be like to be a full-time writer. I'd help get the kids up and out to school each morning, then face the blank screen of the computer in an empty house. At times it was great, an incredible buzz, but I was also quite lonely, and I think someone like me with a limited imagination probably needs the stimulus of a life away from the writing in order to provide fodder and breathing space for the creative process. So, in answer to your question, I don't think I'd be a very good full-time writer. There's also the financial question - I'm sure very few writers make enough money to give up their day jobs.
HW: “Divinity Road” is your first published novel, but you began by writing short stories. Is this a natural progression or do you plan to continue writing in both formats?
MP: I do still write the occasional short story. I wrote one just before Christmas based on a conversation I overheard on the bus coming from Blackbird Leys into the city. If I get ideas for more, I'll certainly continue. Writing a novel is obviously a bigger slog - inevitably more complex - I guess it's the difference between fixing a snack and cooking a three course meal.
HW: Where did the idea for “Divinity Road” come from?
MP: It started with a recurring image I had in my mind as I fell asleep over a period of some months. I imagined waking up in a remote part of Africa, perhaps in a war zone, having survived a plane crash. I asked myself what I'd do in that situation, why I'd been travelling, how I'd feel, what I'd do next. That was the beginning, and once I'd created the Greg character, I fleshed out his history and along came the Nuala character. There was her journey of grief to explore.
At the same time, my work teaching asylum seekers and refugees at the FE College in Oxford has helped me understand a little of what they go through in their journeys and I wanted to explore this. I like the way writers like David Mitchell weave interconnecting narratives together and I wanted to do the same with Divinity Road, so creating Semira and Aman, and tying the threads of their stories to those of Greg and Nuala seemed like a good idea.
HW: Amongst other things, “Divinity Road” deals with the experience of asylum seekers and the development of an Islamist terrorist. These are potentially sensitive subjects. What prompted you to write about these topics and what sort of response have you had from readers?
MP: I've had only positive responses so far. My publisher was concerned that dealing with the issue of Islam - Kalil's corrupt interpretation and his success in exploiting Aman's mental vulnerability - could be emotive. I know a local Imam - a former student at my college - and asked him to read the book. He helped correct one or two minor theological points but overall he was very positive. He made the point that the Qur'an itself makes reference to 'Kalil'-types who poison the Qur'an's message and so create chaos.
HW: What are your plans for the future? I understand that you’ve written a number of other novels, including one about an Oxford five-a-side football team. Will we be seeing any of these in our bookshops before too long?
MP: I have three unpublished completed novels, one of which is, as you say, about a local five-a-side football team. I'd love to get them published so if you're a publisher reading this....