Ruth Morgan’s Childhood in the Australian “Bush” Country Shaped her Writing Career
Please tell the readers a little about yourself and your background:
I’m an Australian writer based in Northern New South Wales. My preference is crime fiction or thrillers, both to read or write. I’ve also written sci fi and romance when an idea strikes. My first love though is and probably always will be crime fiction. I love setting stories in the regional and rural parts of Australia where I grew up. It’s a harsh landscape with vast open spaces, sparse populations, floods, trees, isolation. How characters respond to a challenging landscape is something that fascinates me and which often appears in my writing. I’ve always been enthralled trying to understand why people do what they do. To uncover the power of hidden influences and beliefs on behaviour, emotions and relationship. Whether we have power over the choices we make, or whether they are predetermined I think every story I write wants to explore the depths of a characters psyche, and examine how they tick, why they work in that particular way, whether it can be changed. I enjoy exploring transformation, character arcs if you will. Starting a story with a character who is wounded, physically or mentally and watching them develop or not! I think crime fiction writers in particular have a certain relish in pushing their characters to the limits.
Do you have a “real” job other than writing, and if so, what is it? What are some other jobs you’ve had in your life?
I decided a couple of years ago to semi retire. In the previous year, I’d had two friends die from cancer and another develop Parkinson’s. It made me realise I’d already ‘wasted’ too much time doing things that others expected me to do. It was time to follow my lifelong passion for writing. So I have. It’s probably been the hardest job I’ve ever had, the most rewarding and the among the most frustrating. But when a story works, and everything falls into place –– wow! Can’t beat that feeling.
I’ve worked in many areas. In a psychiatric hospital kitchen, a car dealership, a factory making springs, a telephone counselling service, a funeral parlour and crematorium. I’ve worked in law firms––and one in particular –– a criminal law firm set my writing imagination on fire. Everywhere I’ve worked has taught me something.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes. For as long as I can remember. When I was very young my mother would read me a story and I would tell her one in return based on the book we’d just read. I’ve always seen stories in things around me, events, adventures, people, conversations. Stories are also a way of making sense of the world and as an only child growing up in an isolated location, stories were crucial.
Tell us a little bit about your book.
The Whitworth Mysteries––my first published book is a collection of crime fiction stories set in the fictional location of Whitworth. Whitworth is located on the Murray River––the border/dividing line between Victoria and New South Wales. Some of the characters appear and reappear throughout the novel. Other stories stand alone. One is told from a feline perspective. But all the characters have links to Whitworth and surrounds. The town is loosely based on Mildura where I grew up and went to school.
This collection of stories explores the criminal mind from a variety of perspectives with the focus on the idea that the criminal is often more interesting than the crime they commit. There are tales of deception, murder and mayhem. And sometimes the victim is as twisted as the criminal.
How did you feel the day you held the copy of your first book in your hands?
I felt surreal as though I was someone else and the book was written by another person. But it was mine. It’s a hard feeling to describe, disbelief, joy, and wondering if it was a fluke, or whether you can do it again!
What type of music, if any, do you listen to while you write?
It depends what I’m writing. If the story is racing along nicely, then it’s often classical music, or soft rock at a very low volume. If I’m trying to put together what’s happening, then I need silence in order to hear what the characters are saying, read their thoughts, and feel clearly the landscape, and unfolding events.
Is there an established writer you admire and emulate in your own writing? Do you have a writing mentor?
Have had writing mentors in the past who were so helpful in getting me into a writing mindset. I don’t at the moment, but I’m incredibly fortunate to have access to and the support of a group or three of experienced writers who are always happy to have conversations or make suggestions. And that’s valuable.
I would love to be able to write with the spare and evocative prose of Garry Disher. His characters are deep and intimately connected to the landscape. The landscape is often a crucial character in the story, and for me that’s very important.
When growing up, did you have a favorite author, book series, or book?
My mother loved stories with a happy ending. My father preferred adventure stories. He encouraged me to read widely and at an early age gave me Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and Arthur Upfield to read. All were strong early influences. Especially Arthur Upfield, an Englishman who migrated to Australia in his 20’s in 1910. He worked in the outback turning his hand to almost anything. While the attitudes he expresses are now inappropriate to a changing world his love for and ability to evoke outback characters and the bush inspired me then, as they do now. One of his books––Death of a Swagman was written near to where I grew up and the landscape was instantly familiar.
What about now: who is your favorite author and what is your favorite genre to read?
I love crime fiction. Favourite author is a hard one, among my current favourites are Garry Disher, Peter Temple, Jane Harper, L. A Larkin, Sherryl Clark…the list keeps growing. We have such a breadth of writing talent in this country with writers, especially those writing crime fiction with a very Australian flavour.
Location and life experience can sprinkle their influence in your writing. Tell us about where you grew up and a little about where you live now––city? Suburb? Country? Farm? If you could live anywhere you want to live, where would that be?
I was born in Mildura, a rural city in North West Victoria. My mother married late in life, and I was a surprise delivered three weeks before her 44th birthday! After I was born, she was in hospital for a month. When she was well enough to be discharged, she moved to the “bush” with my father and a six week old baby. As I look back now, I’m amazed we both survived! There was no running water, washing machine, no indoor loo, and lighting inside at night was provided by a diesel generator. There was no outside lighting. If we had to go to the long drop loo (an outside toilet, well, hole in the ground for those unfamiliar with the term), a torch lit the path ahead or a Tilley lamp.
I spent the first 5 years of my life living in a caravan annex in the middle of Wilkurra Station. Wilkurra Station is located north east of Pooncarrie. I was the only child and quickly learned to be content in my own company. One of the things I did learn growing up in isolation was a love of open spaces, and silence. To be able to walk on quiet dirt roads, smell the clean air, and listen to the sounds of the bush. There were always animals around, birds, kangaroos, a lizard or a snake sliding off into the under growth. My father taught me to read the tracks on the soft red soil, taught me bush craft, how to see and really listen. I loved then, and now, the magic and power of a thunderstorm and that glorious smell of rain on dry soil. I learned at a very young age the wonderment of imagination.
When I was old enough to go to school mum and I moved “into town.” My father continued working on the station coming home every couple of weeks.
Growing up “in the bush” gave me an abiding love for the country, and especially for the Murray River. I’ve lived in a number of locations, now I’m in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales. A location and a climate totally different from the dry, hot landscape I grew up in. I’ve lived in cities, much prefer my current location. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
How long did it take you to write your first book? When you started writing, did you think it would take that long or did you think it would take a short time?
Writing the stories in The Whitworth Mysteries was sometimes fun, sometimes relatively easy and at other times felt like emptying the Murray River with a teacup. The process took a long, hard year.
Every story has its own evolutionary process. Some emerge complete. With others it feels like a battle for every word, every scene, every character and the whole thing is an exhausting, frustrating struggle. Oddly enough though the harder the story is to write, the better the end result. There is more satisfaction in a story that fights back, than on working on something that is relatively easy. I don’t enjoy it when characters refuse to talk to me, despite inducements. Sometimes threats are needed. Never annoy a crime writer, they will put you in a story and it may not end well! None of my characters has an easy of time of it, so resistance is to be expected and they will live their lives as they see fit, and regularly remind me that I’m just the scribe, I have no authority at all.
Have you ever had a character take over a story and move it in a different direction than you had originally intended? How did you handle it?
Yes. This has happened recently as I’m working on Puppetmaster. This novel has been around for, well, longer than I’d perhaps prepared to admit––we’re talking decades. There are numerous finished drafts but they’ve never quite worked, there’s always been something missing. I posed a question for a private writing group I’m part of along the lines of––how do you persuade the character who is supposed to be the hero to talk to you? The answer was––is he supposed to be the hero or is it someone else? It was one of those moments where you can feel something shift. I’ve changed the lead character from David to Mack. David has happily retreated into the shadows. The result, there are layers and depths now being revealed in this story that I’d never seen, or even sensed were there. It’s taken the story in a totally different direction. I can see the ending, who makes it through, and who doesn’t. I’ve resisted making such profound changes in the past. But going with what the story wants, what the characters want––has changed everything and we’re working together to tell the story how it wants to be told.
Is there anything else you want your readers to know about you? Include information on where to find your books, any blogs you may have, or how a reader can learn more about you and your writing.
Thank you, Ruth for letting the readers know about your work and how your childhood shaped your writing,