Carole Morin is the author of four critically acclaimed novels. Her latest, Spying On Strange Men is out now. 20 signed copies are available at half price for Valentine’s day at the author’s website here. I have just finished reading it and I can say it is a compelling, unsettling Noir novel written in sharp, elegant prose with scenes that move between surreal humour and a sudden darkness. I highly recommend it, and my review follows. Morin’s ability to write characters whose identities are partly self-fiction or who are on the verge of psychosis makes for stories that leave you thirsty for more. I suggest you go and get your discounted copy of Spying On Strange Men now before they sell out.
Carole met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about surveillance and fiction.
Vivien Lash, the protagonist of Spying On Strange Men, conducts surveillance for personal reasons. How much do you think we live in an age of voyeurism?
There’s always been voyeurism, think of Hitchcock and his ice blondes, with the cinema audience as voyeur. And Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which ruined his career until Martin Scorsese helped to resurrect him as artist not pervert. I’m sure Caligula had spies all over the place they just didn’t have cameras. And then there’s that tradition of the Royal family watching the King copulate on his wedding night.
But maybe now that technology has made it possible for everyone to be a voyeur at whim, there could be a reversal. People will feel cheated if they don’t have a stalker! Imagine an Injury to Feelings charge where you can sue for unrequited love.
Is Vivien Lash a woman betrayed or someone who is seeking permission to enact parts of her character that are inextricably connected to her sexuality?
I doubt Vivien Lash seeks permission from anyone. She’s not the type. And I don’t analyse my characters. The reader needs blank space for their own reaction. And Vivvy might hit me!
Has Mr Lash betrayed her? As Aeschylus probably said when he was alive, ‘Without betrayal there’s no drama.’ But As Vivien Lash says, ‘Betrayal is a cliché…Lies are so suburban. But murder is nice and clean.’ Spying on Strange Men
Would you say that the characters in Spying On Strange Men are living with fictionalised versions of their partners?
Characters in novels are all fiction like the world they live in. Of course Vivien Lash has things in common with me but if she actually was me I wouldn’t have been able to invent her. And I’m not plotting to murder my husband!
The closest connection between me and my characters is that we live in a city that’s recognisable as London, but it’s a version of London that came out of my head. Vivien Lash puts on her sunglasses and it turns screwball noir.
Vivien Lash is described on your website as your ‘evil twin’. She writes the column Shallow Not Stupid at Hintmag magazine. Your fictions often play with facts. Is this a technique you favour for characterisation or a commentary on the nature of our perception of what is real?
‘It’s all real. It came out of my head. Everything in there is real. Even the things invented and imagined.’ Spying on Strange Men
There is a strange notion that novels are ‘researched’. Mine aren’t. I make up the stories and characters. As my mum is fond of saying, ‘You tell lies for a living.’
When I taught writing at UEA my students had been infected with that ‘write about what you know’ bug. But what you know is also what you have imagined. Patricia Highsmith is unlikely to have murdered people as ‘research’ for her fiction. But she claimed to have got the idea for her first novel Strangers on a Train when fantasising about murdering her noisy neighbour. Criss-cross. Ever wanted to kill someone? Of course. But how many people actually do it?
When I was writer-in-residence in Wormwood Scrubs my class called me Miss Whiplash. They had all murdered somebody but most of them lacked imagination. Maybe that’s why they were caught?
Do you think killing and fucking are related?
Freud does. ‘Love cannot be much younger than the lust for murder.’ But I don’t often agree with him. It’s an oversimplified concept. Murder and sex are both Dionysian.
Creative work is first anarchic; and then it’s structured. It’s right brain then left brain. Anarchic then controlled. To be a really good writer, you have to be able to do both. It’s hard work and it takes longer than murder or sex.
Tell us about your time at Granta.
It’s the first and last time I’ve ever worked in an office. The editor liked my short story Thin White Girls and gave me a job as Associate Editor. To be fair I didn’t edit much. The magazine rarely appeared. The editor was always tugging his beard worrying about when the next issue would come out. He was one of those fat men who never seemed to eat but kept expanding. Eventually we needed a bigger office.
An investor with more money than sense gave us $5 million dollars. Then the pressure was really on for the new issue to appear! So we hired more staff. It was never very clear what we supposed to be doing. I spent most of my time flirting on the phone with old writers the boss was scared to call himself. Some of the staff became quite stressed, especially the ones on big salaries. The more they were paid the more they worried. ‘What am I doing here?’ they would ask me. There were all these little presents left on my desk – chocolate hearts, perfume, Bryan Ferry’s coat, one show off bought me a motorbike – because they imagined I knew what was ‘going on in the boss’s mind’. I’m sure he didn’t even know that himself.
What factors do you think led to your being commissioned to write your first novel, a rarity in the literary world?
I won two short story competitions, one judged by John Fowles and the other by Angela Carter. One was for Thin White Girls a story that I wrote when I was at school. The other was The Hotel Summer which I wrote while living in Stanley Kubrick’s caravan. These stories were then published in Faber’s First Fictions – which was also the first book that Sylvia Plath’s fiction appeared in. There wasn’t an international economic depression at the time, so it was easier to get commissioned. I like being described as ‘Sylvia Plath with a sense of humour’. But I wouldn’t marry Ted Hughes. He’s dead for one thing.
How important is setting to you as a writer?
Setting attracts me both as a writer and a reader. Books were banned from my house, my mum thought they were ‘germ traps’, so I was always sneaking into the library, hiding under a big plant; reading. I was escaping into another world as well as finding out stuff that was news to me. When I travel, I like to read books set in the country I’m visiting. But I rarely write a novel set in the place where I’m currently located. Spying on Strange Men is set in London but I wrote most of it while living in Beijing.
My characters are often escaping and when I write a book I like to escape from my own world. When I wrote my first novel I had a tubercular toe, so the first draft was done in a white room empty apart from the white bed. Then one day when I’d limped out to Laurence Olivier’s funeral my computer was stolen. I went to Hawthornden Castle – owned by the Heinz beans lady – and wrote Lampshades again. Hawthornden is near Rosslyn Chapel so it was noisy on Full Moon nights when witches were chanting and slaughtering goats. They left beast carcasses all over the place. But at least there were no beans on the menu though the castle had been done up by Laura Ashley before she fell down the stairs. Am I alone in finding her floral fabrics sinister?
How integral is childhood to your development as a writer?
There’s a theory that if you have an interesting childhood then you have enough material to last a lifetime. But that implies that art is always autobiographical when reinvention and imagination are the most important elements. But it doesn’t hurt to have a mad family! Of course I didn’t notice until I’d escaped – when I left home as a teenager on a diplomatic scholarship – how odd my family were. My grandfather was a slum landlord with the decency or bad taste to live in one of his own buildings. The entire street was populated by my relatives. There was a man known in the east end as ‘the man with the painted heed’ a part-time trani who turned out to be my uncle. If only he’d worn a wig! Instead he painted hair onto his bald head. Imagine my horror and glee when I discovered he was yet another blood relative!
Grahame Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer’. What do you make of his observation?
I suppose he means ruthlessness. But that could also be called perception, empathy, intelligence. It doesn’t need to be cold. Though life-affirming people are a bit creepy and self-consciously life-affirming art is usually awful.
My books tend to have happy endings, or at least that’s one way of reading them. My characters are exuberant and funny as well as dark. Duality is the essence of my voice so it’s appropriate for me to have an evil twin to blame things on.
Carole thank you for an informative and great interview.
Spying on Strange Men is available on a Valentine’s Day Special Offer from Dragon Ink Ltd.