Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Interview: Morgan Gallagher of The Changeling


The perspective of Changeling is a close third. The voice is a sort of present-moment maximalism. It is both internal and external, but always in the moment. Is this your natural voice, or did you develop it specifically for Changeling? What was the intended effect?

I rarely ever write in anything other than third person.  I have written in first person, when the narrative was entirely about a person’s viewpoint, but it’s not common for me.  I think this is as a result of the amount of film and television I watched as a small child!  I used to sneak out of bed and watch stuff that I wasn’t supposed too. And I suspect that this means I naturally describe the ‘action’ I’m viewing.  I’m interested in process, and processing.  How the characters process the world around them, and the events that affect them.  And much of human reaction to things rarely starts with the thought “I...”  People are usually only aware of why they did things, afterwards.

I do, however, change the perspective of the narration, constantly.  I flip from close up analysis of one character, to the other.  At key moments, the focus changes, and flips between Joanne and Dreyfuss.
That took a great deal of trial and error, to find the natural voice point for myself, as the writer.  I experimented with doing one chapter centred upon one, and then the other.  It didn’t work, as it prevented me from flipping in and out of the personal reactions to what was occurring, in a way that took the narrative forward.  This was particularly true of the first few chapters, where Joanne is beaten by Dreyfuss, heavily, and regularly.  Only by being free to flip perspective, at points that illuminated the psychological process, did it work.  Staying with one, or the other, for an entire chapter, in a one on/one off fashion, was useless.  There was no point to showing the violence, unless it carried the narrative and characterisation forward at each point.  Just staying with Joanne, or Dreyfuss, until that chapter ended, made it voyeuristic and, to some degree, fetishised.  The reader had to have access to the process of what was occurring, not just the physical description of events.

Likewise, the flip from describing external detail, to internal thought, was difficult to find initially.  I floundered a lot, until I allowed myself to slip in and out, and between the two, without restriction.  There was a light bulb moment when I realised Joanne had two inner voices, her upper mind, and her deeper more instinctive one.  So dovetailing between them was a way to flesh out the exterior action.  Thank goodness for italics, that’s all I can say.  Once I’d used the italicisation to signal significant switches in character voice or perspective, it got a lot easier.  It allowed me to keep the pace up, relentlessly, by constantly jumping to the next key point.  Everything became about what was being learned at that moment, either by the character, or the reader, and I used that to jump around between them as Joanne found a way to survive.  Those first few chapters, were pretty much written last, actually.  For years, I had the opening couple of chapters, and a great deal of the second half of the book.  Going back, and constructing her time in the cell, and then how she moves out into the apartment, and then Number 1, was the hardest slog imaginable.  I knew where she’d started from, and how she had to get to the fake ‘escape’, and I had key moments along the way.  But sitting down and actually stitching it together, through those early events... just sheer hard work.

Now, of course, it’s natural to me.  Like riding a bike – takes ages to learn and you fall off a lot, but once you get the balance point, you’re off, and it’s difficult to understand how it was so difficult just a few moments before.  Much of the rest of the narrative, was re-written and fleshed out with that sort of detail, as I then moved on.  If you look at my back files, you find a pattern emerging in the writing – bare bones of a scene, then a re-write that puts in a lot of detail, puts the flesh on the bones.  Then, a final whole story rewrite, that tweaks, adds more interior thought, takes away some description, adds more reaction...  in order to keep that developmental line of the process up and running the whole way through.

One effect of the voice is that the inner minds of the characters are laid open. Did you find it disturbing going so far into the minds of an abusive sociopath and a severely abused woman?

Not in that sense.  This wasn’t a story I had to go research, and comes to terms with from a distance.  This was a story I understood in my bones.  The point was explaining it so that others understood it.  I was sharing understanding, not the revelation that people think, or act, or feel, like this.  It was incredibly difficult to describe the abuse, and confront it.  You naturally shy away from looking at something so shocking, this closely.  Your mind wants you to allude to it, and to suggest it, not meet it openly.  It hurt, some of that writing, hurt deeply.  I’d have to stop and go and do something else, and wait until I had the strength to do the next bit.  And as a writer, you know that your reader isn’t expecting it.  They are used to the allusion, the suggestion, the distance.  And you’re aware, as a writer, of the danger in what you are doing.  I expose myself tremendously, as a writer, by doing this.

So the disturbing part is in the fear of the fall-out from engaging with the subject so clearly, and with such power.  Many times before launch, I agonised over what I was doing, and talked to friends and supporters about it, and how there was scope for a nasty backlash.  How distressing I would find that, should it happen.  But rejecting the reality of someone else’s pain in these situations, is pretty standard in our culture.  As we’ll discover in the second book, part of the story is that women who survive what Joanne has survived, are often rejected by everyone else as they just don’t want to face it.  In many cultures, including our own not that long ago, women who have been violated – beaten, abused, raped - were simply killed.  By their family.  The reason given was that the shame must be removed.  I’ve always felt that what that really meant, was it was easier to remove the woman forever, than deal with what had happened, and move on from it collectively.   Easier to blame the woman, than deal with it. 
  
So yes, it was, is, disturbing, but not for the reasons you might think.   

Dreyfuss is kind of a classic narcissistic sociopath. Especially at the beginning, an easy comparison is Hannibal Lector. In strength sports, there are average-sized, 180lb men who can lift 800lbs. So he’s very conceivable as a human. For much of the novel, the same story could take place with Dreyfuss as a human. What changes by writing him as a vampire? Is he scarier? At any point, did you consider writing Dreyfuss as an insane human who just thinks he's a vampire? Or even not having a vampire element at all?

The story was always about vampires, always.   It’s about looking at how we as a culture, have evolved and risen, or not.  How we’ve developed something called civilisation, and how easily it can all be torn down.  That’s not so obvious from Changeling, but Changeling sets up the other two novels.  Vampirism allows you to examine the context ruthlessly – what is abuse to one person, now, was the way the world worked to another, a few centuries ago.  How hunger is the driving force of life: if you hunger to that extent, will you kill to live?

In terms of Dreyfuss himself, being a very long living vampire gives him immense power, and wealth, and freedom.  It also frees you up as the writer, to concentrate only on the dynamic between him and Joanne.  If you look at both factual, and fictional, human sociopaths, they run their violent lives alongside normal ones, where no one knows.  But Dreyfuss has a complete world to himself, and his buildings and endless money and power.  There is no need to explain him going home to the wife after a hard day terrorising a kidnapped human female.  Vampirism gives him the wherewithal to keep his said human pet, alive a lot longer than if he was a normal human and that opens up the territory of the mind games.  Dreyfuss wants her soul, he just uses her body as the way to get there.  That may be a common human method of attack, but the vampirism gives him the tools to succeed.

However, that’s not to say that that need, to dominate utterly, comes from him being vampire.   As we glimpse through the narrative, Dreyfuss was made, and made violently, by someone else.  Was he a human sociopath before he was Turned, or did the Turning make him that way?  It’s a question that Joanne slowly comes to ask herself. There is a puzzle about Dreyfuss, and his vampirism.  If he was a sociopath as a human, who would make him a vampire?  And why?   And what does he require forgiveness for, what matters to him about what he did in his past when he’s so completely without humanity now?  And why has he no other Changelings if this has been a driving need for two thousand years?  The two thousand years part, is vital to his character.  So yes, Dreyfuss always had to be a vampire.

It takes Joanne a long time to believe that Dreyfuss is a vampire, but the reader knows because we’ve been inside his head and seen thing she hasn’t seen. Did you consider sticking with Joanne’s perspective and making the reader wonder along with her?

I did consider it.  It wrote naturally that we, the reader, always knew, as we have the first feed that should have killed her, being refused by her on a primal level, in the first couple of chapters.  After I’d written it, I did consider it might be more effective for the reader to think, like her, that he was ‘just’ a human maniac.  I even experimented with it, and rewrote sections, but it didn’t work.  The horror comes from knowing how much more complete her captivity was.  The horror comes from the fact she doesn’t know.  We know the police are never going to arrive.  We know she’s been completely removed from the human world and there is no going back.  The tale is in watching it all occur to her.  Doing it any other way, means you’re writing a thriller, and suddenly switching it to a horror, at some point in.  It just didn’t work at all: set up all the wrong vibes and expectations.

You’ve said that you stopped reading vampire books while you were writing. Are there any books that particularly influenced Changeling?

Writers, with some specific stories by them, more than a particular book.  Harlan Ellison would be the very specific influence, in that his writing, about human pain and human suffering, has been a constant influence all my life.  His 1973 short story “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” was seminal.  It’s the story of how a woman is raped and murdered whilst her neighbours watch, refusing to do anything.  It was based on the actual rape and murder of Kitty Genovese, where the neighbours heard what was happening, and did nothing.  The story is exceptional, given Ellison’s ability to write like both a god and a demon in the same line.  I read it first in my early 20s, and I was shocked that a writer could contain such a graphic scene, and write about it so lyrically, and with such power.  At the time, you didn’t even say the word ‘rape’ out in the open.  His writing has been a huge influence on me, both his fiction and his factual writings.  Stephen King is also a strong influence, and in this respect his publishing of Rose Madder was seminal.  Not from the novel narrative itself, but from the fact that he wrote about the subject matter as horror material, in a mainstream novel, and this was accepted openly.  That was important to me.  Other strong voices that helped keep me in my own voice would be Minette Walters, Ian Rankin, Karin Slaughter and to some extent, but a lesser one, Patricia Cornwell.

You've got two characters, a small stage and a long novel. Repetition is an important aspect of the story. How did you manage to avoid the problems caused by repetition and keep things interesting? How carefully did you plan the spacing of your revelations?

Not so much planned, as evolved during the writing.  If it wasn’t doing anything new, it had to go.  If it wasn’t adding anything to the journey, it had to go.  The problem was that the repetition of the pattern of violence, is what breaks Joanne down.  And that’s a deliberate technique being used by Dreyfuss, so it had to be shown.  But it was only shown enough times to draw that detail out, and it was removed when it was redundant.  There are time jumps in the narrative, where the reader has all they need to understand the process, and then we jump onwards.  There are several months between the end of Chapter 8 and the beginning of Chapter 9.  And we fast forward through the first few weeks at Arden Coombe in just a chapter.   The driving element was Joanne’s journey being revealed to the reader.  If it was simple repetition of something already established it was removed.  If it contained important understanding of the process, time slowed down and a lot was spent on fine detail.  So we see next to nothing of her journey across half the planet in her escape, but tiny detail in her drive to Pittenweem.  I’d just keep asking myself what the reader needed to know and understand and adjust to that.  It may be mostly two characters, a tiny space and little overt action, but it’s a huge journey.  So I showed the journey.  I hope!  J


Morgan Gallagher is in her late 40s, and should know better, about spending her writing life with vampires. However, she has no choice, as they refuse to go away and leave her alone.  She lives in the Scottish Borders, with her husband and their six year old son.  A full time carer for her husband who is severely disabled, Morgan also works as a volunteer for several charities and is passionate about the rights of babies, children and mothers.  She has campaigned vigorously against child detention during immigration procedures.  She and her husband home educate their son and attempt to keep a never ending stream of cats under control. The North Sea pounds their fishing village every winter, and every major storm, the entire family are to be found in the car parked on the headland admiring the view.  Apart from the cats, that is, who are at home dreaming of summer.



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Alan here. This is a very smart, well-written novel. It delves deep into the psychology of both the abuser and the abused. It contains graphic scenes of physical, psychological and sexual abuse that will upset those made queasy by portrayals of torture. But as Morgan explains above, this isn't splatterpunk. It's purposeful. So if you can handle that, you won't find a much better vampire tale than Changeling. My tastes lean a bit more towards minimalism than maximalism, but here's the main thing: I think that fiction should both entertain and make you think. Most writers settle for one or the other, so it's surprisingly difficult to find novels that do both. Changeling does.

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