JOANNA MORRISON is a Perth based writer who has a background in journalism and a PhD in Creative Writing. Her debut novel, The Ghost of Gracie Flynn is a tension filled mystery novel that was shortlisted for the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award in 2020. Read an for a Q&A with the author.
What sparked the idea for this novel?
The spark that became The Ghost of Gracie Flynn was a scene I wrote as part of a different novel, in which a woman discovers the lifeless body of man on a boat, washed up on the beach. That particular novel lost momentum for various reasons, so I shelved it, but my mind kept returning to that scene out on the water. Did the woman know the man? What happened to him? Why and how? Who was responsible? It took hold of me as an intriguing mystery around which to build a story.
The book was shortlisted for the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award in 2020. How did the novel change between then and its publication now?
Maria Papas won the award that year with her gorgeous novel, Skimming Stones. It felt absolutely right that I hadn’t won, because I knew my manuscript needed more work, so I was hugely relieved when Georgia Richter at Fremantle Press invited me to come in and discuss ways to tighten the plot and raise the stakes.
Her suggestions involved rethinking certain culpabilities, fleshing out some of the backstory, changing some names, and revisiting the science behind a couple of pivotal scenes. Once I’d done this and received a publishing contract, those changes had to be refined, as did the ripple effect they’d had throughout the book. I also worked to deliver Gracie’s ghost-narration with the lightest possible touch and to tighten up the rules around her ability to influence unfolding events. In a last-minute endurance test, not long before going to print, we decided the ending would benefit from a rejig as the tension was leaking out too early. Cue a feverish bout of structural editing on the final third of the book. I think this final edit was crucial to the novel’s overall impact, so I’m very happy we did it.
The final change was to the title. I’d originally called the manuscript Still Dark – an allusion to lingering bitterness – but during the process of designing the book’s cover, it became clear we’d have more options with a less obscure title. I think The Ghost of Gracie Flynn works beautifully with the cover and communicates the essence of the story really well, so I love how it’s come together.
The Ghost of Gracie Flynn is told through Gracie’s perspective – why did you choose to tell the story this way?
I let Gracie take the wheel in the last draft I wrote before entering the Hungerford, because that’s what you do when a ghost demands to drive – you move over.
Actually, the truth is more mundane than that. Strategic rather than spectral.
In early drafts, my main characters loosely shared the job of narrating, using free-indirect speech (meaning it was in third-person overall but each chapter was infused with the voice of whichever character was in focus for that chapter). I’m a big fan of this approach in general, but after several revisions, I found that the manuscript on the whole wasn’t as engaging as I wanted it to be. I decided it needed a compelling voice to pull all the perspectives together and provide momentum. Gracie had the omniscience I wanted, and a mysterious energy yet to be tapped, so she was a natural choice at that point. It turned out she had a story to tell and plenty of opinions, so her voice immediately brought the story to life in a way that excited me.
Margaret Atwood has described writing a novel as ‘wrestling a greased pig in the dark’, which is the perfect metaphor for how this novel came into being.
Your novel follows the deaths of two friends 18 years apart – did you know from the beginning how the mystery would unfold, or did it come to you as you wrote?
Margaret Atwood has described writing a novel as ‘wrestling a greased pig in the dark’, which is the perfect metaphor for how this novel came into being. To begin with, I had very little sense of what I was up to. I had Sam in the boat and a woman finding him there, and that was it. I discovered as I went that Sam was a writer with a very young daughter, and I worked out quite early that this would be a story about small decisions snowballing towards irrevocable consequences. The rest of the story came to me as I wrote, and as I engaged with feedback from beta readers (aka long-suffering family and friends). I love feedback – that small miracle during which kind people read your work and let you know what you’ve done, after which you can get more conscious and deliberate about things.
Each of your characters have processed their grief in various ways – what do you hope your readers will take away from this?
Robyn lost her mother as a child, so losing Gracie compounded that early grief. She copes by working hard, which is effective until she burns out and wants to come home. Cohen’s grief leads him to forge a career in an unfamiliar field and marry a woman as unlike Gracie as you could possibly imagine. Instead of letting go, he has built a façade behind which to continue his mourning. Sam, meanwhile, has coped through denial. As a bestselling author with a gorgeous home and a young family, he seems to have eluded the clutches of grief most effectively. Outwardly, he is thriving. Until he isn’t.
If there is a message behind their different responses, it’s that grief is multifaceted. It is not the same for everyone and it can shape us in surprising ways. Enormous loss can obliterate hope and feel insurmountable, but it can also lead to gratitude and compassion for other people in pain. It can fracture our relationships or bind them tighter, sometimes uncomfortably. It’s impossible not to be changed by grief, but that is not always a bad thing.
How did your background in journalism influence the plot and themes of The Ghost of Gracie Flynn?
Gracie’s friend Robyn – who unravels the two mysteries at the heart of the novel – has spent a number of years working as a foreign correspondent by the time she returns home to Perth, so she has witnessed a lot of conflict and heartache in far-flung places.
I worked as a journalist for newspapers in Perth and Fremantle, so the stories I covered were much smaller and more contained than those Robyn witnesses in more turbulent parts of the world. But when you work for a small paper, you cover all the rounds – for example, I covered a stolen trampoline one day and a city council punch-up the next, but I also covered a young woman’s murder on her walk home from a night out. The thing is, tragedy can make itself at home anywhere, and suffering does not need to have a global impact to be important.
So I used my experiences as a journo to imagine a more intense version of the job for Robyn – her exposure to relentless trauma; her sense of powerlessness; her feeling that her job is somehow exploitative and voyeuristic; her despair and encroaching disillusionment. Hopefully this creative amplification of my own experiences has added to Robyn’s depth as a character as she works through her issues and solves the mysteries that drive the novel.
Which writers or books do you greatly admire?
Quite a few! In particular, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow, Richard Powers’ The Overstory, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love, and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.
What can you tell us about your next novel?
I’m working on another mystery novel, but this one has a nested structure with some historical elements woven through it. There’s young love lost; there’s 1970s bohemia and feminism; and there’s a novelist who abandons her child for a while, torn between work and motherhood. The outer frame follows that abandoned child, all grown up and somewhat dysfunctional, searching for the truth about her mother’s time away. The nested threads consist of the mother’s hidden diary and her lost novel, which reveals a long-buried crime. It’s been a lot of fun to write, with plenty of structural challenges for me, and hopefully lots of intrigue and immersion for readers. The manuscript was selected for a mentorship through the Queensland Writers’ Centre’s Publishable program in 2021, which was a great experience. My focus now is on polishing it up and sending it away so that I can start exploring some new ideas.