I am delighted to welcome ROZ MORRIS, whose latest book, ‘Not Quite Lost – Travels Without A Sense of Direction’ is out on October 2nd. I was lucky enough to be invited to write an article for Roz’s long-running ‘The Undercover Soundtrack’ blog series after she discovered my debut novel, ‘The Husband Who Refused to Die’, through a mutual writing friend. We’d both found the subject of cryonics – a process whereby people are frozen after death in the hope of coming back to life some time in the future, when science has moved on – so fascinating that we had to write about it. ‘I’ve been planning to use cryonics in a book but you’ve beaten me to it,’ Roz joked, after introducing herself to me back in January this year. Yet our books couldn’t be more different. While cryonics is the central hook in my contemporary women’s fiction novel, Roz met a group of people on a suburban business park preparing to deep-freeze each other. And that’s just one of the many extraordinary discoveries Roz recounts in her amazing (but true!) travel memoir.
Where did idea for the book come from?
It was a genuine diary. I’ve always scribbled in notebooks, and I have a particular notebook I keep in my suitcase for when I’m away. It’s a bit special – bound in leather, with the word ‘visitors’ stamped on it in gold. I like the Alice in Wonderland logic – it’s the book I write in when I am a visitor.
Last November, I went away with my husband Dave, and on the first night I got out the book, ready for new entries. We had a laugh about past adventures. The time the car window got stuck on the coldest day of the year and we had 20 miles to drive to get it fixed. A tour guide we met in Glastonbury who was in love with a real-life reincarnation of a character from Arthurian legend.
‘You should put those in a book,’ said Dave.
‘Yeah, they’ll be used in a novel sometime,’ I said.
‘No,’ he said, ‘write them up as a book of travel essays. People like that kind of thing. Think of Bill Bryson.’
‘Ha ha,’ I said, not taking him seriously at all.
Over the week, I came to rather like the idea. But I also thought it could be horribly self-indulgent, so when I got home I did my best to find author friends who would talk me out of it. Actually, they all said ‘do it’. So I did.
One reviewer has compared you to Bill Bryson. Was he an influence?
I was so thrilled by that. Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island makes me cry – with laughter. And at the same time it’s so sincere and personal, which I like very much. He writes about whatever takes his fancy, whether it’s a mad Victorian who built a mansion that was half underground, or taking a walk along a wind-battered coastline in Somerset, or eating a darn good curry in Leeds.
I also liked the small scale of Bryson’s book. Some travel writers embark on showstopping adventures – crossing the Andes or running seven marathons. Or they drag a fridge around the M25. These stories are fun, but the adventure or the gimmicks have done half the work for them. I think it takes a much more skilful writer to make adventures out of quieter places and events.
Were you inspired by any other authors?
Oh totally. I’ve always sought out books with that same Bryson quality. At school I was always reading Gavin Maxwell, Gerald Durrell, Laurie Lee, Alan Whicker, Eric Newby. Sometimes they were reporting from unusual places – for instance, A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush. But even when they were just doing something ordinary, they were great company on the page – amused, kind, fiercely observant, endlessly curious. I also love seeing novelists write non-fiction – Hilary Mantel, for instance. It’s like getting a letter from them.
Is there any particular experience that stands out most for you? And why?
There’s one that happened as I was starting to put the book together. A school friend sent me a message saying ‘I went past your old house and saw it had been demolished – so sad’. That was quite a shock because I didn’t know. The house actually had quite a history as it was a fine example of the Edwardian Arts & Crafts style.
I’ve always had a real affection for beautiful period houses (another reason why I got on well with Mr Bryson and his madman’s mansion). So I thought: can I write an obituary for my old house? I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off, but my early reviewers told me they cried when they read it. So that’s a special piece because it’s so personal.
And – as you’ve pointed out – there’s also the time I met the cryonicists! That piece is quite journalistic. I thought they were doing such an optimistic thing, trying to help each other survive death. I simply had to meet them.
Were there any experiences that didn’t make it into print? And why?
I had to do a lot of filleting. There’s a difference between writing for yourself, looking inwards, and writing to invite an audience in. Some of the pieces didn’t survive the retread, or they were so personal and peculiar that they’re best kept locked up for ever! Such is the nature of a diary.
But I was surprised by how many did turn into workable pieces. To start with, I thought I’d have just a short ebook, but it grew into a proper paperback.
As a writer it stretched me a lot. When you’re working on a new kind of project you read with new hunger. How have other writers handled this kind of material? What potential might lie in these pieces which began as personal doodles? What new techniques could I learn?
I read a lot of personal essays on sites like The Literary Hub. They’re like flash-memoirs – small accounts of transformation. Some of my pieces are like that. Others simply dwell in a place and savour it – there’s one about a power station that appears to be gigantic in the winter fog. They’re almost like songs; an echo rather than a story. That power station piece was a bit of a risk, so I was pleased when it was picked up by Vine Leaves Press for its final vignettes collection.
With hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?
I’ve just written another piece that I’d have included! I think I have unleashed a new monster. I’ve now learned this new kind of writing and I don’t want to stop.
In one of your recent blogs you say that when authors publish a book they know that ‘barring a miracle, hardly anybody will read it’, thanks to there being so many out there. What motivates you to keep writing?
Quite simply, I’ve always written. That’s why I had the visitors’ book in my suitcase – because I wanted to keep things, and a photograph wasn’t adequate. I wanted to spend time talking to a page and committing these moments to a permanent place.
Another reason I write is because I’ve always read. Reading makes me think we can do anything –create people and places and experiences just through our empathy and curiosity. It makes us feel like giants. On a technical scale, I find reading provocative. I notice new techniques and I want to go and try them, like painting in a new colour.
I find that creativity seems to make a day satisfying – though of course that sounds very self-indulgent as there are other, very important things to do in the world. But creative actions are my personal way to recharge and probably to cope with the mess of life. Somehow it feels important to have somewhere to put new experiences, or the day’s triumphs, curios and disappointments.
What has the response been from readers so far?
I’ve had some lovely reactions, but I think I’d pick this one out from author Clare Flynn: ‘Keep a copy in your spare room and you’ll never see your guests.’
Roz Morris is an award-nominated novelist (My Memories of a Future Life; Lifeform Three), book doctor to award-winning writers (Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2012), has sold 4 million books as a ghostwriter and teaches writing masterclasses for The Guardian. Not Quite Lost is her first collection of essays. Find her at her website https://rozmorris.wordpress.com/ and on her blog https://nailyournovel.wordpress.com/ , contact her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RozMorrisWriter/ and tweet her as @Roz_Morris http://www.twitter.com/roz_morris
Not Quite Lost https://rozmorris.wordpress.com/my-books/not-quite-lost-travels-without-a-sense-of-direction/
My Memories of a Future Life https://rozmorris.wordpress.com/my-books/my-fiction-me-as-me/my-memories-of-a-future-life/
Lifeform Three https://rozmorris.wordpress.com/my-books/my-fiction-me-as-me/lifeform-three/