Interview with Isla Morley

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By: jessicamarder, Assistant Editor

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Our interview with Isla Morley, the author of Come Sunday.

After years of working as a journalist what inspired you to write fiction?
In the ten years after I gave up my career in magazine publishing the only writing I did was airmail letters back to my mother in South Africa.  In many ways, working on a magazine was rewarding, but so much of the writing I did back then left me empty.  I was assigned to stories I often cared little about – writing a relationship advice column for eighteen-year- old guys, for example.  Fun, yes, but frivolous.

I never contemplated writing a novel, but one night, after a particularly stressful day, I had a vision of a woman whose story was so compelling I couldn’t do anything but write it down.  It was that creative venture that introduced me to the kind of writing that is immensely fulfilling, and life-changing.

How did your work prior to being a novelist inform your writing? 
Working for the YWCA and Dress For Success gave me the opportunity to meet many women, some from economically challenging backgrounds, some transitioning out of prison, some entering the workforce after raising their children.  All of them knew about hard times.  They knew about suffering.  Some of them had a little to say about overcoming their tragedies, but almost all of them had a lot to show for courage.  I think Abbe Deighton, the protagonist in Come Sunday, epitomizes the struggle and ultimate resilience of the human spirit that I saw in the women I worked with.

Was there a specific reason you decided to set part of the book in Hawaii?
I lived in Honolulu for seven years and that experience was so different from when I had vacationed in Maui years before I moved there.  Tourists are afforded such a limited view of the place, and so it’s easy to think of it as only as paradise because of its majestic beauty. But the reader of Come Sunday gets to visit the Hawaii beyond Waikiki beach, away from the smell of coconut tanning lotion and plumeria lei.

Even though you grew up in South Africa, did you have to do a lot of research for the book? How did you go about doing it? 
Abbe’s grandmother’s farm is set in Paarl, a small town in the Western Cape.  I’ve only visited that part of South Africa a couple of times but the countryside is so immensely beautiful that I knew it had to be set there.  I pulled out some old pictorial books about South Africa which my mother used to own and read up on the place.  The internet was also a wonderful source of information.

Although it wasn’t a formal part of my research, I read again Alan Paton’s autobiography, Toward the Mountain, and a few short stories by South African authors.  I pulled out my family’s old photo albums and was transported back to the country of my youth.  Several of the scenes were written with the music of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba, and the Soweto String Quartet in the background.  It helped evoke the memories and shape the characters and the landscape of Abbe’s home.

I am intrigued by the contrast between western religion and folk traditions in the book. Did you deliberately set this up as a juxtaposition? Was this part of your research, or did you include things you already knew about? 
Try as we might to erect exact boundaries around our beliefs, including our spiritual beliefs, there are often areas where conflicting ideas find their way in.  Abbe’s grandmother is a deeply religious woman and a devout churchgoer and yet she holds dear many superstitions.  Beauty, her African maid and the community’s witchdoctor, is like some of the African women I knew, women who had blended the beliefs of their ancestors with Christianity, and were perfectly comfortable with the result.

What writers have influenced your work as a novelist? Who are your current favorites? 
Olive Schreiner, Doris Lessing and Athol Fugard come to mind.  Gail Godwin showed me you could write about religious people in a way that wasn’t one-dimensional.  Alexandria Fuller and Rhiaan Malan wrote so astutely about growing up in Southern Africa.  Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones, has inspired me in many practical ways.  But I’ve also been influence by the many redemption stories that have never been written down, those stories told to me by women of incredible courage.

Roxana Robinson, Anne Lamott, Cormac McCarthy and Margaret Atwood are a few of my current favorite authors.

As someone who left their native country to live in another culture, what is your definition of “home?” Do you go back to visit South Africa? 
Home is where your hope lies.  For me that transcends geographical borders. 

When my parents were alive, I used to go back to visit every year or two.  I haven’t been back since my father died in 2002, but one day I’ll take my daughter to see where I’m from.

Do you have any plans for another novel? 

I am working on another novel and have an idea for a third.

As a professional writer of both fiction and nonfiction, do you have any advice for our aspiring writers? 
Do whatever you can to gag your internal editor, at least for the first draft.  Taped to my computer monitor is a piece of advice that I try to follow: “don’t tell, show.”  And finally, but most especially, don’t write to sell, write to write.

What do you ultimately hope that readers will take away from Come Sunday?
 This is a resurrection story, not the kind in which the hero pops back to life, but rather one in which she crawls and claws her way back to hope.  No matter how unthinkable the tragedy, there is within us and beyond us the power to heal and to hope and to risk our hearts for others.
Thank you for this interview!