An Interview with Paula Morris

Posted by Sharon Deans on October 01, 2010 in Interviews tagged with , , , , , , ,

Stirling’s Department of English Studies  is delighted to welcome one of its newest members of staff, Paula Morris, author of the ghost story Ruined.

Paula Morris, a novelist and short story writer of English and Maori descent, was born in New Zealand.  For almost a decade she worked in the record business in London and New York.  Until recently she lived in New Orleans, where she taught creative writing at Tulane University.

Paula’s first novel, Queen of Beauty, won best first work of fiction at the 2003 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.  Hibiscus Coast, a literary thriller set in Auckland and Shanghai, was published in 2005 and has been optioned for film.  Her third novel, Trendy But Casual, was published by Penguin in New Zealand in 2005. Paula’s first short story collection, Forbidden Cities (2008) was a regional finalist in the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. 

Ruined is Paula’s first YA novel, published by Scholastic in 2009; a second YA novel, Dark Souls, is due for publication in 2011. I caught up with Paula recently …

SD: Hello Paula, welcome to wet and windy Scotland, and many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for our Gothic Website.  First of all, can you tell me what attracted you to Stirling?

PM: The job at Stirling attracted me because the university is setting up a new M.Litt. in Creative Writing.  I’m a graduate of two different creative writing degree programmes (Victoria, in Wellington, New Zealand, and the Iowa Writers Workshop); I’ve also taken classes at night school in New York, organised a writing group with friends, and taught at universities, summer festivals and youth programmes.  So the opportunity to help shape and develop a new programme was very appealing. Of course, this meant moving from New Orleans, where I’ve lived for the past six years – and the U.S., where I’ve lived for much of the past sixteen.  Although I’ve lived in Britain before, Scotland is quite unknown to me, and I’ve only taught at universities in the U.S., with very ‘guest appearances’ at programmes in New Zealand; so, it’s a big challenge as well as an opportunity.  Some days it feels very daunting.

SD: After successfully having four books published for the adult market, you have lately turned your hand to writing for the teenage, or young adult (YA), market.   What compelled you to write for this market?

PM: Although Ruined (published in 2009) was my first official YA publication, I’ve been lurking in the shadows for the past five years, working as a ghost-writer or fixer on a number of other YA novels.  This was very useful experience, both as a reader and as a writer.  With Ruined, I wanted to write something my niece would want to read.  She was about 15 when I was first thinking about it, and she read the outline and gave me feedback. (Her name is Rebecca Hill, and the novel is dedicated to her.)  I wanted to try my hand at a mystery, an adventure story, because I used to read lots of these when I was a teenager; and I wanted to write something with a supernatural element, drawing on New Orleans history and culture.

SD: Where would you place Ruined and Dark Souls in the YA market, i.e. in what category?

PM: Both Ruined and Dark Souls fall into the urban fantasy genre, I think. Scholastic and I have talked about the novels as part of a ‘haunted cities’ series – New Orleans, York, and then Rome for a third book.  All are supernatural mysteries.

SD: Ruined has a distinctly Gothic setting: the graveyards and historical colonial mansions of New Orleans, not to mention the masked carnivals of mardi gras; can you say some more about that?

PM: New Orleans is an old and haunted city, and therefore a loaded place to write about.  Some of its imagery is over-familiar (from novels and films) to the point of cliché.  As soon as some of these elements are in play – oak trees heavy with Spanish moss; graveyards known as Cities of the Dead; a night parade during carnival – and you add in voodoo curses, yellow fever, and ghosts, the result can be Gothic overload.

SD: In what ways does the title of Ruined relate to its content?

PM: The original title of Ruined was The Ruins and then Ruins … it mutated along the way, with input from Sales and Marketing, of course.  I was thinking originally of a city in ruins, which is how many people thought of New Orleans after the storm.  And in the novel, before the curse can end, a house must lie in ruins.

SD: You mention that Scholastic and yourself have talked about your novel as part of a ‘haunted cities’ series; how did this come about?  Did you pitch it like this yourself, or were the publishers the driving force?  I am thinking of the many teenage ‘series’ that are out there, especially with regard to supernatural literature, and wonder whether the market is driven primarily by the reader or the publisher, and where, in all this, does the author actually fit it?

PM: The idea of a ‘haunted cities’ series was mine, because I wanted the freedom to move cities (and countries) with each new book, and not get locked into a particular location. I’m very drawn to writing about cities: I find them incredibly energizing.  Someone asked me this week why I’m living in Glasgow rather than some pastoral idyll in the Highlands.  I think I would go a bit crazy somewhere isolated: I’d start chatting to sheep, and teetering off to the nearest pub in unsuitable footwear. This isn’t a real series, like the Clique books, or Nancy Drew, say, in that the characters aren’t recurring.  Not so far, anyway.  Teen readers send me letters begging for a sequel to Ruined. They get invested in characters and want to follow them, and I understand that.  And of course publishers like the idea of sequels and franchises, though Scholastic has put no pressure on me at all.  I’m not averse to writing a series, but I don’t really think that Ruined lends itself to one, in part because of what happens to one of the major characters. (I don’t want to spoil the story here!) There’s some potential with Dark Souls, possibly, but I don’t want to push it.  If the story doesn’t grab me, then I can’t write it.  I’ve had some very funny and inventive suggestions from teen readers, though.  I love reading their ideas.

SD: What is the setting for Dark Souls, and can you tell us more about the novel?

PM: Dark Souls is set in York – old York, as I have to keep reminding people, rather than New York!  I went to university there in the 80s, though I never did anything useful like take a ghost tour.  The novel is about an American girl who, since the death of her friend in a car accident, can see ghosts.  York is allegedly the most haunted city in Europe, so when she goes there for a week with her family one misty December … strange things happen.  It’ll be published in the U.S. in August 2011.

SD: How ‘dark’ will the souls be in Dark Souls? And how ‘dark’ do you think teenagers can take it?

PM: Dark Souls is a sort-of quote from Milton, and I’m pleased that it wriggled past Sales and Marketing without anyone wondering about the strange YA/Milton fit …  It’s a darker novel, I think, with more supernatural encounters and a quite malevolent ghost at the heart of the mystery.  There’s a shadow over the story, too, because the protagonist is still recovering from an accident that killed her best friend.  Some teenage readers may find it too dark, but reading leads us into places we wouldn’t necessarily choose to go in our own lives.  I’m always trying to encourage student writers to embrace the darkness, the shadows, in their own experience and imaginations.

SD: And indeed you are now a ‘ghost-writer’ proper – every pun intended.  Your YA series concentrates on ghosts; what interests you about ghosts in particular, as opposed to other elements of the supernatural?

PM: I’m not entirely sure why I’m interested in ghosts rather than vampires, say, except there seems to be more creative freedom with ghosts.  The rules of every ghost encounter can be different.  Ghosts may be imagined rather than actual, or seen by one person and not by another.  The tropes of vampire fiction (teeth and blood and stakes, etc) are less appealing to me.  I suppose I lean more towards suspense than horror.

SD: What, in your opinion, defines ‘urban fantasy’, and what do you think the appeal of ‘urban fantasy’ is to teenagers?

PM: Having bandied about the term ‘urban fantasy’, I suppose I should attempt a definition.  I think I nabbed it from Cynthia Leitich Smith: we were on a panel together earlier this year at the Houston TeenCon.  It’s fantasy set in a city rather than an imagined pastoral landscape – like, say, Narnia. And the city itself plays a part, helps shape the narrative. That’s why I see the novels I’m writing for Scholastic as a ‘haunted city’ series, even though the characters and situations are different in each.  Cities are dark, vibrant places filled with problems and possibilities, which is why I guess urban fantasy appeals to many teen readers.  My short story collection, by the way, is called Forbidden Cities, because so many of the stories explore cities as places of escape and transgression.  Most of the stories are realist rather than fantasy, though.

SD: In what ways do you think teenage urban fantasy differs from adult urban fantasy?

PM: I don’t think I’ve read much adult urban fantasy, and I’m not particularly interested in writing it.

SD: And, following on from that last question, do you think urban fantasy differs from our notion of the Gothic?

PM: My YA novels are essentially mysteries with a supernatural element.  Realist with fantastic intrusions, in a way, because the cities are real places I’m trying to evoke in a way that’s true to their histories and geographies – not invented, Bladerunner-like urban landscapes.  And the protagonists are ordinary girls, not Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The supernatural mystery at the heart of each book gives them a Gothic feel, I think. But Gothic novel and urban fantasy don’t have to intersect. I’m playing around with an idea for a Gothic adult novel at the moment, in which there’s suspense and ruin and desire and secrets, but it’s not set in a city, and the supernatural world is part of the shadows rather than the foreground.

SD: Finally, Paula, can we expect, in due time, a Scottish supernatural addition to either your adult or YA collection?

PM: Something Scottish and supernatural  - maybe.  I never say never.  There’s so much for me to learn here, and to see.  It took me quite a long time to write about New Orleans once I was living there.  I’d set part of my first (adult) novel there, but once I was living there I felt a certain hesitation. Especially after the storm and the flood and the evacuation, when the city – and the lives of people living there – fundamentally changed, and everything was either  Before or After.  It took me four years living there before I wrote two short stories that appeared in my collection, Forbidden Cities, and before I wrote Ruined, though I wrote various pieces of non-fiction. I don’t know how long this process will take in Scotland.

To view the trailer for Paula’s YA novel Ruined, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLUySGS7DNg

And to see Paula giving a reading from her novel, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yj-frtWQ7jE&feature=related

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