Today, I’m delighted to welcome Margarita Morris to Virtual Book Club, an interview series in which I put questions to authors about the books they’d like to persuade your club to read. If you want to pose a question of your own, you’ll have the opportunity to do so at the end.
Margarita was born in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. She lived there for the first eighteen years of her life, before going to Jesus College, Oxford, to study Modern Languages. After university she worked in a university library before taking up a career in IT with Cap Gemini where she stayed for eleven years. She’d always wanted to write, though, so in 2008 she finally took the plunge and started experimenting with lots of different stories. In 2013 she indie-published Oranges for Christmas which was short-listed for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and has received much praise from its readers. She lives in Oxfordshire with her husband and two sons.
Q: Firstly, congratulations on being short-listed for the Award. I know they get thousands of entries. Let’s talk about Oranges for Christmas. Where is it set and how did you decide on its setting?
It’s set in Berlin in 1961, when the Berlin Wall was first built. I studied French and German at university and in 1987 I spent three weeks in Berlin. At that time the Berlin Wall was still very much a harsh reality. It was built in 1961 by the Communist East German authorities to stop the brain-drain of young, qualified East Germans who were escaping to the West via the open doorway that was West Berlin. The East Germans acted with astonishing speed. People in Berlin woke up on Sunday 13th August 1961 to discover that huge coils of barbed wire had been rolled out overnight. Within days soldiers were building the wall and operating a shoot to kill policy on anyone trying to escape from East to West. Dystopian novels are very popular at the moment, but the story of the Berlin Wall is a real life dystopia that happened on our doorsteps in the second half of the twentieth century. I find that very moving and wanted to write a novel that would tell the story of a fictional family trying to escape from East Berlin and the clutches of the secret police, the Stasi.
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“Margarita Morris vividly recreates a desperate time, with great sensitivity and amazing attention to detail. With warm characters and a roller-coaster plot, you will be on the edge of your seat right until the end.”
Q: Tell us a little about the major areas you had to research.
I read quite a few books about the Berlin Wall and life in East Berlin during the Communist era. I bought an enormous map of Berlin that I had to spread out on the floor and I made sure I knew precisely where the wall had been and what the streets were called. I also persuaded my family to come with me on a research trip to Berlin. We visited the Wall Memorial at Bernauer Strasse where a large section of the wall has been preserved and there are films in the visitor centre. Then one day, whilst my husband and sons did some fun touristy things, I took the train into the heart of what had been East Berlin and visited the Stasi headquarters (now a museum) and the Hohenschönhausen Remand Prison which is now a memorial centre. I also wandered around the streets where I had decided my heroine was going to live. Photographs of the time were also an invaluable source of inspiration.
Margarita at the Berlin Wall in 1987
Q: At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title?
Quite late on. For ages the working title was just The Wall because I couldn’t think of anything more poetic. Whilst reading Peter Millar’s account of his life as a Reuter’s correspondent in East Berlin (1989 The Berlin Wall – My Part in its Downfall) I came across a wonderful anecdote. His East German secretary had been travelling on a tram when the driver had suddenly stopped because he’d seen some oranges in a shop window. Oranges were such an unusual sight in East Berlin that everyone got off the tram to go and buy some, so my novel became Oranges for Christmas.
Q: Was the decision of how to structure the novel obvious?
Yes, I decided right from the start that I would have two narrators, one in East Berlin and one in West Berlin as a way of illustrating the division of the city. Seventeen-year-old Sabine lives in East Berlin with her mother and younger sister. Dieter, Sabine’s older brother, lives in West Berlin. The scenes alternate between Sabine and Dieter, using first person present tense narratives for both. I like the directness of the first person voice and I chose the present tense for slightly technical reasons. If you use the past tense with a first person narrator then that character has lived to tell the tale and already knows the outcome of the story. That’s all right if you only have one narrator, but I felt that with two narrators it was better to tell the story in real time, as it were, so that neither of them know how it’s going to end. Switching between East and West also allowed me to include quite a few cliff hanger moments.
Q: The storyline is obviously based in fact. Can I ask, did you incorporate any real life characters into your novel? If so, how?
Sabine and Dieter each witness a real life escape from East Berlin. Conrad Schumann was an East German soldier who famously jumped over the barbed wire he was supposed to be guarding. A photographer on the West captured the moment on camera and it has become one of the most iconic images of the Cold War. The photograph shows a group of bystanders in the background watching him, so I decided that Sabine could be one of those bystanders. Dieter witnesses the brave escape of Frieda Schulze, a woman in her seventies. Frieda Schulze lived in an upstairs apartment in Bernauer Strasse which was right on the border between East and West. The houses on one side of the road were in East Berlin, but the street belonged to West Berlin. The East Germans ruthlessly bricked up the downstairs doors and windows so that people could not escape to the West through their front doors. People started jumping from upstairs windows onto fire-blankets held aloft by West Berliners. There is a very moving picture of white-haired Frieda Schulze dangling from an upstairs window. A man inside is trying to pull her back but West Berliners take hold of her ankles, trying to help her escape, as a crowd looks on. In the book, neither Sabine nor Dieter know the names of the people they see escaping, but the events are real nonetheless.
Return to Berlin 2013
Q: Khaled Hosseini says that he feels he is discovering a story rather than creating it. Are you an avid plotter or do you start with a single idea and let the novel develop organically?
I tend to start with a clear time and place, whether that’s Berlin in 1961 or Highgate Cemetery in the nineteenth century as in The Sleeping Angel. I usually have some opening scenes in mind so I write those first, then I have to stop and think and plan, then I write some more. So I suppose it’s an iterative process of discovering the story but then plotting out some scenes in detail. I had been writing Oranges for Christmas for months before I figured out the ending, plotted it in detail and then just wrote it, but I couldn’t do that until I was some way into the novel as a whole.
Q: Do you write your first draft on paper or do you prefer a computer?
I wrote Oranges for Christmas and The Sleeping Angel in Microsoft Word. I think Word is a perfectly good tool, but you need to give your scenes headings (which you later remove) and then switch on the navigation pane so that you can find your way around the document without endless scrolling. I wrote Scarborough Fair using Scrivener and I’m a convert to this amazing piece of software. Scrivener makes it very easy to lay out your chapters and scenes and the drag and drop functionality is invaluable for moving things around. However, I prefer to edit with pen and paper. I print off my work in progress, take myself off to my favourite reading chair and start scribbling over the page with a red pen.
Q: What do you think the greatest advantage of self-publishing is?
I think it probably has to be the creative freedom and control that indie authors have. I can write whatever I like, but that’s not to say that I publish whatever I write. I have more unfinished, unpublished manuscripts on my computer than are out in the real world. It’s important that you only publish work you are truly proud of and which has been through a rigorous polishing process. Personally, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of building my own website and I like tracking sales figures in spreadsheets, but some people find the technical challenges too daunting, so self-publishing might not be for them. The hardest part is the marketing, but it’s largely a matter of being willing to experiment and learn.
Q: Name your top five authors. Do you prefer eReaders or paper books?
The top five spots would have to go to Sarah Waters, Kate Atkinson, Tracy Chevalier, Ian McEwan and Charles Dickens, but I’d also like to squeeze Joanne Harris, Helen Grant and Kate Mosse in there too! I’ve recently become a big fan of Stephen King and I’m also enjoying J.K Rowling’s adult fiction, whether writing as herself or as Robert Galbraith. Sorry, that’s a lot more than five! I’m buying more on my Kindle these days because we’re running out of shelf space, despite having books in just about every room in our house. Now that my husband has a Kindle too we’ve enabled the ‘household’ facility so that we can share books. I really don’t think reading on a screen differs from reading on paper. The brain doesn’t distinguish, in my experience. It’s easier to flip back and find passages in a paper book, but I like eReaders when I’m taking notes at the computer because they lie flat on the desk. Right now I’m reading the second Robert Galbraith detective novel, The Silkworm, and Abundance by Peter Diamandis.
Q: If you’re not too superstitious to talk about it, what are you working on right now?
I’m currently working on a sequel to Scarborough Fair. The Sleeping Angel and Scarborough Fair are a bit different to Oranges for Christmas in that they are dual-time mystery thrillers set in the Victorian period and the present day. But like Oranges for Christmas, both are inspired by my love of real places. The Sleeping Angel is set in and around Highgate Cemetery in North London, and Scarborough Fair is set, not surprisingly, in the seaside town of Scarborough on the North Yorkshire coast. I don’t have a title for the sequel to Scarborough Fair yet, but it is a thriller combining the 1920s and the present day.
Q: Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Q: I know you’re happy to visit book clubs by Skype, but you’ve also very generously offered to donate an eBooks of Oranges for Christmas (mobi (Kindle or ePub) to the first 10 people to leave a comment. (Please provide your email address and preferred format, or if you would prefer to keep your email address private, use the Contact form on the website and I will pass the details on).
In return, if you’d like to leave a review at Goodreads or Amazon, that would be marvellous, but there’s no obligation to review if you don’t want to.
Remember, if you enjoyed this post please share it. If there’s anything else you’d like to ask Margarita please leave a comment.
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