In July of 2019, the Grassic Gibbon Centre celebrated the third year of the Literary Lights competition.
Held in conjunction with the University of Aberdeen, this annual competition honors James Leslie Mitchell’s literary achievements by awarding aspiring writers in prose. Mitchell, himself, first found a public audience for his writing when, at 23, he won a short story competition with “Siva Plays the Game” in ‘Siva Plays in T.P.’s & Cassell’s Weekly (18 Oct 1924). The Literary Lights competition derives its name from Mitchell’s essay on Scots literature published in Scottish Scene: Or the Intelligent Man’s Guide to Albyn (1934).
This years Literary Lights prize was awarded to Jane Morris for her truly exceptional story “Nine Tails.” The short story begins with the premise of a missing cat. However, through her use of highly-finessed domestic details and keen observations of human interaction, the story reveals the enormous complexities of human relationships as we struggle through self-awareness and grief.
Jane Morris grew up in Birmingham and became the first person in her family to get a University Degree. She credits “standing on the shoulders” of her “fantastic extended family” for helping her achieve this success. She chose to read English Literature at Newnham College, Cambridge because she had had the best of English teachers and loved the subject.
“That 3 years felt like a complete indulgence in studying, and also a wake up call to prove to me I would never write like the authors I wanted to read, so I decided to train as a doctor. I hadn’t even got science O levels, so cramming for Physics, Chemistry and Biology in 10 months was a revelation. I went on to fall in love with every different medical specialty one by one, but slowly gravitated towards Psychiatry because of my overriding interest in people’s stories.”
Within Psychiatry, Morris specialized in Psychotherapy and in the developmental aspects of the field – Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and Student Mental Health. She has published multiple articles in youth psychology, including an additional focus on eating disorders. When not working or writing, she enjoys playing cello and piano, Life-Drawing classes, visiting museums and galleries, knitting socks and learning Mandarin.
Having recently returned from an Arvon Creative Writing Retreat, Jane Morris talks with us about her writing and the purpose of art.
What drew you initially to studying English and writing?
I think it must be inbred. My earliest memories include writing on my toy blackboard, long before starting school. I used to tell stories to my sister and cousins, and I was always addicted to reading.
How has your psychiatric training impacted how you understand characters and their actions and drives?
I think it’s probably the other way round, but yes, I suppose it can’t help but do so. It’s a great privilege to share other people’s stories and feelings, though, and confidentiality matters, so I take care not to transpose them directly into my writing.
Your short story has a lot of very ordinary, domestic moments that nonetheless carry huge significance and depth; the movement and suspense of the story seems to rest on these moments having two very different interpretations. When we re-read the story, knowing the end, these moments mean something else entirely and yet, it works beautifully both ways. How did you work through these details so that they functioned so well for this double-interpretation?
I like to write and rewrite over and over, looking at things from different viewpoints and experimenting with the order of writing. I hope that adds extra dimensions to what is written. Modern writing seems particularly concerned to play with that sort of dimensionality – this is something I have grown more aware of in recent years.
How did you come up with the idea for this story?
The opening paragraph was written simply as a class exercise! I went home and ‘finished’ it that night, but then found myself worrying away at it. I gave up on it several times but then couldn’t rest until I’d wrestled with it some more.
Do you base your characters off of real people or do they only live in your mind? Where do you find your inspiration?
I honestly don’t know how to answer this. I don’t think any character I have written is copied from an individual I know. They are all composites – or perhaps all variations on the theme of myself.
For you, what is the purpose of literature/art? Do you think it has any type of responsibility or obligation to the reader/audience? Why do we make it?
For me, all art is play. Very serious, important play. In other words, uncensored, imaginative exploration of the possibilities and impossibilities of life. It has the function of keeping us fully human, interested, curious, excited and appreciative. Sometimes it does more than that of course, but I think that’s the core function.
However, I also agree with a fellow writer who said that he hated every moment of writing, but he enjoyed having written, and he hated not writing even more than writing.
How has the reading of literature influenced how you think about craft?
Reading fine literature humbled me to the point where I couldn’t see the point in trying to write myself, but as I’ve got older, I’ve stopped worrying about it. I love it that Oscar Wilde said ‘If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly’.
Do you see any similarities between your writing and that of Grassic Gibbon?
When I first opened Sunset Song, I immediately recognized the ironic, choric voice of the Prelude. It felt like the slightly cynical, contradictory viewpoint I like narration to possess – not unlike the voices of ‘Under Milk Wood’ in fact.
If you were to give one piece of advice to new writers, what would it be?
For anyone looking for advice, I would suggest signing up to a course. I disagree with people who say creative writing can’t be taught, provided that the pupil actually wants to learn the craft. Even if it were the case, though, most of us benefit from the discipline of being accountable. Arvon is particularly nurturing.