Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Guy Morpuss: “The writing process for me tends to be short bursts of frantic activity.”

Guy Morpuss, a writer of speculative crime fiction, blends unique twists with the classic elements of the genre. His debut novel, Five Minds, delves into the intriguing concept of five personalities sharing one body, with one attempting murder.

The novel garnered acclaim as a Financial Times Book of the Year and achieved Kindle Number 1 Bestseller status in Technothrillers and Post-Apocalyptic SF, with translation rights sold in eight territories.

His second novel, Black Lake Manor, is a murder mystery with a time-unwinding twist, recognized as a Financial Times SF Book of the Month and a Waterstones Best Crime Book of 2022. Prior to his writing career, Morpuss had an illustrious tenure as a QC in London, handling high-profile cases.

Hi Guy, let’s start with your background. You were a QC in London, dealing with some fascinating cases. Could you tell us a bit more about your legal career and how it influenced your writing?

The main thing that I learnt as a QC is that you win cases by telling a better story than the other side. Judges are human, so they tend to decide cases in favor of the party that they think deserves to win. As an advocate you need to reduce every case to a simple proposition that shows why your client is the ‘good guy’ – a bit like the tagline for a book.

Obviously as a barrister you are limited by the evidence you have – you can’t make it up. You need to work out what is the best story you can tell using that evidence.

So I don’t think that the jump to writing novels was all that great. You have more freedom as a writer, because you can make things up to solve problems. I also had the great advantage of having spent years in trials observing how humans behave under extreme stress, and testing their stories in cross-examination. That helps when you are trying to write believable dialogue and scenes in books.

Your first novel, Five Minds, features five people sharing one body, and one of them is trying to murder the others. That’s such a unique and intriguing concept. Can you tell us how you came up with the idea, and what the writing process was like?

The earliest version of Five Minds that I can recall is walking with my wife alongside the East River in New York, and telling her about an idea I had for a book in which a detective was trying to solve a murder, but he had to share his body with other people and only got to use it for a few hours a day. That eventually turned into Five Minds – but I can’t remember a moment when the concept first struck me. It seemed to have been floating around my brain for ages, gradually evolving.

The writing process was intense. I had a gap of a few weeks between trials, and I decided to have a go at getting the story down on paper. From preparing written submissions in trials I am used to writing fast, so I got the first draft of Five Minds down in about three weeks. As my wife never tires of reminding me, I didn’t actually tell her I was writing a book. She thought I was working on an appeal. She has (I hope) since forgiven me.

The first draft was far too short (around 55,000 words), but I managed to use it to get an agent, and he and I worked together to take it to around 80,000 words so that it could go out on submission to publishers.

Five Minds was a Kindle Number 1 Bestseller in Technothrillers and Post-Apocalyptic SF, and the translation rights have been sold in eight territories. How did it feel to achieve that level of success with your debut novel?

When I met my agent for the first time I said that all that I wanted was to see Five Minds on one shelf in one bookshop and I would be happy. I still think that in itself is an amazing feeling. Everything beyond that has been incredible.

I love seeing the different covers that have been produced by foreign publishers. China and Japan have gone much more sci-fi; Australia, Hungary and Bulgaria are quite cryptic. The German cover is very similar to the UK hardback, but looks more sinister – and it has a cuckoo flying away. My original title for the book was THE NIGHT CUCKOO, but in the end we went for Five Minds which is more commercial and less literary.

With the success of Five Minds I felt that I could justify stopping law and devoting myself full-time to writing. I thoroughly enjoyed my time as a trial lawyer, but I felt that thirty years was enough, and I love the creative process of writing.

Your latest novel, Black Lake Manor, is a locked room murder mystery set on Vancouver Island. The killer can unwind time, which adds a fascinating twist to the story. Can you tell us more about the inspiration for this book and how you went about crafting the mystery?

A couple of days before we were due to send out Five Minds on submission, my agent called me and said that he would like an idea for another book so that he could try to get a two book deal. He gave me the weekend to come up with an idea. I was doodling on a blank piece of paper, and for some reason had written the word ‘undelete’. That made me wonder what would happen if people could delete events like words on a computer.

After a bit more thought that turned into the idea for Black Lake Manor. We had just come back from a holiday in Vancouver Island, which seemed like the perfect setting for a novel with a supernatural backstory.

It was incredibly complex to write, because there are four different timelines, with one of them being unwound three times. I spent a lot of time making sure that all the parts fit together in a way that works. I also had to make sure that I wasn’t just re-telling the same story three times – the reader needs to learn something new each time round.

The book is set in the former mining town of Black Lake, which has a rich history and an old story about a shipwreck with only one survivor. How did you go about creating the setting for the novel, and what kind of research did you do?

A friend of mine was born on the island, and she told me a story about the wreck of the Valencia in 1906, near Black Lake. Most of those onboard died, but a local fisherman later claimed to have found a lifeboat from the ship in a cave, with skeletons inside, and the mouth of the cave sealed by a rock.

That gave me a great backstory and location. I turned it into the opening chapter of the book, although set a hundred years earlier.

I had a good feel for the ghostly majesty of the island from my visit there. Then I did a lot of reading about the island, its First Nations people, and their initial encounters with Westerners. I wanted to draw on some of that to give the backstory greater depth.

Time travel is a popular speculative fiction trope, but it’s not often used in crime fiction. What drew you to the idea of combining these two genres, and how did you go about making the concept feel fresh and original?

I have always read a lot of crime and science-fiction, so to me it seems a very natural marriage. Once I had the idea of unwinding time I tried to think how it might be used in practice. I think that that is the essence of speculative fiction – changing something in the real world and then playing with the consequences.

My first idea was that people who were very rich might hire someone who could turn back time as the ultimate bodyguard. And then I wondered how it would play out after a murder, if every time that the detective got close to a solution someone unwound time, and they had to start again. It felt like a fun idea, and one that hadn’t been done like that before.

Can you give us a glimpse into your writing process for Black Lake Manor? Did you follow a particular routine or have any specific strategies for crafting the story?

I tend to have a very intense routine whilst I am working, and then long gaps in between as I let things settle. The writing periods can be twelve hours or more a day for a few weeks as I get words – any words – down on paper. Then I need to go away and think about them. Or sometimes not think about them directly. New ideas will come to me whilst I’m out walking or running, or in the gym. Doing something physical seems to help my brain make connections.

It’s in the edits and the re-writes that the book really begins to take shape. I get to a point where I can’t take it any further, and I need an outsider (my agent or my editor) to give me some insight. As a writer you sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture, and you need someone else to step in and point the way. Then you suddenly know where you’re going again.

So the writing process for me tends to be short bursts of frantic activity, followed by long periods when nothing much seems to be happening, but things are bubbling away. Followed by a lot of painful deletions and re-writes.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

I’ve been reading a lot of young adult fiction recently. Some of my ideas are just too far out there for traditional crime readers, but I think that they might work in YA. So I have been trying to get a feel for the genre. It’s a long term plan, as I’m in the middle of writing Book 3 – another adult speculative crime book – for my current publishers. But I think YA could be a good outlet for some of my more outlandish ideas.

Three that I really enjoyed were: They Both Die at The End by Adam Silvera; A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson; and Unwind by Neal Shusterman.

I recently read the darkly funny The Consultant by Seong-sun Im, which is a fresh take on the adult crime novel. It’s not out yet, but I highly recommend it.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

It’s fairly stark. There’s an octopus – Scarlett from Black Lake Manor – and pictures from New York (where some of Five Minds is set) and Vancouver Island. I write standing up, as I find it easier to think when I pace (probably from years spent in court).

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