Kate Morton had written 60,000 words of a new novel, her third. The gob-smacking success of her first two books, The Shifting Fog and The Forgotten Garden, may have sent her name to the top of bestseller lists in Britain and the United State but, unfortunately, inspiration can be a slippery sucker – here one day and gone the next.
Morton defied her publisher’s deadline and gave up.
“I was a fair way into writing my supposed third book when I decided it wasn’t working,” she says down the line from an Adelaide hotel in the middle of a promotional tour for her fourth book (more on that later).
Her voice is sweet, polite and theatre-polished, which could possibly be attributed to a Tamborine Mountain childhood spent in drama classes run by the former head of the Welsh BBC, Herbert Davies, who owned a bookshop in the Gold Coast hinterland, and his London repertory actress wife Rita.
“I knew the book wasn’t working the whole time,” continues Morton, “but I had a deadline so I kept going. Then I had a new idea and I thought, you know, I’m going to give myself a week’s break [from writing the failing novel] just to get these new characters out of my system. I did, and I realised that this was the book I had to write.”
She let go of the 60,000 words and set to work on The Distant Hours, which became another bestseller (her debut novel, The Shifting Fog, sold to 11 countries and attracted a deal worth close to $1 million). “It was great because I felt very inspired with it, but it was tough time wise because I had a deadline and a third book advertised on the internet and I was only just starting that book.”
NEXT PLEASE: Kate Morton is ready to start on novel No.5. Picture: Gillian Van Niekerk.jpg
Morton’s decision to start again reveals something of the creative process, and also her approach as a writer. “It’s such a strange industry to work in and I have come to the conclusion the only thing I can hold true is to write what I love and believe in it at all times,” she says. “That’s all you have because you can’t pick what people will like or divine which genre is going to be popular.”
Her suspenseful historical sagas, which revolve around long-kept family secrets, don’t necessarily appeal to literary critics who tend to dismiss popular fiction, but the 36-year-old takes her writing very seriously. Even after selling 7 million books worldwide – making her the highest-selling Australian author internationally since Colleen McCullough – Morton relies on instinct over marketing reports. That’s why the 60,000 words had to be shelved.
Morton is an earnest researcher with a passion for history and whose “greatest quest” as a writer is to “disappear down the rabbit hole into another world and take readers with me”. The most satisfying feedback she can receive from a reader is that “they started the book and stopped seeing the black marks on the page because they were immersed in that world and it held them there”.
In her most recent novel, The Secret Keeper, which debuted at No. 8 on The New York Times bestseller list, Morton traverses World War II London, rural England in the early 1960s, present-day London and Cambridge, as well as Australia in the 1920s. At the centre of the plot is a crime witnessed by 16-year-old Laurel and involving her mother Dorothy and an unknown male visitor. Morton explores the mystery surrounding the man and Dorothy’s life before she married and had a family.
It is a theme that many readers will relate to. Laurel searches for “who her mother was before she was ‘ma’ “.
“There’s a moment in everybody’s life when they have that moment of realisation – it’s obvious but also surprising – when you understand that your parents lived an entire life before you were born,” the mother of two young sons says with a knowing laugh.
“One of my persistent themes as a writer is the idea of inheritance, whether it’s a material inheritance, a house or an object, or, more importantly, the type of people our parents are and how this influences how they raise us. The generations influence one another in those really intangible ways.”
Morton completed her master’s thesis on tragedy in Victorian novels – she is completing her PhD – and has long been fascinated by history. While writing The Secret Keeper, she tapped into her interest in the impact of World War II that had been fuelled in 2008 by a walking tour of London. She was struck by the “lived history” that dominated the city.
“You can see on the side of the Victoria and Albert Museum where the bomb blasts happened,” she says, “and buildings in Mayfair that I’d walked past before, suddenly the guide was able to point out a shadowy ‘s’ and an arrow pointing the way to the shelters down the side of the staircase on the outside of the building.
“I guess it’s a bit like theatre; it gives me that tingle of being in the same place as that historical moment, separated only by time. People were dashing down to the shelters and air raid sirens were going off and searchlights were lighting up the sky, and standing there in that moment I could almost see them. As a writer that’s very inspiring.”
She was also keen to explore war’s impact on “ordinary people, those who weren’t bearing arms and fighting on battlefields. That kind of history is more concealed, and I guess that’s why I write a lot of female characters because I think female history is less well known.”
Morton feels a responsibility to write accurately about the periods she uses as backdrops to her domestic dramas, but does her best not to be inhibited by it.
“I find as a reader I don’t want to be aware of the historical details standing out,” she says. “People living in that period would never signpost everything about their way of life. It’s like someone writing contemporary fiction and talking about ‘the information super highway’. We just wouldn’t say that, we’d just ‘Google’ something.
“A lot of my research helps in capturing what I think will pass as an authentic voice, so I read a lot of memoirs and fiction from that time so I can try and attain a lighter touch.”
She describes her recently published hardcover as “a very special book”. For the first time she felt comfortable during what can be a tortuous, roller-coaster experience (remember those lost 60,000 words?).
“It was like, OK, I can judge how this book is going and as much as a process like that can feel under control, The Secret Keeper felt good.”
When we speak, Morton is at the end of a five-week European and Australian publicity tour and she is relishing the opportunity to relax and enjoy the “wonderful, organic time” during which she prepares for her next book.
“I take the luxury of three or four months of scribbling in notebooks and reading quite randomly,” she says. “I let the idea come and strengthen over a period of months and only when I feel an absolute compulsion to go and start writing it down, do I know that I am ready.”
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is published by Allen & Unwin.