Welcome to R.N. Morris, who has kindly agreed to join me on my blog and answer some questions.
R. N. Morris is the author of thirteen novels.
The latest is Fortune’s Hand, a historical novel about Walter Raleigh.
He is also the author of the Silas Quinn series of historical crime novels. The series, set in London in 1914, began with Summon Up The Blood, followed by The Mannequin House, The Dark Palace, The Red Hand of Fury and The White Feather Killer and The Music Box Enigma.
A Gentle Axe was published by Faber and Faber in 2007. Set in St Petersburg in the nineteenth century, it features Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Dostoevsky’s great novel, Crime and Punishment. The book was published in many countries, including Russia. He followed that up with A Vengeful Longing, which was shortlisted for the Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award (as the CWA Gold Dagger was briefly known). A Razor Wrapped in Silk came next, followed by The Cleansing Flames, which was nominated for the Ellis Peters Historical Novel Dagger.
He also wrote the dystopian thriller PSYCHOTOPIA.
Taking Comfort is a standalone contemporary novel, written as Roger Morris.
Your latest book, Fortune’s Hand is based on Walter Raleigh, can you tell us a little about it?
The book imagines what was going through Walter Raleigh’s head at the moment of his execution. The whole of his life flashes in front of him in those few seconds when the executioner’s axe falls. Raleigh is the narrator, but because he is experiencing the extreme moment of his life, he has a kind of supernatural ability to see everything. His childhood passes in a blur. He becomes a soldier, then is drawn to London and Queen Elizabeth I’s court and his career begins. I didn’t want the book to be a fictionalised biography, so there are fantastical episodes too. There’s also a very dark episode at the centre of the book (which is historical) when Raleigh suppresses a rebellion in Ireland. I wanted to explore the two sides of his character – the creativity and the brutality – which I think epitomise the duality of Elizabethan period as a whole.
What intrigued you about Raleigh enough to write about him?
Raleigh was obviously a hugely charismatic man. He was an adventurer, soldier, courtier, poet, prisoner – and in many ways an outsider. He became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, despite being from gentry stock rather than a noble family. Naturally, he had many enemies and rivals. What struck me though, was that he seemed to believe that if he imagined something, it would become real. So his life was lived as a kind of epic poem. He was capable of persuading men to risk their lives, or to invest their fortunes, in pursuit – essentially – of highly speculative ventures. For example, he undertook two voyages to discover the fabled city of El Dorado and bring home its gold. I think, in a way, I was seduced by that dream of treasure as much as any of the sailors and explorers who followed him were. Of course, he was a hugely flawed man too. If he was a visionary, his vision is not one we can approve of today.
I note from your blog that you are not a historian so how did you go about your research and what did you find most difficult?
It’s true, I’m not a historian, I’m a novelist. For me, the point of research is to fuel my imagination to the point that I can begin telling a story. I usually start by reading general histories of the period, biographies of key figures, social histories, literature of the time. I start broad, and then narrow it down, looking for those telling details that can bring the period to life, both for me and my readers. I’m trying to get inside the heads of the people who lived during the Elizabethan period. So everything and anything that can help with that. But you have to put a limit on it. There comes a point where you have to lay the history books to one side and start writing. You may go back and check things, but generally you’re trying to get to a position where you have the confidence to start making stuff up, and it will feel authentic because of everything you’ve absorbed. The hardest thing for me was writing a novel that had a real historical figure as it’s central character. I had to find, or create, my own Walter Raleigh, who serves the purposes of the story I want to tell, rather than having my story driven by all the other Walter Raleighs that exist in different accounts.
You are also the author of The Detective Silas Quinn Mystery Series, was it different writing about Raleigh? If so, how?
Well, for one thing, this is not a detective story. It’s not Walter Raleigh going about solving crimes, so apologies to anyone who was expecting that! The period is very different too. The Silas Quinn books are set in 1914. Going back to the Tudor period was new for me. With Silas Quinn, we’re at the beginning at the 20th century, just forty odd years before I was born, in fact. There were telephones, motor cars, electric lights and cinema. Whereas, the world of Fortune’s Hand feels very remote and alien by comparison. Not just in terms of the physical texture of the world, but intellectually, morally and spiritually, too. Religion was obviously far more central to people’s lives in Elizabethan times, and in fact, you could be arrested, tortured and killed if you were the wrong religion. It’s hard to understand now, I think, how central that conflict between Anglicans and Catholics was. My protagonists are very different too. Not only is one completely fictional, and the other a historical figure, but also I think Quinn is far more inhibited and troubled, a modern man struggling with his place in the world, alienated and ill at ease. Whereas Raleigh is not troubled that much, even when he commits an atrocity that really ought to trouble him.
Can you give us a hint on what you’re currently working on?
I’m writing a contemporary-set novel. It’s a thriller, possibly you could call it a spy thriller. There’s humour in it. It’s like one of those Graham Greene or Eric Ambler novels, where an unlikely innocent gets mixed up in something they don’t understand. I don’t want to say too much about it, in case I jinx it. Sorry!
Name a book everyone should read
Oh, this is a hard one! I would probably give a different answer to this every time you asked me. In terms of historical fiction, I’ll pick The Siege, by Helen Dunmore. It’s the story of the siege of Leningrad and it’s just incredibly powerful and moving and vivid. You feel like you’re actually living through the terrible famine that came about as a result of the Germans’ blockade of the city. It’s a tremendous feat of empathy and imagination, written very starkly but beautifully. But what impressed me most was how she brings her characters to life. It feels more like clairvoyance than fiction. An amazing book, amazing writer.
Do you have an author who inspires you?
I should really say Dostoevsky, because I was inspired by his book Crime and Punishment to write four novels – A Gentle Axe, A Vengeful Longing, A Razor Wrapped in Silk and The Cleansing Flames – using his character Porfiry Petrovich. So that’s kind of a clear, direct line of inspiration. His approach to writing is very inspiring too. He was a gambler in his life, and I think he took huge risks in his writing too. There are big philosophical ideas in his books, but his characters always seem stubbornly human and unpredictable.
What’s the best thing about being part of the writing community?
In my experience, writers are very supportive of one another. I’m a member of one particular online writing group where we all celebrate each other’s successes, feel each other’s pain, and are generally just there for one another. It’s a kind of self-help group for people suffering from this weird condition of writing. Because writing can be a very lonely business. You’re on your own at your desk, working away on this thing and you’ve got no idea whether it’s any good or not. It’s hard work, but hard work that you’ve volunteered for, possibly for very little or no remuneration. You could be watching the telly like everyone else. And no one understands, no one gets it, why you do it, except other writers. I think the internet has been wonderful in bringing writers together. There are lots of writers on twitter and Facebook, for example, and I have the sense of us all looking out for each other. And it’s great because sometimes you actually get to meet up in person, usually at someone’s book launch or a festival.
If you could have a conversation with anyone from history who would it be and why?
William Shakespeare. Because he’s William Shakespeare! I mean, it would be the opportunity to learn from the greatest English dramatist ever. I’d ask if I could shadow him for a few days and watch him work. I might ask about the identity of the Dark Lady and the Fair Youth. I might bring up the fact that some people say he didn’t write his plays and see what he has to say. And I’d also tell him about the TV drama Succession – I have a feeling he’d like it.
Lastly, do you have any advice for budding authors?
Don’t give up! I wrote a lot of rejected novels before I managed to get published for the first time. They ended up languishing on my hard drive or gathering dust in the loft. There were times when I got very discouraged. But the trick for me was not to become too fixated on any one of these novels. You’ve got to be prepared to move on. My attitude was pretty much: “OK, so you don’t like that? I’ll write something better.” You learn something from everything you write, so nothing is wasted. Listen to what people say but make your own decisions, if that makes sense. What I mean is, other people may suggest changes to your work. They may be right in identifying that something is not quite working there, but they are not necessarily right in suggesting what the solution is. The solution has to come from you, I think, because no one understands your characters and your story as deeply as you do.
Thank you so much for all those answers, I find it genuinely interesting to find out who authors would talk to if given the opportunity and which book they recommend. Shakespeare is a very good call, I’d be interested in listening to that conversation! I recently read and reviewed Fortune’s Hand and it’s absolutely brilliant! If you’d like to read my review, you can find it here
For those who would like to know more about R.N.Morris you can find him at his website
You can also find him on Twitter: @rnmorris