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Interview: October 21, 2005

October 21, 2005's Carol Fitzgerald and Joni Rendon interviewed Morag Joss, author of the acclaimed Sara Selkirk mystery series, about her first stand-alone work of fiction, HALF BROKEN THINGS. Joss discusses elements of the human condition conveyed through the novel's protagonists, such as the unrelenting search for and the perpetual absence of love, the role of fate, and the effects of desperation. She also examines the stylistic techniques of fiction-writing that she employs and reveals details of her upcoming project. Before HALF BROKEN THINGS, which was awarded the prestigious Silver Dagger Award, you'd written three previous books in the Sara Selkirk mystery series. What made you decide to write a work of stand-alone suspense? What were some of the unique challenges and rewards it posed?

Morag Joss: I knew before I'd finished the second Sara Selkirk novel, FEARFUL SYMMETRY, that I would want to write stand-alone novels some day. I think of the Selkirk novels as fairly light-hearted (despite the body count!) and I wanted to explore ideas and create characters that were perhaps deeper and darker. I didn't set out to write HALF BROKEN THINGS as a novel of "suspense" though, except insofar as I do all I can, whatever I'm writing, to encourage a reader to keep turning the pages.

The main thing I had to get right was Jean's voice. As I began writing it came gradually, and once she was speaking loud and clear, Jean's narrative was a joy to write.

Another of the challenges was the decision to "deliver" the story somewhat in the manner of Greek tragedy: that is, we know pretty much from the start it will end badly; we might even see early on the protagonist's fateful, fatal mistake that sets in motion an inevitable course of events. The challenge was not to let the story lose momentum even though a reader might see some of what was coming.

And the biggest challenge of all, by which the novel stands or falls, was to try to create characters who do the most appalling things but who yet retain the readers' understanding, if not quite their sympathy.

BRC: One of the novel's most compelling features is the way events unfold gradually, descending us slowly into greater depths of suspense and disbelief with every appalling turn, each of which seems frighteningly justifiable. What inspired you to explore the depths of human desperation and the great lengths that people will go to justify their actions

MJ: I just am very, very interested in people who "live lives of quiet desperation" (can't remember who said that!) and in the way that people are damaged with so little apparent disturbance to the surface of life that it seems --- at least for a while --- that the damage is innocuous. It hardly ever is, I believe.

I also think that desperation, disappointment and madness often consume people incrementally, by tiny degrees. And I believe (and the world is full of evidence of this) that there is probably nothing that a human being can't be convinced is justifiable, if he/she is persuaded strongly enough. Human reasoning has so little to do with logic or even argument; it is so infinitely malleable.

BRC: The book's title refers to the fragility of people as well as objects and your epigraph highlights the origins of the phrase in a passage from Rilke, which talks about how love can inspire the worst in us. Do you feel that when damaged people seek out love in order to fill a void, it more often heals or hurts them

MJ: That's a question about statistics! I couldn't answer the "more often than not" aspect.

I wonder if this makes sense: Maybe people starved of love can never ever be fed quite enough of it, which is --- to put it mildly --- a challenge for those who come to love them. But seeking --- or hoping to find --- love is what nearly everyone does, damaged or not. (Let's not even ask who, on this planet, is not damaged!) But maybe when a person needs love to fill a void bigger than the one created by its absence, when too much is asked of love, it can fall short and disappoint, and hurt rather than heal.

BRC: In addition to themes of love and belonging, the novel emphasizes the influence of the past on the present. The characters Jean, Michael and Steph are magnetically --- and tragically --- drawn together to create a surrogate family to replace what they never had, yet their efforts ultimately prove futile. Was your intention to show that individuals can never truly escape their pasts

MJ: In the sense that the past influences how people become who they are, no, I don't think we can escape it exactly. But that doesn't imply that the past determines people's lives.

However, in some ways, what Jean and the others did wasn't futile at all. At the end of the novel Jean decides on her fatal course of action in a state of calm contentment. She recognises that their needs have been satisfied, the wrongs of their blighted lives righted, that they have been happy. That this can't go on indefinitely --- for the bigger moral picture asserts itself in her mind --- is something she accepts. It gave them what they needed, just not forever.

BRC: Jean, Michael and Steph manage to both repulse us by their increasingly desperate actions while also, incredibly, inspiring our empathy. Equally, their actions defy belief, yet somehow seem completely plausible. How did you achieve this difficult balancing act and were these characters influenced by people who you've encountered in real life similarly beaten down by circumstances?

MJ: Not sure how, but not via any deliberate application of "craft" or "technique," more just by use of the imagination. I had to know their whole past lives (even though most of those details don't appear in the novel), I tried to be in the characters' heads, to feel their physical, mental and emotional lives. I think I "become" each character as I write them, and over time it felt that I was almost sharing --- rather than inventing --- their skewed and preposterous reasoning. I haven't known well any people in these circumstances but I'm aware of the disparities between the haves and have-nots, emotionally as well as materially. I wrote to find out the answer to a pretty simple proposition: what might happen when the have-nots get just brave enough to take what they need?

BRC: You made the unusual choice of alternating between first and third person narration throughout the novel. Was there a particular reason for this decision, and which perspective proved more difficult to write from

MJ: There's a pretty good rule in fiction, to show, not tell; writing the story from Jean's perspective seemed to obey that rule, to "show" Jean by letting her speak for herself, rather than "tell" her in a narrative by "the author." But of course Jean's narrative is limited to what Jean knows, sees, thinks, feels --- and Michael and Steph's histories, and other things Jean didn't know, also had to be told. That's why there's a 3rd person narrative too.

When writing is going well, any narrative from any perspective seems to be writing itself, but when it isn't, it's hell whoever's talking!

BRC: In the novel, destiny plays a huge role in the character's lives and they seem to be powerless against its machinations. Do you think this holds true for many people?

MJ: Read another way, though, the characters could be seen working against their destiny, which seems to have consigned them all to lives of loneliness and need. They are mounting a kind of rebellion against the machinations of fate, in a way. You can read the end of the story either as destiny taking the reins again, or as Jean's final victory over destiny --- bowing out of the game on her own terms, I think.

BRC: The house at Walden Manor provides a respite from real life and a form of much-needed sustenance to Jean, Michael and Steph, while at the same time exerting a rather negative influence over them. Did you originally set out to make the house a veritable fourth character in the novel

MJ: Yes. For the characters, physical sanctuary was the first requirement, as shelter is a basic human need. From a place being shelter, it's only one step to its becoming territory --- worth protecting and fighting for. And once a place is being fought for, it exerts an emotional, even moral force, acquiring personality and value for itself.

Apart from all that, I like houses! And I like the part often played by "the house" in English novels, as opposed to "the road" in American fiction.

BRC: Your ability to penetrate into the minds of your characters with such psychological acuity has garnered comparisons to Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters, among others. Did these authors influence your work, and what initially inspired you to begin writing novels of psychological suspense

MJ: I take these comparisons as a great compliment but I don't believe they have influenced me, as I've read only one or two of their books (being a very patchy reader of crime).

Writing came to me by the happy accident of a conversation with PD James at the Roman Baths in Bath, England. I joked that it would be a good place to find a body, and she agreed and said I must go and write the story. I did, and that was my first novel, FUNERAL MUSIC. The inspiration was first to write at all; writing any particular kind of novel came second to that.

BRC: What authors do you enjoy reading?

MJ: So many! The greats, of course: Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Carol Shields, Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Proulx, Henry James, Austen, Eliot. I'm not trying to flatter American and Canadian readers with these names --- for me, these just are the most exciting and inspiring writers! I also love the Irish writer William Trevor, and among living English writers I think David Mitchell, Muriel Spark and Ian McEwan are wonderful.

BRC: Your bio says that you currently have another novel in the works entitled PUCCINI'S GHOSTS. Can you tell us more about it and will it bear any similarities to HALF BROKEN THINGS?

MJ: It's different in many ways. It tells the story of an amateur production of Puccini's last, unfinished opera "Turandot," mounted in a dreary Scottish seaside town in 1960. Lila, a fifteen-year-old girl with a precocious singing talent, daughter of a hysterical, thwarted mother and a failed lawyer father, is the main character. The story is told in two narratives: as the events unfold in 1960, and by Lila herself in 2004 when, as a woman in her fifties, she returns to the town to arrange her father's funeral. Though the novel is not autobiographical in any way, its emotional landscape is personal, and while it's a sad story there is a lot of humour in it, too --- not least the very idea of amateurs performing "Turandot" in a farm shed.

Similarities to HALF BROKEN THINGS: We're still in the territory of people going without love and being in quiet, desperate need, of damage being quietly, unconsciously inflicted, and of fateful and/or fatal mistakes that affect the course of whole lives. Crimes of the heart, perhaps.

Thank you for the chance to answer such interesting questions, and a very big thank you to all readers who have taken time (that precious thing) to read any of my books. Happy reading and best wishes!