Let’s be clear, Beside Myself is one hell of a debut from Ann Morgan.
A corker of a novel about what happens when our very sense of a self is stripped from us, it’s disturbing and uneasy and compassionate and often darkly funny. It’s about six-year-old twins Helen and Ellie, who one day decide to swap names and clothes. But then Ellie refuses to swap back. She becomes a celebrity while her sister is plunged into a life of illness and addiction – but ultimately the consequences for both of them are cataclysmic.
Published by Bloomsbury Circus and out now, Beside Myself isn’t a crime novel as such, but Morgan tackles some familiar big-hitter themes: identity, mental illness, creativity, powerlessness, duality, violence and addiction. It’s an emotionally exhausting and compelling ride, the author’s voice jumps off the page, and I recommend it thoroughly.
Ann Morgan really is a name to look out for, so Crime Thriller Fella is thrilled that she’s agreed to talk about her unsettling debut. Morgan’s a generous and fascinating interviewee. She talks about twins and identity, her journey as a writer and her fascinating personal project – to read a novel from every nation on Earth…
Tell us about Beside Myself…
Beside Myself is the story of a pair of identical twins, Helen and Ellie, who swap places in a childhood game and then get trapped in the wrong lives when one of them refuses to swap back. The narrative switches back and forth between their childhood in the eighties and nineties, and the present day, where the twin who narrates the novel begins to confront the disastrous consequences that game has had for her life.
Where did you get the inspiration for the novel?
I wish I could remember exactly where I was when the concept first came to me, but the idea of twins swapping places and then one of them refusing to swap back has been in my mind for so long now that I can’t be quite sure. It’s been a scenario that’s fascinated me for at least five or six years. Over that time, long before I started writing the novel in March 2013, I found myself obsessed by questions it threw up. What would it do to someone to grow up with the wrong identity? Why might one twin refuse to change back? And what kind of family wouldn’t notice the swap? These thoughts kept my mind whirring for a long time.
What is it about the bond between identical twins that so fascinates us?
Aside from the scientific curiosities that twins present – the fact that, for example, until very recently it was forensically impossible to differentiate twins by DNA, so some twins were never convicted of crimes because there was no proof beyond reasonable doubt of who did what – twins offer great possibilities to explore the realm of what might have been. Because they are so closely linked, both physically and usually experientially, they open up fascinating ways of looking at questions about who we are and the forces that shape our lives. For storytellers this is brilliant. By creating two people who look the same, and start life at the same time and place, we can put those thousands of choices we all face under the microscope, and see what really counts in creating identity.
How has your experience as a Samaritan influenced your writing?
I volunteered for Samaritans for two years during my early twenties. During that time, I had the privilege of being with many people through some of the most intense and traumatic periods of their lives. Those stories were private and unique to those people, and I’ve always felt very respectful and protective of that, but when it came to writing Smudge (as the adult narrator calls herself) years later, I did feel I had some insight into the aloneness that many of us experience in extreme situations.
In 2012 you read a novel from every nation on Earth – what did you learn about literature from that project?
So many things, but I suppose one of the most important for me is that it cemented my sense of how books can show us the world through another person’s eyes, and the enlargement of understanding and empathy this gives us. (This is something neuroscience has provided compelling evidence to support in recent years, with numerous studies showing reading and imagining have the power to restructure our brains.) If you’re only reading texts written by writers local to you, you are likely to be exposed to a relatively narrow range of perspectives. By contrast, reading far beyond your national borders gives you the opportunity to develop your thinking and your ability to put yourself in someone else’s place to a much greater extent. It enriched my sense of what it’s possible for words and stories to do.
How difficult was it to find translated books from some of the world’s smallest nations?
Very hard. There aren’t books from every country on the shelves of any bookshop (in fact, some nations have never even had a complete novel translated into English), so this involved doing a lot of research, contacting experts and enthusiasts around the world, and keeping my fingers very firmly crossed. In many cases, I had to rely on unpublished translations sent to me by authors or translators. And when it came to the Portuguese-speaking nation of Sao Tome & Principe, the only way I could think of to get hold of a book I could read was to ask volunteers to help me by translating a short-story collection specially. Amazingly, lots of strangers around the world replied, offering their services and, within six weeks, I had the entire collection to read. I recorded how I found each book and what I thought of them on my blog, ayearofreadingtheworld.com.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That it has to be its own reward. I think I’d been trying to be a writer (working part-time and just about scraping together the money to pay the rent) for about three years when I realised this. One day, looking at the very unpromising novel-in-progress I was working on back then, it struck me that I might never manage to make it good enough to publish – and that even if I did, I might never find someone willing to put it out into the world. I knew then that the simple, frustrating, maddening, glorious act of sitting down and trying to tell a story would have to be enough to satisfy me because I might never get any further than that. If I was only in it for the hope of being published, I should give up and get a job that would pay me a living wage. Luckily, I decided that day that writing in itself was enough of a reward for me – and it’s just as well because it was another six years before my first book came out!
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
So many. Ask me on a different day and you’ll get an entirely different list, but here’s today’s: Leo Tolstoy (the man’s a legend – like Shakespeare, he has the power to spear you with an insight that is still razor sharp at several centuries’ remove); Valeria Luiselli (exciting Mexican writer doing extraordinary things with words); Yuri Herrera (as above); Patricia Highsmith (she knows how to tell a story); Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House is a masterclass in suspense); Ismail Kadare (you can lose yourself in his descriptions); Elena Ferrante (truth on every page); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (a master of her art – and one of the best speakers going); Patti Smith (some of the things she does with words should be illegal); Galsan Tschinag (has the ability to take you into the yurt of nomadic herders in Mongolia and make you feel that you are sitting and eating with them, sharing their stories); Tété-Michel Kpomassie (he ran away from home in rural Togo as a teenager and went to live with the Inuit in Greenland, then wrote a brilliant memoir about it. Nuff said).
Give me some advice about writing…
The world isn’t waiting for your story. The world is busy. It has washing to do and emails to check and Facebook statuses to like and tax returns to complete. And there are TV box sets and blockbuster movies and brilliant things on in theatres and concert halls – not to mention the more than 6,000 new books being published every day. If you want the world (or even a small fraction of it) to read what you write, you have to make it. The way I see it, there are two ways to go about this. You can either attempt to conquer the planet and establish an autocratic regime where people are forced to read your work on pain of death (not ideal for many reasons) or you can set out to write the best book you possibly can. Make it enthralling. Polish the sentences until they gleam. Give it characters that grab readers by the heartstrings and draw them on through all the twists and turns of the story to the end. Keep writing and rewriting until you have produced something that you feel justified asking strangers to pay to spend hours of their precious time reading. And when you’ve finally got something that you’re truly makes you proud, pat yourself on the back and have a piece of cake to celebrate (hell, go crazy, have two). Then sit back down at your desk and do it all again.
What’s next for you?
I’m still blogging about international literature at ayearofreadingtheworld.com – not least because people from all over the planet still contact me with book suggestions four years on from the start of the original project. That’s led to some very exciting opportunities, including a TED talk. Meanwhile, another novel is in the works…