Bricks and Morton
Interview: Sue Leonard
Saturday, December 11, 2010
The Distant Hours
By Kate Morton
Pan McMillan; €18.45
KATE MORTON has it all. A luminous brown eyed brunette, she fizzes with happiness. She lives in Brisbane with her musician husband Davin, and her two young sons, and professionally, is a commercial and critical success. Yet her third book, The Distant Hours, is not the one she’d originally planned.
It started well. She’d transported her family to England; had lived there, researching, for three months; and, back in Australia, had completed 60,000 words.
"I loved my characters," says Kate, "but this other family crept up on me. The Blythes, who lived in an English castle, invaded my mind. There were three sisters and the youngest wanted to marry, and didn’t.
"I couldn’t make those sisters go away. So I decided to put the book I was writing aside for a while to write these ladies out of my head. That night I wrote a chapter, and I knew that the book about the sisters was the one I had to write. I felt this emotional tie to it. I had to find out what happened."
The result is a fascinating family saga stretching most of the 20th Century. A young publisher, Edie, becomes embroiled with the ageing sisters when her mother receives a letter from one of them, posted half a century earlier. The crumbling castle, holding family secrets, is a character in itself, and there are so many twists and turns, so many genuine surprises, that it would be disingenuous to describe the plot in detail.
Suffice to say the father, a writer, puts his art before the wellbeing of his children. And the ties that bind those children through to their old age are not what they first appear. I adored this book — and was — literally — unable to put it down. There were echoes of Daphne du Maurier; of Victorian novels, and of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. So it was no surprise to learn that Kate has long admired such authors. "I loved Atonement particularly," she says. "My favourite thing as a reader and a writer, is when a tragedy is affected through a tiny misunderstanding. That really attracts me."
A less obvious influence on Kate was Enid Blyton. Kate adored her books from the age of four. Her mother was a second hand dealer and Kate procured many books from the 1950s, reading them whilst secreted away at the back of dusty shops.
Now 34, Kate is a publishing star. Both her earlier books became best sellers. The first, The House at Riverton, won the 2007 Richard and Judy Summer Read, and her second, The Forgotten Garden, was a Sunday Times bestseller. But the start of her career was a little bumpy. At 23, Kate had three frustrating years. She wrote a crime book, got rejected, wrote a second, only to get rejected again. The break came after she’d given birth to her first son, Oliver. Was it motherhood that made the difference?
"In a number of ways it was. Your palette has more colours in it after having a baby, and your chances of being grief-stricken are so much greater.
"I was so aware that the balance of the love I felt for Oliver was the possibility of losing that person. That really changed me.
"And it was timing. I had, effectively, dropped out of the world. I felt isolated, and felt I would probably never be published, but I had to write anyway.
"I decided not to think about genre or what publishers wanted, and that freed me. I immediately gained the ability to make people up and live with them in my head. And I was writing the kind of book I like to read — the kind of book that is rarely written these days. That made all the difference."
The first two published booked were carefully planned and structured. But ‘The Distant Hours’ came more instinctively. And there were difficult moments in the writing of it. June this year, with her deadline looming, was a case in point.
"I’d almost finished the book; I had 90,000 words written, but I’d intuitively written in all these loose ends, and I didn’t know how to tie them up. I must have been unbearable to live with. Davin said I had to go away. I went to a spartan lodge in this mountainous area. It was like having a Rubik’s Cube in your brain. I was twisting and turning the plot, but I couldn’t see how all the elements fitted together.
"I was looking out of the window at the rainforest one night, when a huge storm blew up. I had a vision of this child in a castle tower in a storm, when something in the moate started to move. I raced to get it down. I wrote the prologue, and everything fell into place. That taught me to trust my unconscious mind. There are so many moments like that in the writing of a novel."
This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Saturday, December 11, 2010