Kate Morton's Blog
December 23, 2011
Christmas in Australia doesn't look much like a Nat King Cole song. Sandcastles rather than snowmen, surfing instead of sleigh-rides, and a lot of overdressed Santas handing melted chocolates out to kids. There are mangoes involved, lots of them, and a box of cherries that I have to hide or else I'll eat myself ill.
It's hot outside, the sort of hot that comes laden with moisture, searing heat by day and cracking thunderstorms on dusk; the sort of hot that makes you want to sit very, very still beneath the ceiling fan and maybe even doze. The birds are up by five each day, and you can't walk the streets at night without passing through pockets of air swollen with the scent of sun-warmed gardenias.
For Christmas lunch we'll eat turkey and baked ham, but we'll eat them outside at a long table beneath the jacaranda tree. There'll be citronella burning to keep the mosquitoes at bay, and when we're finished the kids will demolish a watermelon and run back and forth beneath the sprinkler until they're soaking wet. The crickets will start to chirrup in the underbrush as evening comes, and we'll listen to Christmas songs about snow and sleds and little robin red breasts, as the pair of kookaburras who've laid claim to our backyard eye hidden snakes from the bough of the silvery gum.
The heat can be oppressive here; it can seem inescapable; but I don't mind. Inside my house there's a doorway to another world. Not at the back of the wardrobe (I know because I've checked). My doorway sits atop my desk and the ritual to pass through it goes like this: I close the office door behind me—carefully, quietly, so that nobody knows I've gone and asks me to play Pacman again (not that I don't love playing Pacman, only I'm the reigning champion and I don't play soft and it isn't kind to beat one's children every time); I draw the curtains on my view of hot tin roofs and backyard swimming pools; I fire up my computer and I begin to read.
This year my doorway takes me to London in 1940. It's cooler there, and dangerous. The bombs have begun to fall and no one knows yet the fierce battle that lies ahead. In the small room of a boarding house in Notting Hill, a girl called Dolly is about to cross paths with a pair of strangers who will change her life. A terrible thing is going to happen and a shocking secret will be kept for decades.
Listen. The air raid siren has just sounded; the landlady is drumming on her saucepan, ordering everyone to the shelter; the drone of bombers comes closer and Dolly runs towards her fate . . .
You can go there, too, next year, but in the meantime I hope your own magic doorway takes you somewhere wonderful this Christmas.
December 16, 2011
I wrote this a little while back (a little while? That bump in my belly is about to turn four) for the Australian Women's Weekly, but I thought I'd share it here in celebration of Christmas being just around the corner.
November 22, 2011
I'm pretty sure this could be Eliza's gate at Blackhurst. I'm in the middle of writing my new book and I love it. There's no feeling quite like that of being lost inside its world. It's the desperate, delicious, absorbing pleasure of reading--characters and setting and plot that come to life inside your mind so that you need to turn Just. One. More. Page.--but a thousand times better. (It can also, occasionally, be a barren desert of a place, but that's a discussion for another time.)
(A quick refresher, Saffy and Juniper are two of the three Sisters Blythe. They both write, but where Saffy is methodical, reading, writing, drafting and re-drafting, collecting all her edits in pretty paper-covered boxes, Juniper is the archetypal artist, leaving scattered pieces of scrap paper in her wake as she seizes upon one idea after another, 'writing herself free of entanglement'.)
Illustration by Miss DoodleMy own experience sits somewhere between the approaches of my characters. I love to plot and plan in the beginning, and the process gives me enormous pleasure. But once the story is underway, even though I continue to fill my notebook with ideas and scene breakdowns, there's a momentum that arrives. I liken it sometimes to flying a kite: at first it's hard work, and you have to put in a lot of effort, dragging the thing along the ground behind you; but then, at some magical, wonderful point, enough wind and speed has amassed beneath it, and up it goes, flying by itself.
When the kite is up and I'm 'inside' a book, I relate completely to the[image error] idea of having to write myself free of entanglement. It's like being stuck within a maze, which makes it sound trapping, which it isn't, rather it's all-encompassing. I become stuck within the maze of the story and for as long as it takes me to reach the exit, no matter what else is happening in my Real Life, the characters, their plot, their settings, are in my mind. It can be frazzling at times, but I can't imagine not having them there. In fact, when I'm not working on a book I feel restless and, ahem, I've been told I become rather tetchy.
Herbert DaviesI had an incredibly wise and generous drama teacher when I was growing up. His name was Herbert Davies and Edie's Herbert in The Distant Hours is based on him. He was seventy when I met him and over the next couple of decades he became a great friend and mentor to me. He'd been the Head of Drama for the Welsh BBC, he'd served in Burma in the second world war, and he'd been part of that set of Welsh poets and actors including Dylan Thomas, Rachel Roberts, and Richard Burton. Herbert used to tell me there were two ways to approach acting, with intellect or with instinct, and that the very best actors, were those who were able to combine both. Writing, it's always seemed to me, is very much the same.
You can read more of my thoughts on writing in this month's Historical Novels Review.
Picture credits: Now that I've worked out how to do it, I've attached links to each image leading back to the place from which they came.
November 10, 2011
A while back I did an interview with Historical Novels Review. The journalist and I live in different cities so the interview was conducted via email. This happens sometimes--it's actually my preferred mode of Q&A, not because I'm anti-social (well, maybe just a little bit) but because I always feel more comfortable expressing myself in writing than I do out loud. Funny that.
The list of questions when they arrived excited me. This isn't always the case with Q&As, and the reasons were twofold: first, they were things I hadn't been asked before (always a good start); and second, they were about the actual process of writing, which is far more interesting to talk about than, you know, one's self. In particular, they were about how much--or little--my own experience of writing compares to that of my characters in The Distant Hours.
With the kind permission of the interviewer, Elizabeth Jane, I'm going to publish some of the Q&A transcript here for those of you interested in writing. The interview itself is out in this month's Historical Novels Review.
The first question is about notebooks. A subject dear to my heart . . .
Q: Whether in a muniment room with dead man's notebooks; taking a sneaky read of a sister's journal; finding the courage to write on the crisp new pages of a new journal; or while sitting in a quiet place with writing materials and a strong cup of tea, the notebook is a strong feature of all your writer's lives. Can you tell me now this works for you? Are you a notebook person? If yes, what do you write in your notebook? Information? 'Everything you see and think and feel?' Or do you carefully craft scenes, 'reading aloud and relishing the pleasure of bringing your heroine's world to life?'
KM: I am absolutely a notebook person. To imagine being without one fills me with dread. (I only keep notebooks for story-writing though, and I've never been able to stick to keeping a diary.) By the time I finish writing a novel, I've usually gathered around ten notebooks of story ideas, random images, plot schematics, scene details, graphs, snatches of overheard conversation. . . you name it, it's in there. Scribbled, crossed-out, connected with arrows, stapled in on top of other bits and pieces. Quite a mess, but a somehow lovely one. I'm a visual person and to see them sketched out in my notebook helps me to clarify my thoughts and pin down my ideas. Also, the pen in hand forces me to focus.
A page from my current notebook. NB Neatness is not an option
I have a great fondness for stationery in general and I take enormous pleasure in selecting a new notebook at the beginning of each project. The feel of the paper, the thickness of the cover, the colour and spacing of the lines inside. . . sigh. Still, I'll work with whatever I've got when the ideas start coming, the backs of old envelopes included.
When I was about a quarter of the way into The Shifting Fog (House at Riverton) I lost a notebook. I'd left it on the roof of my car when I strapped in my small person, and then forgotten to collect it and driven away. As soon as I got to my destination and couldn't find it I knew what must have happened. I drove back along the same route, heart in my mouth, but there was no sign. I letter-box dropped, door-knocked, walked the streets, offered a reward: all to no avail. I wonder sometimes, how different (or not) the story might have been had I found the old notebook with its chapters plotted out.
It was an awful experience, but it taught me that no matter how essential the notebook seems at the time, no matter how tightly I cling to it when I'm dreaming up a story, a novel is a living, breathing organism and will continue to grow—perhaps in even more propitious ways than those sketched out—without it. There are always more ideas and new ways of tying them together, and the unconscious mind is a powerful thing—it doesn't need a notebook to keep hold of the really important ideas.
I'll publish more from the interview over the coming weeks, so stay tuned. The image of the Moleskine at the top came from here; but, for the record, I don't have a preferred brand of notebook. My current love is a Clairefontaine with a cherry red cover.
October 6, 2011
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Extract from the Stanford University Commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer and of Pixar Animation Studios, on June 12, 2005.
You can read the whole text here.
And if you admire creativity, vision, and people who refuse to let go of their childlike joy and wonder, I think you might enjoy The Pixar Story.
October 2, 2011
A couple of weeks ago I filmed an upcoming episode for the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club. We read and discussed Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes and Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (this, dear reader, was my choice. Such a gorgeous book, though I fear -- dazzled somewhat by the pretty lights -- I may have failed to convey with adequate clarity, passion and erudition, the strange and awesome power of Manderley.)
Never mind. Daphne knows how I feel about her.
For those unfamiliar with the show, there's a brief segment in which host, Jennifer Byrne, asks panelists what else they've been reading lately. For me, that list included Ann Patchett's The Getaway Car (interested in writing? Read this book; it's a brief, terrific memoir); Ann Patchett's State of Wonder (great book, great writer); and Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum (Kate Atkinson is a genius. I imagine even her shopping list is happy, sad and funny all at once).
On the day though I gave a shout out to The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff. A little book that I read for [image error]research but fell in love with and am now bound to read over and over again. It's a simple plot: a lower middle-class family in 1931 England take their annual fortnight holiday to the seaside village of Bognor.
The chapters switch between the viewpoints of Mr and Mrs Stevens and their three children: Mary, 20, who works for a seamstress, Dick, 17, who's just left school and started work (unhappily) for a stationers, and Ernie, 10, who's still young enough to dream one day of working as the guy who restocks the chocolate vending machine at the railway station-- "It seemed to him the perfection of earthly employment."
Nothing incredibly dramatic takes place. Indeed, in his memoir, No Leading Lady, the author describes the plot this way:
'The story was a simple one: a small suburban family on their annual fortnight's holiday at Bognor: man and wife, a grown-up daughter working for a dressmaker, a son just started in a London office, and a younger boy still at school. It was a day-by-day account of their holiday from their last evening at home until the day they packed their bags for their return; how they came out of their shabby boarding house every morning and went down to the sea; how the father found hope for the future in his brief freedom from his humdrum work; how the children found romance and adventure; how the mother, scared of the sea, tried to make the others think she was enjoying it.'
And yet this book about nothing, this little slice of the ordinary, turns out to be an extraordinary book about everything. Family, ambition, sacrifice, growing up, acceptance, first love, disappointment, the ongoingness of life, what it is to be human. It manages to be deeply moving without resorting to sentimentality. It's also an exquisite, nuanced depiction of a lost time and place.
When it was originally published in 1931, the Spectator had this to say:
'Here is a subject which could have been treated satirically, cleverly, patronisingly, sentimentally. But Mr Sherriff comes to it fresh, and makes it universal. The sympathy with which each character is seen is so perfect that even its pettiest details brings a lump into one's throat. Many will welcome this book, which expresses the genius of a people.'
Couldn't have said it better myself.
In addition to the pleasure of the story, is the book itself. My edition (pictured above) is one I purchased from Persephone Books when I was in London in June. I've been meaning to post about Persephone for ages. Many[image error] of you will be familiar with their books and have no doubt abandoned your computer at mere mention to give those cherished dove-grey spines on your book shelf a loving stroke. Completely understandable, take your time. . . Back? Good.
For anyone yet to discover Persephone, a great joy awaits you. They publish rediscovered twentieth-century novels, neglected women writers, out of print books and inter-war novels, and each one is a treasure--not only to read but to hold and admire. This from the website:
Our books look beautiful because we believe that, whether they are on an office desk, by the Aga, or hanging in a bag over the handles of a buggy, it is important to get pleasure from how they look and feel.
With their distinctive plain grey jackets and cream 'labels' for the title wording, all our books look the same from the outside.
Inside, each is different, with the endpapers chosen especially to match the date and mood of the book.
Fabrics are as much a part of our daily lives as furnishing and dress materials, yet we rarely see them used in any other context. However, fabric design should be celebrated for its own sake; and because it is a field in which women designers have been particularly prominent we would like to use their work whenever possible.
Oh, those endpapers and matching bookmarks! And did I mention that each title is numbered so you can collect them all? Numbered! Collect! It's almost too much to bear.
If you fancy exploring the Persephone treasure trove, you can do so here. Or if you're lucky enough to be in London you can duck inside the tiny shop on Lamb's Conduit Street. Heaven!
September 6, 2011
The Brisbane Writers Festival is on this weekend and I'm breaking out of my writing bower to attend. The weather promises to be glorious, and the program of speakers is enormous and rich and inspiring. You can see the full schedule here. I'll be taking part in the following two sessions:
Saturday, 10 September 5:30-6:30pm
Devil in the Detail: Writing Fiction
Venue: Auditorium 2, State Library of Queensland.
Panellists: Kate Morton, Nick Earls, S.J. Watson,
Chair: Nike Sulway
Description: Fiction has to be perfect in every detail. Kate Morton, The Distant Hours; Nick Earls, The Fix; and S.J. Watson Before I Go To Sleep discuss the art of detail. (I've read The Fix and Before I Go To Sleep, by the way, and they're both terrific. Can't wait to hear more about how they were written.)
Presented by the hoopla family
Sunday, 11 September 1-2pm
Meet Kate Morton
Venue: The Studio, State Library of Queensland
Panellists: Kate Morton
Chair: Amanda Horswill
Presented by Brisbane City Council
June 20, 2011
And this is why I've never been able to keep a diary. Nine countries in five weeks, a series of glorious cities, thousands of readers, an impossible quantity of cream tea, and not a single journal entry to show for it. It seems my natural inclination is to write down made-up things, rather than to record real ones.
But the tour deserves better, so herewith my first installment. Bearing in mind that if I wrote it all down I'd never get any of my next book written there will be lots of photographs. They do say a picture tells a thousand words . . .
It started in Rome, one of my favourite cities in the world. I ate lots of pasta. The roses growing wild throughout the city smelled heavenly. My interviews (like this one) took place in a sunny little courtyard with a fountain trickling lightly in the background.
History is so tangible in Rome. No matter where you turn, there's a marker of the past. The ancient past. It's intoxicating to visit a city where an enormous roundabout echoes with long forgotten cries of Gladiators, and the view from your dinner table is a set of stone columns that once held up a building in Caesar's Rome.
I couldn't get Shelley's Ozymandias out of my mind:
I met a traveller from an [image error] antique land who said: 'Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert.'
There were lots of interviews and a presentation and signing at Mondolibri, viale Marconi, 70, which was a great chance to chat with some of my lovely Italian readers. It was also my first meeting with my Italian publishers from Sperling & Kupfer, who were wonderful.
Did I mention that I ate a lot of pasta?
I also managed to write quite a lot of the opening to my new book, which was unexpected and happy-making. There really is no greater joy than being lost in the world of a story, hurrying behind as it weaves itself together in front of me.
Here is the first in a series of photos taken to prove that I was working, not just consuming way too much coffee/vino/pasta. . .
See -- that's manuscript, right there in the back corner, a little out of focus. There is even red pen involved, and we all know that means Serious Work.
From Rome I caught a super early morning flight to Paris, right over the top of the Alps. What an exhilarating sight that is.
Next episode: Paris.
March 6, 2011
I've been meaning to post this for ages. It's a video of the team from AndersonM setting up the Distant Hours installation in Pan Macmillan UK's new foyer (well, it was new back then).
February 17, 2011
It's cloudy today, the sky all low and swollen: grey, silver and green. I grew up in the mountains where thick, moist, rainforest cloaks the village and clouds roll through the main street, and although I'll swear black and blue that my favourite climate is northern hemisphere autumn, the older I get the more certain I am that the subtropical moisture of my childhood made its way beneath my skin. There's something about such settings that makes me feel positive, creative, grounded. I can still touch the memory of being a small person at school: the smell of wet hair, damp fleece, and muddy shoes; lights on in the daytime; the thrill of wet weather policy (inside play! silent reading! art instead of sport!).
I've been thinking about place a lot lately. In particular, the way people and places become tied. The recent floods, I'm sure, have something to do with it. I was away on tour during the end of 2010 (an amazing couple of months about which I was determined to keep you updated. . . next time I will do better!) and soon after I got home Queensland suffered through a major flood event. Farms, towns, great sweeping plains: all were drenched. The capital city of Brisbane wasn't spared either, as the great muddy river that flows slowly through the sprawling suburbs broke her banks, spilling thick brown water over streets and through the centre of people's homes.
Water isn't supposed to flow through houses. It's strange and disconcerting, even uncanny. And this was a different type of flooding. Flash floods come from above, this flood came from below. Water that had nowhere else to go pushed up through the street grates and kept on rising. It took forty-eight hours to reach its peak and once it started there was nothing to be done but watch and wait. You can tell a lot about your feelings for a place (or person) when it is hurting, and seeing my current home town drowning in mud brought out feelings of affection and loyalty I hadn't known were there.
Much was written about the flood and many incredible pictures were published. This is one of the best articles I saw. The Queensland Writers Centre has launched an initiative called Writers on Rafts to raise money for flood victims all over Queensland. If you're so inclined, please feel free to check it out. I'll be taking part in a High Tea which sounds very fancy and rather fun.
It's raining now. Light but steady onto the already sodden ground. I can see a mighty red gum from my window, always beautiful but somehow startling in this light.
Over the past few months I have been sent quite a few links to reviews of The Distant Hours and will post some here. I'm delighted that the story, its people and place, has spoken to so many of you. I miss the sisters Blythe, and Milderhurst Castle, too.
And now, it's been a long time since I've answered questions and the mailbox is overflowing so I'm going to devote the rest of this journal entry to playing catch-up.
Q: I've just started to read The Distant Hours and can't bear to put it down. Where can I read further about the 'Mudman'? Is it British folklore or did you invent? Loving the story.
Thanks, Linda Z
The Mud Man is an invention. The title of Raymond Blythe's book, The True History of The Mud Man, was one of the first figments of story I had when I started writing The Distant Hours. The precise nature of the tale took a little longer though, and I was well into writing the novel before I realised who and what the Mud Man was.
The portion of Raymond's Blythe's rather spooky story came to me in a flash, on a cold, wet winter's evening. I was alone in a cabin in the forest, mist had rolled up the mountain, and I was sitting by the window watching night fall. All of a sudden I was struck by an image of a young girl perched upon a bookcase at the top of a castle tower. She was looking over a dark landscape, dreaming about her future, when down below her, deep in the muddy moat, something began to stir.
I raced to my computer and wrote the prologue in a single sitting. All the other pieces of the puzzle slotted into place once I found my Mud Man.
Q: I am trying to find out the name of the artist and/or title of the picture in front of the book, The Forgotten Garden. It is the one with the three fairies. I would so appreciate an answer.
Thank you, Katie.
The divine illustration on the endpapers of the US edition of The Forgotten Garden is by Arthur Rackham. For non-US readers, this is the illustration in question. Isn't it purty?
Q: I note from both House at Riverton and the Forgotten Garden (and the preview of The Distant Hours) that there appears to be a theme of one of the main characters not getting on with their mother but of excellent relationshiips with grandchildren. Is this an intentional feature? I can't remember when I read two books I have simply loved and felt genuine sadness when they ended. Long may your writing career continue.
Hmm . . . you are correct, and no, it's not an intentional feature. I'm not sure why I'm so unkind to the mothers in my stories. My own mother is a delight and I love her very much. I like to write about families and secrets and generational relationships, and perhaps these become more interesting when direct relationships are compromised? I also like elderly people. Growing up, some of my closest friends were decades older than I was, and I find relationships between the young and the old very rewarding to write.
Q: I love your books. In fact I can't decide which is my favorite. When can I expect another? I hope it's soon, but if not could you recommend an author with a similar style of writing? The way you tell the story is remarkable. Thank you for writing.
I'm right at the very beginning of a new story so I'm afraid it will be a little while before it's published. I'm not the fastest writer in the world, but I put a lot of love into my books. It would be breaking trust, I think, to do otherwise.
In the meantime, you could track down the novels by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell's nom de plume). They're family mystery stories with past and present threads that weave together. A Dark-Adapted Eye and The Brimstone Wedding are two of my favourites, and The Chimney Sweeper's Boy, too; Asta's Book. . . they're all great reads. I think she's awesome.
Q: The 'girls' in my family (mid 20s and above!) have been trading your first two books around since a blissful trip to the beach over the summer. My mom gave me a copy of The Distant Hours for Christmas as a gift that was expected to be given back when I was finished. :) We are considered to be 'bookies' in our family and are SO excited to have found you and the worlds you bring to life. Congrats on another fantastic book that doese not cease to twist and tangle the imagination of this very appreciative 'bookie'! Please say there will be more books to come! Do you have any books that you love to further inspire the girls?
~ Sara Clarke
Thanks, Sara. I'm very happy to be traded between the 'bookies'. The Barbara Vine books are great, as mentioned above, and I can't not recommend Daphne du Maurier's books, in particular Rebecca. I haven't yet read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, but my husband tells me it's every bit as good as people say, so it's next on my list.
Q: Hi there, I just finished The Forgotten Garden, my first novel by Kate Morton and I'm now addicted . . . it was AMAZING!! Loved it. I heard there is a sequel to that book? Could you please let me know the title so that I can get it on order? Thanks! Keep 'em coming!!
There's no sequel to The Forgotten Garden. Perhaps you're thinking of The Distant Hours, my third book? It's a book about secrets and family and the present and the past, but it's unrelated to Forgotten Garden.
All right. It's really pouring now. Teaming, even. As I've been typing, the bucket beneath my window has acquired two inches of water. I'm going to sit outside for a while and watch it fall.