To celebrate publication of her new short story collection Scar Tissue, we interviewed Clare Morgan about her inspiration, writing process and work teaching creative writing.
Scar Tissue is the enigmatic new collection of short stories by Clare Morgan, a follow up to her newly reprinted collection An Affair of the Heart. As we travel from Wales and the Marches to places as far away as India, Paris, New England, Scandinavia and Spain, these lyrical, evocative and searching stories unflinchingly explore the darker and more challenging aspects of emotional, sexual and familial relationships, while simultaneously celebrating the joys of being alive in an unfathomable world.
You founded Oxford University’s creative writing programme and are director of the course. Before we discuss your new book, tell us more about the connection between being a writer and teaching creative writing. How do they inform one another? Do you have any advice for someone thinking of studying creative writing?
I came to teaching creative writing rather by accident. I find that working with eager and able writers who are keen to explore and really take their work forward is stimulating and enriching. Our students come from a rich and diverse range of backgrounds and locations around the world, and the mix of voices and approaches this offers is unparalleled in helping to hone any writer’s ear and method. Working with other writers provides a community of comrades with a shared purpose. Addressing the challenges they face helps a writer to refresh and reinvigorate her own approaches. As to advice: I’d say, look around carefully at what’s on offer; think very carefully about why you want to study creative writing in a formal setting. It’s not right for everyone, but can – in the right circumstances – be a life-changing experience that you’ll continue to treasure, whether you achieve significant publication or not.
Scar Tissue is separated into five distinct sections: Space; Home; Away; Nowhere; and Somewhere. What was the reason behind structuring the book in this way and what do each of these headings imply within the context of the book?
The stories fell naturally into these divisions. The first story – ‘Breathing on the Moon’ uses the concept of space and space travel as a metaphor for life experiences. The ‘Home’ section focuses on stories set in the Welsh Marches – a very distinct borderland between countries and cultures.. ‘Away’ places its characters in various locations around the world – the U.S, India, France – and explores the search for some kind of belonging. ‘Nowhere’ equally uses foreign settings (Scandinavia, Spain, a transatlantic flight from Washington), to consider lives in motion between different ways of being; while the final section, ‘Somewhere’, comes to rest in a medieval farmhouse in Snowdonia, where past lives co-exist and enrich the present, posing more questions than can ever be answered, and disturbing the veil between ‘then’ and ‘now’. Like scar tissue in the flesh, the collection as a whole looks at where things divided and where – and if – they have grown back together. It looks at what is and what might have been.
There is a strong sense of place in the stories in Scar Tissue. What does the concept of ‘place’ mean to you and how does it influence your writing?
Place is fundamental to who and what I am. It was a defining feature as I grew up in the Welsh countryside (rural Monmouthshire) and remains so. My paternal forebears were from Cardiganshire and Aberdare. My maternal family from the Marches – Pembridge Castle, Shobden, Symond’s Yat, Monmouth. Place to me is about belonging, or the absence of belonging. It has always been interlinked with history and time, and family, in complex ways.
You write often of relationships and their complexities. What draws you to this subject and how does it relate to other themes in your work?
Relationships are fundamental to who we are and how we survive in the world. I believe they are infinitely complex and impossible ever to understand fully. The affections co-exist very often with their opposite. Goodness and morality in all of us are countered by darker actions and instincts. My characters enact these endless oppositions and counter-tows, as they are buffeted by the equally complex and conflicting tides of life and circumstance. I think short stories have always explored these aspects of being human, from de Maupassant onwards through Raymond Carver and to George Saunders today.
You often switch between male and female narrators in your work, and many of the stories in Scar Tissue are written in the third person. How do you approach characterisation and narrative voice in your stories?
The stories speak to me in terms of who their central character is, and this influences the voice in terms of gender, and in terms of first, third or second person narration. I’ve always been comfortable writing from a male character. It just depends on who the story emanates from, and who I see and hear in my head. I often approach stories quite obliquely, and the third person allows plenty of room for manoeuvre in moving indirectly from the start point to the crux of the story.
The stories in Scar Tissue and your previous collection An Affair of the Heart are set in a wide range of geographical locations, although the characters in these stories aren’t always from those places. What drew you to each of these locations as settings for these stories?
I’ve visited or worked in all the locations I write about. Being away from a usual environment enables a very different perspective on things in that being ‘other’ offers a detachment that fosters observation and reveals previously unrealised aspects of people and things.
In Scar Tissue American novelist Henry Miller and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche frequently appear, and elsewhere writers such as Virginia Wolf have featured in your work. How have these figures and other writers influenced your writing, and in particular the stories within Scar Tissue and An Affair of the Heart?
Nietzsche and Woolf were characters in my novel A Book For All and None and have exercised a strong influence on my writing, as characters and as thinkers. Nietzsche’s writings on time, redemption and alienation are reflected in particular in some stories in Scar Tissue, while Woolf’s approaches to writing, and her contribution to the Modernist aesthetic, resonate throughout my work. Henry Miller is a key aspect of ‘Breathing on the Moon’ the first story in Scar Tissue, where he exercises a strong influence on the life and emotional approaches of the young central character.
In the story ‘Special’ you choose to write in second person. What difference does this make to the story and why did you make this decision?
The second person allows a writer to simultaneously occupy closeness and distance of voice and perspective. This give the almost hallucinatory quality of recollection that I was seeking in ‘Special’, where a young girl is at a turning point in her life and in her family’s fortunes.
Over twenty years have passed between first publication of An Affair of the Heart and your new collection Scar Tissue. How has your writing process changed during this time?
I think a constant has been the battle to carve out time to write, or at least substantial enough blocks of time to enable the intense concentration needed for a longer work. I used to write by hand initially, always in pencil. Now I tend to type onto my laptop, although I revert to longhand if I get stuck, or am writing in the middle of the night. Composing on my laptop still involves multiple drafts and sub-drafts (just as by hand) and I usually work with many windows open simultaneously, mimicking the pages of a A4 ruled writing book.
The last piece in Scar Tissue brings us inside your own home. What is the significance of ending the collection with this piece?
The medieval farmhouse in Gwynedd where the last piece is set does offer a kind of permanence to set against the transient and fast-paced aspects of contemporary existence. Time appears to operate differently and there is a rootedness that doesn’t seem available in more recent settings. There’s a silence, too, through which it appears you can ‘hear’ the past and perhaps feel a connection to it that isn’t obvious elsewhere. It’s an illusion, no doubt, but perhaps a comforting one, and that has allowed me to suggest a kind of concreteness through being ‘Somewhere’ as opposed to ‘Nowhere’.
Join us for the launch of Scar Tissue at Kellogg College in Oxford at 6pm on Wednesday 28th September. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.