Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Gothic whispers in historical novel

By Nicky Pellegrino , Herald on Sunday Oct 24, 2010
Kate Morton. Photo / Martin Bleasdale.

In Kate Morton's novels there is always a house - a grand English mansion or castle, a place where generations of a family have lived and died, and an atmospheric setting where secrets are revealed and tragedies unfold. Morton writes best-selling, historical mysteries that are an irresistible blend of Daphne du Maurier, mixed with the Mitfords and a dash of Gosford Park. In all three so far the central character has been a building.

"I have a thing with buildings," admits Brisbane-based Morton. "History is intangible, buildings are not. They're a way of touching history I think.
"We moved around a lot when I was a child," she adds, "and without wanting to psychoanalyse myself I do wonder if that's why I'm enamoured with places that last for generations."

Morton lives in an old Queenslander weatherboard house with her composer husband and two young kids - a world away from the aristocratic British milieu where she sets her stories.
She describes her books as "gothic with modern sensibilities" and writes about the play of the past on the present, of doomed love affairs and regrets that last a lifetime.

The latest, The Distant Hours (A&U, $49.99), is released next month. It's the tale of the three elderly Blythe sisters who live in a vast, crumbling castle called Milderhurst, left to them by their eccentric writer father.

All three are damaged by the disappointments of half a century ago, especially the once beautiful and talented Juniper. And then along comes Edie Burchill, desperate to solve the riddle of her mother's link with Milderhurst, and to discover the truth about the famous children's story once written there.

Morton's initial inspiration for the novel came when she read a non-fiction book called Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After The First World War by Virginia Nicholson. "I was fascinated by it and got a feel for the inner life of these women we recognise as real stock characters - the spinster aunts," she explains. "Many of them had been raised to marry and when that option was taken away by the war they had to find other ways to fill their lives."

She was certain that characters just like those women would populate her next book. However, she spent eight months struggling to write 50,000 unexciting words before the Blythe sisters made their appearance. "All the while they must have been whispering in my unconscious," she says. "In the end I couldn't ignore them. So it became a very different book."

Originally Morton set out to be an actress rather than a writer. Raised mostly on Tamborine Mountain in south east Queensland, she left Australia to study speech and drama at Trinity College, London.
"If I could have acted in the Royal Shakespeare Company I'd have been happy, but I don't think the reality of coming back to Australia and being a jobbing actor would have appealed quite so much," she admits.

Instead Morton embarked on an English literature degree and met people who wrote books. Before long she'd started working on a story of her own.
"That one didn't see the light of day but it did get me an agent," she says. "Then I wrote another and no one wanted to publish that either. It was upsetting but in retrospect it was the best thing."

Her third attempt at a novel The Shifting Fog (also known as The House At Riverton) was not only published, it was picked up in the UK as a Richard & Judy Summer Read and became a huge international best-seller. She says success was an extraordinary feeling. "It was dissociative, as though it was happening to someone else ... Fortunately I'd started my next novel, The Forgotten Garden, before any of it happened."

Morton finds it easy to get inside a character and speak in their voice. Often a novel will begin for her as a single image that enters her head out of nowhere. For The Forgotten Garden though she was inspired in part by the story of her grandmother who discovered at 21 that the man who'd raised her wasn't her biological father. "It was very shameful at the time to be illegitimate and she kept it secret," explains Morton. "She knew who her father was but it had been a brief affair and he'd died in the First World War. She didn't tell her own daughters until she was an elderly woman and by then she'd burned the letters between the two lovers. Can you imagine how that makes me feel, those wonderful letters?"

Morton is mulling over what she would like to write next. She's ordering books, reading about the past century and the lives of women. "This is my favourite part of writing," she says. "When there is still infinite possibility and you haven't started locking things in place."

Date with Kate:
See Kate Morton in conversation with Herald on Sunday books editor Nicky Pellegrino on Monday, November 1 from 7pm to 8pm at the Hilton Hotel, Auckland. Tickets are $12 plus service fee from, and come with a free goody bag. Profits from sales will be donated to the Starship Foundation.

Review by Nicky Pellegrino, books editor at the Herald on Sunday and author of successful fiction titles such as The Italian Wedding and  Recipe for Life
This review was first published in the Herald on Sunday Detours magazine, 24 October 2010.

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