Use your brain or sleepwalk...

1st July 2005 at 01:00
Miranda Fettes talks to Nicola Morgan about her award-winning teen novel and catering for common denominators

Writer Nicola Morgan's office is painted soft spearmint green, the colour of the cover of Sleepwalking, her third teen novel, for which she won the Scottish Arts Council Children's Book of the Year award three weeks ago.

A stone's throw away are J. K. Rowling, Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith, for Morgan's office is in her new house in the Merchiston area of Edinburgh, home to several of Scotland's best-loved writers.

"I was amazed enough to be on the shortlist and I really didn't expect to win," says Morgan, 43, who was selected by a panel which included four secondary pupils.

"After 21 years of failing to get a word published, there was a sigh of relief that it was worth it for all those years."

Sleepwalking, aimed at 11 to 15-year-olds, is a thriller set 150 years into the future in a dystopian world where babies are "delanguaged" by a computer chip implanted in their brains, the thoughts, feelings, personalities and actions of the Citizens are controlled by a cocktail of drugs and everyone is content, but artificially so. They are sleepwalking through a sterile world, where stories are banned and poetry does not exist. Only the Outsiders, who are confined to a subterranean or rural existence out of sight, can still think for themselves, use language and feel true emotion.

"I'm interested in how language is what makes humans successful," says Morgan. "I'm interested in what the four teenagers in the book struggle with. The education system, by removing difficult things from the curriculum, fails to make people clever just by making things easier. This is the logical conclusion, if you drag everyone down."

In order not to exclude the least able pupils, the most able are indirectly penalised.

It is as though Morgan is saying political correctness, in trumpeting equality, necessarily brings everyone down to the level of the least capable.

"That's the main message. The brain works on a use it or lose it principle.

All the entertainment in Sleepwalking that the Citizens have fed into their brains all the time is definitely my criticism of satellite television.

"Dumbing down is happening in our entertainment and in our schools. Latin is seen as dull or difficult, so it's removed. I'm not suggesting everybody should be sitting around reading Wittgenstein and Shakespeare all the time; I just wish there was room in the school curriculum for thinking and philosophy."

In a house with two teenagers, it is Morgan who plays the loud music, to drown out other distracting sounds. She shuts herself in her office and cannot be interrupted. She becomes so focused on her writing that it is as though she slips into a different level of consciousness, an almost dreamlike, hypnotic state, where she simply types.

"I don't plan anything; I just have ideas," she says. "A book always starts with ideas and then I start to grow characters. Then one or two scenes will start to grow. I have no idea what the end's going to be. The story just comes out.

"I am constantly surprised by how things happen."

In one novel, she found herself writing: "And I never saw him alive again."

She gasped in fright.

"It's as much of a surprise to me as it is to the readers," she says. She has a secret chuckle to herself when reviewers applaud her for meticulous plotting.

A pleasing twist at the end, which Morgan says wrote itself, leaves Sleepwalking wide open to the possibility of a sequel. Somewhere in her subconscious lurks a shrewd businesswoman.

Morgan, who is the daughter of two teachers, grew up in various boys'

schools in England - her father was her headmaster, teaching her English and French; her mother taught maths and science - and then followed her parents into the profession for 16 years, teaching children's literacy.

"I don't miss any of it at all," she asserts. "It's very stressful and you're not in control over your day. You go to that room at that time and teach that class.

"I didn't like the lack of flexibility."

Morgan's next novel, The Passionflower Massacre, is due out in October, following the publication in August and September of two non-fiction books, The Leaving Home Survival Guide and Blame My Brain: the Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed.

"Non-fiction is so much easier," she says. "Non-fiction is like talking to someone, talking very directly to the reader, whereas writing fiction really feels as though it uses a completely different part of my brain.

It's much more difficult but therefore, in a way, perhaps more rewarding. I go right down into myself. I hesitate to use the word, but it almost feels like going into a trance."

Morgan entrusted pupils at Liberton High in Edinburgh with the marketing of Sleepwalking. "I trusted them and they had some great ideas," she says.

"Our stereotypical view of teenagers is of people who don't think. We think they need things dumbed down and they don't. They have hugely intelligent brains that are much more able to deal with complex issues than we think."

Nicola Morgan will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 21 and 22., Hodder, Pounds 5.99

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