Author, HarperCollins Canada
UBC Program(s) of Study
Hometown
Ottawa, Ontario
Current Location
Ottawa, Ontario
UBC Awards
SSHRC Award
Faculty of Arts Graduate Award
Brissenden Scholarship in Creative Writing
Laura Steiman Memorial Scholarship for Children’s Literature
Other Education
Queen’s University, 2010, B.A. (Hon.) in English Literature and B.Sc. (Hon.) in Biology
Website or Social Media Profile

UBC Creative Writing graduate Natalie Morrill (MFA ’13) was the winner of the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction for her debut novel The Ghost Keeper.

 

Why did you choose to study Creative Writing at UBC and what did you enjoy most about the program?

I chose the program because it offered creative and professional opportunities I didn’t think I’d find anywhere else. It also helped that the admissions coordinator was so accommodating while I determined whether I could make it work in terms of timing and finances. Besides which, Vancouver is beautiful – that part was an easy sell.

In one (very significant) sense, the writing I was able to do during this program was my favourite part. It was a gift to have so much dedicated time to write, as well as being challenged to do more work and better work by my classmates and instructors. Those classroom connections also proved to be among the best, most lasting benefits of the program. Having brilliant, trusted writer friends (spread across the world though they are) makes me feel more safely rooted in the arts world, free to try ambitious things – free to fail, too.

What were some of your most meaningful experiences at UBC?

There were so many! I’ll say being a T.A. for Nancy Lee’s undergraduate creative writing courses. I was still learning a lot as a teacher, and I hope my former students can give me a pass on that. But it was the first time I really recognized what a privilege it is to get to encourage emerging writers in their craft. I suppose this is something that applies to life as much as to teaching, but I’ll call it teaching advice: If you get the chance to be kind, or the chance to be encouraging, take it.

What choices did you make at UBC that contributed to your success?

Picking the right thesis supervisor was a huge one – though I don’t think I could have foreseen that my supervisor (Rhea Tregebov) would be as good a mentor as she was. Without her, I wouldn’t have undertaken the thesis project I did. (This thesis turned into The Ghost Keeper, so it’s fair to say the novel wouldn’t exist without her.) She continues to be a dear friend and mentor to this day, almost five years after I finished the program.

Is your current career path as you originally intended? 

I always, always knew I’d be writing fiction. Then again, I also knew I probably couldn’t make a living as a full-time fiction writer in Canada (at least early in my writing career).

During undergrad, I studied biology and thought I might do research on evolution and ecology (as if that were a super profitable field! But heck, I liked it). In fact, I ended up doing a lot more post-secondary teaching following my MFA than I ever expected (at Laurentian University, Cambrian College and Algonquin College). I also got to work with writers at an incredible Sudbury organization called the Northern Initiative for Social Action (NISA), which offers peer-based support to members with lived experience of mental illness. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to teach courses through the John Howard Society in Ottawa, which serves clients who’ve been through the criminal justice system. I’d love to keep exploring this side of teaching.

Before beginning the MFA program, I had a series of (perhaps literally) odd jobs. One involved gathering samples of rattlesnake blood on the Bruce Penninsula; another involved Catholic chaplaincy work at Halifax universities; another involved collecting flowers and living in a minivan in California for two months. I suppose it’s all writing fodder now.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? What challenges did you face in launching your writing career?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since the first day I figured out books had authors. Not everyone who loves writing necessarily wants to make a career of it, I realize, but I guess I felt a lot of the stories I wanted to write were ones that (I hoped) could be worthwhile for a wider audience.

Getting this novel done was probably the initial big challenge. Finishing a first draft was one thing; revising it to the extent it deserved (and to make it publishable) was quite another. At one point I had to delete the last 150 pages and create the ending over again. It took a lot of faith in the project to get over the initial discouragement of that moment.

I also chose to work in a city where I had good part-time work and could support myself while finishing this novel, but it was somewhere I ended up feeling pretty isolated. I’m happy I made that choice, but I knew it wouldn’t be sustainable in the long run. Now I live in a city with wonderful community, but the finances/writing time side of things is trickier. I’m still learning to navigate that side of the writing life.

From a career perspective, what do you most enjoy about being a writer, and what do you find challenging?

As thrilling as it is to have a book with a publisher I really respect, I’ve realized nothing compares with the feeling of sitting down alone with a story I’m working on and writing out a scene that until then existed only in my head. I cherish my writing time so much.

That said, it’s wonderful to meet readers and writers and get to share ideas and our love for books. I love meeting new or aspiring writers. You never know who you’re meeting or what their voice might add to the world.

As for challenges – at this stage of the game, it’s a challenge to make time for my writing while working contract jobs and balancing the other aspects of my life. Just about every writer has to deal with this, though, and it helps to find solidarity and encouragement in the arts community.

Tell us about Ghost Keeper – what inspired the story? How did you develop it?

The Ghost Keeper is about Josef Tobak, a Viennese Jew who begins looking after the Jewish cemeteries of Vienna in the years between WWI and WWII. Following the Anschluss in 1938, he’s separated from his family, and he ends up fleeing Europe under somewhat complicated circumstances, with the assistance of a gentile friend who’s joined the Nazi party. He returns to Vienna after the war, where he has to reimagine his relationship to both the people who live there and the old cemeteries, particularly in light of profound loss and betrayal.

I lived in Vienna as a child, and one of the cemeteries at the heart of the story, a 19th century Jewish graveyard, was very near to our house. We couldn’t go into it; it had tall brick walls with broken glass and barbed wire on top. I grew up with a memory of one of my parents lifting me up high enough to see inside, where I saw headstones toppled on top of each other, all overgrown with vines. I suspect my parents explained to me why the cemetery looked like it did, but it was around the time I was first starting to understand what the Holocaust was, and I think I got those things mixed up in my head. Which is not to say they’re not in some sense related – but there’s less of an immediate connection than my young mind imagined, I think. Still, the dynamic stayed with me, as did the power of that image of the overgrown cemetery. Eventually I realized there was a story there, and the characters involved – particularly Josef, the novel’s protagonist – came to me almost fully-formed from the start.

What are the challenges of writing a story based in history? How much historical research was required to tell this story?

I think there’s a unique and humbling responsibility for an author telling a story based on the episode in history I was dealing with. Literally millions of people were murdered, and those who survived were almost invariably displaced, traumatized, and cut off from family and community and tradition. It’s also a period of history within living memory – though just barely, I know, which is itself a humbling realization.

I spent a lot of time telling myself this was not a Holocaust novel, since that seemed overwhelming to me – but in the end, I suppose it is. I wouldn’t have attempted this project without my thesis supervisor at UBC, whom I trusted to let me know if she thought the story wasn’t worthwhile or I wasn’t doing the subject matter justice. I also needed others’ feedback at key stages.

In a more general sense, though, it’s a wonderful challenge to work with historical research. I had to “discover” the setting as much as imagine it. Some of the most magical moments of story development happened when I realized something I’d initially planned didn’t make sense historically, and I had to come up with other solutions. I think it forced me to be more creative. I have no doubt there are still historical inaccuracies in there, but hopefully they’re minor and won’t stand out to readers. (Besides, the story is narrated by its protagonist, so I blame his imperfect memory for most of the mistakes.)

Can you talk a bit about your writing process and daily routine? Are there any habits you have established that have helped you as a writer?

I don’t know if I have an exemplary writing practice. When I get in the groove, I go for hours. Some days I don’t write at all. But I think the imaginative life is way more important than we give it credit for – you need time when you’re just living with the characters and the story in your head. I needed the days (and weeks) when that’s all I could do.

One thing I’ll say is finding coffee shops without wifi was key, for me. The internet is great for research, but to finish a book, I needed it not to exist.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Honestly, one of the most important things to learn is you don’t have to listen to all the writing advice that’s out there. Even really wise folks can give advice that’s simply not meant for someone in your situation. Getting better at discerning which advice is meant for you is invaluable. You never have to feel bad about deciding to ignore something – it’s your creative life. No one else has the stake in it that you do.

As an additional point (which I suppose I’ve given readers permission to ignore), I think it’s important to respect the craft and realize excellence isn’t something that comes easily. Hopefully that’s encouraging for writers who aren’t currently satisfied with their work – it’s very normal to be in that position. In fact, it’s useful to recognize the distance between your current abilities and what you dream of doing; it means you’ll keep trying to improve. I’m convinced the best writers are never “done” learning. You can always do better next time.

What book had the most impact on you? Or, what book do you most recommend or gift to others?

The one time I specifically noticed my writing style change was after reading The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. I remember thinking, “You can do that with sentences?” It yanked me out of a bunch of stylistic dead ends. But in terms of more substantial stuff – ideas, how to live in relation to other human beings, and all that – the classic answers are probably the most accurate ones: I’d be a less complete person without Pride and Prejudice or The Brothers Karamazov. I also go back to Jean Vanier’s Massey Lecture, Becoming Human, as often as I can.

As for some of my most frequent recommendations: The overall winner is likely The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’d argue it’s one of very few “perfect” novels. Next, just about anything by Carol Shields; besides her incomparable craftsmanship and good humour, she’s also one of the most ethical writers I can think of, in the sense of trying to imagine and make space the whole person in her fiction. For kindred spirits (read: literary oddballs), I love recommending Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi or There but for the by Ali Smith. Then, for a particular kind of reader – someone waiting to have their experience of a novel shaken up a bit – I get very excited about giving Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, which broke my heart and blew my mind. I also talk about Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson a lot – just like everyone who loves short stories, I suppose. But probably my favourite ones to give as gifts are Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne-Jones, the Moomin books by Tove Jansson, and Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.

What’s next for you? 

The next novel. It’s in progress. Unfortunately I get spooked talking about it this early on.

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A 2015 interview with Natalie Morrill, winner of the 2015 HarperCollins / UBC Prize for Fiction.