Lockdown Interviews: No12 Helen Morris interviewed by Joan Taylor-Rowan

Helen Morris (Solstice Shorts: Sixteen Stories about Time, Liberty Tales, Departures, Five by Five, No Spider Harmed in the Making of this Book) interviewed by Joan Taylor-Rowan (London Lies, Five by Five, Stations)

Joan:          I love the specific details in your stories, the visual metaphors are so strong. What do you do to capture the visual detail in your stories – do you keep notebooks, diaries?

Helen:      I am no way that organised!  I do have a very strong visual memory to the point where I can recreate a scene and wind it backwards and forwards in my mind.  I am naturally quirky so see things aslant and if you send me a photo I’m always the person zooming in on the background detail not the thing you’re trying to show me.  I like the less trod path.  I do love metaphors!  They are the tangy brown sauce on the sausage of a story.

Joan:        In two of your stories , Simon le Bon Will Save Us and Telling the Bees, you write in the voices of young people – in the first a pair of wild teenagers, and in the second a much younger child. In both the voices are very strong and authentic. How do you manage this?

Helen:      Goodness me.  The wild teenagers were easy because I can remember those times so clearly.  Bunking off school to smoke Marlboro in the park.  Being insanely in love.  Obsessing over the Top 40.  So I just had to transport myself back and there it all was at my finger tips.  Molly the young girl (she’s not named in the story, but that’s her name) was much harder.  I didn’t want her to sound twee.  Or like an adult trying to put on a child’s voice.  She was based on my sons who lost a karate friend of theirs very young to leukaemia.  Watching them grieve was very powerful.  The ‘people should die in age order’ logic was a direct quote from my middle son who was eight.  And the youngest one who was six wouldn’t go to sleep because ‘Josh had died in his sleep’. But they still retained a very powerful connection with Josh and often talked about him as if he was still here.  I drew on that to bring that authentic voice to Molly.

Joan:        You are particularly strong on conveying emotions.  I am particularly thinking of the heartbreaking Telling the Bees. You convey grief and numbness, in a range of sensory ways, but unusual ways too. How do you achieve this?

Helen:      When I was growing up my family were respite foster carers for children with disabilities.  I got to meet some great people.  But many of them died very, very young.  And some of them having never experienced eating or sexual love or many of the things we take for granted.  I used to share a bedroom with them when they stayed and it had a profound effect.  I very much carry them all with me.  I am also MASSIVELY emotional myself as anyone who knows me will tell you.  A right proper drama queen.  I laugh very loudly and snortingly.  I do big snotty crying at the drop of a hat.  I am very passionate.  And I put the warrior in social justice warrior. I am also neurodiverse so I see and experience the world quite differently to neurotypical people.  So I think I often write in a way that is distant but parallel to real life but touches it enough for us to recognise the experiences and see them afresh.  So I lend you my brain for a bit.

Joan:        Classic question: what inspired these stories? They are all so different, a fantastical  LOL, a fable in Troll, a recollection of childhood in Simon Le Bon will Save Us ( a great title by the way). What were the sparks for these stories?

Helen:      Pretty much all of my stories start with me thinking ‘what if’.  What if a Twitter troll was a real troll?  What if I tried to write about a very short time period in real time (Memories).  Simon Le Bon was written for an 80s New Year’s Eve Party! So it was soundtracked as it was read which was glorious. It’s dedicated to my sisters who were massive Duran Duran fans.  The other stories again are ‘what ifs’.  What if the menopause was a trigger for something unexpected?  What if the internet developed into something we hadn’t foreseen?  They’re often quite twisted – just like me!

Joan:         Describe your writing process, are you what my college tutor refers to a s a “pantser” or a “planner”. Do you plan everything in advance or set off, and wing it… work by the seat of your pants?

Helen:      I am the biggest panster in the world!  I never plan anything.  Winging it all the way!  I squeeze my writing in between work, a family and a lot of swimming so if I tried to plan it would never happen.  Some stories I start and then stop and then have to come back to.  Some I write all in one go.  LOL I wrote without the sub plot and then I remembered Blake’s 7 always had two plots going on (one on the Liberator and one on whichever planet they were on) so I added a second!  I love Blake’s 7.  It was the first programme I really became obsessed with as a child.  The complexity of the themes were fantastic.  And not at all heroic and saccharine.  Dark and morally ambiguous.  Delicious.

Joan:        Which authors do you like to read. Which was the last book, or collection that knocked your socks off?

Helen:      I always come back to Louis Sachar’s Holes as the book that totally astonished me.  It is just like nothing I’ve ever read.  It’s got a beautiful symmetry and is hugely original.  It also has a grand redemption arc and the baddies get their come uppance (yeay!).  It’s very funny and hugely sad and air punchingly satisfying. I was also totally blown away by Watchmen by Moore, Gibbons and Higgins.  Again it’s a work of spectacular originality and the graphics are wonderful.  I am quite eclectic in what I read.  I do love Frankenstein and Moby Dick and I also love His Dark Materials.  A bit of a magpie.

Joan:         Now we’ve all been thrown into this sci-fi novel which is covid 19, do you think it will feed into your work, are you already imagining your post-covid stories? In fact are you able to write much at the moment? How do you find it is affecting your creative life?

Helen:      I’m not writing at the moment.  I used to try and write weighty and meaningful stories but I think what I actually enjoy most is funny stories where the world ends up as it should do.  There is always a lot of humour in times like this and that’s one of the ways we pull through, but it’s still too close to write anything and there is too much tragedy.
Joan:         Can we expect a novel, or are you in love with the short form. What is it about the short story that attracts you?

Helen:      I don’t think I have the attention span for a novel!  Also as a pantser I think novels are much harder work in many ways and you have to do research and serious writerly things and I’m just never going to do that!  Short stories are the perfect length for me.  You can cover the ground you need to but it’s never a huge chore or epic voyage.  I’m much more into the quick win! So I guess what attracts me is they’re low effort and high reward and that will frankly do for me!

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Preorder No Spider Harmed… – out 8th August for our eighth anniversary!

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