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Clare Moresland was a tiny woman, under 5ft, but she used to wear these enormous stilettos. The effect was of an intellect walking on stilts

I went to a village school where the teachers were really just violent childminders. Our teacher was a ginger creature with bristling hair and prominent shinbones. My first impression was that she was insane and I remember my days there as a time of dull terror.

My last couple of years in primary consisted of working my way through things called general progress papers. It was all join the dots and fill in the gaps, but they never got marked. I couldn't read but neither could any of the other children and it was a wearisome uphill trail in the company of Dick and Dora, and Dick and Dora's dog and cat, who were called Nip and Fluff. I counted the days until I could get out.

We had all been told we were so dumb we'd never pass 11-plus but I was determined to do so. When I passed I remember the feeling of being transported into a different element.

The summer of my 11th birthday was transformative because we left behind my real father. He, my mother and my stepfather had all been living together, but we went off to the town where my new school was without my father. When I arrived, an amount of snobbery and gossip trailed after me because I'd taken my stepfather's surname. Also, I was behind. These children hadn't done general progress papers; they'd done history and geography, that kind of thing.

In my second year the teacher came along. Her name was Clare Moresland.

She's a tiny woman, under 5ft, but she used to wear these enormous stilettos; the effect was of an intellect walking on stilts. She would come into the classroom and start talking like a university lecturer. You learned to take notes and listen.

She appreciated that I was quite adept with language, and although she was not one to say words of encouragement - she was not warm in her manner - she took you seriously. She brought history to life for me, particularly the French revolution, giving a sense of the ferment of ideas that people lived through. My first novel, A Place of Greater Safety, is about the revolution.

There were battles going on at home, partly because I thought my stepfather a militant philistine. At 13, I had to choose to take either history or chemistry at O-level and my stepfather insisted I should do chemistry. But when Mrs Moresland heard she said, "Over my dead body". So I felt able to ignore my parents.

I went to the LSE to read law but my family had fallen out with me and they refused to make up my grant, so by the end of the first year I couldn't afford to find a place to stay in London. I transferred to Sheffield University where my boyfriend was studying.

I started writing after university as my health was falling apart with endometriosis and I thought it was a way I could make an impression on the world. I was 22 when I began A Place of Greater Safety and 40 when it was published, but I had other novels published in the meantime. I married Gerald McEwen in 1971 and when he got a job in Botswana in 1977 I worked there as an English teacher and later, in the 1980s, we went to Saudi Arabia and I coached Women's University students in my home.

Just before going to Botswana I went to see Mrs Moresland and took my manuscript for A Place of Greater Safety. I wanted to say, "Look at this, it's where it all led". Through her I learned the valuable lesson that you can take on a seemingly impossible subject and make it tractable. I remember around the three-quarter point wanting to throw my pen down, thinking I will never be able to present this very complex material, but I did and by conquering the difficulties I developed confidence.

We got back in touch soon after the book was published. It was a proud moment for me to be able to send her a copy. She wrote me a wonderful letter. I hope I shall hear from her again.

Novelist Hilary Mantel was talking to Angela Neustatter

The story so far

1952 Born Hadfield, Derbyshire

1957 St Charles Borromeo primary

1963 Harrytown Convent, Romiley, Cheshire

1970 London School of Economics then Sheffield University

1973 Works in the social work department at St Thomas's Hospital, Stockport

1974 Begins A Place of Greater Safety

1977 Teaches English in Botswana

1982 Coaches students in Saudi Arabia

1985 First novel Every Day is Mother's Day is published

1987 Wins the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize

1992 A Place of Greater Safety published

2004 Autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost: a memoir, published

2005 Latest novel, Beyond Black, published by Fourth Estate

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