I was born in Hampshire in 1945 and spent my childhood in Gosport, and then in Alsager in Cheshire. I read English at Magdalene College, Cambridge and during my third year married Jo. We have two children, William and Helen.
I did a PhD on the social thinking of the New England Transcendentalists at Exeter University, and spent two years as an American Council of Learned Societies Fellow at Harvard (much later that research became the basis for my book Transcendental Utopias).
When we came back to the UK I took up a post as lecturer in American literature at Manchester University, and we lived in Stockport for many years, the setting for a number of my novels (though I sometimes call it Costford). My first novel, Blackpool Vanishes, was published in 1979. So far I have published eleven novels and four books of non-fiction.
We lived in Shropshire for three years (I commuted to Manchester), spent a year in Libya (I taught at the University of Tripoli while on unpaid leave from Manchester) and another in the States (where I was an exchange professor at the University of Missouri).
During my time at Missouri I had the chance to do some creative writing teaching and when I returned to the American Studies department at Manchester University in the late eighties, I began giving undergraduate workshops in tandem with the poet and publisher Michael Schmidt, who lectured in the English department. In 1993 we set up an MA in Novel Writing. From 1999 to 2009 I was Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, where I taught on the MA and supervised PhDs in creative writing.
Nowadays I alternate between writing novels and non-fiction (biographies and works about the history of American culture). I have also written for TV and radio and been a regular contributor to, and presenter of, arts programmes on Radio 3 and 4.
Jo works with me on the research for my non-fiction books, and also writes poetry. We live in Bath and spend as much time as we can in our house in southwest France. Our son William is a literary agent with Janklow and Nesbit in London and Helen, our daughter, is a commissioning editor for literary fiction at Head of Zeus. One of my brothers is the poet, novelist and critic, Matthew Francis.
I have received awards to assist me in my writing from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Arts Council, the Arts and Humanities Research Board, and the British Academy. Most recently I have held a Hodson-Brown Fellowship, enabling me to do research at the John Carter Brown Library of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and to work on my novel, Crane Pond, at the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. In 2011 my book The Old Spring was voted Best Foreign Novel of the Year by the Chinese Association of Foreign Literature.
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