R. N. Morris & Michael Gregorio

in conversation

R N Morris
Roger Morris

About Roger Morris

Born in Manchester in 1960, R. N. Morris now lives in North London with his wife and two young children. His series of St. Petersburg novels revolving around the character of Porfiry Petrovich include A Gentle Axe, A Vengeful Longing, which was shortlisted for the 2008 CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for Best Novel and was Highly Commended in the CWA Ellis Peters Prize for Best Historical Crime Novel in 2008. A Razor Wrapped in Silk was publsihed in 2010, and his fourth book, The Cleansing Flames, was shortlisted for the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger in 2011. He also wrote Taking Comfort which was published by Macmillan under the name Roger Morris in 2006. His latest novel, Summon Up The Blood, is published in April 2012. (see Faber and Faber Authors)

Visit  his website: http://rogernmorris.co.uk/


About Michael and Daniela Gregorio

Daniela and Michael Gregorio

Michael Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio write together as Michael Gregorio. Daniela teaches philosophy; Michael is interested in the history of photography. They live in Spoleto, a small town in central Italy. They have created a series of crime novels whose central charater is the Prussian magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis. The series includes Critique of Criminal Reason, Days of Atonement, A Visible Darkness and Unholy Awakening. (Faber and Faber Authors)

Visit their website: http://www.michaelgregorio.it/

Michael and Daniela: Did you always think that you would be a writer, Roger, and, if you did, what sort of a writer did you think that you would be?

Roger: Pretty much, yes. Writing stories was always my favourite activity at school. Even the way I played was story-based, making up convoluted scenarios for myself and my friends to act out. Telling stories is one of the ways we make sense of the world. We’re encouraged to do it as children and then at some point we switch to a more academic way of writing. Essays – based on facts. For me at least, at the school I went to, the imaginative, creative approach to writing – making stuff up – was discreetly put to one side. So it became something I pursued in private. For many years. Quite early on I took hold of the misguided idea that being a writer would be a great job. The misguided part was that it was a job at all, when actually it’s an obsession. You don’t turn up to work, work for a certain number of hours and get a pay cheque at the end of the month. In fact, you’re doing well if you’re getting paid at all. To answer the second part of your question, all I can say is that I didn’t particularly see myself as a crime writer. That came quite late on. If there is a spectrum with storyteller at one end and literary writer at the other, I have always thought of myself as being at the storyteller end. Fundamentally, that’s what it’s about for me, telling stories.

How about you two? Did you always see yourselves as writers, and if so what sort?

Gregorio Critique of Criminal ReasonMichael: I was a kid who always wrote smart formulaic essays in school. English and History? No problem. I read English at university, and fell in love with long novels. They were more fun than Anglo-Saxon, which I also studied. I always fancied writing a novel, but I never had the time. When I came to Italy in 1980, I started worrying about forgetting my English – I was trying so hard to learn Italian – and I began writing short stories, then novels set in Italy as I got more ambitious. Pretty soon Daniela was at it, as well. She’d always been a scribbler. She still has pre-school notepads covered in incomprehensible hieroglyphs! By the mid-1990s, Dani was teaching philosophy and reading horror – Stephen King, James Herbert – and she tried her hand at the genre, too, while I was diddling about with the Victorians and crime. One day she came up with an intriguing idea for a short story set in Prussia featuring her favourite philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and our joint ambition took off. Could we write a novel set in Königsberg in 1804, and if so, what kind of novel would it be? It began as a sort of challenge, and we rose to it. The story turned out to be a philosophical-historical Gothic crime novel, and we wrote it (many times) in English, where there seemed to be a market for new unpublished voices. Our collaborative writing started out as a hobby, though it soon turned into an obsession. We certainly agree with you about that! If we missed a day at the keyboard, we felt guilty about it. And the guilty feeling seems to get worse, as time goes by.

Roger: Philosophy and horror – an irresistible combination! Your chosen period – at least for your Hanno Stiffeniis novels – certainly allows you to explore the interplay between the rational and the irrational. Is that an interest of yours and if so was it what drew you to that period and setting?

Daniela: We were interested in both philosophy and horror. Prussia (divided up after the Second World War between Germany, Poland and Russia) was an amazing place: on the one hand, you had rational thinkers like Immanuel Kant in Königsberg; on the other, the Grimm brothers and E.T.A. Hoffmann were exploring folklore and the fantastic, Daniel Salthenius was communing with the devil, and Swedenborg was talking with the dead. The ‘Stürm und Drang’ movement was in full swing, the rigour of the Enlightenment giving ground to Goethe and Romanticism. Add the French occupation of 1806 which brought passion and blood in the name of revolution, and you have an explosive backdrop. Napoleon was in Berlin planning to invade Russia. Wow! It wasn’t easy to be rational. Indeed, our novels tend to explore just how rational so-called ‘rational’ ideas are. We, the human species, are nowhere near as rational as we would like to think. Professor Kant understood the ‘darkness’ beyond rational thought, and he refused to go there. Until we took him there, of course! This is where we came in. We read a fascinating article in The Lancet which suggested that Kant suffered what we would describe today as Alzheimer’s disease. What would happen, we thought, if the most rational of men began to lose his mind? In the series which followed on from Critique of Criminal Reason, our protagonist, the investigating magistrate, Hanno Stiffeniis, a one-time student of Kant, finds himself in situations which rationality alone cannot always explain. An ‘irresistible combination,’ we hope.

Michael: Flashing back, Roger, you mentioned that ‘the imaginative, creative approach to writing – making stuff up – was something I pursued in private.’ This is a fascinating disclosure. How private and personal is the act of creation? And how much work goes into making sense of what the imagination freely suggests? After all, what was once private is now patently public.

Morris Razor Wrapped SilkRoger: I am not a great sharer of my work as it progresses. I think this is probably a character defect. I might have made faster progress as a writer if I had joined a writers’ group at some point. But that idea had always filled me with dread. I’m very secretive in general, I think. I don’t know where this comes from. Perhaps being a northerner? And a man, of course. So everything builds up inside – and it has to come out in some way. My chosen way is through writing. Which is strange for people who know me because they might be slightly taken aback by what does come out. I have always seen writing as the act of getting outside what’s on the inside. Not literally, in terms of some kind of therapy. ‘What is on the inside’ for me is what is imagined. I am quite a visual writer in the sense that I have to see something before I can write it. But once I can see it, it comes quite easily. The danger with this approach is that it may lead me to be over-descriptive at times, but I’m learning to ease up on that, to trust the reader a little more. I’m not one of those writers who drafts and re-drafts infinitely. I try to get it as right as I can as I go along. The editing is usually pruning back. The really hard work is the imagining. Just sitting there, drinking strong black coffee, and trying to see things that never happened, and then finding a way to write about them as if they did.

This must be very different from the way you work, as a writing partnership. You’ve talked about this before, I know, but I think people are fascinated by it. It’s fascinating for me because my process is so private and secretive. But being private and secretive is of course very lonely. So I look with envy upon what the two of you have, working together. Am I right to?

Gregorio Unholy AwakeningMichael: I am a northerner and a man, too, Roger, and both those facts drive Daniela crazy, because she is an Italian woman, strong-willed and very strong-minded. We work in separate rooms on different chapters from a pre-planned outline, then we swap the results back and forth. It’s a bit like working closely with a hypercritical editor.  Unlike you, I am immediately pleased with every word I’ve written and I want to share it – with Dani, for starters. Well, she goes nuts! What’s this? What’s that? He couldn’t possibly say that, and believe it! Unfortunately, she is almost always right. I like a seamlessly smooth story with sentences which slot beautifully into one another, the whole thing going off like a cup of whipped cream… Dani does not like cream, I can tell you! This is, as a rule, where we start discussing, arguing, shouting – call it what you like. Inevitably, I cave in, go back browbeaten to the key­board and really start to work on it. That’s the way it is with me. I need to get a strongly structured sense of the scene and the action, and I need to get it all down pat. Then my dear wife makes me go back and rewrite it in total harmony with what we are actually working on together. Daniela is a ‘natural’ in a completely different sense. She knows exactly what she wants and she works towards it slowly, step by step. I get my ‘revenge’ in any case, because the final English gloss and polish comes down to me. It’s very kind of you to feel envious, Roger, but we have oftentimes discussed divorce instead of the story we’re supposed to be working on…

Maybe it’s time for us all to get off the psychiatrist’s couch.  Let’s talk about work, Roger. Past work, present work, future plans. We would like to know where Russia and Porfiry Petrovich came from. I mean to say, you’ve written more about him Dostoevsky ever did. And anyone who manages to write more than Dostoevsky, well, let’s say no more! Is there a Volga of Russian blood flowing through your veins?

Morris A Vengeful LongingRoger: No Russian blood, I’m afraid. In fact, I knew frighteningly little about Russia before I started writing these books. I had to do a hell of a lot of research because I was starting from a position of almost total ignorance! I had read Crime and Punishment – that’s where the idea came from. I first read it when I was a precocious, melancholic teenager. The character I identified with then was Raskolnikov. The combination of a murder story – a double axe murder story, in fact – with the novel’s philosophical and theological preoccupations somehow appealed to my adolescent imagination, though to be honest I got far more out of the crime story aspect than the metaphysical stuff. As you know, Porfiry Petrovich is the investigating magistrate in Crime and Punishment. He’s only actually “on screen”, as it were, for a couple of chapters, in which he has these cat and mouse exchanges with Raskolnikov. But his presence in the book is incredibly powerful – Raskolnikov becomes obsessed by him, convinced that Porfiry has him sussed. He dominates the second half of the book, though we see him solely through Raskolnikov’s warped perspective. The character obviously took possession of my imagination, almost as much as Raskolnikov’s. So I thought it would be a bit of cheeky, literary fun to make him the central character in his own detective novel. Then it was put to me, first by my agent, and then by my publisher, that I ought to write a series. It was a case of in for a penny, in for a pound.

How do the two of you handle the research side of things? Did you know the period and location well before you started work on the Hanno books? How important is historical accuracy? And how do you avoid getting bogged down in the detail?

Daniela:  It’s time for us to confess that we have never been to Germany, let alone Prussia. Our ‘vision’ of Germany is more strongly influenced by the Grimm brothers and the Gothic novel tradition. We have researched daily life in early nineteenth century Germany, of course, and the same goes for the historical background – we are both interested in the Napoleonic wars – but time and place play a part in our work which is never much more than marginal, except in terms of the atmosphere of each novel. We follow the investigations of our magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis (from the crime to the resolution of the mystery) and shape the context to fit the story, rather than trying to place him within a ‘real’ world. Over the years many people have fallen into the trap of thinking that we are more ‘factual’ than fictional. Some­one wrote to us from Japan – our second novel, Days of Atonement – had just been published there, asking about the medieval castle of Kamenetz. This reader wanted to see the castle while visiting Europe. He had ‘googled’ Kamenetz, he said, and the answer had come up negative. Then, he tried to ‘google’ Lotingen, Hanno’s birthplace. With the same result. We were forced to tell him that the two places – like many others in the four novels – were inventions. We have gleaned much useful information from memoirs and military histories of the Napoleonic period, and we use an original edition of Diderot and D’Alembert’s “Encyclopedie” which sits in our local public library for specific information about trades, buildings, ships and ports. The illustrations are brilliant. We discovered a rare copy of P. J. Hartmann’s “Succini Prussici,” a 1677 treatise about the amber industry, in a Spanish library online, and we wrote A Visible Darkness as a result. We were intrigued by the myth and the folklore regarding Prussian amber, ‘Baltic gold,’ and we dug up all the information that we could find. Then we wrote about Hanno and his investigation into the serial murders of the women who collected the treasure on the Baltic shoreline. We just follow our noses…

But let’s skip back for a moment, Roger. You mentioned that “the character I identified with (in Crime and Punishment) was Raskolnikov.” Should your neighbours feel threatened? More seriously, how strongly do you identify with your characters, and do you prefer to work on the goodies or the baddies? Your latest novel, Summon Up the Blood, which features Silas Quinn, will be released next month. Congratulations on the new series, by the way! What sort of a character is Quinn, and who else can we look forward to meeting?

Roger: Let’s be clear, I didn’t identify with what he did, just what he was going through! Raskolnikov’s psychology is so minutely and expertly observed that you live every moment – every step – with him, I think. As for my own characters, well, there’s a danger we might end up back on the psychiatrist’s couch again. I suppose the question is, where do these characters come from? They can only come from within us, I think. I suppose it’s a little bit like being an actor. So yes, I do identify with my characters – I have to think myself under their skins before I can start writing. That’s the whole point of writing for me – to imagine what it must be like to be someone else. On the question of whether I prefer writing goodies or baddies, I suppose I really like the characters who fall somewhere in between. Although there’s nothing quite like a chilling, unrepentant villain without any redeeming features whatsoever. They can be as much fun to write as I imagine they are for actors to play. Thanks for the congratulations on the Silas Quinn series. I’m very excited about it and had tremendous fun writing the character. He is a very ambiguous character who really does occupy that territory between good and bad. He had a very troubling period in his past. He was a medical student but had to give that up because he had a breakdown, during which time he may or may not have tried to kill someone. He certainly meant to, but the truth of what happened is difficult to get to because he’s very secretive, except when he lets things slip for effect occasionally. That incident may have been what made him become a policeman in the first place. He heads up a unit called the Special Crimes Department, which seems to have been set up solely to investigate the warped and slightly surreal crimes that I think up.

Gregorio Days of AtonementYou mentioned the castle in Days of Atonement above. I remember reading it and just grinning with admiration at the darkness and ingenuity of it. I like to think I’m quite dark myself but I was fairly sure you out-darked me in that book. In fact, when I got to the vat with certain pickled objects floating in it, I gave up ever trying to compete again. So where does the darkness come from? Do you scare yourselves, do you scare each other? Never mind the neighbours! And to go a little beyond that, do these dark stories of ours serve any purpose? Why do we write them, and why do people want to read them?

D &M: Dear Roger, ‘out-darked,’ what a compliment! And you also hit on something when you mentioned ‘grinning at the darkness of it.’ We take delight in frightening our readers, and we hope that they see the fun aspect, too. Crime fiction is, after all, an elaborate game of tricking and tracking. Last Sunday, we did a book event in Ascoli Piceno, a gorgeous little town in the Marche in central Italy. We were accompanied by a wonderful ’cellist, Maurizio Businelli, who played pieces from the Bach solo suites, and three actors, who read extracts from our books. When we were invited to speak, the first thing we did was to play down the ‘splatter’ element of our work. The organisers had homed in on the horror, and we were both embarrassed by how crude and violent it all seemed when reduced to snippets. We may be ‘dark’ by nature, perhaps, but we also have a sense of fun. Think of Joe Orton’s “Loot” or “What the Butler Saw,” which are macabre, but make you smile. Dressing up the horror of the crime, and the more gruesome aspects of the investigator’s work, are things that we are able to do, but we don’t indulge or dwell on the horror alone. And we see it all from the point of view of Hanno Stiffeniis, who is a sensitive ‘enlightened’ soul on the brink of Romanticism. Having said that, people should be frightened by murder, by their own potentiality for acts which are often the result of chance, circumstance or destiny. We read and write crime fiction because it plumbs the highs and lows of the human situation, and we believe that the genre is popular for that very reason. “Heidi” was fine when we were kids, but adult entertainment is a vast exploration of the complexity of being. We all want to understand what makes us what we are, and not some­thing better or, perhaps, worse. As you said, it’s all about trying to “imagine what it must be like to be someone else.”

“Silas Quinn, an Edwardian investigator who works in London…” (Crime Time)  You have switched protagonist, country and period, Roger. What sort of mental leap took you from one time and place to another? How much work and research was involved? And do you think that a writer benefits by casting off for different shores after a successful trip with a series character? We felt that four Hanno Stiffeniis novels were enough (for the moment, anyway), and that we needed a change of atmosphere. What about you, after four marvellous novels in the company of Porfiry and Virginsky in St Petersburg?

Morris Cleansing FlamesRoger: To be honest, the real mental leap was out to nineteenth century St Petersburg. By comparison, writing a story set in London at the beginning of the twentieth century is like coming home. Thinking about it, I realise that the new series is set just under a hundred years ago. The events in the story take place in 1914, before the First World War. That’s just 46 years before I was born. I’m now 52 years old. So the distance between me and the story is less than the extent of my life, if you get what I mean. I don’t quite know where I’m going with this. But it’s interesting to remind myself of these perspectives. My own life has overlapped with people who were of that generation. But yes, still a lot of research to do. I read general histories of the period, some biographies, novels, plays too, and memoirs – memoirs are particularly useful. And there were several books which compiled the testimonies of ordinary people, from various class backgrounds, and put them in some kind of context. All very helpful. But there’s always a point where you have to remind yourself that you’re writing fiction. That is to say, making stuff up. You’re trying to create the impression of authenticity. And that does require a leap of the imagination for the whole thing to work – for the characters to come alive and off the page. To answer your other question, I always had it in mind to write four Porfiry novels. They made up a complete story arc, I think. That’s to say they were planned as a quartet, so it seemed natural to break off where I did. That said, I don’t rule out the possibility of returning to Russia in the future but I am having a lot of fun writing Silas Quinn. It’s liberating to be working with a character of my own creation, rather than one I rather foolishly purloined from a much-revered masterpiece of world literature.

I know that you have a contemporary crime novel coming out in Italy soon. Can you tell us how that came about and how the experience of writing it has compared to writing your Hanno books? This one’s in Italian, I see. Has your experience of teaching Creative Writing to convicted mafia killers in a high security prison informed the novel in any way?

D & M: The new book will be published in Italy with the title “Boschi & Bossoli” (Bushes & Bullets). It will be released in April, and we’re working on an English language version at the moment. This is a total inversion of the way we normally work, and it has been stimulating. Like you, we had come to the end of a cycle. Again, like you, we had started working on some­thing completely new. We had just finished the first draft, when we were ‘commissioned’ to write a novel in Italian. It was a crucial moment for us – a new series with a new hero, or something about which we felt very strongly. Of course, emotion won! We had been heavily involved in protest movements against the ‘development’ of the pretty little town in Italy where we live, and an Italian publisher, Verde Nero-Ambiente, had noticed the fact. Could we write a novel on the subject? Of course, we could! It’s a Mafia-Nimby novel, which reflects the corrupt and perverse state of things in modern Italy, where speculation always wins and the innocent always suffer. It is unlike anything we’ve done before, an ‘Italian’ crime novel, which has different aims and conventions. The UK version is radically different and largely rewritten. And yes, “Boschi & Bossoli” provided us with the opportunity to use our criminal ‘connections.’ In the first place, we had testified at the trial of five local lads who had been arrested on the ridiculous (trumped-up?) charge of environmental terrorism. In the second place, we’d been working closely in the local maximum-security prison with people who had been sentenced as Mafiosi. Put the two things together, and you have an amazing canvas on which to work. We learnt many things from our contacts in prison. One day, we couldn’t go to the lesson because Dani’s headmistress decided to hold a staff meeting. When we explained the problem, one of our favourite ‘students’ gave Daniela a hard look and said: “Just tell me her name…”

Daniela wriggled out of it, but one wonders what the consequences might have been. As our protector said: “Nothing’s impossible for us in here.” The same guy told us how he would sell his novels (he has written about twenty) if he weren’t locked up. You drop the manuscript on the editor’s desk, pull out your pistol and say: “Publish it!”

Ah, if only we could do the same thing!

Dear Roger, that’s the end from us. However, we have got six segments to your five, which is not fair. So, how about this as a last question: What has been the most amusing moment in your life as a published author, Roger?

Roger: Amusing? That’s a difficult one. I’ve had a lot of fun since being published and met some great people, especially my fellow authors. Being flown out to Umbria for the Trevi Noir Festival was a highlight! (Thank you, Mike and Daniela, for organising it.) It’s always interesting meeting the public. For instance, I once did a workshop on mystery and suspense at a writers’ festival. We got to the end of the workshop and I invited questions from the audience. A little old man put his hand up and plaintively cried, “Why did you set them in Russia?” He seemed both outraged and bewildered. And the funny thing was, I hadn’t mentioned the books at all in the workshop. All I could say was, “Sometimes I ask myself the same question.”


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