'I'm a writer. I've come to terms with that'

Gaynor Arnold tells James Kidd about her late career change, and how a Booker nomination can change your life

When Gaynor Arnold hit the headlines in 2008, the headlines went something like this: "Sixty-three-year-old social worker makes big splash with debut novel".

The novel in question was Girl in a Blue Dress, a thinly veiled retelling of Charles Dickens's marriage narrated by his jilted wife, Catherine, that was longlisted for two prestigious literary prizes – the Man Booker and the Orange.

It was a great story: think Rocky retold by Alan Bennett. In fact, the only person who seems immune to its charms is Arnold herself. "At first, I was absolutely flabbergasted by the interest. Then I realised that of the 13 people on the Booker longlist, only three were women. I was unknown, a social worker and not in the first flush of youth: those were my unique selling points." She pauses. "'Sixty three-year-old social worker' – I got a bit fed up with that."

Two years on, Arnold has published her second book, a short-story collection entitled Lying Together. So, what is the story this time? Has success changed her? Has she failed to adjust to her new life? Or has her sudden flash of fame made no difference whatsoever? The answer combines a little of each.

We meet in Birmingham, where Arnold has lived for 35 years. She chooses the pleasingly 19th-century atmosphere of the Birmingham and Midland Institute in the city's private library. "It has a card index," she notes wistfully. The headline this time could read: "Admired novelist retires from social work." After 40 years, Arnold stepped down in 2009. "I'm a writer now. I think I have finally come to terms with that."

In many respects, the transition has been smooth. Arnold certainly looks and acts the part: dressed in an elegant black outfit and mustard coloured cardigan, she poses happily for pictures. But this newfound literary identity is not without its pressures. Unknown no longer, Arnold feels the weight of anticipation surrounding her new book. "I have terrible cold feet. People expect things after last time." One writer friend said her readers might be quite shocked, because Lying Together is so different from Girl in a Blue Dress.

Written over a number of years, its 15 stories explore many scenarios, moods and characters. Some are historical: "Looking for Leslie Howard" narrates a tentative romance on the eve of World War Two. But rather more occur in the recent past, and explore the inner lives of ordinary people: "Salad Days" offers a deceptively terrifying tale of alcoholism and domestic violence; the double-header "Mouth" and "Angel Child" relates a disastrous mother-daughter relationship from each party's perspective.

As these contemporary plots imply, Arnold hasn't entirely left social work behind. Her conversation is often liveliest when discussing her former job, and her imagination continues to be fired by the people and situations she encountered professionally. "I hadn't particularly thought that the stories came out of my social work experience, until I saw them all together in a collection."

It is tempting, probably too tempting, to read Lying Together in terms of Arnold's own recent past: many of the stories confront the crises that follow lives ground to a halt or bereft of fresh inspiration. In Arnold's case, this moment arrived shortly after she turned 40, and was balancing a stressful job with raising a family. "I remember having a bit of a moan to an old university friend. We were wondering what we had done with our lives. My friend asked me what I really wanted to do. I said write. It became a lovely reaction to the rest of my life."

This desire wasn't so much a revelation as a return to first principles. Born in Cardiff to working-class parents, Arnold says she was naturally imaginative. As a child, she was a prodigious playwright. "I wrote about girls' schools and people falling down glaciers, that sort of thing." After Arnold's father died when she was 11 (the moving story "Heart Trouble" is based on this experience), her mother did two jobs to support her daughter's creative ambitions.

Arnold became the first member of her family to go to university, reading English at Oxford, but her aspiration to be a writer vanished when she caught the acting bug: she met her husband, Nicholas, during a production of Under Milk Wood, and worked with Christopher Hampton on his first play, When Did You Last See My Mother?

When she relocated to Exeter after graduation, to train as a social worker, her friends and family were baffled. "I had been educated at the tax payer's expense and social work was worthwhile," she explains. "It was very well thought of back then. You worked with people who wanted to be helped. You could stop a situation getting so bad it went to the courts." By contrast, the status and nature of the profession today has left her disillusioned. "If social work in 1969 was like the profession I left in 2009, I wouldn't have touched it with a bargepole."

Instead, Arnold seems genuinely delighted by her belated spell in the limelight: "Having been this humdrum person all my life, it's really quite nice." She talks in glowing terms about "connecting" with readers, and about collaborating with a group that uses fiction for therapeutic purposes. She is writing her second novel, returning to the 19th century and again examining one of its best known figures. (She is keeping the identity secret).

I ask whether Arnold has any regrets – about roads not taken, or not taken sooner. Only one, she says. "I left it a decade too late for my mother to see my success. She never understood why I chose social work and would have been extraordinarily proud. She would have loved to have bored all her friends about how wonderful I was."

From the story 'Telling Radnor' in Lying Together, By Gaynor Arnold (Tindal Street Press £12.99)

"This job's only meant to be temporary, just to tide me over after giving in my notice at the school. But I'm feeling the grass grow. I've done all the work he begged me to take on and I feel frustrated. I'm a mathematician, not a bookkeeper, but it's all numbers to Clive. He's doing well; he's got an eye for what he wanted. Meanwhile I'm stuck in the office like a lemon, getting sourer all the time. I keep telling myself it can't be for much longer."

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?