Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Isla Morley

Isla Morley grew up in South Africa during apartheid. She is the author of Come Sunday, which won the Janet Heidinger Prize for Fiction and was a finalist for the Commonwealth Prize. Her novel Above was an IndieNext pick, and Best Buzz Book, and a Publishers Weekly Best New Book. She lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband, daughter, three cats, and five tortoises.

Morley's new novel is The Last Blue.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The best book titles are distinctive, easy to remember and arouse curiosity. Paired with a compelling image, the book cover is to book sales what the tinder profile is to hook-ups. Given how many books are out there, it’s a mostly “swipe-left” world, let’s face it. The main character of my novel (based on the real “blue people of Kentucky”) is Jubilee Buford, a woman who has been isolated in the Appalachian wilderness all her life on account of her shocking blue skin, the subject of all manner of superstitions and prejudices. Color aside, Jubilee is unforgettable for many other reasons, so it made sense that the early titles featured her name: The Year of Jubilee and The Blue Song of Jubilee. Neither quite worked. The Last Blue was the candidate that seemed to have all three ingredients. Swipe-right? Let’s see.

What's in a name?

Give a character a name, and you give her a destiny. The last thing I’ll do is willy-nilly ascribe names to characters, no matter how minor their roles. The protagonist’s name, Jubilee, comes from the mandate in Leviticus that after every six years is a Sabbath year, and after the seventh Sabbath (forty-nine years) is the Jubilee Year, which is when debts are forgiven, prisoners are freed and land rights are returned to the original owner. Big name, big destiny. Even if the day of justice never actually materializes, does it not speak to great hope? As for a minor character, consider “Verily Suggins.” Doesn’t she sound like a wheezy, sanctimonious busybody?

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenage self would have trouble believing I’d written any book, let alone three. What happened to art, she might ask. Or the hotel for cats?

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Here we have the binary problem again. Both are equally hard. With The Last Blue, I changed both the beginning and the ending several times. Beginnings are tricky because they have a tendency to go on way too long, rather like that one pontificating relative at family gatherings, and endings can be a bugger because they sometimes run out of steam and end rather abruptly before the cake is served.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Though my characters’ personalities and experiences are so different from mine, my access to them is by way of emotions, that universal tide which doesn’t respect the sea-wall between fiction and real life. I haven’t lived a banished life, like the main character of The Last Blue, but I know what loneliness feels like, and what it feels like to be invisible sometimes, to not belong anywhere, and then to belong. Similarly, I’d never threaten anyone the way the novel’s antagonist does, but I’ve seen first-hand how suffering can turn a person into a self-despising monster who contributes to the suffering of others.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

My rather indefatigable belief in the power of forgiveness and the transcendence of hope are the result, no doubt, of having lived through Apartheid-era South Africa. Hobbling ungainly along a path of faith for the past twenty-seven years has been an influence too.
Visit Isla Morley's website.

Writers Read: Isla Morley.

My Book, The Movie: The Last Blue.

The Page 69 Test: The Last Blue.

--Marshal Zeringue