Roz Morris on Why Writers Should Read
Today, I’m thrilled to be interviewing Roz Morris, author of a dozen published novels, most of which she ghostwrote for other authors. Eight of them made the bestseller lists, although she can’t tell you what they’re called. This year she published her first novel under her own name, My Memories of a Future Life.
Why do authors read? We all know why we should read more: to learn the rules, to understand the language better, to figure out which stories work and which don’t. But I wanted to get deeper than shoulds. Why do experienced, published authors actually read? Roz is about as experienced a novelist, not to mention blogger, as they come, so I hope this gives you an insight into a real author’s reading life, and how to improve your own.
Enjoy the interview!
First of all, Roz, what are you reading right now? Is it for pleasure or for “work”?
Pierre and Jean by Guy de Maupassant. In translation, I might add—my French can’t even cope with a restaurant menu. But I’m just as likely to be reading a Robert Harris thriller or a Marian Keyes novel as a lofty classic.
Is it for pleasure or for work? Most of my reading is prompted by something I’m working on, and I was led to Pierre and Jean by a novel I’m incubating. Although the research is proving to be a pleasure too.
Do you generally read more for pleasure or for your writing?
I try to make sure that every few books I read something just because I feel like it. But the more I delve into a subject for a novel the bigger my reading list becomes—and the more that directs what books I choose. Also, I’m a slow reader—good writing can keep me trapped in a book far longer than it should take to read it. So 80% of my reading is prompted by my writing because I get so absorbed.
Why should new writers read?
If they don’t read, how can they write? My impulse to write comes from reading. Once I’ve been in the grip of a good book, it gets me to go and write my own.
Stephen King said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” What do you say?
Reading—the good and the bad—inspires you. It develops your palate for all the tricks that writers have invented over the years. You can learn from textbooks about the writing craft, but there’s no substitute for discovering for yourself how a writer pulls off a trick. Then that becomes part of your experience.
Also, I watch a lot of films to refill the story well. The disadvantage with books is, as Stephen King was probably addressing, that reading takes time—especially if, like me, you can be bamboozled by a beautiful sentence. But the average movie is ninety minutes to two hours. In that time you can get an entire story under your belt. I get a lot of my storytelling ideas from films.
Do you only read in your genre? Or do you read books in all kinds of genres?
I read a lot of genres—anything from Jane Austen to Jack Vance. But I recently read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto—a story about a siege in an embassy that turns into a garden of Eden. Although it had flaws it still haunts me.
My brain is usually wired to pick up on the odd and unusual, but my TBR pile includes Sue Cook’s Force of Nature—a study of a couple dealing with in vitro fertilization and donor embryos. I peeked at it and thought it was beautifully observed, so that’s my next read. I love being tempted to read outside my usual tastes by good writing.
When you were first starting out in fiction, did you have any books that you studied? Can you tell us how you studied them?
Interesting question—wonder if I can remember?! There weren’t nearly so many writing books around when I was first playing with the craft. I read Teach Yourself Creative Writing by Dianne Doubtfire and Story by Robert McKee. I also dipped into books on personality testing to play with character types.
Mainly, though, I learned my craft from knowing a lot of writers (and, reader, I married one). Before I ever dared try it ‘properly’ I loved discussing with them what I liked about novels I’d read, and what I didn’t like. So my education in writing came—as I have been describing—by reading other good fiction and getting a natural education from what I noticed. Now I write writing books, so perhaps I shouldn’t say that! Also I used to go to a writing group run by the literary agent Juri Gabriel. We used to critique each other’s work, and watching him guide this process was a terrific education.
Are there any authors who tremendously influenced your style?
I am a style sponge. Possibly this is why I can ghostwrite. I have to be very careful what I read while I’m writing, especially towards the final stages of an edit. When I was going through My Memories of a Future Life for the final polish, I didn’t dare read anything but Shakespeare and poetry. Not that I am imagining I attained such heights, but they were sufficiently far from prose to not colour my characterisation, while spurring me to do better.
There are two kinds of writer who are fatal for my style. The English satirists like Kingsley Amis—I love his spark but I can’t take a story seriously after an encounter with him. And Graham Greene—his quiet, disturbed introversion leaks into my work. You’ve heard of passive smoking? I get passive Graham Greene.
Should young writers seek out these influences for their own writing?
Everyone has to find their own muses. It’s essential to have a range of writers who make you raise your game. I’m always trying to improve my storytelling and my use of language, so I gather writers who will make me sweat for better words and imagery, and who seem to handle the reader effortlessly.
I recently read Heat by William Goldman—he’s the master of the twist, although by the time I got to the end I was a little dizzy with it. My muses change all the time as I discover writers who excite me in new ways.
Do you think reading is dying?
Not at all. Although we have ever more ways to be entertained, narratives will always be popular and there is a particular pleasure in living them through words on the page. There will always be children who will choose a book as company, even if they’re reading it on an electronic device. Novels wouldn’t have been around so long if a lot of people didn’t like them.
Worst novel you’ve ever read?
I usually have the sense not to start reading a novel I think I’m going to hate—unless I have a reason to study it. I tried Lord of the Rings and couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for homely hobbits—but I don’t think that makes it a bad book. Similarly, I couldn’t get very far in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
If I’m not getting on with a novel I ditch it, so there are very few bad books I’ve stayed with to the end. However, The Da Vinci Code definitely was bad—plodding, shriekingly obvious, and plain dumb. My husband told me off because I gave up before the characters even got out of the Louvre loos. He wagged his finger at me, picked it up, and started to read it and didn’t even get that far. Reading is so much a matter of taste.
I’m in awe of Martin Amis’s linguistic facility, but he’s so superior to his characters that I don’t enjoy time in his company. There may come a time, though, when I disregard that and appreciate him more. There are always books waiting to be grown into—and new treasures for us to discover as writers.
What are you reading right now? And why are you reading it, for pleasure or “work”?
The only practice today is to go read something inspiring! If you don’t have anything inspiring, here are some free options:
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- Ulysses by James Joyce
Alternatively, you can go pick up Roz’s novel, My Memories of a Future Life. It’s excellent. Read for at least fifteen minutes. In the comments, post about what you found inspiring in your chosen novel.