Joanna Morrison is a Perth writer whose debut novel The Ghost of Gracie Flynn will be published by Fremantle Press in October. The book, under the title Still Dark, was shortlisted for the 2021 TAG Hungerford Award. I met Joanna quite a few years ago at university when she was at the start of her Ph.D. in Creative Writing and I was at the beginning of my MA. We didn’t have that much to do with each other as we were both busy young parents. However, we bumped into each other some years later when we were both employed as sessional tutors for the same unit and bonded over our incurable need to write.
My inspiration for The Ghost of Gracie Flynn came partly from the river that snakes through Perth (the Derbarl Yerrigan, aka the Swan) …
Congratulations on your debut novel! What inspired you to write The Ghost of Gracie Flynn?
Thanks, Emily, and thanks for having me on your blog. I loved Vociferate and am honoured to be here!
My inspiration for The Ghost of Gracie Flynn came partly from the river that snakes through Perth (the Derbarl Yerrigan, aka the Swan), which I find mesmerising and evocative, especially at night; and partly from the atmospheric mystery novels I’ve always loved to read—stories with compelling imagery, intrigue, characterisation and tension. The kernel of The Ghost of Gracie Flynn was a scene I wrote as part of a different novel I was working on, back in 2017—a scene in which woman discovers a lifeless man on a boat, out on the water. That particular novel ran out of steam and it is currently languishing in ye olde bottom drawer, but the scene kept calling to me until I pulled it out and began exploring its potential. The dead man became Sam Favier, a respected author, husband and father, and The Ghost of Gracie Flynn is the story of how and why he came to be lifeless on that boat.
How long does it take for you to write a book?
Each book is its own creature, with unique demands and appetites, but I’d like to think I’m on a trajectory towards writing a new one every two years. My PhD novella took eight years to write, but I don’t like to use it as a baseline, since there was a theoretical component and I had my two sons during that time, which was not conducive to productivity, or even coherence much of the time! The manuscript I submitted to the Hungerford in 2020, which became The Ghost of Gracie Flynn, took around three years to write (and rewrite), including the usual gaps of waiting for feedback and doing life. Once I’d received a contract from Fremantle Press, the manuscript went through another few rounds of structural edits, so I’d say all up the novel took about four years to complete.
I started my current manuscript during our first Covid lockdown, and the writing process has had to fit itself around the Hungerford shortlisting and Gracie edits, on top of family life and paid work, so it’s tricky to say how long the writing itself has taken. But it’s almost fully cooked, I hope, so let’s say around two years. (Of course, if it gets a publishing contract, further edits will push that out further, but we’ll have to wait and see.)
What is your work schedule like when you’re working?
Let’s just say “schedule” probably isn’t the word I’d choose for it at the moment! A consistent routine is something I aspire to, but it’s not easy to maintain—something most writers I know can relate to. Basically, when I have a window of opportunity, I make it count, like when my husband took the kids camping recently and I was able to spend the long weekend revising my novel. That was quite luxurious! I’m hoping a writing residency or retreat is in my future at some point. On a good writing day, I’ll be at my desk by 9.30am and get in a few solid hours. When the going is really good, I can write 2000 to 3000 words a day. The challenge is not to spend the next few days editing them, but to press on with creating more raw material instead.
…I could never seem to go beyond the first few chapters of a novel before losing momentum. Once I discovered I could enrol in a postgraduate Creative Writing degree, despite not having studied any writing units at an undergraduate level I jumped in with both feet.
Did you always want to be a writer and when did you start taking steps to fulfill this dream?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Like many kids, I stapled pieces of paper into books as soon as I learned how to use a stapler, and I filled them with stories. I always kept journals as a teenager, and I once wrote a picture book about cows and calves and artificial insemination after visiting a relative’s dairy farm. Fortunately, that particular gem went missing many years ago, but writing has always been the way I’ve processed interesting experiences.
Growing up, I was encouraged by my parents to create stories and call myself a writer (even when the title barely applied to the way I actually spent my time), but writing novels seemed way too lofty a goal, so I never really considered it a serious option. Instead, after taking the scenic route—via an Arts degree in politics and law; work experience at our local daily newspaper in South Africa; and a terrifying year of high school teaching here in Perth—I eventually studied postgraduate Journalism and went on to work as a reporter for the Community Newspaper Group and then the independent Fremantle Herald. I loved it. It was exciting, variable and challenging, and the politicians, cops and creatives I interviewed every day were much less frightening than the high school kids I’d encountered as a teacher. But the hours and pay were less than ideal, and I gradually realised that what I loved most about the job was shaping sentences and paragraphs into strong, lean stories, rather than the news-hounding side of things.
I was still writing fiction in my downtime, but I could never seem to go beyond the first few chapters of a novel before losing momentum. Once I discovered I could enrol in a postgraduate Creative Writing degree, despite not having studied any writing units at an undergraduate level, I jumped in with both feet. I completed an MA, then a PhD, and the structure and feedback built into those programs meant that I was finally able to get beyond those abandoned early chapters. The game-changer was having supervisors who read my work closely and let me know what was working and what wasn’t. Sometimes, they even let me in on the mystery of what I was actually doing on the page, thematically and in terms of character motivation, which is (surprisingly enough) not always obvious to the person holding the pen.
there was a small—but very clear—voice in the back of my head saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it done.’
I’ve followed in your footsteps and have taken my current project into academia. What advice do you have for me as someone who has successfully completed a PhD in creative writing?
Your project sounds really exciting—I can’t wait to see how it unfolds. No pressure! My PhD journey wasn’t one I’d hold up as the gold standard, but I learned some lessons that might be useful along the way.
I had both of my sons during my candidature, so it was a really long and arduous process, especially once I’d maxed out my scholarship. Once that income dried up, I got really burnt out trying to juggle work, parenting, and getting my thesis over the line. So my first piece of advice would be to do as much as you can while your scholarship is still alive.
My second piece of advice is to be kind to yourself and take breathers when you need them. Burn-out is not good. To make this compatible with my first point, use your ‘stop-the-clock’ option as needed. I didn’t do that, and I regretted it.
My third tip is less succinct, but it may be the most important. In a nutshell, it’s about believing in yourself. Here’s the long version:
Most PhD programs now require you to have your project articulated and locked in at the six-month mark, but this was only aspirational when I was starting mine, and I don’t think my proposal was put through its paces in an in-depth way. This meant I was free to do a lot of wandering around, figuratively speaking, for way too long, so I spent a lot of time working on a theoretical dissertation that wasn’t viable in the end. (I hesitate to call it wasted time, as it was interesting and I learnt a lot, but if I were to do it again, I would narrow my focus and test out my thesis with both of my
supervisors much earlier than I did.) There was a 90/10 split between my supervisors, and when I sent the 10% supervisor what I thought was a fairly solid full draft of my dissertation, she completely shredded it. In her opinion, most of what I’d done was too tenuous; she recommended extracting what was salvageable, developing it into something with legs, and ditching the rest.
She was right, and the result was a more robust thesis that passed examination, but at the time, sitting in her office hearing her feedback, I was devastated. She was mortified too, because I just wept. I was six years in and exhausted. I was desperate to put the PhD behind me and focus on enjoying parenthood while my boys were small, and I was seriously doubting my capacity to go on with it. And yet, here I was, with SO much more work to do. I got home with a few hours to spare before fetching my kids from school and kindy, so I crawled into bed and lay there, completely spent. But even as I lay there, staring at the wall between sobs, convinced that I had absolutely nothing left to give this project, there was a small—but very clear—voice in the back of my head saying, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it done.’
While that moment was completely awful, it was also a gift, because it revealed that flinty little rock-bottom voice to me—the same voice that has kept me going through numerous setbacks and rejections since then. So if you find yourself full of doubt and uncertainty at any point, take heart that you are not alone, and listen out for that rock-bottom voice, because that is your voice and it is a shiny diamond that you should not ignore.
See the setbacks as battle scars—mere flesh wounds—and keep going! …don’t let yourself be defensive when you get constructive criticism—that stuff is gold!
What advice do you have for other emerging writers?
- Read a lot—for pleasure and motivation. If your path to publication is anything like mine, it will test your tenacity and your self-belief at every step. Most published writers I know have experienced closed doors, crickets and multiple rejections, and it can seriously shake your confidence. To push through, you need to sustain your passion for writing—and to do that, nothing beats immersing yourself in great books.
- Work on your resilience. Just because one book or short story works does not mean the next one will, and vice versa, so you have to find a way to keep going, regardless. When a project you’ve poured years into is rejected and ends up in the
bin, it hurts. A lot. But it happens, and when it does, you have two choices—either give up the dream, or sit back down at the keyboard, ready to begin again. Sometimes you need time to lick your wounds and consider your options. Take that time, and don’t beat yourself up about it. But then get back to it. See the setbacks as battle scars—mere flesh wounds—and keep going!
- Seek feedback and cherish it. Feedback is rejuvenating. It combats the loss of momentum that can set in when you are writing in isolation. I’ve reached a point now where I can write a full manuscript on my own, but if I want to develop it into something that’s actually good, I know I need people to read what I’ve done and let me know what kind of impact it is (or is not) making. So don’t let yourself be defensive when you get constructive criticism—that stuff is gold!
- Celebrate all the milestones. I once told a fellow writer about some of my rejections, and she surprised me by saying, ‘That’s where I want to be next year.’ I hadn’t realised that simply having work to send off to publishers and journals was, in itself, a milestone that was worth recognising. And it really is. So just keep going!
- Build a community of fellow writers. Life is always better when we find our kindred spirits. Seek out fellow writers through workshops and writing groups. Enter competitions and take courses, not only to strengthen your writing and improve your chances of having a publisher read your work, but to find a community of writers you can share your highs and lows with.
- Follow the journeys of other writers, reach out via social media, and be generous with your time and interest in their work. Having a writing community is what will sustain you through those rewrites, those edits, and those moments of self-doubt. It will help you to put those searing rejections into perspective and—you guessed it—keep going!
What is your idea of perfect happiness? Perfect happiness for me is a happy home for my kids to thrive in. Perfect happiness also means dancing with abandon, laughing and relaxing with my husband and family, being at my desk writing, being healthy, and getting to talk about books and ideas.
What is your greatest fear? My greatest fears are hopelessness; stagnation; more pandemics and escalating natural disasters due to climate change; and (related) not getting to see my kids live long and prosper.
What is the trait you most deplore in others? Bigotry—racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, religious fundamentalism, etc. Hatred is such a mean-minded waste of our precious time on this planet. Just be kind; the end.
What is your greatest extravagance? Does foolish optimism count?
What is your current state of mind? I’m feeling apprehensive, excited, and optimistic. And since the WA government announced a concerted move away from fossil fuels, I’m feeling hopeful.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue? This is tricky, but I’m going to go with politeness. I say tricky because I’m always trying to teach my kids to be courteous to other people, and I do think that’s important in order to cultivate a harmonious existence with others … but there is a point at which politeness becomes unhealthy compliance and people-pleasing.
When and where were you happiest? When I was a child, my family spent every Christmas in a beachside settlement called Kleinemonde, on the east coast of South Africa, where two rivers meet the sea.
What is your most treasured possession? I have a moonstone ring that belonged to my paternal aunt, Mary Burnett, who was a journalist and a traveller who inspired me in lots of ways. She was vision-impaired and she beat breast cancer several times, eventually passing away about six years ago. She had no children of her own, but she loved all her nieces and nephews fiercely. I wear her moonstone ring and it makes me feel close to her.
Who are your favourite writers? So many! Among them are Margaret Atwood, Bonnie Garmus, Helen Garner, Ian McEwan, Sisonke Msimang, Maggie O’Farrell, Heather Rose, George Saunders, Zadie Smith, Donna Tartt, and Tim Winton.
Who is your favourite character in literature? Anne from Anne of Green Gables was my first ever favourite, so she’ll always have a place in my heart. I also have a soft spot for Bridget Jones, and I adored young Hamnet in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. Elizabeth Zott from Lessons in Chemistry is a recent favourite, but if I must choose just one, it has to be Tony from Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride.
The Robber Bride is one of the few books I’ve read more than once. It’s about three women who would probably not be friends if it wasn’t for Zenia, a smart, alluring woman who has conned her way into their lives and wrapped their menfolk around her little finger multiple times over the years. Tony is my favourite of these three women at Zenia’s mercy. She’s diminutive, wears enormous glasses, and teaches History at university. Her specialisation is the history of war, and she has a wordplay habit that involves reversing letters, resulting in a language reminiscent of an ancient warrior people. She plays this little word game to herself throughout the novel, but it is never irritating. Tony is so endearing, and so deftly created by Atwood, she’s one of those characters that has stayed with me over the years, almost as if she were a friend of mine.
Who are your heroes in real life? Nelson Mandela is way up there. Not many people could spend nearly three decades incarcerated by an evil regime only to call for forgiveness on their release and lead a nation towards harmonious change. I admire anyone who prevails in the face of discrimination, abuse, disability, mental illness or poverty, and anyone who devotes their lives to facilitating this kind of transcendence for others.
What is next for Joanna Morrison? I’m excited to launch The Ghost of Gracie Flynn in October and hopefully get to talk about it and meet other writers and readers at book events and literary festivals. In the meantime, I’m finishing off my second novel, which is a braided narrative set in Fremantle in three different time periods. I’ll be working on seeing this one through to publication, fingers crossed, and getting started on book three, which is knocking on the door waiting to be let in. Also, hopefully, some international travel, fingers crossed!