Some months ago I recommended Without Trace, a book that I noted because of Morgan — a woman who is besotted with a former flame that she is convinced was wrongly imprisoned. When he is released, she finds her daughter caught up in his life and then, to Morgan’s horror, she goes missing — and yes, I reviewed it here.
And it’s absolutely so much better than I thought it would be. Morgan is a complicated, flawed character who gets lost in her memories of Danny, until he is released and reality is something entirely different.
To my absolute delight, the Simon Booker, the author, agreed to do an interview with me about the book. He is a writing veteran of TV and radio, and his career spans some of the most popular Brit crime series out there. Simon also discusses his fascination with miscarriages of justice and how they came to be the subject of his series.
How did you begin your career writing for TV?
I wrote a play (on spec) for Radio Four. By some miracle (named Caroline Raphael – thank you!) it found its way through the mountain of unsolicited scripts and went into production. I was then asked to join the writing team for a popular ITV teen drama called Streetwise starring a then-unknown Andy Serkis. One thing led to another. I wrote a bigamy comedy screenplay (again on spec) which was optioned by an indie. They didn’t manage to make the film but asked me to write scripts for a prime time BBC1 adaptation of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books. We made two series of Just William. The bigamy comedy (Double Bill) was eventually produced for American TV by Working Title. It took twelve years and countless drafts. In TV, one job generally leads to another so I went on to write many thrillers and murder mysteries, such as The Mrs Bradley Mysteries starring Diana Rigg and Neil Dudgeon, and for shows like The Inspector Lynley Mysteries starring Nathaniel Parker. Without Trace has been optioned for TV so I hope to see Morgan Vine onscreen someday soon.
What are the differences for you writing for TV and a book? Or, rather, as a writer what are the differences between the two that you enjoyed?
Writing for TV is writing ‘by committee’. From the start of the process there is a small army of people trying to steer the script in one direction or another. Producers, script editors, commissioners, channel controllers, executive producers …etc. This can be helpful or it can be maddening, depending on the calibre of the people involved. Sometimes it’s both. I take the view that anything that makes the script better is welcome; but some people succumb to the impulse to try and make a script different – not necessarily better – just because they can. Ten different people will have ten different opinions and the writer must find a way to handle the resulting confusion without resorting to booze, pills or sharp implements. Writing a book is more of a solo affair. Your agent and editor will make suggestions – and if they’re helpful, you’d be a fool not to take their advice – but it’s mainly just you and the world you create in your head. For better or worse.
Are there similarities you didn’t expect?
Writing TV scripts requires you to visualise every aspect of every scene in minute detail. You need to be able to ‘see’ the characters, location, clothes, furniture, landscape, action etc, and to ‘see’ every movement the characters make, every expression on their faces. The same is true for books, of course, but somehow the intensity of concentration feels different.
Tell us about Morgan, about the inspiration behind her and not a male character, for instance?
No offence to male friends, viewers and readers but I generally find women more interesting than men, more complex and often more courageous. Having been raised by a formidable single mother who carved a successful career in the film business, both in the UK and Hollywood, I was keen to explore the relationship between single mum Morgan and her wayward teenage daughter. In thrillers, you need your hero/heroine to be in jeopardy. Discovering how Morgan copes in perilous situations – and how she triumphs over adversity – is one of the pleasures of writing this series.
It’s a subject that fascinates and enrages me in equal measure, and it’s good to write about something that makes your blood boil. I find TV documentaries like Making A Murderer much more interesting than many dramas. My ex-wife married a man who spent 26 years in US prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He was exonerated and awarded $7.5m compensation by the City of Los Angeles. The miscarriage of justice at the heart of Without Trace has nothing to do with my ex’s new husband but when I met him, all I could think was: how do you compensate someone for 26 lost years? How does some rebuild their life after such a blow? I’m glad to say that he and my ex have made a good life for themselves and I hope they live happily ever after.
It’s a theme you want to explore over a series – do you know yet the aspects of this you want to explore through Morgan?
I’ve just finished a first draft of the second book in the series, which sees Morgan take on the case of a woman wrongly imprisoned for murdering the father of her child, a sociopathic drug dealer. The story explores Morgan’s attempts to prove what really happened, alongside peril for herself and her daughter. I haven’t yet thought further than book two. The ink is barely dry. But I know the seeds of another story will germinate before long. I’m fortunate in having a fertile imagination.
What makes her the ideal character for a series like this?
In real life, miscarriages of justice are incredibly hard to prove. The system is heavily stacked against anyone who finds themselves behind bars for something they didn’t do. So to tackle these cases requires vast reserves of resilience, courage and determination – everything you need in a heroic character. Which is not to say Morgan is heroic all the time. She’s the first to admit she’s not always the world’s best mother, her love life is a disaster and she’s flawed in many ways.
In the beginning, Morgan is almost naive when it comes to Danny, and in someone else’s hands she could be too naïve – what were your concerns writing her in the beginning?
Perhaps she is too naïve at the beginning but there are solid reasons for her steadfast belief in his innocence. I wanted to take the reader on a rollercoaster ride, not knowing from one chapter to the next if Morgan’s childhood sweetheart is the innocent he claims to be or a manipulative, ruthless killer who has pulled the wool over her eyes – and the whole world’s.
From where she begins to where she ends the novel, what do you hope readers understand about her?
When we meet Morgan, she’s down on her luck – washed up as a journalist and cleaning houses in order to make ends meet. As the story progresses, she regains her journalistic mojo, so that by the end of the story she’s ready for new adventures and fresh investigations. It’s important that the end of a book feels like the beginning of a new chapter for the main characters.
Can you give your fans a hint about what’s next for Morgan?
A case that pits her against a ruthless sociopath. Her daughter is in trouble again. And a very steamy love affair.
I cannot wait for Morgan’s next book! Until then check out Simon Booker’s site and more on Morgan Vale!!