Conversations with Friends #1: author Anna Morgan
Author Anna Morgan: “It’s a huge freedom to sit down and listen for your characters.”
On why we write, intimate magic, our Creative Writing Masters & defining creativity
In this new interview series, I chat to my creative friends about their wants, needs and fears. Conversing openly and intimately as friends, there’s real depths to discover. I can’t wait. In this first installment, I chat to Australian author (and friend) Anna Morgan.
From (international publishing house) Hachette: “Anna Morgan was born in Sydney, but spent most of her childhood surrounded by mountains in Nepal and Tibet while her parents were part of an international community of health professionals. Navigating this cross-cultural life made her a curious observer of people, although most of her time was spent reading Enid Blyton and dreaming of going to boarding school. This did not cushion the shock of shifting from home-school in Tibet to an all-girls high school in Melbourne when her family returned to Australia. ALL THAT IMPOSSIBLE SPACE explores some of the intense and convoluted friendships that thrive in this setting. Anna completed a MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University in 2015, and now lives in Melbourne with her husband. She works as a bookseller.”
Warning: This piece contains book spoilers!
Imme: I’m just having coffee on my couch and looking out the window at the dreary sky. It’s grey, it’s autumn, the leaves on the trees in my street have already come off. And I’m nervous for this conversation with you, which is crazy because we send each other voice messages every so often and we know each other so well, but simply because I called this ‘an interview’, it feels formal and scarier. I guess we’re going to talk about that! So it’s all good.
I sleep much longer now that it’s autumn and the days start grey. I sleep until 11 if no one wakes me up and I dream, I dream so much. This morning I dreamed I was living with Nev and Laura from Catfish and they were sort of my parents, we played a lot of pinball machine? Then we also had a rabbit, but the rabbit had really long fake nails, so whenever you would pet it or want to cuddle it, it would accidentally scratch you. I think it was accidental. My dad had built a beautiful Mediterranean soft-orange wall with cute tiles in the backyard and that was my last glimpse onto summer. Then I could see the neighbours across the street come back from their holidays, still in their summer dresses and thin clothes, and I was mean-spiritedly thinking that now they were also back into reality. Cold days. Laura and I sang a song from the Into the Wild soundtrack and I woke up with the song still in my mind. It’s a good soundtrack. I transitioned into the day like this.
I was wondering whether you remember your dreams – and what was the last dream you remember?
Anna: “Woah, such a crazy dream. Well – actually it feels a lot like the dreams I have as well. I mean maybe this is obvious – from whatever I’m watching or thinking about or reading often seeps its way into my dreams. I definitely do remember my dreams, they’re often very intense, very intense emotionally. And they pretty much always have people I know in them, or people from tv shows I’ve been watching – not so much from books. Maybe the visual isn’t as intense? I know that I’m too stressed at work when I start dreaming about the bookstore. Which does happen. Sometimes I have horrible stress dreams, like that my book has come out and it’s accidentally got one of my best friend’s names in it and they think it’s about them and they’re really mad at me. Or that I’m getting sued.
I’ve had one dream where I died and that was SUPER intense. I was being chased and I still remember the woman’s face. It was this woman on the other side of a door. The door between us was open and I was on one side and she was on the other side. She then turned to look at me and I knew she was about to kill me. She lifted up a gun and I saw the bullet leave the gun and I was trying to close the door before it hit me, but I wasn’t quick enough. The bullet hit me – and then I woke up. The weird thing about that dream is I can remember her face so clearly, even though she isn’t someone that I know.
I’ve heard a theory that everyone in your dreams is someone that you’ve seen in real life. So it might not be a friend or someone you know, but maybe someone you sat opposite from on the train. I’m wondering if someday I’ll see this woman again – this woman who killed me in my dream. I also often have dreams about being up high or being somewhere where it’s very steep. A lot of the time I will be up a mountain or driving a car up a mountain and it’s getting steeper and steeper until it’s almost vertical. And then I fall off – and then I wake up. Falling into the void off the impossible mountain. The dreams that you have in the morning are stranger. The ones where you wake up and fall back asleep.”
I: Oh my god. What if you ever do see this woman? What if this is someone you come across on the street?
The theory of people’s faces in dreams being people you know from real life makes sense – the only thing though, is that you also often dream about people from tv or films. Like in my case, with Nev and Laura. So in theory this woman could just be an extra in a random tv series you watch. Or, you know, you could be sitting on the tram with her on a daily basis. This makes a VERY GOOD crime or mystical plot.
Starting on a story – “A scene that’s giving me hope.”
I: I think dreams are extremely interesting as a source of the subconscious and I often use them as a starting point in short stories. I just write down exactly what happened, however crazy, and let my brain wander from there. Apparently, these things are already in my subconscious so I might as well draw on them and use it. It makes sense to me that I could use that ‘prompt’ and that my brain would then automatically take me further. I write lots of my stories this way, and it’s also how I started my novel. I think this way of working has to do with a VERY strong, urgent sense of mood.
Do you have something that you use as a starting point for your writing? Do you let it come to you or do you actively think out a story?
A: “I like the idea of starting stories from dreams. Pretty much every time I sit down to do writing, I start doing a 15-20-minute freewriting exercise of whatever’s on my mind. And a lot of times, especially in the morning, I’m writing down my dreams. So I definitely understand them being the start of stories, or definitely at least a moment. Or an emotional feeling. Or an image that will help and lead into something else.
Most of my stories have started with one moment, one scene, that I can picture really clearly. For my first book ‘All that impossible space’, it was the kiss scene. The two characters lying under the stars, talking about mysteries, holding hands, kissing in a very adorable teenage way. I could just picture that. I could feel it very clearly, I was there when I wrote it. The emotional intensity of it and all the uncertainty and the kind of magic in the air as their hands touch for the first time. It was the first thing I ever wrote out of the novel even though it happens about halfway through the novel. And it didn’t change that much throughout all the edits. I tweaked it and I edited it and I took things out but mostly the scene stayed the same. A lot of the lines are still exactly the same as that first thing I wrote. I think it was what gave me confidence to keep going. Pretty much everything else from my early drafts fell away and didn’t end up in the final draft but that scene did, and I felt like I had something there to kinda hold on to. Like yeah, this is the tone that I want. Or I want to give my characters this moment, so I have to write the rest of the book for them. And the other cool thing from that scene is that that’s where the title comes from. The title is a line from the book and I really, really love that. The fact that it comes from this one scene that has survived from the first original ideas of the book – all the way through to the end.
In my second book there’s a scene that I really do like, one moment, when they’re swimming in the bioluminescence in the ocean and it’s all clinging to them like stars. It’s like they’re swimming through the stars. That’s a scene that’s giving me hope. A scene and an image that I’m like.. even if everything else doesn’t work out, I can hold onto this. I can build around this.
Both of those are based a bit on my own life. Yeah. But I can imagine how you could get that kind of moment from a dream. A moment that forms the heart of a story. Even if it’s not necessarily the most important plot point. There’s something about those scenes that feels like it captures the tone or the essence of the whole story.
But then a lot of my writing is more kind of.. building it up from the outside. Who are these characters? What is the conflict between them? What will happen if I put them in the same room? How can I make the conflict worse? What would they do next? External thinking through the craft of writing. And I think those bits are good as well. But for me, the part of writing I love the most, are those kinds of mystical moments or scenes that seem to spring up from somewhere else.”
Intimacy in writing – “We want to be understood.”
I: Thank you for that. I was nodding along all the time because I’ve been trying to explain what’s the most interesting about writing or what it is I care so much about. You’re right, it’s that ONE powerful mood or that feeling. That scene that comes from somewhere deep within, but somehow you didn’t even know you had it in you. Or the mood’s transformed into something else, but it’s there still and it’s very vivid and it needs to come out.
Even with stories I wrote in 2013, or 2012, there’s still a very apparent mood of a scene that has been the starting point of the entire story. Sometimes I can still feel it. Even feel it very well after six years. Six! It’s a very specific mystic thing that can be so small and I cannot explain what it is – but I guess that’s the point. That’s why I want to write it down. Because I need to build upon that ‘thing’ that’s so urgent in my brain. I’m already there, I’m in that feeling, like you say you can picture it super clearly, you’re there, but you can’t really explain why it’s in your head. So it needs to be on a page. That way, I can try to analyse it to make sense of it all. And to hopefully get that initial feeling, that mystic mood, come across and have other people feel it too. I want to launch them into that moment.
Even though the feeling’s very much mine. In a way it’s very personal and intimate and I want to keep it, with me. That might be similar to dreams. When you wake up, you’re only left with one bit. It’s not necessarily story or plot, just feeling or mood or a detail. One bit that sticks and that you spend the rest of the day carrying with you. That’s what you use in your writing, to try to pin down and build the other bits of story around. And then you create the rest.
A: “So about intimacy and those mystical, vivid moments that come to you… How they feel quite intimate and you almost don’t want to let go of them. But something in you wants to share them..
I felt like what you said was a real lightbulb moment for me, because I think the whole reason why we write, really, is because we want to be understood. We want to present something of our experience – or the experience of being human – out into the world and have other people read it and understand it. And connect with us. It’s such a human thing, looking for connection, to be understood. Looking to express things that feel impossible to express.
I think that’s why I love those mystical moments so much, because it’s not something that’s easy to talk about. It’s a very intimate thing, you’re trying to capture an emotion, a mood, a bit of really what it feels like to be you. And that’s why it’s so exhilarating to share that with other people and have them recognise themselves in it. I think really that’s the heart of writing. It’s about feeling less alone and connecting us to other people. Maybe that’s why those moments are like the heart of a story. You need something that’s vulnerable and weird and intimate and true. You need something of that at the heart of a story for it to be worthwhile. That sounds very judgmental. Not worthwhile, but true in that kind of creative strange way.”
This is me unpacking Anna’s novel and crying a little. Anna and I had so much to discuss that I decided to cut the interview into two. To be continued!