Tales of Scarlett woman

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THAT the best author you may not have heard of should feature alongside heavyweights Norman Mailer and Alice Munro at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival shows the organisers really know their literary onions.

For while she may not appear on any bestseller-lists yet, over the past few years Scarlett Thomas has forged a career that has gathered pace with each new novel, without ever compromising her idiosyncratic style.

"A big, sprawling adventure story," is how the author of Bright Young Things and PopCo describes her latest offering, The End of Mr Y. "It's about a graduate student who discovers a cursed book from the 1890s," explains Thomas.

"He reads it, gets cursed, has a lot of dirty sex and has to take advice from an eight-foot mouse god while running away, through another dimension, from two ex-CIA agents.

"It's got Derrida and Baudrillard in it, and some 19th-century polymaths - real and invented," she adds.

Just released by local publishing house Canongate, the sixth novel from the 36-year-old Londoner is already coming in for some remarkable praise from her peers.

"A masterpiece . . . A brilliant, engaging story that in the end makes you rethink the nature of existence and the true structure of the world," gushed cult Generation X novelist Douglas Coupland.

Phillip Pullman, meanwhile, called the book "Ingenious and original . . . a cracking good yarn that's fizzing with intelligence."

No faint praise, certainly, but where on earth does Thomas get her wayward ideas from?

"I do have hundreds of ideas," she explains, "but increasingly I'm finding that all the ideas I have in, say, a year, are all part of the same book - perhaps a really lame idea is actually a story-within-a-story that's lame for a reason.

"The protagonist I'm writing at the moment is a sci-fi writer, so all the crappy little sci-fi ideas I have are being passed straight on to her, for her to either use or reject as she sees fit."

Like so many writers, Thomas knew she wanted a literary career early - she was, in fact, just 14 when the writing bug bit.

"When I was at my weird boarding school letters were the only real way of communicating with the outside world," she recalls. "There was no real access to television or magazines, so I used to sit around in the evenings imagining a better life or scribbling down angsty thoughts and ideas.

"When I took exams for the first time I found you could write quite bad answers in impressive language and get away with it, so that certainly gave me a reason to use my writing skills.

" I have always read a lot, too, except for one period when I was a teenager and 'too busy'. I think that, very often, a love of reading leads to a love of writing."

Thomas's first big exposure came at the turn of the millennium when she and a bunch of young English writers, led by the novelists Matt Thorne and Nicholas Blincoe, banded together under the name the New Puritans and produced both a manifesto and an anthology of short stories to back it up.

Then, in 2001, the Independent named her as one of the 20 Best Young Writers, and the following year she won the Best New Writer award at the Elle Style Awards.

Given that she describes herself as "the kind of bookish person who gets drunk and then wants to talk about how reading Hamlet is like looking into the void," it's hardly surprising that Thomas shunned the high fashion magazine's glitzy awards ceremony.

"I refused to go to the fancy Elle Awards bash because I realised that however long I took over my hair etc, I just wouldn't be able to compete with the level of styling that would be in evidence there," she smiles.

"I imagined some kind of pen or run for the few artsy people there who weren't 'real' celebs, and could just see the Sugarbabes looking at me and my ilk condescendingly, wondering why we hadn't had our split ends done."

What's a girl to do then? Thomas sent her agent to collect the award on her behalf instead.

"He still hasn't forgiven me," she laughs. "He sent me the award in a jiffy bag a few days later. My editor (at the time) went too, and had a pee next to Gareth Gates."

Although she gets nervous performing in public, Thomas is looking forward to her live reading in Edinburgh.

"It's taken me a few years to realise that book events are not the same as job interviews," she says. "It really is far better to just be yourself than worry about giving a particular impression.

"Not that I like all the personality-driven stuff very much. I'd rather be completely in the background or even do a Pynchon, but I guess it's part of the job nowadays."

Thanks to her extraordinary story-telling ability, it's a job she's rather good at.

• Scarlett Thomas, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Charlotte Square Gardens, 7.30pm, August 21, 5, 0845-373 5888