Ep 251 Why you need an author persona. And meet AWC graduate Margaret Morgan, author of ‘The Second Cure’.

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In Episode 251 of So you want to be a writer: Meet AWC graduate Margaret Morgan, author of The Second Cure. Discover why you need an author persona and learn about your chance to win a copy of Amazing Australian Women by Pamela Freeman (AWC’s awesome Director of Creative Writing). Val and Al will be at the SCBWI Conference in Sydney. What you need to know about author newsletters.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

Links Mentioned

Join Me At The Sydney SCBWI Conference in 2019

Author Newsletters: The Good, the Bad & the PLEASE JUST STOP!

Creating An Author Persona For Interviews And Live Events

 

 

 

Writer in Residence

Margaret Morgan

After practising in criminal law, Margaret Morgan became a professional writer, working as a screenwriter and script editor in television for many well-regarded Australian drama series (including Water Rats, A Country Practice and GP). Margaret’s short fiction has published in literary journals such as Meanjin and Going Down Swinging. Her works for stage (librettos for music theatre) have been performed to critical acclaim and full houses at major Australian arts festivals.

Margaret recently completed a bachelor’s degree in Advanced Science in Biology at Macquarie University, where she focused on plant science, genetics and parasitology. While studying, she won a prize for popular science writing in an international competition judged by Professor Richard Dawkins.

Her debut novel, The Second Cure, was published by Penguin Random House Australia.

She lives in Sydney with her family.

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Competition

Win new book ‘Amazing Australian Women’

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@valeriekhoo

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Interview transcript

Valerie

Margaret, thanks for joining us today.

Margaret

Thank you, Valerie. Great to be here.

Valerie

Now, first and foremost, congratulations on the tour de force that is your debut novel, The Second Cure. Well done.

Margaret

Thank you.

Valerie

It reads like it has been written by somebody who has been a novelist for years and years and years. So, congratulations.

Margaret

Thank you.

Valerie

For readers who haven’t read the book yet, though, can you tell us what it’s about?

Margaret

It’s essentially about a plague that hits Australia and the rest of the world. And it’s affecting human brains. Now, half of the people seem to love it, half hate it, for different reasons. Some people want to be infected, some people don’t.

And one of the effects that it has is making people more politically left wing. And it takes away the religion in some people. It causes synaesthesia in some people, which is a melding of the senses.

So while some people see this as a sort of saving of society, others are horrified. And so a schism develops. And my protagonist, who is a parasitologist, is trying to find a cure. But she is beset by doubts when she realises that a lot of people, including her partner, who is a composer, really, really love being infected.

So it’s a personal as well as a social conflict.

Valerie

It’s such an extraordinary premise. And yet as the story unfolds, it’s so believable. I think for a number of reasons. But I have to ask, how in god’s name did this premise come into your brain? It’s so different!

Margaret

Well, I was studying biology at the time. I went back to university and did a bachelor’s in advanced biology at Macquarie University. And I was studying parasitology and came across this concept called host behavioural modification, where a parasite actually changes the behaviour and changes the brain of its host in order to ensure that its own survival is increased. Its chances of survival are increased.

So it just struck me as such an amazing thought. And it’s quite common, among a lot of species. But I thought, wow, what happens if this happens to humans? What happens if a parasite changes the behaviour of the humans in order to ensure its own survival?

And so that’s what I did. And it just struck me as a great premise for a novel and an opportunity to explore the sorts of things that I’m really interested in, like religion and politics and power dynamics and personal relationships. So it all just sort of fell into place from that point.

Valerie

It’s got it all, hasn’t it? I think that, even though it does touch on those themes of religion and power and politics and so on, it is essentially a very human story. And you don’t have to be interested in those things – or in parasites! – to get sucked into this story.

You obviously wanted to incorporate your interests, but apart from thinking, okay, this is a good premise for a novel, there’s actually many layers of complexity in this novel. How did you then, when you decided you want to write a novel, decide where it was going to go and how you were going to incorporate all of the things that you wanted to explore? Or did you just start writing and then see what happened?

Margaret

Oh no, I very much plotted it out in advance. Essentially, the characters are all people who I used to explore different aspects of those themes. So that the characters would be personally affected, deeply personally affected in some cases, by both the parasite and the reaction to it, so that I could explore the emotional underpinnings of the story, really.

I mean, it might have been a nice kind of ‘what if’ essay or something, if I hadn’t done that. But I’m interested in character. So I used those characters to dig deep into the emotional heart of the idea.

Valerie

Now, obviously you’re a plotter then. When you say you plotted it out, did you literally do it chapter by chapter? Or did you map out…?

Margaret

Yes.

Valerie

You did?

Margaret

The whole, absolutely.

Valerie

Before you even started writing?

Margaret

Yes, pretty much. I’ve got a screenwriting background. I wrote television for about 15 years or so, TV drama. Shows like E Street and GP and Water Rats, A Country Practice. And that really taught me the importance of structure.

Valerie

Yes.

Margaret

And you can’t write that without having really structured it in advance.

Valerie

Okay. Let’s delve a little bit into your background. Because you actually started off not as a writer at all, but you went into criminal law. Is that correct?

Margaret

That’s right, yes. That was my first career.

Valerie

So at what point, when you were in criminal law, did you think, oh, I might now write for Water Rats? Or whatever. And how did that transition occur?

Margaret

Well, I’ve always loved writing. I’ve been writing since I was a child. I was writing poetry and short stories from about the age of five or something. And it was always something I adored, and I loved studying literature at high school. And then when I went to university I did a combined degree with a major in literature in the arts component.

So it wasn’t as though I hadn’t had a lot of experience in writing. And while I was being a lawyer, I was writing short stories, as well, which were getting published in places like Meanjin.

So the fact that I decided I wanted to be a writer wasn’t a new thing at all. But when I was lawyering, I was just absolutely miserable. There was something about the way that words are used in the legal profession which require absolute clarity. Pinpoint definitions. And it closes down the language, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, people used to love my affidavits. They thought I wrote really good affidavits. But writing a good affidavit is not a literary high point in my life!

So I wanted to explore meaning. I wanted words to sing. I didn’t want words to just be defined down to death. And so I just got more and more miserable.

My then husband, who was a composer, and used to stay at home composing while I went off to the law mines, and he used to say I’d put on my suit and it looked like I was putting on a strait jacket. And I’d come and after a few days off the stories would start bubbling up. But then I’d have to push it all down and go back to being a lawyer. And it just couldn’t continue.

So when I left I had a friend who was working on a TV show that had a solicitor as one of the characters, but they didn’t really know how to do law in this show. So I went in for a day and gave them a little bit of a seminar on legal procedure and terminology, and sort of talked myself into a job as a legal consultant with them.

Valerie

That’s great!

Margaret

Yeah, it was good! And that soon turned into doing story editing and script editing, and eventually script writing. After a few years I worked on a couple of shows and then freelanced. So it was great fun. I loved it.

Valerie

Wow. All right. So obviously you were interested in literature prior to that and you wrote short stories, but did you ever consider that you wanted to do script writing before that?

Margaret

No, not particularly script writing. But once I got into it, I just loved it. It was so much fun. And at the same time, I was also writing librettos for music theatre. One-man opera kind of performances. And they went around the major arts festivals. And that was great fun. I really enjoyed that, too. So that was, getting a sense of writing for stage, was also really alluring.

Valerie

Now, being a script writer is so much more of a collaborative process. And in fact, many moons ago I spent some time in the script department of Water Rats as well, over at Goat Island.

Margaret

Great place, isn’t it?

Valerie

Yes. What a fantastic office to have, right in the middle of Sydney Harbour!

Margaret

Yes, getting the ferry or the water taxi to work. It was so much fun.

Valerie

So lovely. And so it is such a collaborative process because you have to collaborate with, when you’re on the other side of the fence, like a legal consultant or a police man or a story editor. And then the script editor and then you have to take the actors’ acting abilities into account. And all this stuff. Whereas writing a novel is way more solitary.

Margaret

Absolutely, yes.

Valerie

Was it hard for you to adjust when you were so used to working with so many people before?

Margaret

Not really. I mean, I think I’m one of those people who likes to be alone anyway. So it didn’t do me any harm at all to be solitary.

But actually the Australian Writers’ Centre came into its own for me there, because I did the course here, the Write My Novel course after I’d written about 30,000 words. And that allowed me to… Well, not to collaborate, but to get feedback from other people. And it made a big difference.

Valerie

And writing a novel is also a much longer process than writing a script.

Margaret

Oh yes!

Valerie

Especially for episodic TV. So when you first started writing your novel, did you give yourself a timeframe? Or did you kind of know what was in store for you?

Margaret

No, I had no idea. And I did give myself a number of timeframes that were just insanely unrealistic. Because I thought, oh yeah, I should be able to get this draft finished by the end of the year. Why not?

But it’s like climbing a mountain. It is just the hugest job. And even when you think you’re at the top of the mountain, suddenly you realise, no, no, there’s another draft needs to be done here. And oh, I should go and get rid of that character. So it’s a massive process.

And obviously if I had my time over I’d still do it. Because I’ve got published and it’s doing nicely. But if I hadn’t been published, if I’d finished it and it just sank without a trace, I think it would be very hard to tell my former self to do it. Because it’s really a massive job and there’s no promises at the end, you know?

Valerie

Yes, that’s right. But obviously, if you write a good novel, your chances are increased.

So what was useful about getting feedback? Because some people actually don’t want feedback. I know that there are some writers who are too scared to have feedback. Or think that it’s actually going to be fine and all they need is the feedback from the editor.

So you obviously got feedback from the other people in the Write Your Novel course, as well as the presenter. So how useful was that? And what impact did it have on your writing?

Margaret

I think that one of the best things I learned from that course was learning how to critique other people, and taking those skills and applying them to myself and to my own work. Things like pacing and structure and characterisation and point of view and voice. Those sorts of things are those real craft issues. And you’re taught in that course how to apply them to other people’s work. And inevitably that teaches you how to do it to your own.

Not everything that everybody said to me was right. But you kind of, when you hear the ones that are right, and some little bell goes off in your head and you think, yeah, that’s it. That’s the way I should be going here.

And the presenter of the course was particularly good on one or two character points. So that really did help. And it let me set off after that course with a much clearer idea of where I wanted to go with the manuscript.

Valerie

Yeah. So it’s a six month course and I think you’ve hit the nail on the head that people underestimate how incredibly valuable it is to critique other people’s work. Because then you’re looking at it from that perspective, and suddenly you can see the structural holes. Or you can see what doesn’t work. And that immediately makes that a much more innate skill for yourself.

So this book, it unfolds quite… I can already see it as a movie. Now that must come from your scriptwriting background. What principles of scriptwriting did you then apply or overlay into your creative process for this novel?

Margaret

Look, I think I see in scenes. I think I write in scenes. I’m not sure I could write in any other way. I have a kind of a sense of the dramatic shape of each chapter that I’m writing. And that’s stuff I guess has just become ingrained from screenwriting.

And the other thing is dialogue. I mean, I love writing dialogue. And I think that the skills that I learned from that… You know, I didn’t consciously carry it through. But I think it has just become innate. And so that’s why I think a lot of people read it and think, oh yeah, I can see this as a mini-series. Or a movie.

Valerie

Yes. Absolutely. A mini-series. Absolutely.

So can you give me, cast your mind back… Because the book is out now and doing incredibly well. Cast your mind back to give me some time signposts, some timeframes, as to when you started, when you finished your first draft, when you got the deal with the publisher. Can you just give me a little bit of a timeframe?

Margaret

The first idea of it came to me about five years ago when I was working as a sessional tutor in ecology. And I was away on a field trip up at Smiths Lake on the NSW coast. And it sort of just came to me one evening. One of those moments.

And so I started tinkering with it then. And I guess it was about maybe six months later that I did the course at the Writers’ Centre. And then at that point I had a few tens of thousands of words.

When I finished the course, I hadn’t quite finished the first draft, but I did shortly after. And I’m a bit unusual in… Well, when I say the first draft, I’m the kind of person who can’t really just fling off a draft and then come back and edit it. I tend to edit as I go. And I feel really uncomfortable if I’ve left the last chapter messily. I get quite anal about the whole thing.

So by the time that I’d got a manuscript, about 18 months ago I got the manuscript to the stage that I figured it was ready to be seen by the world, it was almost like finishing the first draft at the same time. Except that, like I say, it was a very bitsy process for me. It was kind of back and forth and all over the place.

And then it all happened incredibly quickly, actually. I saw Lex Hirst, who was a publisher with Penguin Random House, at a day long speculative fiction festival and she was on one of the panels.

And afterwards I was so bold. I can’t quite believe I did it! But I just marched up to her and said, listen, I’ve got a manuscript that I think might suit the sort of thing you’re looking for. Because she was talking about the kind of stuff she wanted, and it did seem like my manuscript might fit.

And so she said, yeah, sure, send it to me. So I sent it to her. And I remember saying to friends, so, how long do you reckon it’ll be before I hear back from her? But in fact it was three days.

Valerie

Wow!

Margaret

And she’d read 100 pages and said, I want to meet for coffee. So we did. And within a couple of weeks after that, it was all signed up. And yeah, it was happening.

Valerie

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

Margaret

I know. I still can’t believe it. And I really literally can’t believe it. I see reviews now and I don’t even believe that it’s my novel. How could that have happened? That’s just ridiculous.

Valerie

So talk me through the actual writing process. When you were in the thick of it, writing it, when it was coming out of your brain, talk me through… Did you have a routine? Did you have to fit it around anything else or were you able to focus on it fulltime?

Margaret

No, I very much had to fit it around other things. I was looking after family members with multiple health issues at the time. And so I was unable to work outside the house. So I was using the writing as my escape, my emotional escape, as much as anything.

And so yes. Obviously that meant that I could only write when I could find the time. And there were days, weeks when I wasn’t doing anything, and there were other times when I had a good 12 hours that I could throw myself into it. So it was very bitsy.

And no, I’m not one of those people who gets up at 8 and has a cup of tea and then sits at their just so desk. No. That’s not me.

Valerie

So if it was bitsy, did you have any milestones that you wanted to reach? Or any certain goals, wordcount goals or anything like that? Or did you not care when you were going to finish it?

Margaret

Well, all I wanted was to finish it when I could. That’s really all it came down to. I didn’t have a sense of, I’ve got to have x number of words written by x date. Apart from the vague aspiration of getting it finished.

So no. It wasn’t plausible in the way that my life was running at that time to think in those terms. I just got it done when I could.

Valerie

So after the publisher came back to you and you got the deal very quickly, did it go through another heavy or not heavy editing process? How much more work was needed?

Margaret

I wrote a fair bit extra, actually. I wrote another, oh, 20,000 words I think, in total, afterwards. And I didn’t lose anything, which was great.

So it was more just developing one of the characters in particular further, and tightening up the tension towards the end. Making sure that as it reached the climax that all the characters were in jeopardy in one way or another and it had a kind of momentum.

I’m told it was a light edit. But I don’t know. I have never had an edit before, so it’s a bit hard to compare. But yeah, I was told that it was not a big one.

But you know, it was intense. It was an intense process. But fortunately, Lex Hirst is just such an amazing editor. She is so incisive and gentle and she really, really understood what I was trying to do. So we were completely working as a team and it was great.

Valerie

Now, after you did criminal law and then went into scriptwriting, at some point you decided, oh, I’m going to do a bachelor’s degree in advanced science in biology, studying plant science, genetics and parasitology.

Margaret

Yes.

Valerie

Where in the world did that come from?!

Margaret

It was another ancient passion. I loved biology ever since I was a child. I was a little geek with a microscope, looking at the stuff I found in the bottom of the pond, when I was a child. And so I did all of the science I possibly could at high school. I did physics and chemistry and biology and just loved it. And really, I was very, very close to studying science instead of law when I finished.

And over the years I’d read my New Scientist and Scientific American and go off and do short courses on physics and stuff. But it was never enough. And I just had this ancient hankering.

And so when my daughter was born, 21 years ago, I started… And television, actually, at that point was pretty drear. There really wasn’t much good stuff to write. So I had a bit of a career change then and went into horticulture, and started studying at TAFE. And it was wonderful.

Valerie

What did you study at TAFE?

Margaret

Horticulture. Plants.

Valerie

Oh my goodness.

Margaret

It was great. It was lovely. And at the same time we’d moved up to the bush, north of Sydney. And I was getting right into the native plants and getting to understand the ecology there.

So after that I got an internship at the NSW Herbarium, which is part of the Royal Botanical Gardens. And I was working there on curating mosses. And I worked for a while in the plant pathology lab. And it was just the best place. And at that point there was just no alternative. I just had to do some science formally. Had to go and get a degree, because I was loving it so much.

And honestly, I wasn’t really doing it in terms of thinking, this is going to be my career from now on. It was much more – I’m just going to do this thing that I’ve wanted to do all my life and get a science degree.

Valerie

You were doing it out of interest? It was not because you wanted to become a scientist?

Margaret

Yeah. Although I was working in science. When I was there, I was researching and I got a scientific paper written. And I was working and doing some great experiments on native Australian rices and the effect of climate change on them and things like that.

It was really fun. It was great.

Valerie

So what other secret career have you got? Lay it on me. Just tell us. Come on. Clearly, you’re a renaissance woman of some nature. So there’s something else. Go on. You’ve got a doctorate in something, haven’t you?

Margaret

Oh, okay. I’m secretly a spy. Okay?

Valerie

That is such a varied and eclectic background! And so much study. You must love it.

Margaret

Oh, I do. I do love study. I’m just intensely curious about the world. I just adore it. I love research. I love learning about stuff. It’s so much fun.

Valerie

So what are you studying now?

Margaret

Well, this is the thing. Now that I’m a novelist, I can do anything. I’m just so excited. Because it means that a blank piece of paper now, for me, means the universe. I can write anything I want to. It may not get published, but I can do it.

And it’s just the best thing. I felt like this novel was a culmination, in so many ways, of my different life experiences. But so the next one will be, and the one after that. There’s just so much room there now for me to just explore.

And I love synthesising knowledge. I love the idea of taking knowledge and ideas from a whole range of disparate areas and combining them in interesting ways. That’s the essence of creativity, really, I think. And it’s great fun. So I’m really excited about it.

Valerie

So you obviously love research. And I’m assuming you had to do a fair bit of research for this novel, because you couldn’t have retained all of that from your studies. Or maybe you did?

Margaret

Well, I think I did mainly, yeah.

Valerie

Oh my god. Wow!

Margaret

That’s stuff that I was learning and reading about anyway.

Valerie

Yeah, sure. So with your research process, let’s say your next novel and you need to research whatever it is, do you have a system for research? Do you kind of read and go down all the rabbit holes and retain that information? Or are you a compulsive note taker that has things in really neat piles? How does that work for you?

Margaret

A little bit of both, really. I certainly like a good rabbit hole. I really like seeing where something will take me. And it might end up going nowhere, but it might take me to an idea that’s really going to work.

And I use Scrivener and I keep my files on there and I make sure that I’ve always got a record of the ideas that I’ve got. And for places where I’m setting stuff, I will take photographs or find photographs of places on Google Street View and put them on. Just so that I can kind of immerse myself in the world that I’m creating.

Which is what I’m doing currently. The next novel is set in Australia as well as overseas and so I’m working very hard to get my sense of place working with that.

Valerie

How far into the novel are you?

Margaret

I’ve started writing, but it’s still early days. It’s mainly thinking about character and thinking about plot points at this point. But I’ve got the general shape worked out in my head and I know where it’s going to end.

Valerie

What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?

Margaret

Oh, gee, what would it be? I think it’s probably just the sheer volume of work it entails. The fact that you’ve just really got to be committed to do it.

And there are times when you don’t want to write. But you know that if you don’t want to write, it’s not going to get written. So you’ve just got to do it. You can’t wait for some kind of mystical muse to come and tap you on the shoulder. You just have to get down and do it.

Valerie

I suspect that you have no problem with discipline, considering all of the things that you’ve studied and achieved so far.

What was the best or most unexpected thing that came out of this process?

Margaret

Oh, having Penguin Random House say yes!

Valerie

Well, apart from that. Apart from that, obviously!

Margaret

Gee, I don’t know. I guess it’s simply the fact that I did it. I mean, that’s the thing. I still can’t quite believe it. And the fact that people seem to really like it is just so exciting and unexpected. I’m still in shock, as you can tell.

Valerie

Well, we’re going to circle back and have another conversation when the mini-series comes out, I tell you. And I think maybe you should write a novel based on the inner workings of your brain, because I think it would be endlessly fascinating.

All right. And finally, what would be your top three tips for aspiring writers who’d like to be in the position you are one day?

Margaret

Well, I think first off, you should read. You should just read and read and read. And read across genres. Don’t just read in the genre that you are writing in because it’s going to limit you. I think you need to read the classics, understand what story is from a whole range of different authors and genres. So that would be one.

The other is, well, like I say, don’t wait for the muse. Don’t mystify the process. Basically writing is… Partly, obviously, it’s talent. But most of it is just hard work and accepting that if you’re going to do this, you’ve got to commit to it and you’ve got to just keep going, no matter how hard it feels at times.

And the other one. What would the other one be? I think the other one would be find a community. I found my community through this course. And also through, I went to Varuna afterwards, I got a fellowship to go there after I finished the course here. And I found another community there. And those writing communities are so supportive and wonderful and you don’t feel alone. And that’s important when you are alone as a writer.

Valerie

Wonderful. Well, congratulations on the book. And thank you so much for your time today, Margaret.

Margaret

Thank you.


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