An interview with Joanna Morrison, shortlisted for the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award
Jo Morrison began her writing career as a journalist, first in Perth and then in Fremantle. She soon realised she wanted to write fiction instead of news, although she contends that in some ways the two forms are not that different. While journalism is by definition factual, setting it well apart from fiction, both forms aim to tell engaging stories, and both are propelled by curiosity – about the world, and about the human condition.
Those are the things that drew Jo to journalism, and they’re also what drew her away from it, towards postgraduate studies in creative writing. Free to explore the human experience in a different way, she has since completed a master’s and a PhD in creative writing and now works as a freelance editor and sessional tutor at Murdoch University. Her short stories have been published in literary journals Westerly and Meniscus, and one of them – distilled from the novella she wrote for her PhD – was shortlisted in 2017 for the Margaret River Press Short Story Competition, later appearing in the associated anthology, Joiner Bay and Other Stories.
Jo lives in Perth with her husband, their two sons, and their miniature schnauzer, Scout. We asked her to tell us a little bit about herself and her work.
Describe your manuscript in your own words.
Still Dark is a crime novel that’s also a love story, about grief and many kinds of love: paternal, platonic, romantic and lost. Infused with elements of magical realism, the narrative asks, how many wrong turns do you get to make before you lose everything? Who else suffers the consequences of your casual mistakes? And what might it be like to watch life go on after you’ve died in way that you deeply resent? The novel is narrated by Kate, who is long dead but still invested in the sorrows, joys and flaws of the friends who survived her death at university, 18 years ago. Particularly her old flame, Cohen, her best friend, Mary, now a journalist, and Sam Oakes, now a respected author, husband and father to baby Isla. When Sam is found dead on his boat, alone out on the river, his death is a mystery to everyone who knows him – well, almost everyone – meaning baby Isla will grow up without him, and without ever knowing why. So, like the dark fairy godmother leaning over the cradle, Kate tells her the truth of what happened, in all its devastating, irrevocable detail.
What inspired you to write it?
I wanted to write a crime novel with a fairly complex structure that allowed for multiple points of view, and maybe just a touch of the supernatural. It felt important to evoke a vivid sense of place, particularly along the Swan River – the water at night, the sometimes-ethereal quality of the light, the hypnotic rocking of the boats at rest. And I’m always inspired by engaging characters with secrets and flaws, so I hope I’ve managed to achieve that in Still Dark. In particular, I had this intriguing image in my mind of a man found dead and alone on a boat on the river. Who might he be? How did his life’s choices lead him to this point? Who will weep for him, and how did he die out there, alone? Was he, in fact, alone?
How long have you been working on it?
I started writing the book in early 2017. The first draft took about eight months, then I restructured it into a very different book in early 2018 before going back to the original and restructuring that again in 2019. So it took about three years, up to when I submitted it for the Hungerford. It’s been a labour of love, not just for me but for my long-suffering beloveds subjected to so many drafts along the way!
What does it mean to you to make the shortlist of the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Awards?
It’s as if the door of my writing dungeon has opened just a crack and a most beautiful light is shining in! I try (and usually fail) not to hope too hard after submitting my writing somewhere because those hopes get dashed so often, and the stakes begin to feel so high. But being shortlisted for the 2020 Hungerford Award means one of those hopes gets to live and fight another day. Whether Still Dark wins or not, being shortlisted is exhilarating and reassuring. It validates a decision I made to leave my job as a journalist at the Fremantle Herald 15 years ago to write fiction, and it makes sense of the tortuous eight years spent on a Creative Writing PhD while my two sons were little. Finally, it means the judges I so respect and admire (Sisonke Msimang, Richard Rossiter and Brenda Walker), as well as the fabulous Georgia Richter from Fremantle Press, have read my manuscript and decided it has something going for it. And that feels amazing!
Read an extract from Still Dark
The first person to know that your father was dead was a woman. A young woman. Early twenties. Slender with emerald eyes and a dark mass of hair.
Imagine those eyes now closed—thick dark lashes—and that hair spread out around her head on the white fibreglass floor of a small boat.
When she wakes, there’s a sound, something gurgling and slapping up against the vessel, and a briny smell coming in on the breeze. She opens those emerald eyes and a throb of pain spreads from the back of her head to the front. Slowly, a shape comes into focus, white in a sea of darkness.
A mast reaches into the night sky, sails furled up tight.
The woman sits up and the throbbing intensifies—a blinding flare behind her eyes. Through the ache, she sees the orange lights of the shore, rising and falling, their reflections slipping in and out of the skin of the water.
Not that far away.
The boat rocks beneath her when she pulls herself forward on to her knees, and that’s when she sees it: a shoe. A black shoe, on someone’s foot, pointing up at the sky. Fear moves through her like dye through silk, quick and dark and spreading.
Barely breathing, she studies the shape of him. He’s long. His clothes are dark. On his left hand, which is pale and still, a wedding band catches the light from the shore intermittently, with the rocking of the boat. Like a lighthouse. A warning pulse.
His name is Sam. Sam Oakes. Yes, your father. He’s taken her out on Stargazing before, with the water stretching out dark around them, like this, restless in the moonlight. She touches his face, runs her fingers over the skin worn into fine creases around his eyes. His dark hair merges with the shadows. Holding her hand over his slightly open mouth, she feels for warmth but there’s nothing. No sound either—just the gentle slap and surge of the water against the sides of the boat.
‘Wake up,’ she says, her voice thin and fearful, alien to her. She feels for a pulse. Her own is tearing along, bursting out of her neck, but not Sam’s. Up under his jaw—still nothing.
I know it must be hard for you to know all this, Isla—to witness it so closely—but I’m giving you everything, because if it were me, that’s what I’d want. Besides, my motive is not to protect you. It’s to lay bare the facts.
The lights are still there on the shore, but they have no answers for this woman who is not your mother. The moon is silent too. There’s only panic for guidance, and the panic says swim. She steps up to the top of the ladder and looks down at the water—so dark and unsteady—then she jumps before she can think too hard about it: about how far she has to go and exactly how deep the water might be; about leaving Sam behind, in there all alone. Worse than alone. Gone.
The winner of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award will be announced at Fremantle Arts Centre on Thursday 22 October. Tickets are free but places are limited, so RSVP soon.