If one thing unites the novels of Clare Morrall, it's their attentiveness to individuals who aren't quite at home in the world. She first set out this stall in her debut, Astonishing Splashes of Colour, with its mentally disturbed heroine, Kitty. Set in Birmingham, where Morrall lives, and published by the local press Tindal Street, it was a surprise inclusion on the shortlist for the 2003 Man Booker prize, gaining her instant fame. Three highly regarded novels followed. In her latest, it's Quinn, a middle-aged man living on a roundabout, who provides an oblique, sardonic commentary on 21st-century living.
"I suppose I'm drawn to people who are on the edges looking in," says Morrall in the elaborate setting of the café at Birmingham's Art Gallery. A monument to bumptious Victorianism, the gallery is frantically busy on this winter weekday afternoon, but Morrall's crisp tones cut through the cacophony with ease. "I'm interested in the psychological reasons for why people do things, and I specifically like characters who are not following a normal pattern of life. I like people who think for themselves."
Quinn's story was prompted by a local news item about a man who was living on a roundabout in Wolverhampton. "People were leaving clothes and food for him. By all accounts he smelt terrible and was a real tramp, I think! But I'd often driven round these huge motorway roundabouts with trees and thought 'you could live in there and nobody would ever know you were there'. It's the child in me, trying to find a den."
The man on the roundabout, the reader quickly discovers, is an international icon – the inspiration for the boy in a series of six children's books, famous and loved throughout the English-speaking world, written and illustrated by his mother, Larissa Smith. But "Mumski", as she was known, was a distant and uncommunicative mother, more interested in her fictional family than her real one. It's a particularly harsh portrait of a writer, I comment.
"I didn't set out thinking I wanted to write about a writer," Morrall clarifies. "I'd read about Christopher Robin and how no one ever wanted to know anything about him except for the fact that he had been in Winnie the Pooh. It blighted his whole life, really. It didn't occur to me till about halfway through that I was writing about a writer, which was never my intention. But she found her way into it."
Mumski is a sort of cross between Beatrix Potter (the illustrations are more than half the charm of her books) and Enid Blyton, though Morrall is keen to play down the latter association. "Obviously I knew about Blyton, but I hadn't come across her attitude to her children until that brilliant BBC dramatisation with Helena Bonham Carter. I was about half way through my book and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, everyone will think I'm [writing about Blyton] when it was just coincidence really." A more direct influence was E Nesbit: "She was not as you would expect. I think she had a lot of affairs and was quite a difficult woman by all accounts."
The Roundabout Man is rich and complex, with multiple strands: there are Quinn and his triplet sisters, Hetty, Fleur and Zuleika, in their past, present and fictional selves, and also the accompanying story of the family's foster children: amazingly, for a woman who doesn't care much about the children she's got, Mumski and her husband, "The Professor", take in more. And running throughout the novel are extracts from the six "Triplets and Quinn" books.
When I ask how meticulously she plots her books, Morrall laughs heartily. "I make it all up as I go along. In early chapters I sow a lot of seeds without being conscious of the fact that I'm doing it, and then pick up on them as I go, but I don't have a planned view of where I'm going at all. I sometimes have a vague idea of how it's going to end, but I often change my mind."
Remarkably for such a well-regarded novelist, Morrall still goes to a local writing group, meeting three or four times a year to exchange chapters and submit to criticism. I think it shows unusual humility, but she says, briskly: "It's always been quite useful as a sounding board. I'm in favour of an outside point of view. All writers would benefit, because the trouble is, you become so immersed in your world that you lose sight of how believable something is, or whether the structure works. It's only when someone else reads with a fresh mind that you see that."
One form of feedback she bridles at, however, is uninformed online criticism. "The dreaded Amazon! I do think that these amateur reviewers are incredibly opinionated, shockingly so I think. They're really outright rude about some things and they talk as if they're great experts. I think it's a case of a little learning being a dangerous thing. They're trying to pick up the language of the proper reviewers but they're not seeing things in a round enough way. I've had some dreadful ones, and I've read stuff about other writers which is almost slanderous. I wonder, 'how can people do that sort of thing?' It's not a good trend!"
She finishes on a burst of laughter but the irritation is clear, and it's linked with her hatred of groupthink and the laziness of mass opinions.
"If fiction is good, it invites you into someone else's mind, which makes you realise there are lots of other points of view," she says gently. "Not all bankers are terrible, for example. That's the sort of mass thinking I find very irritating, the desire to knock bankers all the time. I'm biased, my daughter works in the City!" Her laughter, never very far away, bubbles up again. "I just think people are too willing to jump in, accuse everyone and jump out again. I value independent thought and I think people are lazy about thinking. But fiction can change the way people view others. We should never underestimate it or think fiction isn't important, because it is."
The Roundabout Man, By Clare Morrall (Sceptre £17.99)
"There were so many things she had never told us. Was I really kidnapped? Why did she foster children? Why had she erected her mask of indifference? ...In all the time I had known her I had only ever seen her express real emotion twice. The time with Douglas, when she wept with rage. And that solitary tear after my father died. Nothing else had seemed to touch her ...."
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