"Persistent Pearse - that's what my agent used to call me."

Lesley Pearse, author of 25 bestsellers, is on the phone from her cliffside home near Torquay, where she has a view across the sea.

Pearse, 72, started writing when she was 35 and her three daughters were playing with Lego under the dining room table; she didn't get published until she was 48. Before that first novel, Georgia, there were three others that ended up in the dustbin but she kept writing because she is, well, persistent.

"Several people said they didn't know why I kept going but I felt I had whatever it was that it took."

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And she obviously did.

Since 1993, when Pearse was paired with editor Louise Moore (now managing director at publishing house Michael Joseph), she has averaged a book a year and sold 10 million copies.

Pearse counts New Zealand readers among her most loyal fans and has visited this country several times, staying with Olive, from the Bay of Plenty, whom she met through corresponding about her books.

The Woman in the Wood is the latest. Rapturous fans on goodreads.com are giving it five stars and declaring it's a gripping, captivating and emotional page-turner which will sweep readers up in its dark story.

Set in 1960, it's the story of twins Maisy and Duncan who are sent to live with their "cold and distant" grandmother when their equally cold and distant father commits their mother to an asylum, theoretically for her own good. The twins cope remarkably well and set about building new lives for themselves in the New Forest countryside. All is going swimmingly until the day Duncan doesn't come home.

Pearse starts each story with the spark of an idea, often obtained from history or an observation, sits down and, without a set plan, starts writing. With The Woman in the Wood, it was a visit to the village of Burley which started the story.

Burley has historic connections with witches, notably Sybil Leek who - once regarded as Britain's most famous witch - lived there in the 1950s.

But Pearse says she didn't feel as if she could write a book about witches so took the idea of a woman living alone in the woods as the starting point and did what she has long done.

"I start at the beginning and, as it comes to me, the writing process makes it clear to me about where the story's going."

Which may explain why The Woman in the Wood initially reads like a coming-of-age/romance novel (possibly) before taking an unexpected swerve into psychological thriller/horror as the truth about Duncan's fate is slowly and graphically revealed.

She believes part of the secret of her success - aside from persistence - is that her books resist easy categorisation.

"I think people like the fact that my books are multi-layered; there's a lot more there than a basic story. I delve into people's characters rather than telling a simple story."

The writing is to the point and can sometimes seem blunt but that's because Pearse's fictional heroines are not shrinking violets with time to cry over spilt milk; they're strong women, often with troubled pasts, who, in the face of adversity, pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get on with it. Indeed, her books are often described as "women in jeopardy" stories.

That's more than a little like Pearse. She spent part of her childhood in orphanages and had a stepmother she didn't get on with. As a naive 18-year-old, Pearse was shocked to discover she was pregnant after losing her virginity to a travelling salesman.

She was determined to keep her baby boy but struggled to earn money to feed and clothe him.

In 2010, Pearse told the Daily Mail: "Then one morning I woke up and l just knew that I couldn't do this anymore. Warren was nearly four months old, I had no work and soon wouldn't be able to afford anywhere to live. I loved him so much, but I knew he deserved a better future than I could offer him."

Warren was adopted out. Pearse went on to marry three times and have three daughters. Now a grandmother, she says one of her greatest achievements was being able to support middle daughter Sammy when she became a young single mother.

Lowdown
The Woman in the Wood
by Lesley Pearse
(Michael Joseph, $38)