Julie Morrigan is a prolific crime and horror author who has penned two novels, Convictions and Heartbreaker, and two short story collections, Gone Bad and The Writing on the Wall. She earned a Spinetingler Award nomination for her story 'Watching', and her work has appeared on numerous 'Best of 2011' lists around the web. Recently, we had a conversation about the world of writing and e-publishing.
Chris Rhatigan: How did you start writing?
Julie Morrigan: The years before I could read were very frustrating. I can remember hounding my mother to read to me, and staring at words, willing them to make sense. Once I could read for myself, regular trips to the library were an absolute must, and when I finally got my tickets to the senior library, it was like getting the keys to the kingdom. All those books …
I couldn’t tell you exactly when I started writing, because it seems to me I always have. It’s as natural as breathing. I can tell you when I first decided to write a novel, though. I was seven, it was the start of the school holidays—six weeks of freedom—and a friend’s mother had just given us an unwanted typewriter. It was a lovely old Imperial, big, heavy keys, hard on the fingers, and it was just crying out to be used to write a story about ponies.
I learned some valuable lessons from that first attempt. And I still have the typewriter.
CR: When did you turn to crime writing? Did you have a pony noir story as a small girl?
JM: Sadly no pony noir tales, but my favourite stories as a youngster were Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven adventure stories. I was also a huge fan of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and The Three Investigators. And I remember being shocked when I discovered that not everybody wrote.
I wrote regularly for years. I wrote snippets and poems and stories and none of it looked like the sort of stuff anyone else would ever want to read. When I started writing ‘seriously’, one of the things I tried to do was to write the kind of stories the women’s magazines published, because they published so many; but I couldn’t do it. (Still trying: still can’t.) I sent some short stories off to a writing magazine for ‘assessment’. They were apparently ‘disturbing’.
My non-fiction writing was doing well, I was writing training materials, user guides, I had a couple of business books published, but I had pretty much given up on writing fiction.
Then I found Bullet magazine, and there they were – people who wrote the kind of stuff I wanted to write. I bought all the back issues and tore through them. When the next issue came out, I had not one, but two stories in it, having sent two to the editor thinking that doubled my chances of getting one in.
I also discovered ezines such as Flashing in the Gutter, Powder Burn Flash and Flash Pan Alley. I started getting some stories out and about and, to my surprise and delight, people seemed to like them. It seemed that ‘disturbing’ was ‘good’, provided the right people were reading my stuff. That was about six years ago and it was a catalyst for my fiction writing.
CR: Convictions is the story of the long-term impact of the kidnapping of a girl. We learn about how it affected her father, mother, sister and a social worker/cop—you focus on the ripple effects of a crime, which makes this book very different from most police procedurals. Why did telling the story this way appeal to you?
JM: At its heart, Convictions is about the same thing all my stories are about: people. For me, the best stories, the ones I can identify with and lose myself in, are about characters I’m interested in and/or care about, and it doesn’t matter whether they are in outer space or an inner city, past, present or future, if they live and breathe on the page, I want to know their story.
The starting point for Convictions was an image I had of a frightened girl looking out of a car window as she was being driven away. I realised she was looking back at her sister, and that what had happened was her sister’s fault. I wondered how a person would live with that kind of guilt, how it would warp and colour their existence. I was interested in how people would treat the girl who escaped, and I wanted to explore the effects of the abduction on others who were connected to the children, or who became connected to them over time. An event is like a pebble thrown into a pond, the after effects can be far-reaching and unexpected.
I suspect the book is different to the majority of police procedurals because it was never meant to be one. The nature of the story meant that there would have to be some police involvement, but I had intended it to be minimal. However, the characters of Ruth Crinson, the Family Liaison Officer, and DI Karen Fitzgerald refused to shut up or go away, so they muscled their way onto more pages than expected. I like them, though, and I think they took the story in an interesting direction, so I don’t mind at all that they did.
CR: Who do you consider to be your literary influences?
JM: Soon after I got those tickets to the senior library that I mentioned earlier, I got really lucky: I discovered Kurt Vonnegut. Also Roger Zelazny, Edmund Cooper and a host of other people, but Kurt Vonnegut knocked me sideways. (Still does.) Needless to say, I dabbled with science fiction writing for a while.
A few years on, and I was reading James Herbert, Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and trying my hand at horror. That was followed by Ian Rankin, Ruth Rendell, and Irvine Welch, and I got into writing crime fiction.
My stories have been described as dark, gritty, scary and funny, which makes me think I must have soaked up a lot of those influences, but then – I hope – I put my own twist on things and started to develop my own style.
Finally, it wouldn’t be fair to talk about influences without giving a special mention to Jim Thompson. He’s an astonishing writer who reminds me that even when I write something I’m pleased with, I have a long, long way to go on this writing journey.
CR: You have a very distinctive style. Like other noir and horror writers, you tend toward the dark and gritty, and like a smaller set of those writers you incorporate humor into a lot of your work. What do you consider to be the hallmarks of your style?
JM: When it comes to style, the reviewers certainly seem to agree with you, describing my stuff variously as dark, gritty, scary, sad, and funny. My stories tend to explore themes such as alienation, dysfunction, the desire for instant gratification and a person’s inability to foresee the consequences of their actions. It’s possible I share a muse with Tom Lehrer, of whose work The New York Times observed: ‘Mr. Lehrer's muse is not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste'. If there’s a story to be found, there are few places I won’t go, taking with me those readers who share my curiosity.
In essence, I just try to tell each story as honestly as I can, to the best of my ability, and without resorting to melodrama. I take a similar approach to dialogue, striving to find the voice for each character and achieve realism.
As far as humour is concerned, I find stories that are devoid of humour, even in the most desperate of circumstances, largely unrealistic. On the whole, people are funny: we love to laugh and to make other people laugh, too. Humour is one of the ways in which we cope, especially when the outlook is bleak, and in the world my characters inhabit, the outlook is frequently very bleak indeed.
CR: The title story in The Writing on the Wall is what I would think of as a classic horror story, complete with a curse and a supernatural being that likes to pile up the corpses. In your opinion, what makes a good horror story? Does it have to have certain elements?
JM: Generally speaking, I like horror to invoke two responses from me: dread and terror. Say a character I care about (let’s call her Jane) wants to get something out of the wardrobe that I know has an axe-wielding maniac hiding inside it. As Jane approaches the wardrobe and reaches out to grasp the door handle, I feel dread. If she opens the door and the axe-wielding maniac jumps out, I feel terror. If someone calls out to her and she turns away without opening the door, I feel relief – but that’s usually short-lived. The dread will quickly return, because the threat still exists and I know at some point Jane will have to face it.
There is another style of horror story I should also mention, if only because it’s the kind I tend to write. That’s the kind where, no matter how much people twist and turn to try to avoid their fate, it’s always waiting for them around the next bend. In The Writing on the Wall, Carole and her friends try desperately to thwart a curse and yet, despite their best efforts, Carole ends up doing things of which she never would have believed herself capable.
Other than that, I don’t mind whether the horror comes from buckets of blood and gore, supernatural creepiness, or stalkers and mind games, so long as it’s scary. Let’s be honest, most of us enjoy a good scare, something that makes us jump and drop the popcorn, provided we can enjoy it vicariously.
CR: You have four e-books out now. Why did you decide to go the e-book route? What are some things you've learned about releasing e-books?
JM: Going back several years, I wrote a couple of novels, went the traditional route of submitting to agents and publishers, and collected an impressive array of rejection slips. They were mostly very nice (‘I liked your story, but …’ ‘I felt I wanted to keep on reading, but …’) but they were still rejections. I did get an agent at this time, but I quickly discovered that we didn’t share the same ideals and I cancelled the contract. (Thankfully not all agents are like that one.)
For reasons I won’t go into here, I didn’t write anything much for quite a long time. Then, when I started writing again, I couldn’t face that whole cycle of submitting a piece of work, waiting months for a response, then sending it out again. Perhaps it was a subconscious thing, but other than a handful of short stories that I submitted to ezines, I started a lot of stuff but didn’t finish any of it. (Although I did write another book under traditional contract terms for my business publisher.)
At the same time, e-books were becoming increasingly popular. I didn’t like them, I didn’t see that they had any relevance to me. I liked ‘real’ books. Then I read some information that opened my mind to the possibilities and opportunities presented by e-books. Perhaps the most insightful observation made to me was that I was initially looking at e-books as a reader who would rather have a 'proper' book, and I switched to the viewpoint of a writer who wanted to have direct contact with readers. Digital self-publishing provided a route to readers that circumvented the slow-moving, soul-crushing traditional path to publication. Whereas with my business books, I was used to waiting as long as a year from delivering the finished manuscript to receiving a published copy of the book, I had published my first e-book within a month of that initial change in perspective.
The fact that I self-publish my books doesn’t mean I don’t have high standards and no matter what route a writer travels, there are still many tasks to complete before a book may be considered ready. Books must be edited and proofread so that the content is as sharp and as polished as possible. The cover must be well designed and eye-catching. The text must be properly formatted, so it reads well no matter what device the reader is using. I have an editor and proofreader, and also a cover designer, although I do my own formatting. I think it helped that I was already reasonably proficient when it came to using Word, but I took the time to learn how to do it well.
Pricing can be tricky and many people have an opinion as to what is appropriate. One thing that will influence price is the size of the work you are selling. Be honest and clear about what is for sale; nothing will anger readers more than buying what they thought was a full-length novel and finding that all they have is a short story.
Arguably the most difficult thing, and again I believe this is the case whatever route to publication is pursued, is marketing, simply making people aware that your book is out there. It doesn’t matter how good a book is, if few people know it exists, then even fewer will buy it and read it.
Different things work for different people, but the following options are generally used and some are things that I have tried: blogging, social media, local and national media, online advertising, and reviews. Marketing is the thing I like least and find most difficult, but I try to make myself do something positive to promote the books pretty much every day.
CR: Your collection Gone Bad focuses on a set of, shall we say, morally questionable characters – thieves, rapists, murderers, tranny-beating assholes. What draws you to writing about deviance?
JM: Gone Bad is rather a collection of cautionary tales, isn’t it? Full, for the most part, of the sorts of people I’d cross the road to avoid and walk into a lamp post rather than make eye contact with.
Partly it’s a fascination with characters I find it hard to identify with in any way, and who do the sorts of things I’d never do. I remember someone saying that writers should be careful what they write about because it puts thoughts in people’s heads and they do things that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred to them. I think it’s the other way around: I read things in the news, see things on television, and some of it takes my breath away. Casual cruelty, bigotry, stupidity … it never ends.
On the day I’m writing this, a woman has been imprisoned for killing a ten-week-old kitten by putting it into a microwave oven and turning it on. Earlier this year, someone stole a number of items, including a laptop, then used it to take a picture of himself flaunting the stolen goods and posted it on the victim’s Facebook page. And some years ago, when a UK tabloid newspaper launched a campaign against paedophiles, a paediatrician was badly beaten by a group of people too dumb to know the difference.
I think the primary driver is most likely that bad people are more fun to write about than good people, and also make for far more entertaining stories, but I wonder if a part of it isn’t just trying to make sense of the crazies.
CR: What are you working on now?
JM: I’m just putting the finishing touches to Show No Mercy, a second collection of short crime fiction very much in the same vein as Gone Bad. I’m also busy with a horror novel, Darke. That has just been through the hands of my editor and I’m about to start work on the necessary rewrites.
Next up will be a book with the working title Street Magick. I recently wrote a rough first draft, and again, it’s a fantasy/horror novel. At this stage, I envisage Street Magick to be the first book in a trilogy, and I already have a fair idea what ground the second book will cover. It’s a project that I’m very excited about.
Also on the list of things to do is to write a full length ‘Brit Grit’ novel, in the style and spirit of the stories in Gone Bad. I think that would be a very satisfying thing to do.
Grift 2 is now available from Lulu.
Chris Rhatigan's books are available from various outlets, including Amazon in the UK and in the US.