There's far more to Kirsty Wark than Newsnight; she’s also a mother, a baker, and now, a writer. She tells Jaine Blackman about her debut novel, sexism in TV and her old pal Jeremy Paxman, who isn’t nearly as scary as he seems

If Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark had a pound for every long commute she’s made from Scotland to London and back during her broadcasting career, she’d be considerably richer.

The mother-of-two who still lives in her home town of Glasgow, makes the 900-mile train commute every week, sometimes staying in London or often returning to her Victorian mansion on the sleeper.

But then Wark has a strong sense of home – and that home is Scotland.

“I have lived in London, when I was a producer, but I always knew I was on a long elastic band and that I would come back.

“The truth of the matter is that I could live away somewhere for six months, but I couldn't ever leave Scotland. I have a strong sense of place and culture.”

Meeting her today, she's warm and friendly, far more genial than her gruff Newsnight counterpart, Jeremy Paxman.

“I used to work with Jeremy a lot on Breakfast Time but, of course, we'd never see each other because we did different days, but we’d have informal presenters’ ‘trade union’ meetings to discuss things,” she says, smiling.

Is he as scary as he seems?

“No, no, no. It’s the question I’m asked on every interview. He’s very generous and gentle, so he’s nothing like that persona, but then very few people are like their television personas.”

Wark, 59, is an extremely versatile journalist, one of a rare breed who can interrogate a government minister, then move on to an in-depth analysis of a new novel, play or film.

“Last week I went to London to do an advance interview with Debbie Harry. Newsnight can embrace all these things,” she enthuses.

“I’ve always been a person who believes that you should be able to mix and match politics, news and the arts. I went to Newsnight with the expectation that I’d be able to do all sorts of different things and so it has proved.”

Indeed, on Newsnight’s last Halloween edition, Wark ended BBC Two’s political flagship show by taking part in a Michael Jackson Thriller dance, along with a swarm of zombies. Never let it be said that she doesn’t have a sense of humour.

Now, she has turned her hand to fiction in her debut novel The Legacy Of Elizabeth Pringle, inspired by her love of the Scottish island of Arran, where it is set, and is set to speak at Oxford Literary Festival on Wednesday, March 26.

“There was a period a decade ago, when we’d had an incredibly wet holiday there and my husband said, ‘If we go on holiday, I need to go somewhere where I can get a little heat’, so we stopped going. But I wanted to maintain a connection with the island, and the best way to do that was to write about it,” she explains.

The novel is a gentle read in which the eponymous character, Elizabeth Pringle, leaves her house on Arran to a woman who is all but a stranger. It falls to the beneficiary’s daughter, Martha, to find out how her mother inherited the house.

From here, we follow two stories – the life of Elizabeth Pringle, born just before the First World War, told in the first person, and the quest by Martha in the present day to find out how her mother inherited the house.

The two stories are weaved separately and bring home the cruel consequences of the Great War, as well as the secrets that hold women together.

Wark is married to producer Alan Clements, whom she met while working at BBC Scotland, and they have two children, Caitlin and James, both in their 20s. Like Elizabeth in her book, she will not leave her roots.

“I’ve spent God knows how long commuting,” she says, sighing. Yet she has managed to balance the pressures of bringing up a family with holding down a top presenting job.

“I had a wonderful back-up team. I had a nanny who is a family friend and basically, I had the freedom not to be at work every day.

“I’ve been in an incredibly privileged position. It wasn’t as if I was leaving on Monday morning and coming back on Friday night. I would go down for a couple of days a week and then I’d be working in Glasgow. I still do.

“I also made a very strong decision that when the children were growing up, I would never take a weekend job.”

A keen baker, she has baked every weekend since her two children were small and has admitted it was as an antidote to the guilt she felt at being away a lot.

“I always have baked. It was a thing where I’d get into the kitchen and be with the kids. It was grounding.”

Her cookery skills came to the fore in 2011 when she came runner-up in Celebrity MasterChef, being pipped to the post by Phil Vickery. Then last year, she appeared in a special series of The Great British Bake Off.

Baking aside, at no stage did she consider ditching her career for full-time motherhood.

“There's no doubt I felt guilty [about leaving the children]. I was always selfish enough to know that I wanted a career, but then I hope I poured everything back in at home.

“On the other hand, I wanted to be a role model for my kids as well, to show that you can work and you can raise a family.”

She’s been in broadcasting for more than 35 years, yet doesn’t think it was any more difficult for women to rise up the ranks in TV in her early days than it is now.

“I rode on the crest of a wave as I joined the BBC when they needed more women,” she recalls. “They realised that they hadn’t nearly enough women.”

She doesn’t recall that her ascent into key presenting jobs caused consternation among her male counterparts.

“Weirdly – and I'm not going to say that there isn’t sexism in television – I didn’t have that problem. I’d like to hope that I got where I am because I’m half way decent at my job, as opposed to a gender thing.

“There are lots of challenges now [for women in TV]. There are lots of incredibly good broadcasters and I would say you need experience but you also need fresh talent. There are opportunities for women. Women are being less overlooked than perhaps they once were. Women are able to punch their weight now.”

Wark made her reputation challenging Margaret Thatcher in 1990 about the poll tax. The then Prime Minister had not wanted to face a woman, but the BBC insisted. It was one of those defining moments of an interviewer’s career.

As she nears 60, Wark shows no signs of slowing down and has recently said that age shouldn’t be a barrier to women in TV.

“If you try to keep to the top of your game, and if you are still doing good work, then age shouldn't be a barrier. It’s not a barrier for men. Dimbleby’s in his 70s,” she has said.

She’s currently writing her next novel, set in Scotland and New York, which again has family relationships at its heart.

She says she’s still hugely ambitious, although she questions how that is perceived.

“Ambition is often seen as a great thing in men and a bad thing in women. I want to continue to do good work in television and radio and I really want to write another book,” she says.

“Let’s hope I don’t have to give up one for the other.”

The Legacy Of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark is published by Two Roads on March 13, priced £14.99