A Deeply Personal Account from Donna Morrissey
Donna Morrissey is the author of eight novels and three-time winner of our region’s richest literary prize, the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, among many other literary awards. She sat down with our Caitlyn Mearns to talk about writing, inspiration and her most personal work yet, a forthcoming memoir called Pluck.
Atlantic Books Today: Where were you born and where do you live now?
I was born and raised in a tiny Newfoundland outport. After moving around the country for a number of years, I chose to settle in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Close enough to home, and yet far enough away to escape that easterly wind bounding up the bay.
What inspired you to become a writer?
Writing was never anything that I thought about as a kid or aspired towards. During my early 40s I was coaxed by a friend who believed I had ‘a voice’. Flattered, and to appease her, I started scribbling one day, about my family, and my thoughts and feelings kept spinning themselves out, and my sentences grew longer and longer, and the pages kept turning.
Who were some of your inspirations growing up?
I was passionate about reading since I was a kid. No one single author caught my attention till my teenage years and I fell in love with Steinbeck, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and a host of others. Today, they are still my favourites.
What are the biggest highlights of this work?
The process of creation is a huge highlight of this work. That incredible sense of accomplishment and achievement and satisfaction when you’ve had a good writing day, when you’ve created a particularly beautiful metaphor or scene, or develop an insight into a particularly tough character. And of course, that moment when you can count down the scenes to the finish line and know that yes, I can see it, I have a book!!
What are some of the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge is keeping your butt in the seat. And overcoming the insecurities that you can do this, and accepting that despair, tediousness, suffering is all part of the process, and that in the end, you will have achieved that what felt impossible a few months or years ago – that the mush of words/thoughts/feelings/ did indeed find its proper order and you’ve completed another novel. There’s no greater feeling than that.
To you, what makes a good story?
A story that is based in truth. Not truth as in memoir, but truth in its characters; that they respond according to who they are and not who the author wants them to be. Plot is necessary to keep a reader involved in a story, but it is the character, how they respond to what is happening to them, that holds my intrigue.
Tell me bit about your upcoming memoir Pluck.
Pluck is a deeply personal account of my journey through some of life’s most challenging events. The death of my infant brother marked my family, and years later, I suffered devastating guilt about the accidental death of my teenage brother, whom I’d enticed to join me in the oilfields. My hell was compounded by a misdiagnosis of a terminal illness, all of which contributed to crippling anxiety and PTSD. There are other themes woven through my story – that of my mom, her illness, my dad, his challenges, my kids and siblings, and how we manage to find joy in an increasingly darkening landscape.
How was it different (or similar) to your previous works?
Much of my fiction is inspired by events that took place in my personal life. But, it is the characters that carry the emotional brunt of the unfolding events. Writing memoir, there is no buffer between you and the pain. Always, too, with memoir is that when you write about a family event, such as our mother’s death, you, the writer, assumer ownership of the story; telling it through your eyes. Which exclude your brothers and sisters version of a story that is equally theirs. Luckily, I have my family’s blessings. They wanted our mother’s story of valour and integrity told as much as I did, and I received great encouragement and support from them.
What do you hope readers take from Pluck?
From Pluck I want readers to take heart that they are not alone in their grief, suffering. That everyone is climbing some proverbial mountain. And that within the darkness, there is always light. That happiness is undoubtedly a thing to desire; but joy is most likely the more abundant fruit in the basket, and it is there for all of us who seek it.
What is next for you?
A second memoir – that focuses on my father and is told through the eyes of all five of us siblings. It’s a different kettle of fish and I’m loving the interaction and sharing of our stories.