LOUISE DEAN IS so engulfed in what she calls her incredibly bourgeois life in the south of France that she's forgotten we arranged an interview. As the phone rings, the former Hongkonger is taking a break from writing her third novel by packing her children into the car for a drive. 'I forget things, and I'm impulsive,' she says. Such quirky charm led Dean to Northern Ireland to research her newly released second novel, The Human Season (Scribner). 'Everyone laughs about it,' Dean says. 'We live in gorgeous Provence - my husband is just starting his own vineyard here - and I go to Belfast to get my kicks.' It's a good thing Danny Morrison, the former Sinn Fein spokesman who was jailed as a member of the Irish Republican Army, had a sense of the absurd when the Sussex-born, Cambridge-educated Dean, 35, asked him for a chat. Morrison gave her a rare interview about Belfast's most notorious prison - known as Long Kesh to nationalists and republicans and The Maze to unionists, who support keeping Northern Ireland as part of Britain. 'He thought it was very funny that some English housewife living the gorgeous life in Provence would write and apologise for what the English had done in Northern Ireland, when they've never had any sort of formal apology,' Dean says. 'So, they agreed to see me because they hadn't given many interviews about that.' In the autumn of 2002, Dean was working on a novel set in the cold war when she spied a newspaper report from 1981 announcing the death of republican Bobby Sands after a hunger strike. Dean was only 11 when Sands and 10 of his IRA compatriots died while 'on the blanket', the so-called dirty protest in which IRA prisoners in Long Kesh eschewed prison clothes, hygiene and toilets to fight against Margaret Thatcher's withdrawal of their prisoner-of-war status. 'Seeing that little article just made me think of being 11 at the time, and that it was barely talked about and not at all understood - apart from the context that 'all Irish are crazy',' Dean says. 'From that point I knew I was going to write about it.' She visited Belfast one week out of every month for nine months. Ordinary people revealed events and feelings they'd never discussed before, says Dean. A former soldier told her he'd driven an armoured-personnel carrier over rioters when caught in a petrol-bomb throwing mob. The incident appears in the novel. Along with Morrison, who spent five years in Long Kesh in the 1990s, Dean spoke to soldiers, republicans, loyalists, prison officers, priests and mothers. 'Most of the people I met have done terrible things, and I know that Danny has done terrible things,' she says. Dean says she became hooked on the idea that good people can do terrible things. 'It's those contradictions that I like to explore in writing,' she says. Her debut, Becoming Strangers - which reached the long list for the Man Booker Prize and won the Betty Trask Prize - observes two marriages under strain during a Caribbean holiday. This Human Season also portrays two families, in the lead-up to the start of the hunger strike in 1979. Not that Dean ignores the stink of excrement-smeared walls, the degradation of anal searches, the cruelty meted out to prisoners, or the brutality of IRA bombings. Rather, by following John Dunn, a former British soldier turned prison officer and his girlfriend, Angie, in tandem with the Catholic Moran family, whose son is imprisoned in Long Kesh after being caught driving a car bomb for the IRA, Dean captures the two worlds inside one city. Her mix of humour and tragedy has drawn comparisons to Alan Bennet. But Dean names her inspirations as Graham Greene, Albert Camus, George Orwell, Jose Saramago and J.M. Coetzee. A self-described outsider who recalls herself as a child 'always sitting in the corner with a book or a bag of crisps and a Coca-Cola, watching everyone', Dean says she always wanted to write but lacked the confidence. 'I thought of it as a vain ambition,' she says. 'I just didn't think that I could, or that it was permissible for me.' That changed when she moved to Hong Kong for a year in 1995. 'I started writing in Hong Kong,' she says. 'They were happy times. I wrote a collection of poetry there - never to be published - and started writing a first novel there, too.' Now, she says, she can't write unless there's anxiety. This Human Season has changed the way she approaches novels. 'I just can't imagine writing a Becoming Strangers again for nine months,' Dean says. 'Now I don't find pure fiction in itself enough, because if I'm going to spend two or three years on it, I really like to pick stuff that I don't know anything about.' She has visited troubled Sierra Leone to research her new novel, which deals with schizophrenia. 'I love the fear factor,' Dean says. 'I have to be afraid of the book, and in its grip. I think risk is essential to writing.' She quotes Greene's line that all good writing is an act of betrayal. 'It's how far you can go with that [betrayal] that makes a book successful,' she says. 'The first book was an act of betrayal even to my husband, because it was against the idea of marriage and romance. It was in some ways, a betrayal of the story of my life. Greene said somewhere that the job of a soldier is to fight for his country and the job of a writer is to betray his country in words - and that they're no more important than the other, but each has his role. I concur with that.' Dean says she itches to return to her garden shed and continue writing. 'It just fills me with despair because I know I'm not going to write for 10 weeks, until school term starts in September,' she says. 'I'm so unhappy if I'm not writing. I'm very, very miserable.'