UQ alum and successful author Kate Morton talks about the writer's life
“Having readers devour my novels in languages I can’t speak is certainly an incredible experience,” reflects Kate Morton (UQ Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honours) ’99, Master of Philosophy, ’02), as she considers the points in her career where she realised she had made it as an author.
“It makes me appreciate that the books have a life of their own after they leave my desk.”
A life of their own may seem an understatement to those who have read her novels and become entirely involved in the mystery and intrigue of her intricate storytelling.
The accolades speak for themselves: Sunday Times Bestseller, The New York Times Bestseller, international bestseller, Amazon Best of the Month, The Courier Mail’s People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year.
Each book she has published has earned Morton the prestigious Australian Book Industry Awards General Fiction Book of the Year.
They are awards well earned, with Morton devoting two years to each book, ensuring factual accuracy and a story that simply cannot be put down.
“I plot and research for three to four months,” said Morton. “Then I write the first draft in about nine months, adding research where necessary, and then spend the next six months or so working in fits and starts on the different editing phases: structural, copyedit and proofread.
“The following six months is taken up with publication and promotion.
“I’d love to start work on a new book while I’m still promoting the current one, but I seem only to be able to focus whole-heartedly on one story at a time.”
For Morton, the highlight of the process is what she calls ‘play’—the very beginning.
“The highlight is the plotting and planning that takes place before I’ve even typed ‘Chapter One’,” she said.
“It’s a period of absolute play in which I spend months scribbling down ideas in notebooks, conjuring the story to life in my imagination.
“There are no wrong answers, the possibilities are endless and the potential unlimited as I haven’t yet had to trap my ideas in concrete form.”
Morton’s unique and involved style of writing has captured readers’ attention and concentration as they attempt to figure out what they know is coming: her signature twist that leaves audiences wondering how she could have even imagined such an ending.
“It’s very important to me that the mysteries in my stories are sufficiently complicated to keep readers guessing.
“The best mysteries are those where everything necessary to solve the problem is hidden in clear sight, so I need to employ a lot of misdirection.
“It’s a lot like assembling a puzzle: in the beginning I need three or four pieces to fit together to provide enough of a kernel around which to build the rest of the picture.
“As a reader and writer, I prefer books with rich, vivid textures and layers of plot and meaning.
“If my setting, characters, plot or sense of place don’t feel real enough, I find it very easy to lose faith in the book I’m writing.”
As a high school student, Morton was unaware courses in English Literature were on offer at universities, with much of the selection information focussing instead on careers—a perplexing concept for an artist who loved English and to learn.
She suggests she fumbled her way through her undergraduate years in a number of Arts majors, before finally coming to the University of Queensland to complete her honours in English Literature.
“It was a complete revelation to discover it was possible to study books and writing, and to learn how to read in a deeper, more fulfilling way,” said Morton.
“I won a scholarship to undertake my Masters and studied tragedy in the Victorian novels of Thomas Hardy.”
For those considering a similar career path, Morton suggests allowing yourself the time to read in our busy world is essential.
“Learning to read critically is a very useful skill for a writer, as indeed it is for everyone, but having the time and space to read at all is the most important thing.
“Voracious readers can’t help but develop an instinctive feel for narrative shape and all the other elements necessary to construct a story.
“A book is made up of thousands of ideas, some of them only tiny fragments or impressions, which combine to form a whole. Part of being a writer is collecting them all and then recognising which ones belong together.”
As with most creative pursuits, Morton suggests instinct and conscious effort are essential.
“Don’t give in to writer’s block: it’s better to keep moving—even if it’s sideways for a time instead of forwards—than to fall out of your novel’s world.
“Write what you love—there’s always research for the things you don’t yet know.
“And remember that you are the best and most qualified person to tell your story.”
Currently in the final phase—promotion—for her next future-bestseller, The Lake House, Morton has no plans to stop any time soon.
“I’m not sure that anyone who makes a living as a writer ever feels entirely like they’ve ‘made it’.
“Creating something from nothing brings its own rewards and enormous pleasure, but no matter how many books you publish the next one always starts with a blank page and a blinking cursor.”