Stuart Macbeth talks to the award-winning Oxfordshire artist and author

Award winning author and artist Roma Tearne, now 61, was born in Sri Lanka but left in 1964 due to civil unrest. “My mother was heartbroken about leaving. We came on a boat, through the monsoon. It took us 21 days to reach Britain. I hadn’t a clue what was going on.”

Moving to Brixton, she remembers: “I was only 10 but I thought it was wonderful. I went into the local school and it was so nice to look out of the window and not have to see people being burned alive on the streets outside.”

Now dividing her time between Tuscany and her home in Oxford where she has lived since 1982 with her husband and three children, she traces her ambition to be a writer back to her childhood near Mount Lavinia.

“From the age of about five I was writing stories in cheap exercise books that my father brought home from work,” she reminisces. “Around this time I announced rather grandly that I would become a writer when I grew up!”

What memories does she have of those years? “It was idyllic. But for years my past got buried. So when my mother died it stirred it all up for me and I had a longing to get back. That’s when I wrote my first novel, Mosquito, because the only way I could move forward was to write about it.

Mosquito was nominated for the Costa First Novel Award in 2007 and her novels, mostly set in Sri Lanka, have so far been translated into six languages.

“After five novels about Sri Lanka and my memories, I felt I had sort of laid a ghost to rest,” Roma explains. “I lost any interest in the place. I had to get rid of certain things to do with the place I was born. It is difficult to explain but I have thought about going back, and I’m not that fussed.”

Alongside her writing Roma is an acclaimed artist who trained at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford: “I keep endless sketchbooks. And all my novels have materialised from visual imagery of some kind. I suppose I see the story before I write it.

“I’ve made paintings which have sold really well. I have experimented with photography, film and some installation work. But all the time I was searching for something else. It was only when I began seriously writing that I felt my search was over. “ Her latest novel, The Last Pier, was published last month and Roma says it stands apart from her earlier work: “The Last Pier is all about England at the outbreak of the war, partly set in Suffolk, partly in Italy.

“I have wanted for many years to write a novel steeped in the English countryside in a part of the world I know and love. I have wanted to depict the England that is receding, but I also love the period of the Second World War. That really is where my heart lies.”

The Last Pier was inspired by a photograph dating from the 1940s which Roma found by chance in a second-hand shop. And by the story of the Arandora Star, a ship torpedoed by a German submarine in 1940. Nearly all on board died “I came upon this tragic story one summer while staying with my family in Lunigiana in Tuscany, because many of the victims were from that area.

“Although we had been coming to this part of Italy for more than 15 years I had never heard of the Arandora Star and her ill-fated journey. I decided to investigate and discovered why this story had remained a secret.

“The trail led me to a curious bilingual village called Brato. There I met an old man who told me the story again, but this time from the point of view of a small, bewildered boy growing up in wartime England. His father, together with other relatives, had perished on the ship, so, in later life, he had returned to his family’s village.

“When I said my goodbyes I noticed my elderly friend was crying silently. He asked me if by any chance I might tell his story before he died. He was in his eighties, blind, and in poor health, but the events of that time were still very clear in his mind.

“It is impossible to fully describe the sense of fulfilment when I work on, and finally finish, a novel like The Last Pier. It gives me back the past, the lost years of exile, the memories of place.”

The novel was initially picked up Hesperus Press. But, following a staff walkout, it took a public campaign on Twitter to bring the book’s plight to the attention of new publisher, Gallic Books.

“I had been so fed up” she reveals. “But luckily people took to Twitter. Eventually Gallic Books contacted me, asking ‘does your book want saving, and if so can we help?’. I got the rights back, and the book was published on August 17.”

This year has also been notable for Roma’s work as writer in residence at the Imperial War Museum.

“While I was working there I found a document in the archives that was staggering. It was written by an ambulance man who went out with the Red Cross to one of the concentration camps in Germany.

“He had written a letter, I don’t know who it was addressed to, saying that when the Red Cross took out the food boxes to give to the prisoners they brought out one box filled with little packets of lipstick. All red.

“They gave the lipstick to the women in the camps because the woman from the Red Cross said ‘we are giving them their femininity back’.

“Some of the women died, clutching this red lipstick with the colour smudged over their lips.”

So is she enjoying her residency? “The IMW is a treasure trove, I don’t know why people don’t use it more often.”