Getting to Know Sally J Morgan

October 27th 2020

We're celebrating the international publication day of debut novelist Sally J Morgan's Toto Among the Murderers! A gripping crime novel based on real life events, set in 1970s Britain. We chatted to Sally about her upcoming appearance at Verb Festival, her life as a published author and how a narrow escape with notorious serial killers, Fred and Rose West sowed the seeds for writing Toto Among the Murderers years later. 

What is your day job?

Artist, writer and part-time academic at Massey University, Wellington.

What is your connection to Vic Books?

I'm a local buyer of books, and at the moment I'm connected through the Verb Festival.

What are you working on at the moment?

My new novel, as yet without a title, which is set in Manchester in the early eighties and is loosely based upon my experiences working on art projects with deprived kids on a really rough housing estate in Salford. Some of the kids I got close to became notorious gangland criminals as adults.

What's your latest publication?

Just waiting for my debut novel Toto Among the Murderers to hit the streets.

Toto Among the Murderers is your first novel. How exciting to be launching a debut at a literary festival! How does it feel to be publishing your first book?

It's both exciting and daunting. I've been a secret novelist since I was a student, with a stack of bad manuscripts still yellowing at the back of a cupboard. When I began Toto, I was doing what I've always done: writing fiction for my own pleasure and it wasn't until my wife, the Costa Prize shortlisted novelist, Jess Richards looked at it and said that I should 'get it out there', that I looked for an agent to submit it to publishers. I never expected anyone to pick it up, and when John Murray Originals made me an offer, I was overwhelmed. It felt surreal - and to tell the truth it still does. It's something I wanted to happen, but never expected would. It feels fantastic.

The book covers some dark and violent topics from UK history. How have your wide-ranging career and experiences contributed to the subject matters in your novel?

'Write what you know,' they always say, and so my life has become the material I make my stories from. I was a student or teacher in many art schools over the years, and I spent the early part of my career on the margins; living from hand-to-mouth as an artist/social activist/cartoonist/archaeological worker. I've mined all these experiences for the novel. My characters are constructed from combinations of people I've observed at close-hand, my settings are slightly altered versions of places I know well.

Toto Among the Murderers is loosely based on my experiences after leaving art school and finding myself living in one of the more dangerous parts of Leeds, on a street where a few years after I left the Yorkshire Ripper claimed a victim. I used to hitchhike a lot in those days, and had the ill-fortune to be offered a lift by the serial killers Fred and Rose West just outside their hometown of Gloucester. My good fortune was that I didn't accept. The seeds of Toto Among the Murderers come from that meeting, and from the understanding of the continual threat of violence that surrounded young women then - and continues to do so today.

What are you most looking forward to about appearing at Verb Festival?

Although I'm very used to performing in public, I'm actually a bit of an introvert, so talking about my novel in public is both exciting and a bit unnerving. That said, I am looking forward to launching Toto among the celebration of so many other good books, at a festival that revels in the joy of reading.

Who are you most excited to see at Verb?

That's a hard question to answer. There are so many excellent authors at this year's festival. Lil O'Brien certainly seems like a must-see though.

Some quick fire book recommends please!

My recent most appreciated reads have been Sara Baume's Spill Simmer Falter Wither, Max Porter's Grief is the Thing With Feathers and Jess Richards' City of Circles.

What are you reading at the moment?

I'm halfway through If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor. Its an extraordinary piece of writing. I'm loving it.

What do you like about it?

His use of language, and the writing that breaks all the rules without you even noticing.

Which literary character do you identify with most? Why?

Fuchsia in Titus Groan. She's a bit weird and intense, and makes a world of her own in an attic.

Hardback or paperback?

Both!

Favourite coffee?

Flat white.