Kate Morton: Brisbane-based best-selling author

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Kate MortonKate Morton is a Brisbane-based author who has enjoyed huge success at home and overseas. Since publishing her first book in 2006 she has become one of Australia's biggest selling authors internationally and her books have been published in more than 38 countries.

Kate's fourth novel is The Secret Keeper. It follows the stories of two women – Laurel who witnesses a shocking crime in her childhood home and Dorothy, her mother. The novel shifts constantly between modern-day London, Laurel's childhood in the 1960s and Dorothy's life in the late 1930s and during the Blitz of WWII. Like her previous novels, The Secret Keeper combines Kate's supreme storytelling abilities with her love for English history and mystery.

Kate published her first novel, The Shifting Fog, in 2006, The Forgotten Garden in 2008, and The Distant Hours in 2010. All three novels have been number one bestsellers around the world, including in the UK and the US, and have one the Australian Book Industry's Book of the Year Award.

Click play to listen. Running time: 16.37

the-secret-keeper

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle
Hi, I’m Danielle Williams from the Sydney Writers’ Centre in Milsons Point. Today we’re talking to Kate Morton, best selling author of four novels. Today we’re speaking to her about her latest novel, The Secret Keeper.

Hi, Kate! Thanks for joining us.

Kate
Thanks for having me, Danielle.

Danielle
Tell us a bit about the latest novel.

Kate
OK, the latest novel is called The Secret Keeper, and it opens in 1961 when a teenage girl called Laurel is sitting at the top of her childhood tree house while her family celebrates her birthday on the stream that runs through their farm and having a picnic. But, Laurel is sixteen, and the swinging ‘60s are about to start, and although her family – a really big, gorgeous family – she’s dreaming about a boy she likes and a theatre school she wants to go to in London, and this future she just can’t wait to seize. But before this idyllic summer’s afternoon is over, she will have looked through the window of the tree house and witnessed a shocking crime, something that changes absolutely everything. And the rest of the book is set partly in the present, when Laurel is now a woman in her 60s, and partly in Blitz time London, as she tries to get to the bottom of her mother’s secret past in order to find out what really happened that day and why.

Danielle
Now I understand that this is actually a story that you wanted to write for a long time.

Kate
Yeah.

Danielle
Just tell us a bit about that. It was the Blitz that you were fascinated by?

Kate
As a writer I love to fill my books with things that I really love, I’m quite selfish in that respect, and two of those are the love for the theatre and my obsession with Blitz time London and life on the home front. And I had wanted to write about both of those things for such a long time, but I think I avoided each because I was worried that because they were so important to me I would somehow do them a disservice, you know, with the Blitz rendered as window-dressing, rather than conveying the texture of what it must have been like to live and breathe and exist in that time. So, it took me quite a while, four books in fact, before I finally felt that I was ready to do it.

Danielle
Then the process of researching it, given it was two topics that you were so fascinated with, was that precious still there after you had researched it? Or did you constantly feel a bit nervous about using these in your story?

Kate
I do a lot of research before I start, and I really need the world of the story to feel completely vivid and alive for me before I’m ready to type Chapter 1. So, with The Secret Keeper, once I decide that I was ready to write on the Blitz I did lots of conventional research. I can’t help myself, I buy books wherever I am. And, so I read everything that I could find, in particular memoirs, and diaries, and letters, so that I could really hear the voices of the time.

But, I was fortunate because in 2008 I was in London for three months, and I was able to give full bent to my love of the period. So, without even thinking, as a writer, I went to the imperial war museum, I took a fantastic walking tour of Blitz time London that really brought it to life. And, in fact, when it came time to write The Secret Keeper I relied on that so heavily that I was able – I thanked Clive Harris who gave us the tour in the back of the book, because he was just a wonder, and he was able to point out all of those parts of London that are living history, they’re still there – the black lamp posts that are bent at the top from the heat of blasts, and the old ghosted shelter ‘S’ written on the side of buildings that present-day people are just walking back and forth past them and not paying any attention, but to me as a writer, and as a person, I mean that’s real history, and all of a sudden I can picture myself and see what that might have been like in 1941.

Danielle
When you’re writing history, and particularly with The Secret Keeper, is it difficult to really nail that sense of place?

Kate
Yeah, it is, and that’s something that writers, I think by nature, can be quite self-loathing, and when you write something and you print it out and read it and it’s not as you imagined, it’s suddenly – it’s clunky, or wooden, or thin, and as a writer I will print out every chapter as I write, and I’ve heard it said that you should leave your editing hat off when you’re writing, but I just can’t. I print it all and I read it, and I can’t stand what I see, so I scribble all over it, and try and add texture and depth. I type that in, print it, and it still feels thin, and I do that up to ten times per chapter, because for me I need to feel that the world that I’m creating is vivid, as I leave that chapter and move onto to the next, or else I lose faith in the project quite easily. I find that by doing that I come to know so much more about the place and the characters too, because by trimming their dialogue, making it more natural, cutting it even and inserting gestures that convey the scene, I come to know them so much more during the process of the first draft.

Danielle
So, those chapter drafts, do you do those before you move onto the next chapter?

Kate
Yeah, I do.

Danielle
OK, alright.

Kate
I really need to. I get a bit anxious if I feel that I’ve left too many scrappy chapters behind me.

Danielle
Yes. Well, following on from that, I mean there is a lot happening in this book, it’s three different time periods, very different characters, different family dynamics, but there is a real sense that you’re very carefully guiding the reader through.

Kate
Good, I’m glad.

Danielle
So, is there a really long planning process for something like that?

Kate
Yeah. There is, luckily for me I really love that part. I spend three or four months just simply researching and researching around the subject, and I sort of discover my storyline. You know, I might have a very vague idea when I start of, say, the time period and the sort of mystery I want it to be, perhaps what the family’s secret is, but then I do lots of research and by doing that I’m able to pull out the threads and get a much clearer picture of what I actually want to write. So, when I start writing it’s almost a compulsion that, “It’s time, I have to get this down.”

And then I always know what the ending is, even though I keep the freedom to change it if I come up with something better. And I know the beginning in quite some depth. And some of the key scenes or things I’m looking forward to writing along the way, but then throughout the ten months or so that it takes to write the first draft, I frequently have to stop and remove myself from the computer, lest I write scene after scene that I know that I’ll end up cutting, and that’s when I know it’s time to sit down and scribble out ideas for what will happen in the next few chapters, but I enjoy that part.

Danielle
Yes, yes. Interestingly, I think I saw something in an article on you that in your third book there is a very light twist that actually came to you very late in the writing process.

Kate
Yeah.

Danielle
Does that happen often?

Kate
It does. And that’s one of the exciting things about writing. I think if you knew it all before you began, I don’t think there would be any of the excitement and thrill that you’d need to get through something that would take the better part of a year, I mean that’s the fun. And frequently, I mean with The Secret Keeper, I knew what I wanted the sort of twist to be, but I had no idea how I was going to effect it. I learnt over time to trust that that will come, you know, while I’m working on it, and it did. In fact, when I wrote the sort of revelation in The Secret Keeper I didn’t even realise I had done it as I was doing it, I’d type, type, type, and then I sort of went, “Oh, I just did it, I think that’s it! I think that might be it!” And I read it over and went, “Yes, it’s happened,” and that’s a wonderful feeling. It sort of felt for me the way I hope it will feel for readers.

Danielle
I was just about to say, you must feel quite confident that readers are going to get that sense as well, if you feel that way writing it.

Kate
Yeah, as a writer I definitely feel that. I mean I came to writing as a reader, so for me, you can never guess what other people will enjoy, but the clearest sense I have of what someone might – the experience they might have when they’re reading my books is how I feel when I’m writing them, so I let that be my guiding principle.

Danielle
Yes. Now, writing wasn’t your first career choice. You actually were planning on a career in theatre, I believe?

Kate
Well, I finished school and I started a law degree, which lasted six weeks before I decided that was definitely the wrong path for me. I’d been studying speech and drama growing up on Tamborine Mountain, just as one of those extracurricular things that you do as a kid, and I loved it.

My teachers, Herbert and Rita, were a married couple and she’d been repertory actress on the London stages in the 1950s and ‘60s, and he had been the head of drama for Welsh BBC and was a playwright and he knew Dillon Thomas, and Richard Burton, and people like that. So, you can imagine they were the sort of people – I met them as a ten year old and they were 70 and 60 respectively. And entering their world really changed my life. I didn’t realise it at the time, but certainly looking back I do. And they ignited in me a love of the theatre, which I carry to this day, and as a consequence I thank them in absolutely everything I write, and not on purpose, because they influence is so great that I feel them with me when I’m writing.

Danielle
I mean, despite the fact that you’ve sold over 7 million books, which is an astounding figure, and in just six years I think…

Kate
Yeah.

Danielle
But, it’s not like you just kind of walked into this, what was the most challenging thing about sticking with writing and pushing until you got published.

Kate
I wrote two manuscripts before I was – my third was the one that was picked up for publication, and I suppose… I can understand why people stop, but for me it was never an option, because I just loved writing the moment I started, and I couldn’t have given it up if I had tried. In fact, when I started my third manuscript, which became The Shifting Fog, I really was convinced that I would never… I had come to terms with the fact that I would never be a published writer, and that was OK. I just had my first son, and I felt completely at the other end of the spectrum, from the world of publishing as I saw it. So, I felt very freed by that in retrospect, and I put everything that I love into the manuscript and was able to write something that felt completely different to my first two attempts when I really was writing with a publication in mind.

So, I mean that was difficult, and of course, to get the news that your manuscript has been shown to everybody and nobody wants it, it is extremely upsetting and depressing. But, if you love writing, then new ideas come and the joy really should be in the process.

Danielle
You mentioned having the freedom with your third manuscript, when you weren’t looking at publication.
Then of course the second, third, and four – they’re all deadlines.

You have a publishing deal and that sort of thing. Has that changed how you think about the process? Are you stricter with yourself when you sit down to start a project?

Kate
It hasn’t changed my process, because I was always quite determined, I guess, to write everyday, because I feel if you don’t you fall out of the world of the book, so I like to write… obviously, not every Sunday, I don’t sit down and write for hours. I have kids, so I have a busy family life too, but I try and write very regularly and every weekday, but I always did that. And, it’s not something that I have to force myself to do, because I start to feel kind of antsy if I’m not writing. You know, it’s like this other world constantly going on in the back of my mind that I’m neglecting. I think when you’re a writer you sign up for a lifetime of distraction, there’s always this made up world that you’re thinking about while you’re going about your everyday life.

Danielle
So are you planning on a fifth novel? New ideas are already starting to fall?

Kate
They are, and I have the notebook. At the end of each book, the sort of process at the end of the first draft and the editing, it’s like this huge snowball, and it’s very emotional, and I find that I write the last three chapters in a single day, because the story is just coming together and you can’t stop, and it’s really an exhilarating time, but it’s really wearing as well. And every time I think, “OK, I’m going to have a break after this, I’ll just have a little break,” but guaranteed the day after I mail off a manuscript I find myself sort of next day kicking about the stationary isles looking for the notebook for the next one.

Because, you know, the ideas come and it’s, like I said, I feel sort of bereft if I’m not working on something. And so I had the ideas for ‘book number five,’ as it’s creativity named at the moment, before I even started Secret Keeper, so it’s sort of nice to be able to you know, go back to that notebook and start scribbling away. So, I’ll spend the Christmas holidays reading research about Victorian London.

Danielle
Oh, very exciting.

Kate
Yeah, I can’t wait.

Danielle
I think that’s a topic fairly close to your heart?

Kate
It is.

Danielle
Your PhD was on Victorian literature?

Kate
Yeah, and as a period I just love it, because so much of the skeletal frame of our present day world was being constructed then, whether it’s scientific discoveries, or medical, or people’s ideas about religion, physical buildings, I mean the London underground was being built at the time, and we still use these technologies and we still use these buildings, and we’re still debating the same scientific issues, and I find that really exciting.

Danielle
That does sound exciting. Just one final question. What’s your advice to new writers?

Kate
My best advice is, you know, people always say, “Write what you know,” but I think you should write what you love, because you can always research the bits and pieces that you don’t know, and I think you spend such a long time with the world that you’re trying to create and breathe life into that you have to love what you’re doing, and you have to love the story you’re telling and the time and place it’s set in, or else you won’t be able to convey that to other people.

Danielle
Yes, that’s excellent advice. Thank you very much for speaking to us today.

Kate
Absolute pleasure.

Danielle
Good luck with the rest of the book tour.

Kate
Thank you very much for having me.

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