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MORAG JOSS Interview

Written by Mary Andrea Clark

Originally from Scotland, Morag Joss completed a degree in English at St Andrew's and then studied singing at the Guildhall School of Music. Her career path has taken her to work in museums, galleries and higher education, where she worked as both a manager and a lecturer. She has also been an adviser in arts education to the National Trust. Morag began writing in 1997 after her first short story won a prize in a national competition. She now writes full time. Half Broken Things is her fourth book, following Funeral Music, Fearful Symmetry and Fruitful Bodies. Half Broken Things has been awarded the Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger for 2003.




Mary:  Thank you very much for agreeing to talk to Shots. You seem to have covered quite a broad spectrum of arts on the road to your writing career. What originally triggered the writing bug?

Morag:  Well, the real trigger was a meeting with P. D. James. It kind of started off as a joke. She had come to do an event at the Bath Literature Festival in February '96. We knew her and she had come to stay. I took her around the Roman Baths and I said, off the cuff, jokingly, "This would be good place to find a body, wouldn't it?" She said, "Oh, yes. Who would it be?" We just messed about with the idea. It was a minute's conversation and it was just a joke. Then she said, "Oh, you must go and write it now, dear." I said, "Oh, yes, yes." I just didn't consider doing it at all because I was not the writer, she was the writer. I was not the writer. But I think something caught light then.

A couple of months later I caught sight of a story-writing competition run by Good Housekeeping magazine and, without telling anyone, I wrote a story and sent it in. The thing that astonished me was just how absorbed and happy and how completely taken with this whole process I was, just in the course of writing this attempt at a short story. That was one discovery. I was a runner-up in this competition. It was like permission to do something else. It's like a light coming on in the head. Then I went back to the conversation with P. D. James and I sat down and wrote that novel based in the Roman Baths. So that is really why I started writing and it's certainly why I started writing crime. Had it not been P. D. James but another kind of writer, then I would have written another kind of novel, I think. That book took a year to write. Then I found an agent straightaway, and they found a publisher very quickly. That was what started me off but now I'm doing it, it feels like a lifelong ambition I just didn't know I had. I've always been a reader and been passionate about words. I've always loved found the richness of English as a literary language but it really never crossed my mind that I could be the kind of person you'd call a writer. Even when it's difficult, as it often is, I feel I'm doing what I was meant to do.

Mary:  Have you ever considered that you might branch into anything other than crime?

Morag:  Yes, I have. I've done these three Sarah Selkirk novels. I loved doing them and I learned a lot but although Half Broken Things has a crime in it, I didn't set out to write it as a crime novel. It's been published as a crime novel and one can see why but if it is a crime novel, it's one by accident. Of course, on one level it is a crime novel, but it's not a whodunnit in any way. The one I'm actually writing now and will finish in a few months really hasn't got any crime in it. It's got a ton of wrongdoing but it certainly isn't a crime novel. I think I'm just finding my way into what I really want to do. I hope crime readers, people who liked the first three crime novels, will like the others because all the other stuff is, I hope, still there. But I've started to feel queasy about murder as entertainment. I've begun to think there are so many more interesting things about death than the whodunnit.

Mary:  Going back to Half Broken Things, it's a very interesting idea, the notion of the house-sitter stealing the house and using it as a base to create a new life. What gave you the idea for that?

Morag:  I really have been trying to remember precisely where it started because in the process of thinking it out and then writing it you just move on so far from where you started. It was to do with this whole sense of belonging and really it's a love story. I got interested in the idea that love is often used as a kind of blanket explanation for things. I mean, battered wives, for instance: "Why did you go back to him?" "Oh, I loved him." "Why did you embezzle fifteen million pounds and run away to the other side of the world?" "Oh, well, because I was in love." All that and then you don't ask anything else. I thought if I just say, these people needed love and they found it, then it kind of explained it away. I wanted to look at their behaviour and how love can inspire the best and the very worst in human behaviour but love itself is not behaviour. So I avoided the word 'love' until the very end and it's the last word in the novel. I wanted to explore what people will do when they're in such terrible need of love. If there was a big idea then that was it. Then, of course, I hope that if it's a story worth reading it's the characters themselves who make you want to read it, not the big idea. I don't think a big idea drives a novel usually. Something else has to engage you on a much more kind of personal level.

Mary:  You've done a good job of conveying the feelings of the three main characters and describing them. Did you ever find yourself thinking about the unseen characters, such as the owners of the house who are going to come back and find it's all been demolished?

Morag:  Oh, yes, awful. Poor dears. You know, they're not bad people, just privileged, enlightened, probably nice people. There was a kind of inevitability. I mean, I'm just terribly sorry for them, that it had to be that way. I had this picture of their beautiful house and what they come back to find. Terrible. It's just that you can't spare them when the story's taken you elsewhere.

Mary:  How did you go about developing the three main characters? They've come from very different backgrounds but as you say, they've all got this loneliness and this need.

Morag:  Well, I think the three characters are all rather alike in a way. There are varying degrees of deprivation. When you're writing a character, you have to be that character for the time you're writing about them. It just comes down to imagination, making it up. I don't think I'm especially observant but I do think deprivation is at the heart of nearly all wrongdoing. That's a terribly old-fashioned Guardian viewpoint but I think it's true. I just thought of where deprivation might lead different characters, especially deprivation of slightly differing kinds. In the end there's a kind of unity about the different characters, I hope.

Mary:  Yes, that certainly came across in the novel when I read it, it certainly had this common thread. Although their backgrounds and factual things are different the emotional bonds between them seemed to link them.

Morag:  Yes. I mean, they're 'have nots', aren't they? Materially and emotionally.

Mary:  I wanted to ask you about the title, Half Broken Things. I know you made a reference in one of the early chapters to the possessions in the house but it seemed to me it could apply equally to the damaged personalities of Jean, Michael and Steph.

Morag:  Well, exactly. The half broken things, yes, of course. Broken but only half broken because they have enough fight in them to do what they do.

Mary:  Although what they're doing is technically illegal, it was quite interesting, I found, the way they made something positive out of it.

Morag:  I'm glad. That was the other job I felt I had to do when I wrote it. These people have to be loveable and if their actions can't be exactly condoned, I wanted the reader to really feel, if that was me, I might do that. Make them complicit, otherwise it wouldn't work. That's the gamble. Can I make the characters do the most appalling things imaginable and make the reader want them to win? On one level, like you, a lot of readers tremble for the owners and all the rest of it but at another level they still want these three characters to survive somehow. That was the task.

Mary:  I've heard some authors say that the characters tend to take over the narrative. Did you find this with any of yours?

Morag:  No, they don't quite take over but I think when I'm writing I do have to live in the life of the novel, so I'm kind of in there with them. I do plan a plot in a certain amount of detail but if there are nuances and variations which seem somehow to be suggested by the characters, then one goes with them. I think it's a little fanciful to say they take over because in the end, I'm the person at the keyboard, the one who's doing it. There is a way in which they do take on a kind of independence and you sometimes feel if something varies from how you thought you were going to write and it comes out differently, you have this sensation that you've been shown something. If you think, "Oh, no, it wasn't that, of course it didn't happen that way, it happened this way," you feel you haven't invented the new way, you feel it's been shown somehow. That's quite strange but very gratifying. There's a sort of sense of conviction about it, correctness. "Yes, I've got it. This is how it was, not that." As if it's not an invention but a revelation.

Mary:  You obviously get a lot of satisfaction out of it.

Morag:  Well, I do. I mean it drives me crazy as well, completely mad. Sometimes I have days when I just don't want to come out from under the duvet. It's hard, you know, all that. But you press on. Everyone who does a job finds it difficult.

Mary:  It was interesting that you used the first person and third person narration in the same novel. Did you find that difficult to adapt as you were writing it?

Morag:  No, I loved that. I found once I'd got Jean started, it was a joy to write. The third person narrative was kind of technical. There were things that had to happen that the reader had to know, mainly in the background about Michael and Steph and some of their moments together, things that Jean couldn't know and therefore couldn't tell. I also wanted a slightly, not distant voice, but a kind of overview voice, so that was why I did it that way.

Mary:  You said you plan to a certain extent. Do you plan quite a long way ahead in your novel?

Morag:  Yes, I do. I'm certainly never inclined to do the kind of, "Oh, I'll start writing and see where it goes." I've heard of people saying, "Oh, I'm not planning on deciding until the end who does the murder." I just don't get that, because any writing I've admired, certainly the writing I want to write, is dealing with emotional truth. I just can't see how you might think someone had done the murder and then it turned out to be someone else. If the emotional truth of all characters is being really, really looked at, I can't see how that would work. It certainly wouldn't work for me. I love that George Eliot quote, that “character is plot”. I think that's completely true, that once you know who a character is, what they do and why they do it, it becomes the plot, almost. So I do plan quite carefully though I am prepared to go with the tide if it starts to turn out differently as I write it. However much you think you know before you write it, you don't really know a character until you start to write them.

Mary:  How do you feel about finishing a book? Are you someone who feels relieved to get it done or are you sad to say goodbye to your characters and leave them behind?

Morag:  I anticipate the finishing as if I'm going to the best party in the entire world and I think, I can't wait, I can't wait, I can't wait. I picture this sense of liberation and think of this joy I'm going to feel. When I do actually finish I feel absolutely bereft, restless and awfully exhausted so I neither rest nor do anything. I feel completely post-natal, it's ghastly.

Mary:  Are you quite a disciplined writer? Do you manage to do a certain number of hours every day?

Morag:  I feel terribly unhappy if I'm not working, really unhappy. It's not quite discipline because it's what I really want to do. I need discipline for the ironing but getting to the desk and writing is what I actually want to do. I have this need to do it.

Mary:  That must be wonderful, to have a job where you feel you've got the need to do it, to be driven.

Morag:  It sometimes also drives me crazy. A peculiar mixture, really.

Mary:  What is it you're working on at the moment?

Morag:  The new one's called Puccini's Ghosts. It's set in 1960 in a small coastal town in Scotland and it centres around an amateur production of Puccini's last opera, Turandot. It's really a coming of age kind of novel and the protagonist is a fifteen year old girl. I hope it's sort of grimly funny because the idea of an amateur production of Turandot is preposterous. It's all to do with first falling in love and that hideously obsessive way that first love can practically bring you to your knees and about the difference between theatre and life and reality and illusion. It's full of opposites, I think and someone who's trapped between them all. It's about in-betweenness, in a way.

Mary:  It sounds very interesting. It's a new project, it's something very different from what you've done before. Are you enjoying working on it?

Morag:  It's too difficult. It's bloody hard, I mean it's a nightmare really. It always is. I just need to crack on and do it. so I get glimpses of, "yes, this is working". It's just a bit odd at this stage but it's coming along.

Mary:  How do you see your writing career developing? Are you wanting to continue with different things or do you think you'll go back to the crime genre a bit more?

Morag:  I think I'm heading into slightly more literary fiction. I don't know how far I’ll go. I've got another idea mapped out that's too fragile for scrutiny at the moment but I think it's going to go into the more literary. I'm passionate about and love wonderful writing, it really excites me and I just aspire to write better. I loved writing the crime and I may go back to it but I've got other fish to fry at the moment.

Mary:  You mentioned P. D. James, right at the beginning, as your initial trigger. What other influences have there been on your writing career?

***Morag:  Whether they're influences or not, I'm not sure, but I love Annie Proulx. I love Michael Cunningham. I love Margaret Atwood. Patricia Highsmith and Jean Rhys, particularly the Paris novels, not The Wide sargasso sea but Leaving Mr McKenzie, novels of alienation, really. British writers I love are Candia McWilliam, who hasn't published a novel for a while but the three she's done are just beyond brilliant. Graham Swift, I'm a huge admirer of his.

Mary:  Quite a broad spectrum, by the sound of it.

Morag:  Yes, yes. I mean there's just so much good writing around.

Mary:  Do you manage to get much time to do very much reading anymore with all your own writing?

Morag:  I do just read all the time, it's just a form of nourishment, necessary. Yes, I do read, all the time. I do have to read, always.

Mary:  It's an essential part even to helping one's own writing career, to see what's around.

Morag:  Well, exactly. But it just feels like something very elemental and nourishing.

Mary:  That's a very nice way of putting it. It sounds so positive and affirming somehow.

Morag:  It's not a question of what's the competition is up to, it's really just a need, I think.

Mary:  That's wonderful, that's such a positive approach. Going back to your own books, are there any plans for them to be recorded as audio books?

Morag:  Well, they are all done as unabridged audio books but I don't think there's anything in the pipeline for abridged audio.

Mary:  How have you found them? Have you been pleased with the way they've worked out?

Morag:  Actually, no, a lot of mispronunciations, though they've been getting better and Half Broken Things has been very well done.

Mary:  How do you enjoy the social side of writing, the book promotions and so forth?

Morag:  Oh, I'm very happy to do that, very happy. It's terribly lonely and I'm really quite gregarious so that actually not working with other people and endless hours in a room alone is quite weird. So the chance to get an airing and particularly the chance to meet other writers and readers, I really like. I did actually do some lecturing, quite a lot so I enjoy talking to audiences. I'm lucky in that way because some writers just find it horrifying.

Mary:  I know you've worked in higher education and museums and galleries. Have you found that's been a positive influence or contribution to your writing?

Morag:  No. No, that all feels pretty irrelevant, really. I enjoyed it at the time and it was all quite absorbing but I never thought any of that was my life's work. so I don't even think about it. The lecturing was a handy skill. There's no terror in standing up and speaking in front of a group of people. I think that's a very useful skill now. But I wasn't remotely fired by it. I enjoyed what I did and I put effort into it but I haven't given it a backward glance.

Mary:  so you don't miss it at all. You can't imagine ever using any of it for the plot for another novel by the sound of it?

Morag:  No.

Mary:  This is probably a difficult task, given the number of writers you've already named but do you think you could pick out ten books you would like to take with you if you were marooned on a desert island?

Morag:  ‘Postcards’ by Annie Proulx. I would probably take something by Garrison Keillor, maybe Lake Wobegon summer. I would take Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler. I would take Emma, Jane Austen. I would take The Hours, Michael Cunningham, wonderful novel. What else? What else? I would take The Blind Assassin, Atwood. Probably Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy and I'd definitely have a George Eliot. Anyway, that's the gist.

Mary:  Thank you very much for talking to Shots, Morag.





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