U Magazine | Profile | Kate Morton

A notebook full of ‘bits and pieces’ is the first step. One of Australia’s most widely read authors tells Paul Donoughue about the finer points of becoming a novelist. 

‘‘To me it makes sense,’’ Kate Morton says, turning around the black, dinner plate-sized notebook. ‘‘You should try.’’

What at some point next year will become a book – a novel full of complex notions of love and betrayal, relatable characters and narrative arcs – right now resembles a lot of messy blank ink spread over dozens of pages.

‘‘It’s a little bit like trying to hold many different threads all at the one time without losing any of them,’’ Morton, 35, says over coffee at Brisbane’s South Bank, where she sometimes goes to write.

In this black notebook are months worth of research for what will become Morton’s fourth book. They are ‘‘bits and pieces’’ – some are notes written on paper, folded and glued on to the page – but to Morton it all makes sense.

‘‘And I go back many times and comb through again, looking for bits that I’ve forgotten or ideas I’d had that slip out of my mind again. But I love that. I get pleasure out of that aspect of the creative process.’’

After powering through two manuscripts in her late-20s and having them rejected, Morton wrote The Shifting Fog, which was picked up by Australian publisher Allen & Unwin in 2006.

It changed everything.

Selling 63,000 copies in its first week in Britain (under the title The House At Riverton), the book’s success meant Morton trailed only J.K. Rowling for sales and library borrowings in that region. Her second book, The Forgotten Garden, was a New York Times bestseller; her third, The Distant Hours, a Sunday Times bestseller. She has now sold more than 4 million copies in 38 countries, including 250,000 in Australia and New Zealand, and seen her work appear in 26 languages.

Her Victorian dramas might be set in the stately homes of pre-war England but Morton has always written from her pretty, ageing Queenslander in the Brisbane suburb of Paddington. And though she acknowledges her work day is a little different to that of her friends, she is not an anomaly. She presents as an intelligent, funny and somewhat shy woman who turned her back on her first love, acting, partly because she didn’t enjoy being in front of a crowd.

Friend and fellow Brisbane author Kim Wilkins describes her as down-to-earth, a quality for which Morton says her children – two sons, aged three and eight, with husband Davin – are partly responsible.

‘‘Once you have kids, they really do rule your lifestyle in so many ways,’’ she says.

‘‘As far as they’re concerned I have to take them to school, I have to pick them up, if it’s their birthday I have to make little cakes. You are a success in your child’s eyes if you manage to do all those things. Even then not really a success, just a parent.

‘‘We don’t have a vastly different lifestyle (to those of my friends). And I only think about it sometimes, when I am talking to people about my day at work and they say, ‘Did you have a good day?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I had a great day. I didn’t actually produce anything but I had this really good idea and I think it’s going to solve my problem’.’’

With youngest son Louie now at kindergarten, Morton has begun to work regular hours. Previously she would fit writing into any spare time she had.

‘‘But if an idea comes to me while I am making pasta for my kids I will leave it for a second and type so that I have got the note for myself, or I will go back when I have put them to bed.’’

Only since becoming a bestselling author has Morton realised writing was always something she wanted to do. (She recently found a primary school notebook in which she’d written: ‘‘My name is Kate. I do clarinet and ballet lessons. When I grow up I am going to be a writer.’’)

As a kid growing up on Queensland’s Tamborine Mountain, Morton wanted to be an actor. But during a short course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London she received a scholarship to do her masters in Victorian tragedy at the University of Queensland.

‘‘So, I decided that while I was doing my masters I would use that money also to write a book,’’ she says, without a hint of acknowledgment about how difficult that task might be. ‘‘And I got a notebook, sat down, came up with this idea and I started writing, and it was just like a revelation. It was like: this is what I have to do.’’

She finds writing similar to acting – you get to animate characters and construct a problem or mystery – but she found her true love was words and the way they can create an ulterior world in which to dwell.

‘‘I felt it immediately and I loved it and I knew that –- and I say this with all sincerity – I would do it anyway, publication or not. I mean, I did for the first two manuscripts and the third, I was convinced it would not be published.’’

Morton is extremely thorough in her research, a crucial element for any novel but particularly so when the time period and setting are so different from the author’s own life.

‘‘I read everything I can find on the historical period, on people who lived then, on art, on music, whatever it is that applies to the world of the book that I want to create. And that invariably leads to more, which leads to more, which leads to more – and I think that’s why the hedonist in me enjoys that part the most. And I keep reading, visit galleries, look at movies, whatever, just to try and lose myself, see if I can build the world I want to build.’’

Morton says this makes the actual writing much quicker. Some ideas are so ‘‘fully realised’’ in her notebook that ‘‘writing it is like writing something I lived or a film that I saw’’.

Kate Morton will appear at the Brisbane Writers Festival, September 7-11. See brisbanewritersfestival.com.au for details.

Published in U Magazine, The Sunday Mail, August 21, 2011.