Exploring History Through Fiction: An Interview with Margarita Morris

Tracing Twentieth-Century Europe and Literary Inspirations, From Escaping Communism to the Art of Language

Margarita Morris is the author of three works of historical fiction that focus on events in twentieth-century European history. She was born and grew up in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, and then studied Modern Languages (French and German) at Oxford University. After graduating she worked for eleven years in IT, before joining her husband in their internet business. It was a visit to East Berlin as a student that, many years later, inspired her novel Oranges for Christmas, about a family escaping communist East Berlin. She followed this up with another novel about people fighting communism in Goodbye to Budapest: A Novel of the Hungarian Uprising. Her latest book, A Long Way from Warsaw, follows the members of a Polish family through the trials of World War Two. She also writes crime fiction in collaboration with her husband under the pseudonym M S Morris.

What are you reading right now?

I’m actually reading a book in German because I want to keep up my language skills. I asked a fellow linguist for a recommendation and she suggested Das Achte Leben by Nino Haratischwili. It’s translated into English as The Eighth Life, and I’m absolutely loving it. It follows various members of a family from Georgia through all the upheavals of the twentieth century, beginning with the Russian Revolution. It’s written in a very engaging style and absolutely gripping. It’s in seven large parts so I’m going to read one part a month until I get to the end.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

I’ve become a huge fan of audiobooks and last year I listened to all six of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chroniclesnarrated by Timothy West, having only read the first two many years ago. I loved these audiobooks so much that I’m going to explore the rest of Trollope’s oeuvre in this format. I also listened to Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, narrated by Jeremy Irons, which was wonderful. I love the fact that I can listen to audiobooks when I’m doing chores around the house. A good narrator brings a book to life and gives it a whole new dimension.

Who are your favourite writers? Are there any who aren’t as widely known as they should be, whom you’d recommend in particular?

My favourite writers are Sarah Waters and Kate Atkinson. The historical novels of Sarah Waters are rich in vivid detail. Fingersmith has not just one, but two, brilliant plot twists that completely threw me. I love the way Kate Atkinson is able to play with language. Another writer I love but who is not as widely known as she should be is Jane Davis (Small Eden, Smash all the Windows, At the Stroke of Nine O’Clock). She is an award-winning indie author who writes what have been called ‘literary page-turners’, some of them historical, some of them contemporary, but always with thought-provoking themes.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

There’s nothing that I avoid whilst working on a book. My historical novels involve a lot of research, so inevitably I read a lot of non-fiction around my subject, but I regard that as work. In the evening, I will still pick up something that I’m reading for pleasure. For inspiration during the writing of Goodbye to Budapest and A Long Way from Warsaw, I frequently turned to The Siege by Helen Dunmore which is my favourite historical novel. I’ve read it multiple times but I dip into it at random to be inspired by the elegance of her prose.

What genres do you especially enjoy reading?

I read a lot of historical fiction and crime fiction, the two genres in which I write. But that doesn’t mean I enjoy everything in those genres. For historical fiction, I especially like Tracy Chevalier, Robert Harris, Kate Quinn and Olivia Hawker. When it comes to crime, my go-to authors are Elly Griffiths, Ann Cleeves, Anthony Horowitz and Robert Galbraith. I also read classics and literary fiction. In the past I’ve enjoyed some fantasy series. Genre is less important to me than a good story which is well-written. 

What kind of reader were you as a child?

I loved books growing up and could never get enough of them. I adored The Famous Five series by Enid Blyton and also her Malory Towers books set in a girls’ boarding school. The children in her books have agency and go on such amazing adventures. As a teenager, the young-adult writers that engaged me most were Paul Zindel, Judy Blume and Robert Cormier whose book After the First Death I have re-read as an adult. I also went through a Tolkien phase and remember spending hours in bed reading The Lord of the Rings.

What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?

The book I have re-read more than any other is The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. I have tackled it multiple times in German, English, and audiobook format. The protagonist, Hans Castorp, visits his cousin in a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps and never leaves until war breaks out. The book is a profound study on European society and culture in the years prior to World War One. It is also funny and moving. Another author that I often return to is Charles Dickens. Little Dorrit, Bleak House and David Copperfield are my favourites which I have read many times and listened to in audio.

What do you plan to read next?

Like most bibliophiles, I have a huge collection of books on my Kindle waiting to be read. In fact, I keep a spreadsheet of everything that I buy so that I don’t lose track of them all. I’m very keen to try the novels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Toni Morrison, two highly acclaimed authors that I have not yet read. I also have some classics on my TBR list, including The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. So there’s plenty to keep me going!

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