SUE GEE'S NINTH NOVEL BEGINS: "There they go, two women of 60, making their way through the wet towards the car." The words, which open Reading In Bed, came unbidden to her one evening after a bookshop event in Stoke Newington, when she saw two women, clearly old friends, leaving and heading through the rain to their car.
"All my novels start with a very small thing. So I thought, 'That's not a bad opening line. I'm just going to sit down and try it,' and it gave me the voice for the book," she says.
"Reading In Bed is written from a very unsettled perspective - you are never quite sure who is saying, 'There they go...', but that quirky opening line freed me up. So I really let myself go and the authorial voice is, I hope, very individual. I thought, 'I'm going to have fun with this and really write my heart out,' which I always do anyway - but I did enjoy the wryness of this unnamed narrator."
Reading In Bed is an insightful, witty book about life and literature, friendship and love, families and bereavement, children and old age. It's about nice people to whom some nasty things happen and sometimes it's unbearably moving. Books are at the heart of it, though - indeed, Dido and the recently widowed Georgia have been to Hay-on-Wye literary festival and are preparing to go home when we meet them. The book follows a year in their lives, through the seasons of the year and the seasons of the heart.
Beside Dido's bed there's a heap of books: "Hard to say which, in their full lives, have been more important: books or people. They have flowed into one another, for all of them: she and Jeffrey, Georgia and Henry - each in different ways has had reading at the heart of everything, touching and defining everything, a ceaseless inner life so rich it's hard to say where life and literature begin and end." And the grieving Georgia thinks of all that mattered to her and her late husband: "Books. Writing. Quietude."
Gee, herself now in her late fifties, dedicates her novel to her late husband, Marek Meyer. They were married for more than half her life; he died two years ago - and she misses him dreadfully.
"I still find it very hard to accept the reality of his death," she says. "I've moved house, from our family home in Stoke Newington to Highbury Fields, and I've unpacked all his books - like Georgia in my novel. Just in case. So, if he did come back, then he would see them there on the shelves. I'm OK, but coming to terms with it is hard. Getting rid of the smallest thing that belonged to Marek feels like a betrayal, as Joan Didion writes of losing her husband in The Year of Magical Thinking. So, yes, my own experience very much informed this book, although I really didn't want to write about a widow who finds another man. The fact is that when something like this happens to you in later life, you do have come to terms with the fact that probably you're going to live alone. There are good things about that - but there's always the shred of the life you might have had together. I wanted to be true to that."
If there were any justice in the world of contemporary literature, Gee would be a household name. As it is, this quietly gifted novelist's books remain a peculiarly private pleasure. It's not that Gee does not get favourably reviewed. Her last book, The Mysteries of Glass, long-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction, had the Independent critic raving about "writing of surpassing beauty". Previous novels have seen reviewers comparing her to early Iris Murdoch.
Nor has Gee gone unrecognised by her peers. Her book The Hours of the Night controversially won the 1997 Romantic Novel of the Year award. It was controversial, partly because the book had been reviewed as a literary novel, but mostly because two of the lovers are gay. "Not unexpectedly, perhaps," says Gee, "Barbara Cartland was horrified."
In 2002 Thin Air was also nominated for the award, about which, Gee points out, some people can get quite sniffy. "When irony is the dominant literary mode of the age, it's easy to dismiss the romantic genre as frivolous and inconsequential. Romance has always had to fight to prove its credentials," she believes, adding that in today's world there are no happy endings.
But while Gee's books may be unashamedly romantic and sensual, they are also well crafted and written with great economy. Slyly, she contrives to subvert the genre into something fresh and new.
The Mysteries of Glass (2004), for example, is a beautiful, redemptive book, which begins in the bleak midwinter of 1860 with the arrival of a young curate at his first parish in a rural community. The past has always intrigued Gee and in 2000 she wrote Earth and Heaven, a lyrical novel about English art, set in the wake of the First World War.
Gee is reading for a PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia, which she has to complete by the end of this year. Meanwhile, she's been passing on her own knowledge, having been running the hugely successful MA writing programme at Middlesex University for a dozen years. It has produced four published novelists and several award-winners, most notably the 2005 Romantic Novelist of the Year, Katharine Davies. She plans to leave the post next year, having recently been awarded a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship.
"Fiction is my life," she says. "It started when I was very small. I was always telling myself stories, rather like Penelope Lively, who once said that as a child she was 'possessed by narrative'. I certainly was.
"I started telling myself stories when I was about ten. I was a country child [she grew up on a remote farm in Devon], so I had a lot of freedom as children can't have now. I walked around the lanes a lot, dreaming of stories. For me, nothing is ever quite real until it's translated into fiction.
"I've always fictionalised my own life. I remember PD James saying that as a child she would be watching herself and thinking, 'And she got up in the morning and she got dressed ...' I was like that, pushing myself and my life and everything that happened to me into the frame of a fiction. I was a great reader, too, completely nourished by books. This is perhaps why the world I'm in while writing is much more real to me than real life."
Today, Gee divides her time between her London home and a sequestered country retreat folded away in a corner of the borders of Herefordshire and Wales - it's the house in which the hero of The Mysteries of Glass lives. It's also a tranquil place which she finds "almost enchanted".
After she's finished a novel, Gee likes to return to the countryside. "I wrote most of Reading In Bed there last summer; then I like to go back and sit there quietly. Silence is very important to me because I like writing about quietness. When I finished Mysteries, I sat there thinking, 'Cherish this moment,' because these people I'd created were living there." Of course, they all had to move out eventually to make room for her next set of characters.
"I do think I'm getting into a bit of a pattern with my books. I seem to be alternating the contemporary with the historical. But The Mysteries of Glass is the furthest I've gone into the past. As soon as I'd finished it I knew the next book - Reading In Bed, of which I'd had an intimation a few years earlier - would be absolutely contemporary. Now, I'm thinking about my next book, but I'm also writing short stories, some of which are set in the past."
Certainly, if Sue Gee were never to create anything else - she's also written a radio play for the BBC - her back catalogue alone should gain her the recognition she deserves.
Formerly deputy fiction editor at Woman magazine, she didn't begin writing until she was 30. She gave up her job to have Jamie, now 24. When he was a baby she began her first novel, Spring Will Be Ours, set in Poland during the Second World War (Marek was the son of Polish resistance fighters), tapping it out on the battered Adler typewriter on which she's written all her novels. She bought the machine for 50 when she left Woman. It sits in her study, with its orderly clutter of books. She told me a couple of years ago that she was devastated that Tipp-Ex was being discontinued. "I've managed to buy the last nine bottles," she said, gleefully, sighing that she dreaded the day when the typewriter ribbon is no more.
"I use a computer for my work at Middlesex, of course," she says. "And I've begun writing short stories on it. It's just the idea of fiction on a small screen that I've found it difficult to cope with. But I really think I shall have to."
• Reading in Bed by Sue Gee is published by Review, priced 18.99. Sue Gee is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Thursday 16 August.