Edinburgh’s Nicola Morgan is the talk of the book world after her novel Wasted won the Scottish Book Awards for older children.
She started writing “home learning” books with fun activities, specifically designed to help children (especially those with learning difficulties) to read. This came on the back of several years as an English teacher, following a degree in Classics and Philosophy from Cambridge.
She says, “I do happen to believe (well, know, actually!) that reading books is “good” for children (and adults.) But when I write novels or any fiction for teenagers or children, I am not trying to teach them to read or improve them in any way. I simply set out to tell as exciting or interesting a story as possible. The fact that that happens to be good for them is an entirely incidental benefit!
“As to why, we know this from an increasing body of research, which I’ve been following and aware of for years, but which is only now coming into the more public domain and being talked about. Reading (particularly fiction) changes our brains for the better. It is important for empathy, wisdom, tolerance and our ability to deal with what life throws at us. Actually, not only reading, but listening to stories – so the good news is that from that point of view, being dyslexic is not a problem: listening to stories is just as good.
Originally from south of the border, Nicola has lived in Edinburgh since 1988. “I moved with my husband to Edinburgh from London, where we’d been living since we met at university, because we had a baby daughter and wanted to settle somewhere other than London, and he is from Glasgow. He works in the financial sector and the job happened to come up in Edinburgh, so we’ve stayed very happily.
“Our second daughter was born here – they are now 25 and 22, and both went to school in Edinburgh and absolutely love the place, though they are not currently working here. Actually, I say we’ve lived “in” Edinburgh since 1988 but that’s not strictly true, because we spent five of those years in Eskbank, which was lovely but made us too car-dependent, so we moved into town. I love that I can walk to a certain large department store beginning with JL and have one small car, which can sit for days and sometimes weeks without being used!”
Only after 1999, Â when several home-learning books had been published and her writing was becoming successful, did she feel able to give up teaching. She created and ran The Child Literacy Centre for many years before her writing took over completely. Her first novel for teenagers, Mondays are Red, was published in 2002, and over the next few years she wrote a number of novels and non-fiction books, mostly for teenagers but some for younger children. In fact, she has written around ninety books altogether, including Thomas the Tank Engine books, which she describes as the hardest to write, and the best-selling UK home learning series, I Can Learn. She is much in demand as a speaker and guide to writing.
“I think the only hobbies I have now are cooking and gardening. I absolutely love cooking for friends and I find it incredibly relaxing. Gardening, too: I hate formal exercise but one thing I like about gardening is that it is multi-tasking: natural exercise as well as getting the jobs done. I keep it low maintenance simply because I’m too busy to manage otherwise, so it’s mostly shrubs – rhododendron, azalea, camellia, fuchsia. I allow no yellow in my garden! We have a large, sunny (when the sun’s out!) patio area where I grow veg, salad and herbs in pots – especially herbs for cooking. I’m also hoping to be able to put a shed-office in the garden.”
Wasted is her 9th novel for children. Its unusual format certainly caught the eye of the judges but didn’t make it particularly easy to write. The main character, Jack, believes that life is a game of chance and makes all his decisions by flipping a coin. At the end of the book the reader is challenged to play Jack’s Game, entering into the life or death decisions of chance. Nicola of course had to write two different outcomes but all is not as expected.
As a philosophy graduate, she is interested in moral dilemmas. This character feels that he absolves himself of responsibility by allowing the flip of a coin to make his decisions, but the effects are no less terrifying. Â How many times have we said “If only…”? Leaving the house 30 seconds earlier or later involves you in an accident or saves you from an accident. But while Jack doesn’t want to make decisions, Nicola herself doesn’t believe in fate. She prefers to trust in free will and karma, which she describes as a combination of two things: partly positive thinking and grasping opportunity, partly that if you do good things for people, people are more inclined to do good things for you. She says her philosophy studies help her “As long as I’m writing fiction, because we don’t have to present answers, just create situations and pose questions, which philosophy makes easy!”
Although she is now mainly recognised as a teenage writer, she hopes to write more books for younger children, but all this comes on the back of a diverse range of activities which have been developed over the years.
“You ask about structuring my day,” she says “- what structure?! Now that my daughters are away, and with my husband working long hours, I have enormous freedom in my day, but am also terrifically busy, especially in the last two years. I do masses of events – and travel a lot for them – so my days and weeks have no structure at all: I just rush headlong at my tasks and somehow get them all done!
“One of my problems, work-wise and life-wise, is that I’m interested in and therefore write and therefore speak about far too many different things. In the current fortnight, for example, I will have done ten events: three different ones about social networking for authors or publishers, two for parents about the teenage brain, one judging panel, one book award, two workshops for aspiring writers, and a one-off event speaking about aspects of the publishing industry. Try to structure that! Oh, and try to get any writing doneâ€¦”
But she will, of course and we will look forward to seeing what twists of not fate will be served from her word processor.