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How I write: Sally J Morgan turns to poetry when she has writer’s block


Sally J Morgan and her award-winning novel, Toto Among the Murderers.


Sally J Morgan and her award-winning novel, Toto Among the Murderers.

Sally J Morgan was born in Wales and grew up in Yorkshire and Swansea before studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp. She moved to Wellington 20 years ago to work at Massey University’s School of Art and became a New Zealand citizen as soon as it was cleared. His novel, Toto Among the Murderers, set in the north of England in the 1970s, was long shortlisted for the Jan Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards in 2021, and this year he won the British Portico Prize for Literature. .

Which writer do you turn to when you have writer’s block?

I often read poetry when I have writer’s block, I’m just trying to relax. Charles Simic is a favorite. I also watch paintings and films. They give me images to work from, and films in particular have a narrative structure – these things help me think about how I might develop new scenes in my writing. I particularly admire the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson.​​

What book had such an impact on you that you bought it for your friends?

by Elizabeth Smart The Assumption of Rascals and Rascals​. She is best known for Near Grand Central Station I sat and criedbut this one was written much later in his life and is grittier but so beautifully written.

When it comes to a memorable book, which is more important, a great plot or great characters? What examples can you give of the latter?

I love both of these things, but more than either; I like the quality of the writing. Books that fall between poetry and prose have always been my favorites. Carson McCullers The Ballad of the Sad Café (In fact, everything Carson McCullers) achieves everything I want from a book – great plot and characters, and amazing qualities in the language.

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Toto among the murderers, by Sally J Morgan.


Toto among the murderers, by Sally J Morgan.

What books made you cry?

Alone in Berlin by German author Hans Fallada had a profound effect on me. It is a moving study of futility and despair in Nazi Germany. Its characters are complex and flawed, and the choices they have to make are devastating.

What book do you come back to over and over again to re-read?

i must have read Gormenghast​ by Mervyn Peake​ about 10 times – maybe more. It’s such a rich world to get lost in. I spent my late teens identifying with the teenage character, Fuschia, who spends a lot of time sulking in the attic.

Which authors would you like in your book club?

Carson McCullers,​ Sylvia Plath,​ Dylan Thomas,​ Jean Genet,​ ​​​​and Jeanette Winterson​. Can you imagine the arguments? I would probably put everything in place and then go look outside through the window.

Sally J Morgan won the Portico award.


Sally J Morgan won the Portico award.

Can you share a great piece of writing advice you’ve received?

When I was 19, British poetry critic Al Alvarez, told me to avoid being too lush in my images and to keep things understated and simple. He’s always on my mind as I try to find the right balance in my prose.

What advice do you give to writers just starting out?

Don’t try to impress – find what’s true and write about it in your own voice.

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