Author interviews

A conversation with author and TED speaker Ann Morgan

I recently got the chance to interview author and TED speaker Ann Morgan (Beside Myself; Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer) whose new novel Crossing Over released in March, exclusively in audio on Audible.

As a bookworm, you definitely would have heard of Ann’s incredible project, A Year Of Reading The World–she also spoke at TED about it! If you haven’t watched it, I would highly recommend watching it right away.

A voracious reader herself, Ann has a dynamite writing voice and it’s apparent in Crossing Over. I’m only 20% into the book at the moment but I’m already rooting for the main characters. Adjoa Andoh has also done a stellar job with the narration.

Q & A

1.     Tell us a little about Crossing Over.

Crossing Over is the story of an unlikely friendship between an elderly woman with dementia living alone in a cliff-top farmhouse on the south coast of England and a traumatized Malawian migrant hiding in her barn. On the surface, the two characters have little in common and in some ways they can never fully understand one another, but through their interaction they gain new perspectives on their own experiences and uncover more similarities between their lives than initially meet the eye.

2.Crossing Over deals with a lot of painful issues like dementia and PTSD. What motivated you to write about them?

I’m fascinated by representing altered mental states in narrative and how mental illness affects storytelling (something I explored with bipolar disorder in my first novel, Beside Myself). Many therapies are built on the theory that telling a story can help a person move past a traumatic event – so what are the implications for people who are unable to articulate what has happened to them coherently? It struck me that bringing together two characters whose storytelling is compromised – one through having to operate in his second language and having PTSD, and the other through dementia – might provide an interesting way to explore this.

“Many therapies are built on the theory that telling a story can help a person move past a traumatic event – so what are the implications for people who are unable to articulate what has happened to them coherently?”

3. Both Edie and Jonah show how tough it is to be afraid of your very own surroundings. How were you able to portray this so realistically?

Thanks. I hope it’s realistic. I spent a lot of time imagining my way into their situations. Other books helped me to do this – John Bayley’s brilliant and moving account of his wife Iris Murdoch’s decline, Iris, for example, helped me to get inside the skin of living with dementia. In addition, I drew on news footage, real-life encounters and TV programmes, such as the ground-breaking BBC documentary Exodus(put together from footage recorded by numerous people trying to cross illegally into Europe), which helped me to appreciate some of what Jonah might have gone through to reach the UK. There was also a lot of factual, historical research to make sure that the events in the book were conceivable. After that, the challenge was to filter all this material through my own feelings and insight to try and make sure that it was true to what a person in these situations might experience.

4. Are the characters you write based on people you know in real life or completely fictional?

I never base characters on real people, at least not consciously.

5. How has reading books from different cultures as part of your A Year of Reading the World project influenced your own writing?

It’s made me much bolder and more willing to take risks. I have a greater awareness of the complexity of situations around the world and am more conscious of some of the assumptions that underpin my own thinking and the stories that surround us here in the UK. I am much braver and more imaginative in my writing because I have experienced a much wider range of storytelling techniques and seen far more ways of imagining and looking at the world.

6. A Year of Reading The World put you in touch with avid readers from different parts of the world. What are your thoughts about the role of social media in bringing together the international literary community?

It has amazing potential. However, I worry that the extraordinary freedom that existed in the early days of the internet is shrinking. While it is necessary to find ways to protect vulnerable people from the potentially harmful effects of unlimited access to material and communication, the drive towards government control and monetisation of recent years is curbing some aspects of what made my project possible. The internet is becoming a splinternet, where we are all shut in our own little versions of the web, which are algorithmically adjusted to reflect our views (and the views powerful organisations want us to hold) back at us. If I set out to read the world in a year now, I’m not sure it would be possible to reach such a broad spectrum of people and stories as I did in 2012.

“The internet is becoming a splinternet, where we are all shut in our own little versions of the web, which are algorithmically adjusted to reflect our views (and the views powerful organisations want us to hold) back at us.”

7. Quite a lot of South Asian readers (including yours truly) go through this literary rite of passage where they realize their bookshelves are filled to the brim with English and North American authors, with very little books from their own countries. This could be a matter of personal taste, but in the cases it isn’t, how do you think publishing houses (global and domestic) can help with introducing people to their own cultures?

More sensitive commissioning is part of the answer. In India, for example, I’m heartened to see greater focus on literature in languages other than English. I’ve read a number of great translations of Indian literature in recent years, the most recent example being Arunava Sinha’s translation of former Kolkata rickshaw-puller Manoranjan Byapari’s There’s Gunpowder in the Air. Increasing the plurality of perspectives and stories available in the English language, which was traditionally used to broadcast the viewpoints of the external colonialists, is very important. But we shouldn’t forget that readers also have a part to play. Publishing is a business, after all. Publishers need to make money and they need to be confident that their books will sell. If we want to see more books reflecting underrepresented cultures, we need to put our money where our mouths are and support projects that do this.

8. With your own project and Corrine Duyvis’ #OwnVoices project, the international book community is reading more diverse books from different cultures by the day. How do you think publishing can help us cover the long way we still have left to go?

It’s a challenge but I think part of the answer lies in ensuring that a broader range of people are involved in the publishing industry. Most human beings are innately conservative – we are drawn to what we recognise and what we know. If you have people from a narrow range of cultures and backgrounds making all the decisions about what is published, you will inevitably find the same sorts of stories coming out over and over again.

9. Is there a specific culture or place you’d like to write about in a future book?

Not particularly. The story tends to come first for me and the place second. Most of the places I write about are fictional and never clearly pinpointed – although we know Jonah is from Malawi, we never learn the precise name of his region or village. The same is true of Edie’s home on the south coast of England and the hometown of the twins in Beside Myself. Being a rather impractical person, I find that specific details about real-life tie me up in knots. Generally, I prefer to make up what I need as I go along, creating a post office or a bank where I need them to be, rather than worrying that the story can’t work because in real life the nearest doctor’s surgery is actually five minutes up the road.

10. As an author who’s also a voracious reader, what advice would you like to give avid readers out there who’d someday like to write their own book?

Use your own reading taste as a guide to the sort of book you might write. If you love nothing more than curling up with a crime thriller, recognise that a strong plot is likely to be important to you. Similarly, if your favourite kind of reading involves immersing yourself in a slow-paced literary novel, don’t set out to be the next Dan Brown. You are your first reader and your first task is to write something that that reader will enjoy.

About Crossing Over

Edie is struggling. She’s increasingly confused, but she can’t let the women in the village find that out – they’d only talk. But she’s forgetting so much – forgetting to wear matching clothes, forgetting to bake one of her walnut cakes for the WI sale…and forgetting to lock the door…until one day she wakes to find Jonah in her house and herself in her past.

Jonah is struggling. The journey to England was illegal and dangerous, and he’s the only one who survived – and he still hasn’t made it to London. Everything will be fine if he can just get to London. But can he leave Edie to look after herself? And can he hide from the authorities? And from his past?

Crossing Over by Ann Morgan is available on now.

About Ann Morgan

Ann Morgan’s writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Independent, the Financial Times and the New Internationalist. Her first book, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer(Harvill Secker/WW Norton), was published following the success of her project to read a book from every country throughout 2012. Her best-selling debut novel, Beside Myself (Bloomsbury), was released to great acclaim in 2016. 

I’m so glad I got to pick Ann’s brains! Isn’t she an incredible person?

Do check out Crossing Over on Audible if you want to listen to a dynamite book.

~ Shruti

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