Hi Ann, thank you so much for joining me today. Your book is called Crossing Over. Can you tell me a bit about it and what inspired the story?
Thanks for having me! Crossing Over is the story of an unlikely friendship between an elderly woman living alone on the Kent coast and a traumatized Malawian migrant hiding in her barn. On the surface, the two characters have little in common and in some ways they can never fully understand one another, but through their interaction they gain new perspectives on their own experiences and uncover more similarities between their lives than you might expect.
For several years, I’d wanted to write about the little ships manned by civilians that were sent to rescue soldiers from the beaches in Dunkirk early in the second world war. I knew this would probably involve an elderly character who had been involved in the evacuation effort. Then, when reports started to surface of refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean and more recently the Channel in small boats, the parallels and contrasts between the two types of crossings seemed powerful.
In addition, I’m fascinated by representing altered mental states in narrative and how mental illness affects storytelling (something I explored with bipolar disorder in my first novel, Beside Myself). Many therapies are built on the theory that telling a story can help a person move past a traumatic event – so what are the implications for people who are unable to articulate what has happened to them coherently? It struck me that bringing together two characters whose storytelling is compromised – one through PTSD and the other through dementia – might provide an interesting way to explore this.
What challenges did you face in regards to the themes of the book?
I was representing the story from the point of view of two characters with markedly different life experiences to my own. It required sensitivity and a great deal of thought. Indeed, for a long time I would have doubted my entitlement as white British writer to try and tell the story of a Malawian character.
However, recent books such as The Good Immigrant and Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race challenged my thinking on this and made me see that it’s important for writers of all backgrounds to do what we can to increase representation and diversity in storytelling.
The key is to do your best to do it well – in fact that is always a writer’s job. In the case of Jonah and Edie, this involved a huge amount of research and time spent talking to people with direct knowledge of and insight into many of the things I was writing about.
I then had to filter all this research through my own imagination and sensibility to try to make sure that it lived in the story as human experience, rather than two-dimensional information.
What’s your typical writing day like? Is there somewhere specific you like to write?
I get up very early and start at 5am in my writing room looking out over the hills and the white cliffs. Those early hours when the house is quiet are golden. If I have all day and am not going out for meetings, I will work in two- or three-hour stints, with breaks for meals and probably a run in the middle of the day, until around 6pm.
What’s your favourite word and why?
Not sure I have a favourite word but discombobulate is rather fun.
Which authors have inspired you?
The very many amazing authors writing in languages other than English whose books I have devoured during and since my project to read a book from every country in the world in 2012 (https://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/). They showed me how much more is possible in storytelling than we English speakers often imagine.
What are you currently working on?
My next novel. But ssh – don’t tell anyone!
What is your writing process like from idea to final draft? How long does it take you to write a book?
It’s very varied. Crossing Over was quick – I had a polished draft after around ten months. My current work in progress has been under way for more than a year and still has a long way to go. Often it depends how long I’ve been living with an idea before I sit down to write – the more time it’s had to develop at the back of my mind, the quicker the drafting. No matter how speedy the writing is, however, my books always go through numerous drafts with substantial breaks between them before they see the light of day.
What elements do you think make up a good novel?
For me, a good story involves presenting a character confronting a problem that goes to the root of their very existence, and shows how they work through that (or don’t). Humour, telling insights and attention to detail can all add a great deal. And there also has to be that indefinable spark that transforms a character from the sum of their parts into a living, breathing entity who inhabits your head long after you’ve finished reading.
Any advice for someone who is thinking of writing a novel or in the middle of writing one and suffering writers block?
Keep going. Write the book you’d like to read. Take feedback with a pinch of salt. Read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and Stephen King’s On Writing, and as many novels as you can.
Ann is a writer and editor. Her book Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, inspired by her year-long journey through a book from every country, was published in the UK by Harvill Secker and as The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe in the US by Liveright/Norton in 2015.
In 2017, Ann was delighted to take up a Royal Literary Fund fellowship at the University of Kent, where she works two days a week, helping students of all levels and disciplines to improve their writing.
Ann Morgan’s Crossing Over is available exclusively in audio on Audible.co.uk.
Ann’s website – http://annmorgan.me
About Crossing Over:
Edie is struggling. She’s increasingly confused, but she can’t let the women in the village find that out – they’d only talk. But she’s forgetting so much – forgetting to wear matching clothes, forgetting to bake one of her walnut cakes for the WI sale…and forgetting to lock the door…until one day she wakes to find Jonah in her house and herself in her past.
Jonah is struggling. The journey to England was illegal and dangerous, and he’s the only one who survived – and he still hasn’t made it to London. Everything will be fine if he can just get to London. But can he leave Edie to look after herself? And can he hide from the authorities? And from his past?