Every week we feature a Q&A with one of our Crime Cymru authors so that they can tell us a little bit about themselves. This week, S. J. Morgan talks about her writing and the inspiration that Australia and Wales has had on her writing.
Hello everyone! My name is Sue Morgan and I write under the name S. J. Morgan. Although I grew up in the UK, I have lived overseas for much of my life and I currently reside in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia. In my former life, I was an occupational therapist but writing has always been my true passion. I write across several genres: young adult, children’s fiction, women’s fiction, and, more recently, thrillers. I’ve had two books published: a contemporary young adult novel called Heaven Sent, and a psychological thriller set in Wales and Australia called Hide.
What’s your connection to Wales?
My parents are both from the South Wales valleys (Blaina and Abertillery) so much of my childhood was spent visiting relatives in those areas – and I still have extended family dotted around Gwent. I went to Swansea University to study literature, and I met my Cardiff-born partner there. We lived in Cardiff and in Swansea for some years after Uni before travelling the world and getting ‘stuck’ in the southern hemisphere.
Tell us about your book
My latest book is a thriller called Hide and it’s set in 1983. The story’s locations switch between outback Australia and urban South Wales. It’s about a young man called Alec Johnston who has left his comfortable family home in Cardiff but has now dropped out of university in Swansea. Friendless, and down on his luck, he moves into a grungy flat near the city and meets flatmate Minto – club President of a local bikie chapter. He’s also introduced to Minto’s strange and vulnerable young girlfriend, Sindy. When Sindy starts to view Alec as a possible saviour from her abusive relationship, it earns Alec a big target on his back. As Alec becomes embroiled in Minto’s menacing world, the threats begin to take over. And when Alec has to flee to the other side of the globe, he starts to fear this is one journey from which he may never return.
How does location have an impact on the story and characters?
For me, the vast, dry, dusty setting is the perfect location to begin a thriller. There’s something menacing about the isolation and the heat – and for a stranger, it renders them weak and vulnerable. And that’s how it is for Alec; a young man from Cardiff whose only experience of the wider world is Swansea. He’s at a disadvantage; a stranger in a strange land and this makes the sense of menace more intense and unnerving.
The spark for the story came from a very clear memory I had of the Australian outback. In the opening scene, Alec is hitching a ride from Mt Isa to Alice Springs and he’s picked up by a truck driver. However, it soon becomes clear that the truckie has more on his mind that getting Alec to the red centre. And that, for the reader, is where the story begins.
I wanted to have a contrast, however, between the land Alec finds himself in at the beginning of the story, and his ‘real’ life which consists of a grotty flat in Swansea and a few casual acquaintances. I wanted that sense of aloneness to be part of his life in Wales too – because that’s what makes him vulnerable and, in many ways, ‘easy pickings’.
The Australian outback and Swansea are locations I know well and it seemed natural to bring them into my writing. One of my first experiences of being in Australia was driving along a long, dusty road and being suddenly overtaken by a hoard of bikers wearing Coffin Cheaters patches. I’m sure that provided the initial nudge for the story and I wanted to capture that sense of vulnerability in such a far-flung location.
Who are the main characters in your book?
Well, there’s Alec – a young man who – having just dropped out of Uni – finds himself aimless and disillusioned in Swansea. He’s glad to have escaped his dysfunctional family in Cardiff but senses the problems they had have somehow followed him.
Meanwhile, Minto is the confronting-looking President of the Apaches Motorcycle Club. He is the main ‘player’ at the flat, the one who calls the shots. Other flatmates, Stobes and Black are bikies also, but they conform to Minto’s whims and wishes.
Sindy is Minto’s very young girlfriend. She’s naïve and childlike, and Alec feels sorry for her. She, in turn, sees Alec as a potential friend and even a possible saviour from the violence of Minto. But once Alec starts to help her, he finds her neediness difficult to shake off.
Alec’s parents also play a major part in the novel, each with complex backstories of their own. Alec’s father has just retired from the Navy and is at a loss what to do with his life; and his mother is suffering the long-term effects of a much earlier trauma. It leaves the family as a whole in a state of weakness and vulnerability.
Could you tell us about your writing routine?
I find I need to be disciplined with my time because I am a naturally lazy person who has severe avoidance issues and a crippling addiction to chocolate. Left to my own devices, my Ideal Day would be spent browsing the net whilst eating family bags of Revels.
In an attempt to counter my obvious weaknesses, I try to stick to a firm routine. That routine, while I was writing the last two books was to get up early, go to a local café (preferably one with no wi-fi – like I said, I’m weak!) and write material longhand. After that, I’d return home; transfer the notes to my laptop and (with luck) use that as a springboard for the rest of the day’s writing. I would write all day, with barely any breaks, until it was time for my daughters to return home from school. Then, at night, before I fell asleep, I’d try to map out plotlines to write about the next day.
That was my old routine and it worked well. But I found that, once I had book contracts, the luxury of using my time as I wanted disappeared. Focus had to be on the upcoming publications and that took up a lot of thinking time as well as time for all the practical tasks. And because I had one book coming out, followed quite closely by another, I found the pre-publication activities took over from writing new material.
I wouldn’t have had it any other way, of course. Getting a publishing contract was a long-held dream and I was delighted to be involved in editing and proof-reading; discovering the world of social media and of blogging – but it took me away from the routine of writing creatively and of having the luxury to simply ‘daydream’ about plotlines.
Now the novels are published, I can hopefully find balance again. I’m still involved in book promotion, of course – and that’s ongoing – but there should be more time soon to revisit the writing I’d left unfinished. I’m quite excited at the prospect of returning to my old writing routine.
What did your submission package look like?
When it was on my laptop, my submission package looked, to me, very appealing. I had a solid covering letter in which I introduced myself and the book, plus a list of my small literary victories. I had three chapters which had been thoroughly edited, and I had a one-page synopsis that (hopefully) contained the essence of the book. Sending it to agents and publishers felt exciting, despite the gradually-dwindling number of people I could send the package to.
When the submission package was in my hand, though, ready to walk in for a five-minute face-to-face pitch with a publisher, I had a lot less confidence. Having just three-hundred seconds to convince a publisher to publish my book felt an impossible task. In such a high-stress situation, I knew I’d be lucky to even manage to say my name. And, indeed, it was horrible. I sat in front of the publisher shaking and stumbling over my words. I wanted to just push the sheets towards her so that she’d read them instead of the torture of me having explain them. It was, in short, a disaster. However, I left the package with the publisher, and a few weeks later, had an email asking for the rest of the manuscript. And months later, I had The Call – the one I’d never thought would happen, telling me they wanted to publish.
So, what I’ve taken from this is: never give up. Keep perfecting that submission package even when you have to present it in a way that scares you senseless. Do it anyway because you just never know.
Do you read other novels while you’re working?
I do – because if I avoided other people’s books while I was writing, I’d never read anything. I don’t tend to read at night, however because that is my precious ‘thinking and mulling’ time and I don’t want someone else’s story in my head as I’m drifting to sleep. So, I tend to read on weekends or when I’m waiting in the car/between appointments etc.
I also prefer to read in the genre I’m writing – it’s not necessarily a conscious thing, but just where my head is. So, when I was editing my YA novel, Heaven Sent, I read a lot of young adult books – particularly Australian ones as there is a strong movement for local YA writing. Similarly, when Hide was being edited, I found myself reading a lot more crime/thrillers. I love thrillers with a strong sense of place – and it doesn’t matter where that place is (Scandinavia, Wales, Australia, South Africa) but I find it adds so much more colour and authenticity to the story.
Were you good at English at school? Did you like it?
I loved English at school: both language and literature. In fact, I used to buy English grammar workbooks because I found them fun to do. My mum was a fan of crosswords and word puzzles, so she always had dictionaries and encyclopaedias around the place: I think that ‘thirst for words’ rubbed off.
In English, my proudest moments were when the teacher would choose my story to read to the class. I can still remember almost bursting with joy if mine was picked. There was one time when we had to rewrite a scene from the book The Yearling. It was a sad scene, and the teacher read mine out. At the end, the girl in front of me (a girl who I didn’t get along with), turned to me, blinking, and said accusingly: ‘you nearly made me cry!’ – and I could see from her face it was true. That was a turning moment for me: realising that my words – the way I used them – could really affect someone else.
How much of yourself is in your stories?
It’s very hard to say: ‘more than I intend’ is probably the honest answer. I never set out to make any characters like me, but I think their experiences naturally stem from certain things that have either happened to me, or which I’ve known about.
The beginning of my YA book, for instance, opens with a car crashing into a house. This is something that happened (twice) to a member of my family. Also, in that book, the main character has to wear a brace for her scoliosis – as I did as a teen.
I’ve been asked a lot about Hide and where I got the idea for the confronting characters in that. I think some people suspect I’ve had a dodgy past, but I think you just need a good imagination and perhaps an element of a Doomsday scenario – a sense of ‘what’s the worst that can happen here?’ Although the plots are fictional, I find there are often elements that I can relate to – I have hitched in situations I haven’t been sure of; I have stayed in places that are grim and unsavoury; and (in terms of Alec’s parents who have their own complex backstories) I have worked with people suffering unexpected fallouts from trauma. So, although I don’t believe I am ‘in’ any of my books as a character, I think my experiences are certainly peppered throughout.
Winter person or summer?
Most definitely summer! I love the high temperatures and sunshine here in Australia. I feel almost resentful when it starts to get cold again! And it does get cold – and wet!!
If you were not an author, what would you be?
If I wasn’t writing, I think I’d go back to Uni and study archaeology. I love the idea of uncovering hidden treasures from past generations. And I love the idea of finding physical clues to lost lives.
And finally, five favourites:
Meal – deep fried scampi: I can’t get it over here, so it’s my staple food whenever I go to Wales.
Film – Hard to choose one, but I think Lost in Translation. It’s so wonderfully understated, and I love Bill Murray.
Holiday Destination – New Zealand. It was home to me for 10 years and I don’t think I’ve ever visited a country that has so many ‘wow’ places. It is spectacular.
Drink – A Dan Dare mocktail. I think it was made with blackcurrant and soda and grenadine. I used to drink it at a bar in Swansea. It’s the only place I’ve ever had one, so it’s my ‘nostalgia’ drink!
TV Programme – Gavin and Stacey – feels like a little bit of home 😊
Thanks very much for inviting me to do this for the Crime Cymru website. If anyone wants to get in touch, I can be contacted via my website (which also has links to my social media pages).