Megan Taylor (in the red seat) at her launch at the Nottingham Writers' Studio
Megan Taylor has just published her third novel: The Lives of Ghosts. It follows How We Were Lost, which placed second in the Yeovil Prize, and The Dawning. All three are notable for rich dark poetic writing and characters that leap off the page and insist you listen to what they have to say. We caught up with Megan in the Senate Chamber at Nottingham University (where she gave a talk with fellow Nottingham Writers’ Studio member Alison Moore) to find out how she does it.
Tell us about The Lives of Ghosts...
The Lives of Ghosts is about a woman, Liberty Fuller, who’s returning to the scene of a childhood trauma (an eerie Scottish loch house), to uncover the truth that has evaded her for twenty-five years. Because of the dual timelines and because of who she is, the truths she cannot escape, Liberty is both a thirty-seven year old woman and a twelve year old child. As a young girl, she is dragged to the loch house by her stepmother in the aftermath of losing her parents. She is frightened and angry and possibly dangerously broken. The grown Liberty meanwhile is a desperate woman. For a long time, she has been struggling, drinking too much and living precariously. Recently split from her married lover, it is the idea of her own pregnancy that compels her to finally return to the loch house to confront the tragedies of the past.
How is it different from your earlier books?
Well, it has ghosts in it. Possibly. And it’s perhaps more clearly of a genre than The Dawning or How We Were Lost – very early on with my Ghosts, I decided I wanted to write a kind of suspense story. I wanted it to be revelatory and unnerving and a little bit spooky. Its structure is different from anything I’ve done before too. Although first person (like How We Were Lost), the novel’s told in chapters that alternate between Liberty as an adult and her twelve-year-old self. I really enjoyed playing with the dual timelines.
What kind of ghosts appear in your book?
While my novel contains elements of your traditional banging about, flitting shadows, corner-of-your-eye type spooks, mostly my ghosts are psychological. Every character is haunted, their ghosts are sadness and longing and secrets that only keep on growing larger and darker and coming closer.
Supernatural novels seem to be really popular at the moment. Why do you think this is? Do we just like being scared?
Definitely, in part. There’s the irresistible goose-bump-thrill that goes all the way back to childhood, the funny comfort and bond of sharing (and containing) those scares, but I suspect it’s more than that too. Ghosts can help us to try and make some vague kind of sense out of mortality; they can offer hope within loss. Sometimes, even as they scare us, I think we really need our ghosts.
What made you start writing?
I can’t remember. Like lots of people, I wrote for fun as a child; I just really loved stories, reading. I carried on as I grew older, and had a couple of short stories shortlisted in competitions, but it wasn’t until I moved to Nottingham nine years ago that I decided to properly focus on my writing. I’d just turned thirty, was suddenly not working, at home with young children and away from family and friends. There were these strange new spaces around the edges of things that provided an opportunity.
What would you do with your spare time if you stopped writing?
Cry. I love writing. I get very grumpy during times when life squeezes it out.
How did your MA at Manchester Metropolitan University help your writing?
In terms of support, it was brilliant. Practically, the feedback from incredible tutors and classmates really helped to push my fiction on – but it was more than that too. It was just great to be among other writers, to share the madness and the fun of it.
Do you identify with any of the characters in your books? Which do you feel particularly close to?
Everyone! Because in order to attempt to tell a character’s story as authentically as possible, I need to try and live as deeply as I can inside their heads. Unless it is that they’re living in mine. For me, writing is a lot about empathy.
What do you do when you finish writing a book? Do you immediately start another?
I suppose I do. Because my novels are never truly finished when I first believe they are, there’s usually an overlap of editing/tweaking and beginning ideas for the next one. Sometimes I’ll attempt a short story between longer pieces, but I find them incredibly tricky – such a fine art. But yes, there’s always some kind of story or another lying in wait.
Tell us about your writing process.
A story always starts for me with images, pictures in my head of people and places (so with The Lives of Ghosts, initially there was the loch house, and this young frightened girl, and a bathroom full of steam). There will be questions about these things, plenty of wondering and free-writing and playing with characters before I begin that first chapter. In terms of planning ahead, I work with a very flexible rolling synopsis so that I have a rough idea where I’m heading. The plan frequently changes alongside the book. I always know how I’d like a story to end, but am never quite sure how I’ll get there. After I’ve finished a first draft, there’s a lot of rewriting and cutting (I love editing). It usually takes as long to batter away at a manuscript as it did to write it through in the first place.
How important is the writing community to you?
It’s essential. I’ve met many brilliant people through books, and we’re so lucky to have Nottingham Writers’ Studio
here. Alongside meeting clever and talented folk there who have been willing to offer a fresh perspective and constructive criticism, it’s also great to have the social contrast. Writing itself is mostly very solitary, and I’ve made some fabulous friends. The support is wonderful – since my Ghosts
launch the waves of loveliness have been overwhelming. I’m very lucky, and very grateful.
Now, our most important question of all. Who was your favourite ghostbuster?
Ha! Bill Murray of course. Unless I can have Sigourney, then it’s Sigourney all the way.
Megan will be hosting 'Short Stories On The Shortest Night' at Broadway Cinema on 20 June. 7.30PM