Michelle was born in Nyasaland (now Malawi), where her South African father ran the tiny Nyasaland Times, and her Belgian mother wrote a weekly gossip column. But the days of genteel colonial society were numbered, and in 1963 the family moved to England, where she was educated in Wimbledon and at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

There she read Biochemistry and also made her first serious attempts at writing: two Mills & Boon-type novels, written in a matter of weeks and summarily rejected (‘with good reason!’ she says), followed by a couple of children’s fantasy novels – also rejected, although more encouragingly.

By then she was in the grip of the writing bug. She even managed to ditch the usual final-year laboratory project in favour of a written thesis: simply because, as she admits, ‘I’d stumbled on a great story: Soviet genetics driven underground by an illiterate crony of Stalin’s. How could I resist?’

“I knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t think I’d be able to make a living at it…”
That got her a First, but by then she’d decided against a career in science. ‘I knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t think I’d be able to make a living at it, so I looked around for a day job: something that would pay the bills while giving me time to write. Like an idiot, I chose the Law. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. One rainy afternoon I was leafing through a careers brochure when I came across an article on being a solicitor. I thought, ‘that’ll give me a few years’ breathing space before it gets too demanding, so why not?’’

Of course it didn’t turn out quite like that.

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