Kate Morton’s newest book, The Secret Keeper, is just out and making a splash. I had a chance to talk to Morton about the book in Toronto last week; see the Q&A below. If you’re intrigued, go ahead and enter to win a Kate Morton library of all her books!
The Secret Garden and [Morton's last book]The Distant Hours both centre around murders, but in The Secret Garden it’s quite clear who is murdered and who the murderer is from the first chapter; the question is why. How did you find writing this book was different from the last?
It was great actually. I had the idea for the first chapter first, which doesn’t always happen. I had a really clear vision of what I wanted to do. I think in The Secret Keeper more than any of my other books the first chapter is almost a stand alone story, and that was really important to me. I really wanted to take it from this perfect, almost too good to be true idylll and then turn it on its head. I loved playing with that throughout the first chapter.
Secrets are a big theme in your books, obviously. What draws you to that theme?
Who doesn’t love secrets? Who doesn’t want to know the thing that they’re not allowed the know? But I was thinking about this recently because people have asked me about it.
When I was growing up, my mum’s a second hand dealer and so she used to buy old objects and they would come into our house. So I was aware really, really early that objects have secret lives that I didn’t know about, that they went through other people’s hands before they came to me…that started me thinking about what might have happened to them before they came to me.
And I think all narratives are secrets really, because you don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the book. Mine are just more explicitly secretive.
You’re Australian but your books are always set in England. Did you grow up in England?
I didn’t, no. I don’t know if it’s similar in Canada but I grew up reading a lot of English books like Enid Blyton. So I had a very clear vision of what England might be like. I was 17 when I first went to England. You know that feeling when you meet someone and you feel like you’ve known them forever? I just felt instinctively that I knew it. I feel very at home there, and more than that, I love it. I love the landscape, I love the houses, I love the history. In Australia there isn’t the same depth of history for me to explore. And it’s such living history, people still living among the buildings. I just find that so interesting.
And this book’s set, in part, during World War II…how do you approach your research?
A lot of it I do anyway; I love to read non-fiction, I love to read about people and families and houses and history, social research especially. There’s unconscious research, which is sort of my favourite because I just read what I like…and then there’s the conscious stuff, like in The Secret Keeper when I had to know what sort of postmark might be on a letter sent in the 1950s, I had to actually contact people and find out. Because if I didn’t, somebody who knew would contact me later and say it wouldn’t be like that.
For The Secret Keeper, my family and I went to London for 3 months in 2008. We lived in Kensington, and we stayed in an old granary in a Suffolk farm, and I was reading a lot of diaries and memoirs set during the war. Something was attracting me to that.
I even did a Blitz-time London walking tour which was incredible. Streets I had walked down hundreds of times before, my guide was able to say “look up there in the bricks where they’ve painted, if you look closely: — and so I did — “you can see the S for the shelter sign and the arrow pointing down the stairs.” And for me, that actually gives me chills. Because all of a sudden I see people running for the shelter and the women, in their skirts and everything…that’s very inspirational for me.
On the topic of inspiration – there’s a very powerful moment in the book where Laurel’s mum Dorothy tells her that she doesn’t think Laurel would have liked her when she was younger. What inspired that moment?
A lot of the relationship between Dorothy and Laurel, I was of course able to draw on my own experiences as a mother and as a daughter. When Laurel makes the point earlier that children never imagine that their parents have a past before the moment that they were born. I certainly remember feeling that and I know my children will. As a writer I find that such an interesting thing to write about, because of course people have enormous pasts before they have children. But I don’t usually draw on people I know for my characters. And of course that scene helps set the stage for the end of the book.
Laurel does become an actress where her mother didn’t. I wondered how that related to your own creative journey.
Perhaps not so much as a novelist…I had no idea that people could become writers. I don’t know where I thought novels came from…I grew up in a small village and it felt like the 1950s when I was growing up. Where I feel the difference in generation between me and my mum is that I was expected to go to school. Going to university is such an incredible thing…as a person it’s incredibly expanding. So I feel very fortunate to be born in a generation where that was the norm.
So what did make you become a writer?
Growing up in Tamborine Mountain, where I grew up, the only extra-curricular really available was acting lessons because there happened to be an ex-actress who gave classes. I decided this is what I wanted to do, to join the Royal Shakespeare Company. So I went to RADA in London to do a summer course, and my boyfriend who was in a band came too – he’s now my husband…While I was there in London I got a scholarship to do a Masters…. I made a friend who was a writer. And one day she made this off-hand commentto : She said a lot of people want to write but they don’t stick with it, but you’re the sort of person who’d stick with it.
So a few weeks later I bought a notebook and started to write…and from the first moment it was like finding that one thing that everything within yourself and everything from your past conditions you to do.
I wrote two manuscripts. The first got me an agent but no one published it, the second no one published it – this is taking years of life – and then I had a baby. So I decided to forget about what was being published and markets and all of that and I took all my favourite things and put them in a book. To cut a long story short, that was The House at Riverton. [Morton's break-out book.]
And you’re on the trail of your next book.
I am, with the fabulous title of: Book 5.
Any hope for a book set in Canada?
I would love to come back to Canada for longer. In my mind Canada has always been one of those places on Earth that are too beautiful to believe.
The Secret Keeper
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