My secret life: Monica Ali, novelist, 41

The home I grew up in ... is in Bolton, where I'm going to be giving a reading from my new novel shortly. Part of it is set in a fictional Lancashire mill town so it will be interesting to see what kind of response I get.

When I was a child I wanted to be ... inside the cover of a book. I don't remember wanting to be anything other than invisible.

My greatest inspirations ... are the great 19th-century novelists Zola, Tolstoy and Dickens, who engaged with the social issues of their day. Writing fiction doesn't change the world, but it can begin a conversation.

The moment that changed me for ever ... was having my first child. It made me want to write, as an escape from the otherwise all-consuming business of motherhood.

My real-life villain is ... reality television. Probably because it appeals to my baser instincts as much as anyone else's.

I ride/drive ... a smelly old Ford Focus.

If I could change one thing about myself ... it would be my insomniac tendencies. But then it's useful for getting a lot of work done.

At night I dream of ... When I do manage to sleep, I remember my dreams well. They're usually about characters in my novels and then I feel like I'm going a bit insane.

What I see when I look in the mirror ... is someone who needs more sleep. That's with my clothes on. With my clothes off I see stretchmarks and saggy bits – but as I'm 41 and have two children it's fair enough.

My style icon ... I've no idea. If in doubt, wear black – that's about as far as my fashion knowledge goes. Sometimes I break loose and wear brown.

The shop I can't walk past ... The local deli. I always need something from the deli.

A book that changed me ... If I had to pick one it would be 'The Owl Service' by Alan Garner, which my primary school teacher (thanks Mr McNulty!) gave me when I was aged nine or 10. It turned me into a serious reader.

The last album I bought ... was 'Technique' by New Order, in a fit of nostalgia.

The person who really makes me laugh ... is my friend Kim, without whom life would be much duller.

It's not fashionable but I like ... riding. It's something I've started in the last couple of years, though I would never have thought of myself as a horsey type. I love it. It's a brilliant way to see the countryside.

My favourite work of art ... is Holbein's portrait of Sir Thomas More. It's such a wonderful character study.

My favourite item of clothing ... is a black dress which I bought for the premiere of 'Brick Lane' at the Toronto Film Festival. It's very girly with sparkly bits and I take it out of the wardrobe sometimes and wish I had a reason to wear it again.

You may not know it but I'm very good at ... yoga, which I've been doing for almost 20 years. Actually, I'm not particularly "good" at it. It's just something I need to do.

You may not know it but I'm no good at ... competitive sport. I can never see the point.

All my money goes on ... taxis. I love conversations with cab drivers. The last one had a copy of 'Homage to Catalonia' on his dashboard so we talked about that. Then he told me about working as a dishwasher in a hotel in France.

If I have time to myself ... I read.

My house ... is on several levels. It gives the impression that I could sneak off to my study and be undisturbed even when there are other people in the house. It hasn't happened yet.

My most valuable possession is ... my laptop. I can't imagine being without one.

My favourite building ... is the Flatiron Building in New York. I like its combination of classicism and modernity.

Movie heaven ... is watching an old film in the afternoon when I should really be doing something more constructive. I watched 'Dog Day Afternoon' a couple of weeks ago which felt appropriate enough.

The best invention ever ... Is it the wheel?

I wish I'd never worn ... I've worn my share of bad outfits but it doesn't keep me awake at night.

In 10 years' time, I hope to be ... still learning my craft.

My greatest regret ... is not being able to sing.

My life in six words ... The only one I'll ever have.

A life in brief

The novelist Monica Ali was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1967. Her controversial debut novel, 'Brick Lane', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2003, and was later adapted into an award-winning film. She lives in south London with her husband and their two children Felix and Shumi. Her latest book, 'In the Kitchen', is published by Doubleday, £17.99