Thursday, 17 March 2011

Interview with Dave Morris

Happy Saint Patrick's Day, everyone! Hope you've all had a lucky day and didn't get pinched. And look, I even brought you all something a bit Irish! Let's all welcome author Dave Morris.

Hi, Dave! Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m three-quarters English, one quarter Irish. I’ve been writing professionally most of my adult life and I’m married to another writer (Roz Morris of Nail Your Novel fame) which as a domestic set-up would probably be really boring if we were both dentists or bankers or something. Fortunately being a writer means having an interest in everything, so it’s actually fun to bounce ideas off each other over breakfast before firing up our PCs. We live in a quiet part of south-west London (as quiet as London gets, anyhow) and we have no kids or cats or dogs, but Roz does have a very big horse who is stabled out in the Surrey countryside and who gives us plenty of excuses to get out of the city.

How long have you been writing?

More than a quarter century now. I’ve had over fifty books published and I’ve been translated into a dozen languages, which is one of the reasons I felt it was time to jump over into comics. I’ve already said pretty much everything I need to in the medium of prose!

Tell us about MIRABILIS - YEAR OF WONDERS. What’s your story about?

It’s about a forgotten year when a green comet appears in the sky. People wake up to find a world of marvels outside their window. There's a troll under London Bridge. Mermaids are swimming up the Mississippi. A dragon is trying to hatch the Taj Mahal. And every rainbow ends in a crock of gold.

So in this world – which is our world, up until the moment the comet appears – fantasy is now a part of everyday life. And this year of the comet is 1901, so we have a world which is full of injustices and rigid class hierarchies, and suddenly anything – in fact, everything – is possible. Jack, our hero, is a young man from the wrong side of town who’s fallen in love with a lord’s daughter, Estelle Meadowvane. And normally in the strict Edwardian era that would be hopeless, of course, but now there’s a brief, real opportunity to seize the moment. Except Jack’s going to find that even if goblins are setting up shoeshine booths on Piccadilly and so on, that doesn’t mean the human heart is suddenly easy territory to navigate.

So it’s really a love story – not just Jack’s love for Estelle, but my and Leo’s love for myth and fantasy and the infinite possibilities of storytelling.

How did the idea of the story come to you?

Leo Hartas, who draws the Mirabilis books, is one of my oldest and closest friends. When I handed in my first book, the publishers asked if I had an artist in mind. I had met Leo briefly a week earlier when he came in to show his portfolio at the magazine where I did freelance work. He was pretty much the only artist I knew, so I called him up and we met, and our imaginations just clicked. Since then, pretty much all my own favorite projects are the ones Leo and I have cooked up together. It doesn’t feel like work, we’re just like a couple of kids playing. He has a lovely studio in the countryside that’s set in a secret garden – it really is something out of a classic kids’ story. And we get to go down and stay with him and his wife Jo every couple of months when we’re locking down a new issue of the comic, and it’s just such a great place to be, with his kids – who are lovely, and very talented – and cats and the chickens providing eggs for breakfast every morning. A little bit of rural paradise, and a fantastic setting in which to work.

Anyway, as to how Mirabilis came about: I’d gone down to see Leo in Sussex, on Britain’s south coast, and we were taking a walk around a village called Brightling when we came across a pyramid. I mean a real Egyptian style pyramid, lichen-spotted with age, smack dab in the middle of a tiny English churchyard. It was built by a rich eccentric called John Fuller who died in the 1800s. And I said to Leo how normally we liked to work with constraints – you know how that gives shape to an idea. But that how about if for once we let our imaginations totally off the leash to dream up the kind of world where Egyptian pyramids wouldn’t be out of place in English villages?

We might have forgotten about it, but half an hour later I saw a ghost. A tall gentleman in Victorian clothes walked by in bright summer sunlight, tipped his hat – and five seconds later had vanished. Now, I was trained as a physicist. I don’t believe in ghosts. But I turned to Leo and said, “That settles it. We’re really going to have to do something with this idea.”

I said that there aren’t constraints, but of course you always need those. In Mirabilis it’s all there in the structure of the single year. So in the early part there’s just the hint of fantasy – that’s like a Tintin graphic novel with a gentle infusion of magical elements. But by the spring, which is the book I’m writing now, we’ve got characters visiting Atlantis and Cerberus collecting tickets for the London Underground. It all builds up to midsummer and then the comet starts to get smaller in the sky, the fantasy dwindles. It all has to come to an end, you see. And the story is about how our characters, changed by everything they’ve been through, will face up to going back to the world as it used to be

What’s the hardest part of writing for you?

The words! I remember hearing an interview with Alfred Hitchcock where he said that after getting the story all worked out and storyboarded, actually going on set and shooting it could feel like a chore. And I love the creative part where I’m coming up with new things to happen to my characters that will test them and peel away their layers to reveal who they really are. And I love making that entertaining, coming up with visually inventive locations and hopefully sparkling dialogue. But when I have to write descriptive text – the stage directions – I get very impatient.

And that’s the main reason I’m loving my work in comics after twenty-something years writing prose. I’ve always been very visual in my ideas. I get the scene like a movie in my head and in novels I’ve had to translate that into prose. Readers have been kind enough to say I have a poetic prose style, but that’s something I have to work at and I feel like it’s the hard graft part, not the “art part”. But in comics I don’t need to do that. I just sketch exactly what I’m seeing, and I write the dialogue as I hear my characters saying it. This part of the process usually just comes to me literally as inspiration, as though it is breathed into me from outside. And I also enjoy solving the plot problems, because I just have to identify the problem, then go do something else and my obliging subconscious pops the solution up to my waking mind after an hour or two, just like one of those memos arriving in a pneumatic tube. And then, because it’s a comic, I just give all that to Leo and he’s my cinematographer, he shoots the scene. All that arduous prose – gone. In comics I don’t have to write one single line of it!

Any tips you’ve learned about writing you’d like to share?

You have to learn to mediate between the craftsman side of the work and the pure creative side. Keep those in balance. The craft part is essential to make a story that actually works. You don’t want some Philippe Starck chair that’s nice to look at but is as comfortable as the edge of a surfboard. But that side of you is also the inner critic – essential in revision, a confidence-killer in the early stages. And pure creativity is the only way you’re going to come up with something fresh, but you have to rein it in or you end up with too many toys to fit back into the box at the end of the story. Each strength contains its own weakness, so you need to learn to use it properly. And the best way to learn is to just do it – write every day. Those 10,000 hours soon stack up.

Who are your inspirations?

How long have you got? ‘Cause those roots go deep. I found a book of Norse myths at my local library when I was seven years old, and that particular brew of rambunctious adventure, laconic humor, dreamlike fantasy and dark, dark deeds really got me at some deep level. I hadn’t thought about it until this moment, but that’s very clearly inspired the structure of Mirabilis – the bright dawn, the flowering of a glorious summer in the knockabout escapades of Thor and Loki (as often comrades as enemies in the myths), then the sense of a gathering storm as we move towards Ragnarok. Odin will certainly be making an appearance in Mirabilis – one of my favorite characters. I see him played by Peter O’Toole in full wild scary mode. Hmm, I actually frightened myself a little bit there. Those old myths still have power.

Moving on, big influences were Marvel Comics (we’re talking about the Silver Age, late ‘60s with Stan Lee at the helm), movies like Lawrence of Arabia and First Men in the Moon, the juvenile novels of Robert A Heinlein. Then in my teens I discovered Mike Moorcock’s Elric and Corum books, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, and gradually discovered those were just the shores of an ocean of great literature that extended well beyond outright fantasy.

Biggest influences today...? Well, those of us working the MG/YA side of the street can’t fail to acknowledge the towering influence of J K Rowling. She’s the green comet that changed everything. I’m just hoping that the tectonic shift Harry Potter brought about in kids’ prose fiction will eventually ripple through to comics, which are still largely mired in the hobby store mentality of capes ‘n’ cowls on the one hand, zombies on the other. There’s so much more that can be done in comics, and a much broader readership waiting out there, but they’ve been sucked into this ever-narrowing spiral of niche content for the last decade or so. Having said that, I find plenty of comics to enjoy: B.P.R.D. from Dark Horse, Joss Whedon’s Buffy Season Eight, Ed Brubaker’s Criminal series of hard-boiled noir stories, the real horrors of World War One in the reissued Charley’s War books by Pat Mills.

Let’s face it, when you’re a writer, everything’s an influence. I think the one thing we must always remember is that junk is a good influence too. We know that as kids. Take it all on board, let your subconscious process it, and some real flecks of gold may show up even in the unlikeliest muck.

Let’s get to know you on a deeper level. What do you absolutely have to have nearby when writing?

A cup of tea, which usually ends up going stone cold when I’m in the groove and pounding that keyboard. Luckily I’m one of those people who doesn’t mind lukewarm tea. It’s Earl Grey, by the way, the same as Captain Picard drinks, only Data doesn’t bring it to my desk – Roz and I shout at each other across the house until one of us gives in and goes to fill the kettle.

In the early stages of a story I need to see trees and meadows, breathe fresh air, and feel the weather. Sun, rain or fog, anything so long as the English landscape can get right into my pores. I get my best ideas out walking, usually when I’m in the middle of a wood with just one scrap of paper and a broken pencil.

There’s also the question of what I don’t like to have around. When I get to the stage of structuring the story, I get very distracted by anything around me. I sometimes used to work through the night for the total, airtight solitude. I don’t have the stamina for that these days, and in any case the internet means there would still be friends in LA, Japan or Australia awake even in the middle of the night. In those later stages of the work, I get my best writing done while Roz is off riding her horse. It’s nice to have her around all day (especially when she makes the tea) but I can feel the vibrations of her thoughts when she’s working in her study, and that can really throw me off when I’m trying to hammer my own story into shape.

If you could have any super power, what would it be?

Ah, now this is a question that I have given far too much thought to over the years. I mentioned Marvel Comics – I was always a Marvel fan rather than DC as a kid, and when I think of being one of those heroes, well, if you pick a DC character there wasn’t usually much of a downside. Superman’s biggest worry is having to pretend he’s a mild-mannered reporter. That’s a private joke, not a problem. But if you’re Spider-man then you’re directly responsible for the death of your uncle. If you’re Daredevil you’re blind. If you’re Iron Man (and I did want to be Iron Man) your heart could give out if you can’t recharge your chest plate every eight hours. Green Lantern had to recharge too, but in his case there wasn’t any downside. So that’s why I still say Stan Lee was a genius. He shook up the whole genre of superhero comics with ideas that were forty years ahead of their time. Stan’s imagination, that’d be a good superpower to have!

Ultimately, though, in adult life it comes down to teleportation or flight. Teleportation would be so useful. I like going places when I get there, but I really loathe the journey. (Anyone who lives in London will say the same.) But with flight you get the thrill of soaring over the rooftops, and nosing into everyone’s back yard, which is a little more fun than just beaming somewhere. Oh, it’s so hard to decide… Wait, am I going to have to fight crime? In that case I’d better be Iron Man after all. You’re nowhere as a superhero if you don’t have the bulletproof thing covered.

Quick writing test! Use the following words in a sentence: secret, hairspray, and wild pig.

If my wife didn’t insist on keeping the hairspray in a secret place, I wouldn’t always look like I just rode through a hedge on the back of a wild pig.

So simple yet so great! Here’s the part where you thank the people who are supporting you. Let's hear your shout outs.

First, my dad and mum. Dad was an electrical engineer, he used to tell me stories and he taught my mind to work. I use that every day in my writing – coming up with an original idea is only part of it, you have to engineer it into the form of a satisfying story. And mum’s influence is more in the form of a sense of getting the most out of life and friends, the confidence that comes from knowing you can rely on unconditional love and support.

And my wife Roz, who would be a big source of energy and confidence even if she wasn’t a writer too, but the icing on the cake is we can unburden our story problems and publisher gripes on each other. Two heads are exponentially better than one, and the hour spent chatting over a glass of wine after dinner often provides a solution for something we’ll have been worrying over all day.

And finally I have to thank Leo, my partner on Mirabilis and longtime friend and collaborator. He’s kind of a slave driver at times, as he just won’t let me sneak a half-baked idea past him. He’ll read my first draft through and say, “You need to tell the reader such-and-such” or “So-and-so has to articulate what they’re feeling here.” He’s always right, and he always insists on me bringing my best game.

And finally, where can people find you online?

Come on over to and take a look around. That’s the quickest way to get a feel for what Mirabilis is all about.

As for the comics themselves, we’re in the App Store for iPad here:

Also in’s iPhone app:

And on Android and desktop/laptop
The great thing with the digital editions is we can give the first couple of issues away for free, so readers get a chance to see if they like the story before they buy.

And we have a Kindle book – not a comic, but a bunch of vignette stories in the form of letters from around the world during the Year of Wonders, covering everything from the mysterious giant hand found in a wood in Yorkshire to the best way to deal with a dragon that's taken a shine to the gold reserves of Fort Knox:

Anything I missed out? Oh yes, the good ol’ fashioned paperbacks:

Thank you so much for chatting with us, Dave. Your book sounds amazing. And for all my readers, take a gander at the book trailer!


Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Lovely interview, dear. Time for a glass of wine.

Victoria Mixon said...

"Roz & I shout at each other across the house until one gives in & goes to fill the kettle."

I can't tell you how much I love the husband/wife writer life!

Dave Morris said...

Victoria, when we both have pressing deadlines it's a real Mexican standoff. (We got married in Mexico, so that seems appropriate.)

Gina said...

Aw, an Irish (well partly) author on St. Patrick's Day...great match! Quite the accomplished author there with over 50 titles. Wow. Not usually a big fan of comics myself, but I can certainly recognize they have a large fan base. This one seems to have a "creepy" vibe of sorts that will definitely appeal to a few folks I know. Love the writing test answer....wild pig and all. Thanks for sharing guys! ^_^

Dave Morris said...

Thanks, GMR! Content-wise, comics have gone a little too niche in the US and UK, hence their declining popularity. But really they should be just as valid a way to tell stories as a novel or a movie, and with just as diverse a range of genres. I'm hoping the blend of fantasy adventure and character relationships in Mirabilis will appeal to an all-ages readership. Creepy is definitely part of it, hopefully "funny", "suspenseful" and "touching" too!