1. Eco tomboy

Debbie Taylor in her tomboy daysAs a child I was a tomboy; I even gave myself a boy’s name. And I vowed in writing – aged 9 – that I would never wear make-up or get married, that I would have a monkey as a pet, and the only vehicles I’d ever own would be a bicycle and a Land Rover.

I was mad about nature and spent hours wandering the woods on my own, often sneaking out secretly in the middle of the night. This makes me sound rather angst-ridden, and I was. But I was also restless and energetic and – as the eldest of four – incorrigibly bossy.

There were few books in our house; perhaps that’s why it took several false starts before I turned to writing. Here’s what the teachers at my convent school thought of me…

Aged 8: ‘Deborah’s written compositions show original ideas, well expressed’
Aged 12: ‘Deborah can do well, but is easily distracted’
Aged 14: ‘Deborah should employ more of her abundant energy for useful work’

2. Monkey business

debbie-taylor-graduationI studied psychology at University College London; on the personality test I took at the time I scored at the extremes for both neuroticism and extraversion (aka angst-ridden and bossy).

Graduating with a first (and channelling Vera Lynn in eye-liner, mascara and platform heels), I was set to embark on a market research career at Unilever when a volunteer stint at the Woolly Monkey Sanctuary in Cornwall turned my life upside down. Run by a ‘group family’ led by Marxist patriarch Leonard Williams, the Sanctuary challenged everything I’d come to believe, and put me back in touch with the eco tomboy in me. It turned out that, without realising it, I had been a feminist all along.

I stopped wearing make-up, chucked away my bra and high heels, resigned from Unilever, bought that bicycle and signed on for a PhD in brain hemisphere function.

3. Out of Africa

house-in-botswanaMy second U-turn came when I was working as a research fellow studying frontal lobe brain function at the National Hospital for Nervous Diseases in London. On being offered a permanent job, I resigned and went to Africa. I loved being a psychologist, but I knew if I stayed I would never be anything else – and by then I wanted to be a writer.

Clutching the coat-tails of my development economist partner, I went to Botswana for two years, where we lived in a couple of mud huts on the edge of the Kalahari Desert and drove a Land Cruiser (far easier to manoeuvre than a Land Rover).

While there I wrote the first draft of a novel about a woman with a brain tumour – and learnt a great deal about what used to called ‘third world development’. I was also initiated into the local Batlokwa tribe following a month-long traditional initiation process.

4. Global hackette

dt-on-karpathosBack in the UK, I wrote about that initiation for the Guardian, joined a women’s group, co-founded a housing co-operative – and started working at New Internationalist, an award-winning magazine about social issues, based in Oxford.

I was there for six years, working on the magazine itself, but also researching third world issues for the BBC and Channel 4, and compiling accessible ‘global reports’ for United Nations organisations such as UNICEF, UNFPA, WHO – one of which was published as a book, Women: A World Report (Methuen).

Though my brain tumour novel had been abandoned, I started experimenting with ‘new journalism’, applying fictional techniques to non-fiction. So when commissioned to write a factual reports about Thailand and Zimbabwe for WHO, I delivered a book of short stories (A Tale of Two Villages, WHO/New Internationalist) and my debut novel, The Children who Sleep by the River (Allison and Busby) – both based on true events and painstaking fieldwork and written in a genre I think of as ‘documentary fiction’.

I wrote the novel living alone in a rented house, inaccessible by car, on the Greek island of Karpathos, where I learned to gut fish, apply gesso, and communicate in a mixture of wild gestures, Greek and Italian.

5. Impossible conception

dt-with-izzieAt this point I was working freelance, writing about women’s and health issues for UNICEF, Anti Slavery International, IPPF, Oxfam and others – and trying for a baby with the poet WN Herbert, who I met at a martial arts class. Four years, three miscarriages, and two failed IVF attempts later, we gave up trying and I set off around the world on my own, to research a narrative non-fiction book about single mothers (My Children, My Gold, Virago).

On my travels I underwent traditional infertility treatments in China, Uganda, Brazil and India – and conceived our daughter Izzie on the day I returned to the UK.

6. To the lighthouse

The Old Highlight, South ShieldsHaving a baby brought my globetrotting to an end. We relocated to the North East, where I started work on my second novel (The Fourth Queen, Penguin) and raised funds for a new magazine for women writers, Mslexia.

Little has changed since. I’m still editing Mslexia, still writing novels, still living with the poet and the daught – but along the way we have acquired a decommissioned lighthouse (with a blue plaque!) at the mouth of the Tyne, two antisocial cats, an organic allotment, and a ramshackle cottage in the mountains of Crete.

One of the main characters in my latest novel, Herring Girl (Oneworld), lives in our lighthouse as it was when we first bought it: damp and unmodernised, with a small spring bubbling away in the foundations.