Interview with Kate Morton

October, 2012

Kate Morton For Australian novelist Kate Morton, the past never releases its grip on the present. Family secrets seep down through generations, and characters are haunted by the mistakes of their youth. Her best-selling novels, The Forgotten Garden, The House at Riverton, and The Distant Hours, are rife with the gothic atmosphere of crumbling castles, lost letters, and strange heirlooms. Although based in Brisbane, Australia, the confessed Anglophile again sets her latest book, The Secret Keeper, in England. This intergenerational tale begins in the 1960s with a shocking moment of violence: A teen girl watches as her mother confronts an unknown visitor at their farm. Half a century later, she investigates her mother's premarriage years in London during the Blitz. Morton shares with Goodreads her thoughts on mystery writing in the Internet age and where she stands on happy endings.

Goodreads: The Secret Keeper's opening scene is particularly vivid, as teenage Laurel quietly observes her mother, Dorothy. It's tempting to guess this was the first moment in the book you imagined. But perhaps not? How did you begin?

Kate Morton: Actually, in this case it was! Ideas for The Secret Keeper began to percolate years ago, and a half-finished version of Chapter One sat in an old notebook for ages before I finally started work on the book officially. I'd long carried the stubborn image in my mind of a teenage girl at the top of a tree—it was a warm, summer afternoon, the scene infused with the peculiar potency of its adolescent narrator—and I knew the idyllic picture would be shattered by something shocking. I just wasn't sure exactly what that something would be. I tried to force that girl into other books, but she was uncooperative, and it seems she knew better than I that she didn't belong in those stories.

And then, in 2008, my family and I went to live in London for three months. London is a special city for me: There, more than anywhere else, I feel conscious of the past brushing against me. I've always been fascinated by the Second World War, in particular life on the Home Front, and I arranged to meet a guide who walked me around central London on a bitter cold November day and brought the Blitz to life. Once I discovered my wartime character, Dorothy, I finally knew what it was her daughter would witness on that summer's day 20 years later.

GR: Tell us about your experience writing Dorothy and Laurel. The mother-daughter relationship can be incredibly influential on both sides. When writing families, how much are characters' personalities dependent upon each other?

KM: Laurel's relationship with Dorothy is central to the novel; indeed, the book's entire focus on the past and its secrets is driven by Laurel's fierce need to know that her idyllic childhood, the mother she thought she had, wasn't all a lie. I loved being in Laurel's viewpoint. She's the sort of person I like in real life: direct, wise, rather dry, funny, talented, interesting, a little damaged but self-aware enough to manage it. Laurel's personality was certainly shaped by her relationship with Dorothy, in particular the event she witnessed in 1961 and her parents' subsequent silence on the subject.

GR: Your writing often deals with secrets, especially family secrets. With Facebook, Google, and other social media making our lives much more transparent, or at least more easily tracked, do you think the days of long-kept secrets are over? Is it important to keep certain private moments private?

KM: I don't think the days of long-kept secrets are over, but I agree that human behavior is changing. For a novelist, technology takes away some of the more romantic options for mystery, but it also offers new opportunities. Social media, for instance, gives people the tools to create false identities—people might be louder now, but they're not necessarily any more truthful—and the distance between the real self and the virtual one offers endless scope for mysteries.

As to whether it's important to keep certain private moments private, I think that's one of the central questions of our age. Our behavior is being redefined by technology and the possibilities for connection that we have at our disposal. Currently, though, there's still a personal choice as to how much we use it. I'm quite old-fashioned when it comes to privacy and the way I like to communicate, and I don't use social media, but I find it fascinating that so many people do.

GR: You are a Ph.D. candidate studying the contemporary gothic realm. How does technology and modern culture play into gothic literature?

KM: Gothic literature goes to the heart of who we are and what we fear, and I don't think it will die as long as there are human beings left to read and write fiction. Secrets and the unseen are fundamental aspects of the genre, as are the emotions they generate: fear, unsettledness, or merely a nagging sense of unfinished business. But just as central to the gothic are issues of anxiety—toward technology and our identity. The Internet, therefore, is a very gothic invention, a great virtual web into which we cast doubles of our real-life selves, and in which our pasts—multiple, partial versions of them—are recorded and hidden, only to be resurrected in the future. As Laurel observes in The Secret Keeper, the Internet is filled with ghosts waiting for somebody to type in the right combination of letters and numbers and bring them back to life.

GR: Goodreads member Christi Kelsey asks, "I love how your books show how one generation's actions and choices affect future generations. Do you have an ancestor you feel particularly close to?"

KM: Great question! One of the abiding themes of my books is the way the past and the present are tethered together, often through different generations of one family. An example that comes to mind in my own life is that of my grandmother's secret. Like Nell in The Forgotten Garden, my Nana Connelly learned when she was 21 that her father wasn't her biological parent. Understandably, the revelation cast a shadow of uncertainty across Nana's identity, and I've often wondered whether the shyness and modesty at her core—her guardedness with secrets—were its results. Whatever the case, Nana's secret and the manner in which I finally learned it (she didn't tell her own daughters until she was a very old lady), made me aware in a very personal way of the hidden layers that exist in all families. Certainly, it influenced my path as a storyteller.

GR: Several Goodreads reviewers marvel over the "big reveal" toward the end of The Secret Keeper. How do you prepare—with plotting or structuring—for a big twist when writing a mystery? Was the outlining process more complex for this book than previous novels?

KM: Yes, in many ways it was. I got myself into many a tangle when I was working on The Secret Keeper, and my noticeboard is littered with notes I had to write to myself to keep my thoughts in order. Plotting is one of my favorite parts of writing, though, and the structuring involved in sleight of hand—making readers feel comfortable with what seems to be happening while ensuring the truth is hidden in plain sight—is a bit like playing an elaborate game. Writing can be such a solitary pursuit, but putting the narrative puzzle together in a way that will be fun for my reader reminds me that storytelling is, by its nature, a shared activity. I like that.

GR: Goodreads member Verónica Largo asks, "What's your opinion of happy endings? Do you believe in them?"

KM: I don't not believe in happy endings, but I don't believe all endings need to be happy ones. Of far more importance to me is what I call "narrative rightness." Narrative rightness is that feeling you get when you read the last page of a book, or finish watching a movie, and you experience a welling up of emotion—pleasure verging on the thrill of culmination—because the story ended exactly as it should. It's not an easy thing to describe, but I have a theory that we're all equipped to recognize "rightness" at a deep, human level, even if we can't always find the words to describe why we feel it. It's a sixth sense, of sorts, an awareness of balance so that the ending feels complete and inevitable—as if it's the only way the story could have ended.

GR: Goodreads member Andrea writes, "Your books don't feel like historical fiction; they feel authentic to the time periods you write about, almost as if they were written 100 years ago. How do you achieve this feeling?"

KM: That's one of the greatest compliments for me to receive, so thank you very much! I figure that as a writer my job is to create and depict characters who are comfortable and real in their settings, no matter where and when those settings might be. A person who is comfortable living in the moment of their social and historical milieu doesn't stop to describe or name the objects around them; far more important is to convey the essence of their experience. So I do as much research as I can, but then I trust what I've learned to coalesce in my mind so that I can write without direct reference to it. That way my focus is on my characters and what they're thinking and doing and saying rather than on a list of detached historical details I'm trying to force into the story. I'm very critical of my work and don't move on to a new chapter until the one I've just written feels real to me.

GR: Goodreads member Glenna asks, "Does Kate make up stories for her children at bedtime?"

KM: I don't make up a lot of bedtime stories, but I love, love, love reading to my children. It's one of my favorite things to do, and I don't need much excuse to turn up at my sons' school classes with a book tucked under my arm. Reading aloud is a bit like weaving a spell, and it's a huge pleasure and privilege to be able to do that for kids.

GR: Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?

KM: A typical day varies depending on where I'm at with the book. In the beginning (the glorious phase of inventing and dreaming), I read around the topic—whatever takes my fancy; I scribble down ideas and let my mind wander free. But then when the actual writing starts, it's a matter of just sitting at the keyboard and putting one word down after another, all the way to the very, very end. Some days it's a pleasure, other days it's plain hard work. (I should add: As the mother of two young boys, there is absolutely no time to be precious about my writing conditions. I do it wherever and whenever I can, even when my sons are staging a fierce lightsaber battle in the middle of my office.) GR: What authors, books, or ideas have influenced you?

KM: More than anything else, I was influenced as a writer by the reading I did as a child. Not so much in terms of content or style as for the way it made me feel to be stolen away by the world of the story. I'm still striving to recapture that magic of complete immersion. Fiction is powerful, I learned, as a skinny, scab-kneed kid with a secondhand book in my hand and a long sunny Saturday to fill. One of the things I'm most grateful to my parents for is that they gave my sisters and me the sort of childhood that had lots of blank spaces in it.

GR: What are you reading now?

KM: I'm reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, because my eldest son is obsessed with Harry Potter, and we agreed to read them in tandem. I've rather a lot of catching up to do, though—while I was finishing The Secret Keeper he managed to devour the first five!


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Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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message 1: by Susan (new)

Susan Thank you for your explanation of endings. I am not a big fan of unhappy endings--I don't know if that will change, but I appreciate your framing of the ending as "narrative rightness."


message 2: by Mon (new)

Mon Macpherson Thank you Kate.
Since I was introduced to your books earlier this year, I have found a passion for reading books centering around London and England during the early 1900's.


message 3: by Beth (new)

Beth I've enjoyed your other books and the escape they have provided me. I especially enjoyed your reference to the Secret Garden which was one of my favorite books as a young girl. I have continued to gift that book to the children in my family and recommending your books to the older members of my family and friends. I look forward to enjoying another escape with your new book


message 4: by Kobby (new)

Kobby Quans am happy reading your book and it inspire me to learn more


message 5: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Wonderful insight into Morton's writing. Cannot wait for The Secret Keeper to come out. I will wait until the semester break so I can just devour it and be immersed in the story!


message 6: by Beatriz (new)

Beatriz Me encantan tus novelas kate, y ahora esperara la traducción al español de esta última.


message 7: by Anne (new)

Anne Thanks for posting this interview. I just love Kate Morton's writing and after reading her first 3 books, I will definately continue to read anything she puts out. I sincerely hope that she continues to write fiction for many decades to come. She is coming to a bookstore in Toronto next week and I can't wait to meet her in person.


message 8: by Edlin (new)

Edlin I totally agree not all story comes to happy ending.thanks for sharing a good story.Me as maid abroad hardwork and little laugh.I do love to read and inspired my daily life.I hope one day I can share my own story.


message 9: by Ali (new)

 Ali Kazem really that very good


message 10: by Joy (new)

Joy Hogg What a wonderful interview! I love her books and do get completely immersed.


message 11: by Melanie (new)

Melanie Thank you for doing the interview! Really neat to peek into your way of writing!


message 12: by Helen (new)

Helen Bryden I loved House at Riverton and can't wait to read this.


message 13: by Ahmed (new)

Ahmed nice story


message 14: by Victoria (new)

Victoria youre AMAZINGZ!!


message 15: by Lorrie (new)

Lorrie My dream is to live in that house way up on the cliff in Forgotten Garden.


message 16: by Anne (new)

Anne You & me both - what a dream!!!


message 17: by Mare (new)

Mare I have loved all of her books and can't wait for the next.


message 18: by Beth (new)

Beth I remember those days as a child when you read and escaped to another place or time. For me it was the Nancy Drew mysteries or Island of Blue Dolphins. I still treasure those times and strive to get to those same places now as an adult


message 19: by Anne (new)

Anne My favorites as a child were also the Nancy Drew mysteries as well as the Bobsey Twin mysteries. It is almost impossible to replace the magic and excitment that those books held for me as a child, with anything I have read as an adult.


message 20: by Marie (new)

Marie Mcclurg I have just finished reading "The Secret Keeper" which was also my first time for reading a book by Kate Morton. It had many wonderfully drawn characters, some of whom had smaller roles to play, but were still skillfully portrayed, like the family in Australia. It moved frequently from the 1940's to the present time, yet I never lost track of what was happening. I was thoroughly engrossed all the time. I cannot wait to read more of this author's books.


message 21: by Carol (new)

Carol Kate Morton provided a wonderful insight into her own writing. Loved that she stresses the importance of reading to children! So glad she finished "The Secret Keeper" after so much time putting it aside. She is an amazing writer!! Can't wait until she writes another!!!


message 22: by Lucy (new)

Lucy I just finished an audio version of The Secret Keeper and loved it.


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