Sunday, 29 April 2012

An interview with Megan Taylor, author of The Lives of Ghosts

'For me, writing is a complete escape from domesticity'

Laughter bubbles in author Megan Taylor's voice as she greets me warmly and sits down opposite me in Edins, Nottingham. We order wine and the risotto, and Megan presents me with the Misty Christmas annual from 1980.

Author Megan Taylor

Misty comics were published by Fleetway in London from 4 February 1978 until 1984 when they were combined with Tammy comics. They were unusual in that they featured horror stories and tales of the supernatural for girls with a strong moral theme. 

I've only met one other person who had heard of them until now. 

During an online chat with Megan I was delighted to discover that while many 10-year–old girls were trying to get their hands on Jackie magazine, Megan and I had been deep into Misty comics. As you can imagine I was overjoyed to be offered the loan of this precious annual!

The reason I mention this is because Misty is also read by the main character - twelve-year-old Liberty Fuller - in Megan’s new novel The Lives of Ghosts

The minute I read that I knew that this novel was going to take me into emotionally dark territory, and it did not disappoint.

Megan describes her novel as ‘a story about being haunted by memories and the past, and loss’. 

Liberty’s parents have died in car crash and she has to live with her young pregnant step-mother, Marie. Grief stricken, Marie decides to take Liberty to a remote Scottish holiday home where she hopes they can heal. 

But the isolation they find themselves in allows hidden tensions to seethe to the surface. The story is told from Libby’s perspective as a child and as an adult, and switches effortlessly from one time zone to the other, increasing the tension.

As I sip my wine I comment that Liberty wasn’t totally alone as a child: “You did give Liberty an unusual friend in Kyle. That said it would be natural for someone in Liberty’s situation to be drawn to a character like Kyle.”

Kyle, a local lad, befriends Liberty after she’s endured a disastrous shopping expedition with Marie to the local village shop.

Megan grins and replies: “I wanted to bring someone else in to give Libby a little a little bit of hope. For a small amount of time I gave her a normal childhood.”

And she does, for a while. There’s a revelatory moment later in the novel, when Libby asks Kyle what the marks on his skin are and he replies ‘cigarette burns’, which sets the scene for anything but a normal childhood friendship.

As we tuck into the risotto I wonder what it must be like to get under the skin of such challenging characters: “Are you detached from your characters as you write them, or do you get inside their heads? Sometimes I wonder if writing isn’t a little bit like acting. That you have to get right inside the character’s mind for a little while to experience the world through their eyes while still retaining your sense of self. Is it like that for you?”

Megan nods in agreement: “That’s a good description of what it’s like for me. You have to get inside the character; it’s like you're committing to them.”

We order another glass of wine and I ask Megan where the inspiration for her novels comes from. The Lives of Ghosts is her third, her previous novels are The Dawning and How We Were Lost

She explains that for her it always begins with an image in her mind. “For this one it started with a house, with a bathroom full of steam and a young girl. But I also knew early on with this book that I had my first line and the last line, but I didn’t really know how to get from A to B at the time.”  

“When do you find the time to write?”

“I’m an early morning person. I get up at 5.30am to write before the kids get up. My son is nearly 16 and my daughter is 10.”

As we eat Megan explains that writing this novel was a ‘really immersive’ experience: “The scenery of Scotland was a pleasure to write. It was quite an intense writing experience. It was also quite vivid. The scenes came to me, and it was like I had to get them out, it was compulsive.”

Having read a proof copy of The Lives of Ghosts there are whole scenes that are vividly etched into my memory and passages that will haunt me for a long time, particularly in the last few chapters. 

Megan’s strength lies in her descriptive powers and her strong sense of empathy both of which have been finely honed in this, her third novel, to deliver a knock out blow that will leave the reader reeling in shock. It occurs to me that it was as intense an experience to read The Lives of Ghosts as it must have been for Megan to write it.

“You explore the impact of loss, grief, pregnancy, motherhood, isolation and the compulsion to repeat patterns of behaviour through your characters in this novel. It must have an impact on you emotionally when you’re tackling such deep subjects?”

Megan considers my question carefully and says: “There’s such a psychology to writing that it brings out stuff that you’re going to have to deal with. In another way it contains it. Sometimes it’s cathartic and sometimes it’s not.”

“What do enjoy writing about the most?”

“I’m a big sucker for smells. They have this direct impact on the senses. I try to write them in a way that’s never been done before. I wouldn’t say that I always succeed in that but I do try.”

As Megan talks a vivid scene of Kyle standing in boat opening a box that exudes a stench so strong that it was 'unbelievably horrific' comes to mind, along with the sound of Libby’s  shocked internal voice as she describes, in gruesome yet exquisite detail, what she sees.

Megan with Ian Collinson of Weathervane Press and Nigel Pickard 
The Lives of Ghosts is dedicated to the late Nigel Pickard, a fellow author and close friend of Megan’s who died suddenly last year. I ask Megan if Nigel had much input into the novel.

“He was a huge part of writing it. He was writing a book about ghosts too at the time. Nigel was such a good mate and it was such a shock. He was a huge supporter of my work. He was a unique person and a wonderful man.”

Finally, I ask Megan why she feels compelled to write.

“It’s like reading; it puts you in another place. But it’s more than that, it’s a challenge. I like it because while I am writing it is just mine. It’s not yours anymore once it’s published. I was writing before I had kids. But I took it up seriously after I had them. This may sound selfish but I don’t mean it too. For me writing was a complete escape from domesticity. This was my time to be me.”

The wine is finished, the risotto eaten and the interview is at an end. We pay the bill, and Megan presents me with a signed copy of The Lives of Ghosts which I am delighted to accept. I ask her what she is working on now. Megan flashes a cheeky grin: “It’s too early to say, but it’s not going to be light.”

I go home hoping that Megan soon finds time to escape into her new story.

The Lives of Ghosts by Megan Taylor is published by Weathervane Press in paperback. It’s also available as an ebook.


Janette Jones said...

Well make that another person you know who used to read Misty! Has this one got the story in about the woman that imagines her family is still alive?

Pam McIlroy said...

Yay, another Misty fan! If you loved Misty you'll love Megan's books. No this annual features the lucky tree story. The one where a girl has to move to a poorer district and a new school. She has trouble fitting in until a leaf falls on her from the tree in her back garden and her luck changes.