Meet the author
Roz Morris has sold more than 4m books worldwide as a ghostwriter and under her own name. Her new novel is out now.
Congrats on the new book Roz. What’s it about?
It’s a travel diary in the vein of Bill Bryson: Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. It began with a notebook. I’m a notebook junkie and I was given a beautiful leatherbound visitors’ book – the kind of thing you see in country churches, where passers-by scrawl ‘lovely, thank you’. With Lewis-Carroll logic, I decided I would write in it whenever I was a visitor. It lives in my suitcase.
Last December I went with my husband, Dave, for a short break in a folly in Lincolnshire. I got out the book, ready for notes, and we had a chuckle about old escapades. The time in Norfolk when Dave rolled the car window down and it got stuck – a simple malfunction that turns a car into a helpless invalid requiring 24-hour guarding because you can’t park it or leave it overnight.
‘You should put these in a book,’ said Dave.
‘Yeah, they’ll go in a novel sometime,’ I said, and poured more wine.
‘No,’ he said, ‘write them up as travel essays. People like that kind of thing. Think of Bill Bryson.’
‘Ha ha,’ I said, not taking him seriously at all.
To tell the truth, I thought you had to be a famous columnist before you could write a book like that. As the week went on, though, the idea took hold. But would it be horribly self-indulgent? When we returned I asked author friends, the kind of people who would tell me if I had spinach on my teeth. They all said ‘do it’. So did my bookseller friend, Peter Snell of Barton’s Bookshop in Leatherhead. So I did.
There are a few other adventures in there too – including a location that Muddy Surrey readers might recognise – a chance encounter with a lovelorn teenager who I found wandering in the back lanes of Dorking. Indeed, does anybody know him? I never discovered how the story ended, but one of you might know.
And this is your third book under your own name, isn’t it. Is it along similar lines to the previous two?
Not really! I usually write fiction. I love stories with strange edges and big hearts, like Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, or Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveller’s Wife.
My first novel is a reincarnation story, where a person goes to another life to solve a mystery in this one. But there’s a twist – she doesn’t go to the past, she goes to her next life because she’s in a lot of trouble in this one. It’s called My Memories of a Future Life.
My second novel visits the landscape I love – Ranmore Common – and puts it in the future. It’s called Lifeform Three, and it was inspired by the vast Downton Abbey-type houses that used to be all over the country – like Witley Park in Thursley and Denbies House, where the vineyard now is. Witley had an underwater dining room in the middle of a lake – an eerie igloo of glass, covered with algae and streaked inside with rust. I saw a picture of it and thought, I have to put that in a story. I set it in the future when all the countryside has been built on, except for one grand house with parkland that has survived behind high walls. When the story starts it’s been turned into a tourist attraction, and the groundsmen who work there don’t know anything about the old place because their minds are regularly wiped. But one of them starts to have dreams, and in the dream he’s riding a horse – and he needs to know more. I love horses and old houses, so this was my chance to indulge two passions.
But you don’t just write novels, do you. Haven’t you also written a series on how to write books? What prompted that?
I’ve got a series of three books for writers called Nail Your Novel. They happened because I was mentoring authors and I saw the same problems crop up again and again. Many of them wanted to know how to take an idea, develop it and stick with it, so I wrote the first book Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. I followed up with two books about specific areas of craft – Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated and Writing Plots With Drama, Depth and Heart.
How long does it take to write a book? Or is that like asking how long is a piece of string?
It is, rather. I can write non-fiction quickly because I’ve been a journalist. I do my research, rattle out the words and I’m done. I find fiction takes a lot longer. A novel grows organically out of an idea, the characters develop and take on lives of their own. My favourite thing is to go running in the woods with an iPod of evocative music and have a think about a little corner of my book. A lot of my most surprising ideas come that way.
My first novel took about 18 years – but that was because I was also figuring out how to write fiction at the same time. That’s true of a lot of writers – their first book is their apprenticeship. My second novel was three years – which is a more usual timeframe for that kind of book.
I’ve also been a ghostwriter – and that’s different again. There’s a deadline, so you can’t dawdle in the clouds of inspiration. Which is good discipline.
Having ghost written many books – both fiction and non-fiction, and in some cases for famous authors, firstly I’d like to know why these authors can’t write their own books.
Ghostwriting is the publishing industry’s big commercial secret. Sometimes a publisher wants to produce a book by a person with a high profile who doesn’t have writing skills – a sportsperson, businessman, war hero, actor, or anyone who’s got a remarkable story. A ghostwriter is brought in to write the book they would write… if they could. So we have to be good at adopting different personas.
Ghostwriters are also used to continue a popular author’s work if they’re no longer alive – such as Robert Ludlum with his Bourne thrillers. And then there are a lot of books by people you’d think could write, but can’t, so a ghost does the invisible mending. All very hush-hush.
Oh come o, dish the dirt? Pretty please…
If I tell you, I’d have to kill you.
What’s next for Roz Morris?
I’m working on my third novel, Ever Rest. Expect mountains – and a secret ingredient that I’m not telling anybody about until I’m closer to publication. But the first people I’ll tell are my newsletter subscribers – so if that’s tweaked your curiosity you can sign up here.
And finally, what advice would you give to wannabe authors?
Persist. It takes a lot of time to learn writing craft. Make writing a habit, and even if you only write for an hour every other day, the words will add up. Read a lot – most of our learning comes from unintentionally absorbing what works well. Find other people who write so that you can keep each other going and strengthen your own commitment. You don’t have to be a lonely artist in an attic – if you’re shy about your writing in real life, look for online communities. Don’t be afraid to rewrite – no author can get a book perfect first time, redrafting is a completely normal part of the process. Learn about the publishing industry so that you understand where your work fits and what your best options are for getting it to readers. And if you get jaded, reread a book you love – to remind yourself why you started.