10 Questions With… Guy Morpuss

Hi everyone, this afternoon on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Guy Morpuss. Guy is a barrister based in London and Five Minds is his first novel. I was intrigued by his writing journey and decided to put some questions to him.

Over to you, Guy…

1) As a child, did you have a favourite author? Was there a turning point with a book that made you go ‘Wow!’?

Not really. I’d read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. My father believed that unless someone died in the first two pages a book wasn’t worth the effort. So I was brought up on a diet of fast-paced thrillers and crime stories: Alistair MacLean, Edgar Wallace, John Buchan, Dick Francis, Dornford Yates. None of it particularly highbrow – but they were all writers who understood the importance of grabbing their readers by the throat in the opening chapter.

In my early teens I got into sci-fi and fantasy: Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick. Books with a story, but that also made you think.

Sherlock Holmes’ The Final Problem was probably the first book to make me go “Wow!” I can still recall, 40 years on, being heartbroken at the idea that Holmes was dead. It was so unexpected. I suddenly realised the power of the written word. Only later did I discover that Conan-Doyle had brought him back to life again.

2) Did you enjoy English at school? What is your earliest memory of writing?

I enjoyed reading and words. I didn’t enjoy grammar and rules, because I never saw the point. I tried a GCSE English test recently – and failed. I have no idea what the various parts of speech are called. But if you read enough you absorb the rules without knowing. You can feel what’s right.

When I was 17 I sent off two short stories to Interzone Magazine. They were both pretty unoriginal sci-fi. I got a very kind rejection letter, and I was really excited by that, thinking: “I’ve had a rejection. I’m an author!”

But then I didn’t make any serious attempt to write again until I was 50. Law got in the way.

3) How did you come up with the idea for your debut novel Five Minds? Where did the title come from?

I can’t recall exactly. It had been floating round my head for years. The earliest I can remember is having the idea of a detective who was trying to solve a murder, but because of limited resources he had to share his body with other people, and could only use it for a few hours a day. Then I decided it would be more interesting to show the story from the point of view of each occupant of the body.

When I wrote the first chapter it was set on a spaceship where people went to play virtual reality games. Then I realised it isn’t really a sci-fi book – it’s a murder mystery set in the near future. Having it on a spaceship would stop lots of people reading it. So I changed the setting to a Death Park, on Earth, where people are playing games to win time.

The title came from a lot of debate with my agent, Max Edwards. I can’t say the original title, because it gives too much away. It had the word “Cuckoo” in it. Max hated it – thought it far too pretentious. After much debate we settled on Five Minds, which is short, memorable, and tells you what the book is about.

But there is a cuckoo on the cover, which makes me feel slightly better (I’m hoping Max hasn’t noticed). My favourite line in the book is very near the end: “Cuckoos can fly.”

4) What normally comes first for you when write? Is it plot or character or the themes you want to explore?

Always plot. I want a hook that intrigues readers, and then a story that grabs them and carries them along. It goes back to the thrillers that I grew up reading.

Of course characters are important. They are the voice of the story, and without them readers won’t engage. But characters on their own are dull. People doing things is just real life. I don’t want to read about that. They need to be doing something interesting – that’s plot.

Theme for me is very much subsidiary. I think that the primary task of an author is to entertain – to allow readers to escape into another world. A book where the theme is too overt becomes preachy. No one likes being lectured to.

I hope that readers of Five Minds will be made to think. It raises some interesting dilemmas: would you be willing to die at 42 if you never worked and lived a life of luxury? Would you trade living to 142 for being forced to share your body with four other people? But I want readers to have had fun with the book. If I’ve made them think that’s a bonus.

5) When do you write? What time of day is best for you? Do you have any particular writing rituals before you get cracking or even during the process?

The writing itself is very intense, over a short period of time. I wrote the first draft of Five Minds in a gap between court cases, over about five weeks. I didn’t really think I’d finish it, so I didn’t tell anyone – including my wife, Julie. She still hasn’t entirely forgiven me for that.

The idea for Five Minds had been in my head for years, and I just needed to get it down on paper. Of course it still needed a lot of work. The 55,000 word manuscript I sent out to agents was far too short. But Max saw enough in it to be willing to spend the next six months working on it with me before submission to publishers.

If anything, writing my second book, Black Lake, was even more intense. I spent a few months thinking it through, until I suddenly felt ready to write it down last year. I’d get up at 5:00/5:30, and immediately start writing, often not stopping till 10:30/11:00 at night. The story would carry on bubbling away overnight. It took me less than three weeks to get a first draft down.

It’s not a method I’d particularly recommend, but it’s what works for me.

The only ritual I seem to have is to write the first chapter, and then have a break. For Five Minds there were a couple of weeks between the first chapter and writing the rest. For Black Lake it was a couple of months. I needed to get the first chapter down – but then I didn’t want to carry on until I had a really good idea of where the books were going.

6) Do you currently write full time? If so, what was your ‘life’ before becoming a writer?

Both Five Minds and Black Lake were written whilst I was working full time as a barrister.

Whilst I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my 30 years in the law, I’ve got to a point where I want to do something different.

I have decided therefore, that as of Easter 2021, I’m going to turn full time to writing, and stop practising law. I’m hoping it might lead to a more relaxed way of life. We’ll see.

7) During lockdown, how have you found your writing process? Has it changed at all?

It’s become easier, because I no longer have to commute into London. So Black Lake was written entirely in my study, at home. Whereas Five Minds was partly written there, but also on trains, aeroplanes, in the office, or whilst waiting outside our younger son’s karate practice.

The process of writing has been pretty much the same though. Long days of fairly intense writing, as it feels as though the story is spewing out of me faster than I can type.

8) What are you currently watching on television? Have your television habits changed throughout lockdown?

To the horror of my editor, Miranda Jewess, I’ve been watching Younger. It’s a US program set in a publishing house in New York. They have amazingly glamorous offices and launch parties. Book deals are done whilst editors and agents float in Manhattan rooftop swimming pools.

Miranda is trying to persuade me that’s not how it works in practice. But I think she just doesn’t want to invite me to those sort of parties.

I’ve watched far less TV during lockdown. I’ve been reading a lot more. Partly to fill the gaping holes in my crime reading (I’d never read Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers before this year). Partly because I can’t be bothered any more to binge on a TV series just for the sake of it. I’d rather read a good book.

9) When you leave your desk on a Friday afternoon, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/the weekend, what do you do to relax?

During most of 2020 it was go and open a bottle of wine. But we’ve been trying to be healthier this year, so generally it’s to go and cook something. I find cooking very relaxing. In my day job as a lawyer I don’t produce anything tangible, so producing food feels like a result. Our older son bought me a Palestinian cookbook for Christmas (Zaitoun), which has lots of recipes that are really easy to follow, but have great spice combinations. So I’ve been using that a lot recently.

At the weekend I’ll usually walk, run or cycle. I’m at an age where if I don’t make the effort it’s very easy to become unfit quickly. And I find exercise is a great way of unravelling knotty plot points.

10) What is your music taste like? Have you been missing live music in lockdown?

I tend to listen obsessively to one artist, or album, and then forget about them and move onto something else. I’ve always listened to music when preparing for trials. I once drove Julie mad by listening to Brandon Flowers non-stop for a month whilst preparing cross-examination.

When I was writing Five Minds I listened almost exclusively to Vampire Weekend (with airpods, at Julie’s insistence). I stop listening to the words, and it seems to fit with the rhythm of my writing.

For Black Lake I got into German Schlager music – the sort of stuff they play in the clubs in Majorca. (If you want a song that you can’t get out of your head, I recommend looking up “Wie Heisst die Mutter von Niki Lauda” on YouTube.) Black Lakestarts at an illegal rave in Berlin. Having the music helped with that chapter, and then I just carried on listening to it whilst writing the rest of the book. It’s very discordant, but again seemed to help my thinking.

We’ve been to a lot of concerts over the years – so yes, I’ve missed live music. We were meant to be seeing Vampire Weekend last August. That obviously didn’t happen. A couple of years ago we saw Brian Fallon of Gaslight Anthem at the 100 Club in London. And the year before that, Bruce Springsteen in his one-man show on Broadway. Seeing such great musicians in intimate venues like that seems a world away now. It would be great to get back to it.

Thank you for your time today Guy. It has been a pleasure to interview you – I hope to be reading your novel soon! 🙂

Bio: Guy is a London-based barrister and QC whose cases have featured drug-taking cyclists, dead Formula 1 champions and aspiring cemetery owners. His favourite books involve taking a twist on reality, and playing with the consequences. Which led to his debut novel, Five Minds, about five people sharing one body – possibly with a murderer.

His second novel, Black Lake, will be published in 2022. He is currently working on his third novel, Highlights. Guy lives near Farnham, England, with his wife and two sons. When not writing he can usually be found walking or running in the Surrey Hills. At guymorpuss.com there is a personality test based on Five Minds, and a text adventure set in the world of Five Minds. There are also author reviews of the book.

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