I’m a little nervous this month, because I’m interviewing someone I consider a master interviewer. I’ve been lucky enough to feature on her blog twice since I’ve known her, and both times were so much fun – here and here.
Roz Morris writes fiction and essays about unusual ways we can be haunted and how we seek people and places we belong with. Her work has been profiled by The Guardian, Literature Works, the Potomac Review, Rain Taxi and BBC Radio. Her novel Lifeform Three was longlisted for the World Fantasy Award.
Her fiction has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide, although you won’t have seen her name on the covers – she began her career in secret, ghostwriting fiction for big-name authors.
Her own novels have been described as ‘profound tales and compelling page-turners’, with fine-honed language, unforgettable characters, and gripping, unusual storylines. Plaudits include a top-ranked title in the American Library Journal programme, a longlisting for an international award alongside Neil Gaiman and a finalist position in the People’s Book Prize 2017.
She is a writer, journalist, fiction editor and the author of the Nail Your Novel series for writers. She teaches creative writing masterclasses for The Guardian newspaper in London and is also the author of a series for writers – Nail Your Novel.
Welcome to the Fountain Pen, Roz. Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a loud, expressive person trapped inside a shy one, so I’m fascinated by the idea that we’re full of passions and urges we don’t understand.
I write fiction about people in situations that are mysteriously troubling (My Memories of a Future Life, Ever Rest and Lifeform Three, which was longlisted for the 2014 World Fantasy Award). I’ve also published a quirky travel memoir (Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction) and a set of books for writers (the Nail Your Novel series).
I ride horses a lot, exercise a lot and have not seen my true hair colour for decades. I plan to keep all that going until the end of time.
How did your writing career begin?
By writing novels for people who couldn’t write their own!
As a kid, I always hoped to find an artform I was really good at, something that would become my special thing. But I didn’t think I was the kind of person who could make a career as a writer, or in any of the other arts. When I left college I worked in a publisher. I loved making books, the care and perfectionism of the process, but I hated the publisher’s subject matter. We published titles to help people figure out what career would suit them, but we only seemed to suggest the dull, stuffy corporate careers. Obviously, the world has a need for those, but I wanted to encourage people to follow their souls and find their true vocations. Of course, that was projection – it was what I needed to do myself.
Then I married an author of fiction, and suddenly I was among fiction writers. I discovered they thought and talked in the same way I did. I started writing, I went to classes, queried agents with a novel that was far too complicated for its own good, got rejections that were very patient and kind. One day my husband had trouble with a book he was ghostwriting – all was going well until the publisher changed the brief. He didn’t have time to write the new version because he had another commission waiting, so he told me ‘you write it, I know you’re capable of it’.
So I wrote the new version, and the publisher liked it… and then I got more work. I ghostwrote about a dozen novels, some of which sold in astounding quantities, though I didn’t make astounding money because my contracts were terrible. However, that period was a brilliant apprenticeship because I worked with very smart editors, learned a lot of different styles and disciplines. I also discovered I was good at mentoring and teaching other writers, so that became a career too.
Why literary fiction? Did you choose it, or did it choose you?
It definitely chose me – when I wrote my first novel as myself, My Memories of a Future Life. The novel is about a musician who is injured and can’t play, so she gets herself hypnotised to visit another of her lives to look for the cause. Instead of going to the past, to discover if she was injured in a previous incarnation, she goes to the future, to her next life, which sets up all kinds of conundrums.
When I wrote it, I was being courted by agents and publishers who knew the books I ghostwrote. They wanted me to write a conventional thriller. But I knew this novel was different. It was full of intriguing human resonances, and complicated emotions, and questions about how we live when we lose the thing that gives us meaning. It’s also a weird love story because I am an incorrigible romantic. I didn’t consciously think of casting myself as a literary writer, I wrote a rich situation that intrigued me. Then my readers told me what it was.
What do you hope your readers take away from your work? What are you trying to achieve?
I love a strong plot, so I hope to give readers a solid story that keeps them turning the pages. That comes from my thriller training.
I love unusual people whose behaviour is not necessarily sympathetic, so I write about difficult characters and try to understand them. Several of my readers have remarked that they’re glad they don’t know the characters in my novels, but were fascinated by them – and even ended up wishing they really existed because they wanted to read more about them afterwards.
Most of all, I write about situations that contain mystery and wonder for me, and enormous questions. I hope to make the reader feel that wonder too.
Tell us about your most recent publication.
My novel Ever Rest was published in June. I was inspired by stories of people who fall into glaciers and remain there for decades, until the ice releases them. Meanwhile, everyone who knew them is getting older.
In Ever Rest, a man falls while trying to summit the mountain and his body can’t be recovered. Twenty years later, he’s still there, in the ice, and the people who knew him can’t move on. Also, he was the singer in a rock band, and his music keeps him alive for the whole world. Everywhere, there are videos of his performances, or recordings of his voice, and he’s beautiful and full of youth, which is how everyone imagines he is, suspended there in the glacier. This adds to the agony for the people who actually knew him.
It’s a story about lost loves, friendships, remarkable times that bind us to each other, fame, the music industry, mountain climbing, the music that tells you who you were when you were a teenager. So his fans are waiting for him, and his friends are waiting for him… and until he comes, they will not ever rest.
Do you have any other artistic talents, or something you really wish you could try?
Music! I spent my teen years plinking away on a piano, composing songs, looking for my elusive ‘thing’. When I arrived at college I joined a band. After college I continued to dabble. I took singing lessons. I had various music partners, on and off. With one, I wrote music for a computer game my husband was working on and he used it when he pitched the idea to publishers. I wish I had time to try to do music properly, but I’d need a clone because I’m fully occupied by being a perfectionist writer.
My ideal holiday would be to set up a home studio for a week with musical friends and make an album for fun, though that would be boring for all our partners. My novel Ever Rest was a chance to be a musician again, on the page. And actually, I made a bit of music for it in real life – for the book trailer, we used a track I made while mucking about with a friend who builds instruments.
How cool is that, making music on homemade instruments!
How did your relationship with Vine Leaves Press begin?
I’ve known Jessica Bell for years and we’ve worked together several times. I’ve always admired what she does with Vine Leaves Press – its image, its vibe, her authors. One day I decided it was high time to interview her properly for my blog about Vine Leaves Press and she said ‘come and join my team as a publishing associate’. That was the fastest, loudest YES in the history of the internet.
Is there anything you need to have with you when you write? A tool of the trade, a mascot…?
I have mascots galore, given to me by friends. A tacky gold sea shell which is a Christmas decoration from a friend in Florida. A tie-dyed yellow handkerchief from a friend in Japan, which I try to remember to use for cleaning my glasses (instead of the hem of my jumper). An old-fashioned stationery box from a friend who died one Christmas. I’ve always collected souvenirs of people and even more so after that.
Some of my friends love sending postcards, so I have a stack of those, ready to use as bookmarks. Bookmarks are just one reason I love paper books – you can rediscover them years later. I also have several wooden horse heads on my desk and a tiny cuddly horse keyring. That’s my other great passion, horse riding – a totally different kind of communication from words and writing. I put horses into my second novel, Lifeform Three.
It sounds like you’re well and truly surrounded by wonderful memories! Thank you so much for sharing your writing life with me today.