Interview with Nicola Morgan
Did you come from a bookish background?
We certainly had lots of books and reading was valued. On the other hand, they were all very dusty and were mostly written by dead people, which didn't inspire me to want to be a writer. I had a very classical education in every way and although I value that as a background, it was quite restrictive and left little room for inspiration and innovation or literary rule-breaking, which is what I enjoy most now.
Who were your favourite writers as a child?
I loved myths and legends, (more dead people), so Roger Lancelyn Green was a favourite; I was pony mad, so all the Pullein-Thomson sisters and anyone else who wrote horse books; I was brought up in a boarding school, so all the Enid Blyton boarding school books (because they were so far from the truth!). And then I had various phases through my teenage years, like my Thomas Hardy phase and my Mervyn Peake phase. I LOVED the Gormenghast trilogy because it was so original and over the top.
As the veteran author (in the nicest possible way) of over 80 books, what's your favourite among them and why?
I can actually think of a different reason why each one of them is my favourite but I think I'll say Mondays are Red, my first novel - because it is wild and carefree and over the top and I wrote it before I had deadlines and understood about following rules. I know it's a weird book and that you either love it or hate it, and that's exactly the sort of book I wanted to write. All my others have been a bit more self-disciplined - perhaps technically better but less me.
How did you go about doing the research on the human brain for your Blame My Brain book?
All the early research into the teenage brain comes from the US, so I used the University websites over there, where the research is directly published. I also emailed lots of the scientists at the cutting edge of this very new field, and I found them unbelievably generous in their help. Without the internet and email, this would have been so much harder. I was able to be utterly up-to-date and to check anything I was unsure about and discuss it with the real experts. I read a lot about the brain anyway, and have done for years, so I tended to know where to look.
What is so distinctive about British (or Scottish) children’s and teen fiction?
That's a complex question. One of the problems (and it's a bit scandalous, actually) is that in Britain we read very little childrens'/teen fiction translated from other languages, so we can really only easily compare ourselves with American and Australian books. I'm a fan of American and Australian teenage fiction - it's very hard-edged, very uncompromising, very raw, and is often aimed slightly older than much of ours. But I admire the subtle control that many British writers have over their subject-matter, the care with which they treat their readers and also the different voices which reflect the different parts or aspects of the UK - so you have David Almond's N-E English voice, and Catherine Forde's Glasgow voice, and Bali Rai's British Asian voice. I think we are not afraid to write a story for the sake of a story, rather than to reflect some burning issue of the day. I think we are sometimes a little gentler with our readers (which some readers may prefer and others not, but I think its gives a greater variety). I'm hugely generalising, for the sake of answering the question - and actually I think there's so much variety in children's and teenage books everywhere, that you can really find what you're looking for on either side of the Atlantic.
How healthy do you think the reading habit is among children these days?
Hmm, well, I'd love to be optimistic, and usually I tend to be positive about things and I hate doom and gloom merchants. But there's no doubt that books are in competition with other things which are easier and seem trendier in a world that values money and glitz and celebrity more than the deeper, subtler pleasures of reading a great book. On the other hand, two things make me stay pretty optimistic: first, children's authors are writing more and more wonderful books and working very hard with schools to foster a love of reading amongst children; and also, those children and teenagers who do read, read very keenly and with no less understanding and passion than they used to. Children's authors get many emails from readers so we KNOW that the effect of books on readers has not diminished over the years - it's just that the less keen readers have drifted off to do something else.
If you could choose any story to live in, what would that be, and why?
My favourite book when I was much younger was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. Lovely things happened in this book, like iced sugar biscuits arriving in the girl's room in the middle of the night, and beautiful horses appearing ready to be ridden, and stunning clothes appearing for her to wear. The house was always cosy and geraniums bloomed even in winter. How could I NOT want to live in this story?!
Can you introduce one author you think people should be reading?
No, because I don't think there's any 'should' about it, except that people 'should' read the books they like. BUT, I would like to make one radical suggestion - next time you are in a bookshop, ignore the tables with the 3 for 2s (even if my books are there!) because those are the books that someone in a Southern English (usually) head office has decided to promote. No, be different, be bold - go and browse the other shelves, and if possible find a book-loving bookseller who can recommend what you might like. There are many more brilliant books that are never promoted or advertised. Why should you read what someone else tells you should read? And why should you read a book because someone has decided to make it cheaper than it should be. Don't be manipulated!
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers of children's/teen books?
Read a lot of modern children's/teenage fiction first, of the sort that you would like to write. Styles and expectations have changed enormously and what you THINK you might remember from your childhood is a) probably wrongly remembered and b) probably no longer saleable. Also, writing a teenage book does NOT mean putting in a load of supposedly cool words - they'll go out of date before your book is published and they are not what teenage writing is about. Tell a cracking story, through the viewpoint and concerns of a teenager, never patronise, and keep the voice utterly consistent. Oh, and don't give up the day job - writing children's books hardly ever pays well, at least at first.
Describe your latest project.
My next book is historical fiction again, like Fleshmarket. It's called The Highwayman's Footsteps and is set is the dark, dangerous, dastardly 18th century in a time of struggle, injustice and poverty. It's got no teenage angsty stuff in it but is simply meant to be a crackingly exciting adventure. I describe it as being 'Robert Louis Stevenson on caffeine'. And I am currently writing the sequel to it, The Highwayman's Curse.
- Add to BasketFleshmarket - Paperback
Set in 1820s in Edinburgh, a city of cruel contrasts between the lives of the rich and poor, and home to the Resurrectionists - the notorious body-snatchers Burke and Hare, this is the story of a boy who must survive the pain of his mother's death, at the hands of the famous surgeon Doctor Knox.