Lou Morgan is one of this year’s Debut Authors To Watch. Blood and Feathers, Lou’s upcoming debut, is about the war between Heaven and Hell, and a young woman who gets caught in the middle – which sounds kind of awesome. So, in the spirit of drawing attention to some of 2012’s most anticipated debuts, read on for more about Lou, her writing, and her upcoming novel.
As a debut novelist, I thought I’d start off this interview with something easy: Who is Lou Morgan?
Ha! Somewhere, there’s a team of geneticists working on that very question in the hope of making sure that whatever she is, she never happens again…
The slightly less glib answer is that she grew up in Wales, moved to London for university and somehow never went home. (She also finds referring to herself in the third person makes her left eye twitch, so she’s going to stop that). I studied medieval literature – single-handedly demonstrating that it’s possible to make yourself utterly unemployable – and started writing the occasional short story, some of which were published, some of which weren’t. I love disaster movies, and I’m afraid of squid.
Your first novel, Blood & Feathers will be published in 2012. How would you introduce it to a new reader?
When I took Blood & Feathers to Jon Oliver, my editor at Solaris, I described it as “Alice in Wonderland goes to Hell,” which is as good a place to start as any. It’s essentially a story about a young woman who has never got over the death of her mother, and the journey she has to take to get past that. But this being fantasy, it’s set against the backdrop of a continuing war between Heaven and Hell, with angels on one side, the Fallen on the other and poor Alice stuck in the middle, wondering why she’s being hauled around by an angel with a handgun and a heavy trigger-finger.
Draft Artwork, by Simon Parr
Where did the inspiration for the story come from? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
In the broadest possible terms, I get a lot out of listening to music. I like really “big” music – songs with a lot of scope – so I’m a fan of bands like Pendulum. The same applies to film: I’m a terrible Christopher Nolan fangirl, so I find his films incredibly interesting from a creative point of view.
For Blood and Feathers specifically, the story came from a few different places. I had these ideas that I thought were short stories rolling round in my head, but none of them quite worked and it was driving me crazy trying to work out why. And then it suddenly dawned on me that they weren’t actually three separate stories: they were one big one. I sat down at the table and by the end of the afternoon I had a (very) rough outline for the book.
I warn you I’m about to sound appallingly pretentious. I spent quite a lot of time researching: looking at different portrayals of angels, for example. In terms of reading, I went back to Milton’s Paradise Lost, as well as Dante’s Inferno – both of which have had a strong influence on my version of Hell.
I’ve always been exposed to art: I spent a lot of my childhood being dragged around museums and galleries, but I did like medieval art and architecture – buildings like cathedrals, for instance. I’ve always been curious how these incredibly serene, soaring spaces square with the images of angels carrying swords and wearing armour.
I don’t claim to have any particular faith, so I’m really coming at all of this from the standpoint of interested observer. Someone did actually tell me that they flat-out hated the idea of angels with guns – which was a bit awkward as that’s essentially what one of my main characters is. He’s an angel, with a gun. And he shoots people, and doesn’t always behave himself. But coming from this medieval background where angels do have swords and spears… it sort of seemed logical to me to take that next step and bring them into the modern world. At the same time, that conversation was a real reminder that faith is very important to a lot of people, and while angels and demons and Hell make for a great playground for a writer, you have to be aware that you’re treading on people’s toes.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I was fantastically lucky in that I grew up in a house full of books, and my mother was always reading. Even though she wasn’t keen on fantasy herself, a lot of the books she got for me were, essentially, genre books: things like Alan Garner or Susan Cooper, and Philippa Pearce’s scary stories for children. My dad’s collection of sci-fi books lived in the spare room, and I remember steadily working my way through the Vonneguts and the Gibsons in there, as well as Lud in the Mist. I was also growing up in the 90s, which is when the Point Horror and Christopher Pike books were a huge deal so naturally I read all of those, and some Stephen King, as well as vampire stories – lots of vampire stories.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I spend a lot of time removing the cat from my keyboard, my chair, my books… you get the idea. I do quite a lot of background: making notes in longhand and coming up with some kind of outline and beat-sheet. I have a lot of conversations with myself, too. Which sounds crazy, and – let’s face it – it is. But nobody ever said they wanted to be a writer because they want to be seen as a bastion of sanity.
In terms of being inside the industry, my experience with Solaris has been great. Everyone there is a complete joy to work with, and the publishing process for Blood and Feathers has been so much fun. Jon is incredibly patient and he's a seriously lovely guy. I’ve been allowed to poke my nose in at every step of the process, and I’ve learned so much about how a book goes from being a bunch of words to being an actual book. Everyone on the team has been so keen to involve me and to make sure it still feels like it’s mine. Seeing the first draft of the cover was a big moment, because I couldn’t quite believe how well it fitted the feel of the book and I think Simon Parr has come up with something extraordinary. And yes, I’m biased, but it's so shiny.
All things considered, it's pretty amazing. After all, how many of us really get to do their dream job?
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I think it’s always been in the back of my mind that I wanted to be a writer of some kind. For a while, I was sure I was going to be a journalist, and that was really where I was heading.
At some point in my teens, though, I was starting to poke around the SFF section of the library and I found Michael Marshall Smith’s Only Forward. By the time I’d finished it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, more than anything else. It wasn’t necessarily the plot that got me, but it was the strength of the voice behind it. I had such a reaction to the way the story was told that I wanted to be able to do the same thing, to cause the same kind of response. You can see it in his other books too: take The Servants as an example. Although it’s a completely different book in every possible respect – its genre, its tone… even the name he’s written it under – there’s still that voice behind it.
Up to that point, I don’t think it had ever occurred to me that “making stuff up” was something you could consider as a long-term career goal. I’d always written bits and pieces, short stories and so on – most notably the one I wrote when I was six years old (in crayon, no less) which my Dad produced from his pocket at my wedding and proceeded to read aloud.
The first big thing I wrote was a vampire story, when I was maybe 14. It wasn’t long enough to be called a “novel”, and in fairness a huge chunk of it was me letting a vampire loose in a thinly-disguised version of my school, gruesomely killing assorted classmates. Word about this got out (probably from me) and for a couple of days I was golden. People were desperate to read exactly how they’d died, or to ask why I hadn’t killed them. It was amazing.
The idea behind it never quite went away, and a few years ago I dusted it off and rewrote it from scratch. Almost everything changed: the settings, the vast majority of the characters, the plot… it’s a totally different animal now, but I have huge affection for it because it still feels like it was the first real thing I did. It still needs a lot of work, but you never know: maybe one day it’ll get to come out of the drawer.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
Genre is a handy umbrella. As a reader, it gives you a good idea that you’re heading into new territory: it won’t be two women sitting in a bar, talking about their relationships and how unreliable men are (unless, of course, one of them’s dating a vampire, so they can only meet up at night; and the other one’s dating a werewolf so they have to plan their social calendar around the lunar cycle… Or the bartender’s a dragon. Or the bar’s in space. Or possibly all of the above).
As a writer, genre is complete freedom. Take that most clichéd example right there: that scenario can go so many different ways: comedy, horror, satire or deadpan. You’re suddenly in a world where there are no limits, and where a reader has already given you the benefit of the doubt. They wouldn’t have picked up a genre book unless they wanted to suspend their disbelief. Fiction is a way of making the impossible real, of talking about the Big Stuff, and genre gives you even more ways to do that. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about books with zombies, vampires, witches, angels, time-travel, epic battles… most of them are still, at their heart, about people. Their circumstances may be completely fantastical, but the emotions, the heart, still have to be believable.
There’s some incredibly strong genre work out there, especially in YA; writers who are embracing the opportunity to talk about things which really interest them. The genre-vs.-literary-fiction debate, or the YA-vs.-adult argument have been useful in terms of getting people’s attention, but they don’t really mean much on a wider scale. Every story is different, every writer is different, every reader is different.
Having said that, we’re very lucky that there’s such a strong and passionate community that’s developed around genre literature, and it’s one I love being a part of as a reader. It’s an extraordinary privilege to be given the chance to contribute to it on the other side too, as a writer.
What projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?
Apart from work connected to Blood and Feathers, there’s a few things on my plate. At the moment, I’m working on a new book: a YA horror, which I’m enjoying enormously. Once that’s finished, I have a couple of ideas knocking around which I’d like to give a little more time and thought to: there’s certainly a few I’d like to play around with as novels. I’m also heavily involved in the British Fantasy Society right now as I’m the non-fiction editor for the BFS Journal. It’s a completely different process to writing, obviously, and it’s nice to be looking at things from another perspective. Aside from all of that, if I get a chance, I’d like to revisit the Blood and Feathers universe, as I don’t think I’m quite done with it – although exactly what form that’ll take, I’m not sure!
What are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
I have a terribly short attention span, and I’ve usually got about four or five books on the go. At the moment, that’s A Dead Man in Deptford by Anthony Burgess, which is a portrayal of Christopher Marlowe; Tina Fey’s autobiography Bossypants (which has made me snort with laughter in the most undignified manner possible) and I’ve just started re-reading Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. I’ve also got Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go on the pile and, having been completely absorbed by the TV series, I’ve bought Evan Wright's Generation Kill.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
One summer while I was a teenager, I got a job as a chambermaid in the sole hotel in the town where I grew up. I lasted three weeks. And I fractured a bone in my left hand while shooting a longbow a few years ago, proving that you can’t trust me with anything.
What are you most looking forward to in 2012?
There’s a lot to look forward to. Very high on the list are the conventions. World Horror in 2010 was my first ever convention, and I went knowing no-one, but I made some amazing friends – and this comes back to what I’ve already said about the genre community. Events like Fantasycon, or Alt Fiction, or any of the other genre conventions are always full of such friendly people, and I always have a fantastic time. I was also looking forward to the SFX Weekender, as I’d not been before and I’d heard so much about it.
And, of course, Blood and Feathers will be published in the summer, so I’m incredibly excited about the prospect of it being out there, in front of people. It ended up being an incredibly personal book, and it’s important to me on a few different levels. If even one person picks it up and buys into the story, into the characters and decides that they like the voice… I’ll be happy.
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