Much to his Oxford tutor's surprise, Adam Foulds did not gain a First Class Honours degree in English. Instead, he got a 2:1. "I was surprised too," confides the serial award-winning poet and novelist. ?¨"But it was a very good thing to have happened because I'm sure that ?¨I would have taken the path of least resistance and gone into a PhD."

Another of his tutors at St Catherine's College, the "feisty" poet Craig Raine, had also been urging him to "hang around" for his PhD. Had London-born Foulds been awarded that predicted First, he believes he would have stayed within academia for ever. "You emerge with a Masters, start doing a PhD in creative writing, then you end up teaching creative writing and you never leave the campus. You just stay in that closed system," he says when we meet over coffee in the clamorous and odiferous canteen at his publisher's London offices.

"In any case, I was one of those graduates without a clue," continues the 39-year-old, who is about to publish his third novel, In The Wolf's Mouth, set in North Africa and Sicily towards the end of the Second World War, which will surely make every literary prize list this year. Clueless he may have been, about the way of the world, but he knew with absolute certainty that he wanted to write - and he can certainly do that.

Eventually, he did study creative writing at East Anglia University. Meanwhile, though, he took a series of menial, low-responsibility, rent-paying jobs in shops and offices: data inputting in Bicester, teaching English in Greece, driving a forklift truck in ?¨a warehouse. This led to headlines of the 'Forklift Truck Driver Wins Literary Prize' variety when his first novel, The Truth About These Strange Times, about a lonely Scottish no-hoper's unlikely friendship with ?¨a 10-year-old, won the 2007 Betty Trask Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer Of The Year prize.

The awards proved that Foulds, who was named one of Granta's Best Of Young British Novelists 2013, had invested his time wisely. "I did all those jobs because I wanted head space for my writing," he says. While at university and even after gaining his MA, he continued to work, producing three books over a five-year period. "It was difficult," he admits. "But you learn much more about the world having a job, commuting, living within the priorities and necessities ?¨of most people's lives. I loved serving in the classical music shop - a great part of my education."

One of the many intriguing aspects of Foulds's work is the fact he never writes the same book twice. His verse novella, The Broken Word, which won the 2009 Costa Poetry Prize, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award, tells the history of the 1950s Mau Mau uprising in colonial Kenya from the perspective of an English schoolboy. His last novel, The Quickening Maze, dazzlingly reconstructs the story of two poets, John Clare and Alfred Tennyson, whose paths briefly crossed in a lunatic asylum in Epping Forest. It was shortlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize and the Walter Scott Prize before winning the United Kingdom European Union Prize For Literature.

Now, with In The Wolf's Mouth, he engages not only with chaos in the wake of conflict and the bungled attempts at "liberation" but with ?¨the Mafia.

He acknowledges: "Yes, some writers of the highest artistic quality do keep on writing the same book. For instance, Saul Bellow, whose work I love, writes versions of a kind of platonic Saul Bellow novel with ?¨a consistent cast of characters. I think ?¨I am more of the E L Doctorow type, who I also admire. He is very driven by subject and his sense of the flavour of the book. His work always subserves that individual book."

Nonetheless, continues Foulds, although his own books are diverse ?¨in subject and treatment, there is ?¨a through line in all of them. "I think the energy for In The Wolf's Mouth came in part from things I had not stopped thinking about in The ?¨Broken Word - violence and trauma." Complicity? "Exactly. And complications almost like meteorological zones in how unpredictable they are, dragging individuals through a series of events they can't control or often understand. That was stuff I thought I had written out in The Broken Word... but then ?¨I went to Sicily on holiday.

"I was immediately struck by how different it felt to other parts of Italy. There was an enclosedness to the people that was very unlike the operatic friendliness you encounter elsewhere in Italy. Also, I felt the weight of the history of the Mafia. It was horrible because you realise how much it is to do with poverty. I read Roberto Saviano's book about the Neapolitan Mafia, then I saw the film version that showed how grim the reality was - unlike Goodfellas."

In a guide book, he read how people had escaped to America during the Fascist regime in false coffins. "That was the firework that lit my novelist's mind," he says, with a laugh. He interviewed many old people about the war years, immersing himself in historical research. "For me, this book, like all the historical things ?¨I have written, has a connection with the present moment because it is about attempts at reconstructing places after conflict in a way that we are now very familiar with. So, yes, it is a political book."

Last summer, Foulds was ?¨presented with the EM Forster Award by the American Academy Of Arts And Letters. The prizes just keep on coming. "It's really helped support me financially," he says. "The Booker was the point at which I felt a change of expectations and I had to work my ?¨way through that; I had to deal with ?¨a lot of pressure. It is wonderful and exciting but it is not my fault, it is ?¨not something I can control or usefully think about."

Foulds and his three sisters grew up in north-east London "in pebbledash, dual-carriageway suburbia." His accountant father became a rabbi instead of retiring and his mother, a great reader, did market research. It was a reform Jewish background. "We were not terribly observant in the Orthodox style, but ?¨I went to Hebrew school and our family culture was certainly Jewish."

When Foulds was 11, they moved to the fringes of Epping Forest, where he began birdwatching and decided he wanted to become a zoologist. Then, at 15, he discovered poetry. "As is so often the case, an English teacher turned me on to it by suggesting I write a poem for an after-school workshop - and I did. Immediately I thought, 'This is it, this is what I am going to do.' Writing poetry preceded reading it. I started with Keats - I knew the name! - and went on to WB Yeats. I was crying out for it. I loved the sensuality of ?¨the writing - I just got kind of ?¨drunk on it."

At Oxford, he began writing short stories. "I felt the first-person lyric form was closing down for me. I think ?¨I was losing interest in myself. Maybe ?¨I was maturing! Then I read Madame Bovary, which shows that a novel can be perfectly composed and harmonious, as patterned as a sonnet. I also began reading the great American Jewish novelists, such as Bellow and Roth. Suddenly, I was seeing my relatives, the domestic world that I knew in fiction. It is liberating when you find your particular minority identity reflected in culture, in works of art."

Several years ago, Foulds told a newspaper, "Writing has warped me." It made a good headline for the interview in which he noted that he had not fitted himself for anything other than writing. Now, he sighs, everyone asks him about that remark. "It was a poor choice of words on my part. What I meant was that my life has taken the form it has to enable the writing. The imperative to write - it's my guiding imperative - has shaped my life. It has been costly in some ways. Certainly when I wrote my first novel and worked full-time, I was giving it a lot of energy, getting up early in the mornings, writing at lunchtime, using my holidays to write. "That all took a lot of energy out of other parts of my life. In retrospect, ?¨I should have been more caring about relationships."

So, here he is pushing 40, a critically acclaimed literary writer who pursues his craft with extraordinary intensity, but does he have a life?

"Of course," he replies. "I do lots of other things apart from writing; I also teach part-time. And I have a wife, ?¨a Canadian person, a photojournalist and the dedicatee of In the Wolf's Mouth." His wife is Charla Jones, who has won numerous international awards for her photography and multimedia projects.

The Foulds-Jones mantelpiece in their south London home must be sagging beneath the weight of their glittering prizes. I suggest they build more shelf space immediately.

In The Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds (Jonathan Cape, £16.99).