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Monica Ali: 'I wear the same smelly pyjamas again and again; it's revolting'

Before I start work on a novel I get to know the characters in my head I live with them for a while, as I did with Nazneen and Chanu in Brick Lane; hearing their voices, listening to them talk to one another.

Writers are children who never grew up Kids are naturally inventive and curious and creative, but most adults have had that beaten out of them. Writing is a form of play; you have to get rid of all those internal censors that we adults have, the things that say, "Don't go there, that's not allowed."

People always want to identify a writer with their protagonist The first time it happened with me and my Brick Lane character, I was surprised when people started asking "Is it really you?" It's as if all the best novels must be some thinly disguised autobiography, which is total rubbish, but I see where it comes from: writers are similar to their books. So whether a book has a big warm heart or if it's prickly and misanthropic, it's a reflection of the author's personality. It took a few years on the literary festival circuit before that dawned on me.

If we dwelt on the happy times as much as low points, we'd all be a lot better adjusted But it's easier to notice when you're unhappy. And in fiction, sadness is easier to write about. Someone said, "Happiness writes white; it leaves no mark on the page." I always try to create conflict and drama in my books; it's the engine of the novel.

Change starts with you People don't get involved with local charities or politics because they think it's hard to make a difference and the problem feels overwhelming. But I believe that if all I've time for this year is to write one letter to the local council, it's still worth doing.

Twitter is like sitting in a café on the edge of a town square Sometimes you look up and see someone you know or notice someone new. I've only just joined and I'm really enjoying it – sharing links to articles with fellow authors, or posting about publishing. It could prove distracting when I start writing my next book, though.

I'm lost to the world when I'm writing It's an altered state which I love experiencing; all the day-to-day things fall away. I don't hear the doorbell go, I don't notice the phone ringing and I even wear the same smelly pyjamas again and again – they're just there by the side of the bed and I put them on again when I get up each morning, which is revolting.

We still long for another Princess Diana I'm fascinated by the way people keep comparing Kate [Middleton] with her. Kate seems like a nice person, but Diana, she was a one-off, a mesmerising figure who broke the mould. To me, she was this warm-hearted, empathetic woman who, while deeply troubled, refused to be told what to do, putting two fingers up to the establishment. I'll be watching the wedding, though; what people want is a happy ending this time.

My family can drive me nuts But the older I get the more I appreciate how important they are to me. My kids get to grow up around their cousins, while grandparents bring a calmer perspective to their lives. Last year I was away teaching in New York for six months, and I wouldn't have been able to do that without the whole family helping out.

The more I practise Ashtanga Yoga, the saner I feel My mind is rarely still, so it's a chance for me to be entirely focused on just my breath and the moment, rather than the myriad other things going on in my life.

Monica Ali, 43, is an author. 'Untold Story' (Doubleday, £16.99), a novel inspired by Princess Diana, is out on 31 March and can be pre-ordered now on amazon.co.uk and waterstones.com