Each month we shine our spotlight on a member of the Writing NSW community to learn more about their writing journey, achievements and inspirations. This month, our Spotlight On features author, playwright and songwriter Michelle Morgan, whose latest YA novel, Flying through Clouds, published in 2017, was awarded the SCBWI Spark Award for excellence in independently published children’s books.
Her first YA novel, Racing the Moon, was published by Allen & Unwin in 2014, and released in the UK and US in 2015. Michelle has written several plays that have been performed in short play festivals and has co-written a number of songs.
Our Membership Intern, Lucie Towers, spoke to Michelle about the importance of ‘place’, the challenges and benefits of self-publishing, and the spectacular take off of her latest novel, Flying through Clouds.
Your book, Flying Through Clouds, soared to wonderful heights, being awarded the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Spark Award for 2017. Congratulations! How did you celebrate?
At the time, I was so busy preparing for writing workshops I was running at a local high school I didn’t have time to celebrate. I may have had a glass or two of champagne a couple of days later.
I’m looking forward to attending the SCBWI Summer Conference in LA in August, the conference fees being one of the prizes for winning the award. The SCBWI Spark Award recognises excellence in children’s books published independently or by a non-traditional route.
Could you tell us a little about the story?
Flying through Clouds is about Joe Riley, a teenage boy growing up in Sydney during the 1930s who dreams of becoming an aviator. It’s also about the issues he faces growing up and some of these issues are relevant to teenagers today. With a compelling mix of history, drama, adventure and humour, Flying through Clouds is suitable for readers aged 12+. Find out more on my website: www.michellejmorgan.com.au
Your YA novels, Racing the Moon and Flying through Clouds, are both set in Glebe. Why has Glebe captured your imagination, and how important to you is the theme of ‘place’?
My fascination with Glebe began when I was a teenager and my two older brothers and sister moved there. Glebe has a rich social history and a very active community organisation known as the Glebe Society, which has extensive historical resources about the area. During my research I became fascinated with Glebe’s heritage buildings and sites, its working-class roots and industrial history. A sense of place is important in my novels as I want the reader to become immersed in my characters’ worlds and have a sensory as well as a literary experience.
If you could jump right into your own aeroplane right now, where would you go? Who would you see? What would you do?
I’d take off from the Flinders Ranges and head north, flying over Lake Eyre to experience its sheer expanse, the changing colours and shapes of the landscape and the amazing birdlife. I’d continue north on my flying safari, spending time in places like Oodnadatta, Birdsville, Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, Alice Springs and Katherine then on to Kakadu and Arnhem Land to experience more of our rich Indigenous culture and diverse landscape.
When coming up with a new story, how do you get yourself inspired to write?
I don’t start writing until after I’ve done my research. I spend months immersing myself in research about the setting, main characters and key aspects of the story. Apart from reading books, I do online research, find newspaper articles and historical photos, watch old films and newsreels, listen to podcasts, and visit libraries and museums and the locations for my stories. I also spend a lot of time developing my main characters and key scenes before I start to write.
In Flying through Clouds, young Joe dreams of being an aviator, but faces many obstacles and challenges along the way. As a writer, did you ever face any challenges you had to overcome?
My biggest challenges relate to editing and marketing. I spend a lot of time editing my manuscripts, and I love working with editors to get critical feedback and advice to help make my manuscript the best it can be. The marketing of Flying through Clouds was particularly challenging due to my decision to self-publish. Fortunately, I had lots of guidance and support, but it was time-consuming although ultimately very satisfying.
In addition to writing novels, you also write short plays and songs. When you write for different mediums, do you take similar or different approaches?
I take different approaches to writing in different mediums and my inspiration comes from different sources. A strong narrative is critical to my novels while moral ambiguities are critical to my plays. Both need a cast of diverse and interesting characters with different needs and motivations. With songs, the music inspires me to write the lyrics and I work collaboratively with my husband.
Novel writing and playwriting are more solitary pursuits until I get to the stage of working with editors, dramaturgs, directors and actors. I also spend more time researching a novel to get a sense of time and place than I do for a play or song, but research is important to all mediums.
Do you have a regular writing routine? If so, what does it involve?
I mostly write during the week and have weekends off, except when I have a deadline to meet. I tend to do emails, social media and administrative tasks first thing in the morning and I’ll often play the piano for half an hour before I start writing. After a late lunch, I’ll continue writing or editing until late afternoon. If I’m feeling particularly tired or uninspired, I’ll read instead of writing.
What are you reading at the moment?
Bridget Crack by Rachel Leary – a brilliantly written historical novel set in Tasmania in the 1820s.
Any words of advice for aspiring YA writers?
Read the kind of YA novels you’d like to write but also read widely to expose yourself to a range of literary genres. Develop your toolbox as a writer through courses offered by Writers’ Centres and accredited educational institutions. Seek critical feedback and don’t give up.
In your opinion, who/what is the most inspiring:
a) weather? Chilly outside, warm inside
b) travel destination? In Australia – Central Australia, overseas – Africa
c) time of day? Sunrise and sunset
d) writer? Shakespeare is my number one pick, but there are many other writers who inspire me and are too numerous to name.
To find out more about Michelle and her work, visit http://www.michellejmorgan.com.au.