“You realise if you can penetrate the outside of it, then nobody would ever know you were there. It would be a wonderful place to escape and never see anyone, which sounds very antisocial but pleases me no end.” This could almost be taken for a description of a novel; something a reader can delve into and lose themselves inside. But Clare Morrall is actually talking about roundabouts, finishing off the sentence with a throaty and infectious laugh.
Not the most obvious starting point for a novel, but Birmingham-based Morrall spotted a piece in her local paper about a man in Wolverhampton living on a roundabout, and it stuck with her as a way of being both at the centre of things and an outsider at the same time. “Everything is sort of going on around you without affecting you. I thought the whole concept of that was really quite interesting.”
Morrall’s earlier books include her Man Booker-shortlisted debut Astonishing Splashes of Colour, whose main character is Kitty, the only daughter in a family of sons, the only one who struggles to remember their mother. Morrall remembers being on the shortlist for that most high-falutin’ of literary prizes as a buzz she was at once in the middle of, and yet removed from: “No sleep for weeks on end, you can't switch it off in your mind. It's so astonishing that you can't get to grips with it and you tend to think it's all done by false pretences, that somebody has made a mistake.”
Morrall says her writing style, which chops backwards and forwards in time, is all about making connections. In The Roundabout Man, she spools out threads between memory and reality, the things hidden from children and forgotten by old age, as well as making real the connections, no less tangled, between her characters.
Quinn is the roundabout man of the title, living in “the eye of the storm, the calm in the centre of a perpetual hurricane of cars and lorries.” His identity is doubled because he is the “real” Quinn – like the real Christopher Robin – who inspired a character of the same name in his dominating mother’s bestselling series of children’s books. The novel is a sifting of fiction and reality as he tries to come to terms with his childhood and a mystery he has never quite solved, amidst a gaggle of sisters, his ageing nanny, and a nosy reporter. Morrall admits there are certain themes that run through all her novels-outsiders, memory, perception: “You have preoccupations and things that interest you and they creep back in a different way.”
She had long wanted to write something about children’s fiction, and was briefly worried A S Byatt had scooped her when The Children’s Book came out: “I thought 'oh crumbs, it's going to be the same as mine', but it wasn't; we were going in different directions so it didn't matter.” She adds: “I think quite a lot of books that go on resounding through the generations are partly brought about because it is people's nostalgia for their own childhood, so they bring it back for their own children. It’s like your heritage really, children's fiction, and you don't forget it.”
Morrall normally works on a novel for two years, typing her first draft straight onto her computer, and she says: “The rewriting is the nicest bit. The hardest bit, I think is when you are producing something out of nothing and trying to decide where to go next. It will often go off and take me in a different direction from what I was expecting it to . . . I have thoughts and ideas of themes and things, but I'm happy to be diverted.”
Her next book is already underway, set in a girls’ school in Exeter during the Second World War and after. It is based on the so-called Baedeker Bombings, undertaken by Hitler in retaliation for the RAF’s bombing some of Germany’s more picturesque cities, and their aftermath, as the consequences seep through the decades. She says: “It’s all a bit scary because I've not actually done sort of historical stuff before,” but there are elements of the story she does have experience of; she was born in a village on the river Exe in 1952, and grew up in a school with no married teachers. “There were no Mrs at my school, and I realised only later that these were all the women from the war, who never had anybody to marry or who lost fiances or whatever. I suddenly realised that these things go on for a lot longer than you think.”
Morrall is also a music teacher, and this is another theme which has pulled itself into her work: “I think people were writing quite badly about music, so I thought I would never do it-then I found I had to do it. I’m interested that it allows an emotional output for people that don’t let it out any other way.” She describes watching a teenage pupil – “huge lad, big feet” – giving a very involved performance of a grade 8 piece: “It was very moving, because you could see himself being totally taken up by the music.”
The Roundabout Man shows how much we are a jumble of our experiences, and, in Quinn’s ultimately futile quest to unpick a particular mystery in his childhood and track down a girl that played a large, but shadowy, part in it, the novel shows how not every moment is as important as the last. Morrall says she often gets into trouble with her daughters for being laissez-faire about taking photographs: “I think we can get too caught up on the fact that it matters whether you remember it all or not. I think if you do remember a bit that's nice, and if you don't that's fine too. Maybe we all give far too much importance to this need to capture a moment in time and consider it to be deeply important for ever more.”
Just as in talking about roundabouts, Morrall could have been mistaken for talking about stories, so in talking about memory and photographs - choosing what to capture and what to discard - she could be talking about fiction writing. She says: “To me, you can’t write fiction without going backwards.”
The Roundabout Man is out now, published by Sceptre.
Image copyright Howard Walker.