How I Write: Sally J Morgan turns to poetry when she has writer’s block

Sally J Morgan and her award-winning novel, Toto Among the Murderers.

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Sally J Morgan and her award-winning novel, Toto Among the Murderers.

Sally J Morgan was born in Wales and grew up in Yorkshire and Swansea before studying at the Royal Academy for Fine Art in Antwerp. She moved to Wellington 20 years ago to work in the School of Art at Massey University and became a New Zealand citizen as soon as it was allowed. Her novel, Toto Among the Murderers, set in the north of England in the 1970s, was long listed for the Jan Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in 2021, and this year it won the British Portico Prize for Literature.

Which writer do you turn to when you have writer’s block?

I often read poetry when I have a writer’s block, just try and loosen myself up. Charles Simic is a favourite. I also look at paintings and films. They give me images to work from, and films in particular have a narrative structure – these things help me think about how I might develop new scenes in my writing. I particularly admire the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson.

Which book had such an impact on you that you bought it for your friends?

Elizabeth Smart’s The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals​. She is more famous for By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Weptbut this one was written much later in her life and is grittier but so beautifully written.

When it comes to a memorable book, what is more important, a great plot or great characters? What examples can you give of the latter?

I love both of those things, but more than either; I love quality of writing. Books that sit between poetry and prose have always been my favourites. Carson McCullers The Ballad of the Sad Café ​(actually anything by Carson McCullers) achieves everything I want from a book – great plot and characters, and amazing qualities within the language.

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Toto Among the Murderers, by Sally J Morgan.

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Toto Among the Murderers, by Sally J Morgan.

What books have made you cry?

Alone in Berlin by German author Hans Fallada had a profound effect upon me. It is a moving study of futility and despair in Nazi Germany. His characters of him are complex and flawed, and the choices they have to make are devastating.

What book do you go back to time and time again to re-read?

I must have read Gormenghast​ by Mervyn Peake​ about 10 times – maybe more. It’s such a rich world to get lost in. I spent my late teens over-identifying with the teenage character, Fuschia, who spent a lot of time sulking in the attic.

Which authors would you want in your book club?

Carson McCullers, Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, Jean Genet, and Jeanette Winterson. Can you imagine the arguments? I’d probably set it all up and then go and watch from outside the window.

Sally J Morgan won the Portico Prize.

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Sally J Morgan won the Portico Prize.

Can you share a piece of good advice you’ve received about writing?

When I was 19, the British poetry critic Al Alvarez, told me to avoid being too lush in my imagery and to keep things spare and simple. He is always in the back of my mind as I try to get the balance right in my prose.

What advice do you give to writers starting out?

Don’t try to impress – find what’s true, and write about it in your own voice.

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