Stories can be dangerously powerful… and the way in which we choose to view and interact with the world, because of them, can be equally dangerous...
Author Nicola Morgan, who I didn’t know, having read my interview with Gillian Philip, contacted me and asked me to be part of her blog tour when her new novel, Wasted, was published. I said “sure”. But what if I’d said no, would it have made a difference in my life, in Nicola’s life, to the novel’s trajectory? How would I have spent my last couple of days? What difference would that have made? Would I have missed some kind of opportunity or possibility? On the flip side, does my doing the interview with Nicola make any difference to her, to me, to her novel’s progress?
Does any of it really matter? What if…?
Wasted is a “what if” novel – it’s the story of how dangerous living with “what if” can be…
So meet Jess, and meet Jack, her boyfriend, who tries to control his life by answering all the “what if” question by spinning a coin, by trying to control his luck and the outcome of his life and all its events.
Wasted is described by many as a novel about chance and fate and luck. But actually, it’s a novel about not being in control, about the terror of being out of control and about addiction and giving your power away in attempt to regain control. It’s a novel about how life works and how it doesn’t. It’s a novel about truth and reality and the forces that make up the world, or the forces we choose to make up the world.
Wasted is narrated by a god-like omniscient narrator who controls everything – from the characters and even, to some extent, the readers – in the end, you get to choose – you spin a coin to determine the final outcome of the story. It’s a novel which tells a tragic story and which, at the same time is a bit of a mind-blast. It tells you how dangerous stories can be. It is, gripping, fascinating and it is original. It will make you think and it will leave you thinking long after you’ve finished reading it. It may irritate you, depending on how much you like to have all things under control, or you may chortle and marvel at the author’s brazen audacity in conducting what at times feels like a bit of a social experiment. But you’ll have to read it to see what you think, and to see how it makes you feel. And when you’ve read it, come back and tell me. Because if you don’t, who knows what might happen…
An Interview with Nicola Morgan:
I ask this only because I recently saw your blog post on the topic…Where do writers get their ideas from. Wasted is quite “out there” in terms of style and content, so where did the idea come from and how long has it been brewing? What made you want to write this particular story?
First can I say hello and a big thank you for doing this.
Second, can I contradict the bit where you say that the narrator “controls everything”? I’d say that the narrator only controls one thing: what the reader sees. In fact, people (myself included) have been calling the narrator omniscient – when really, it isn’t. The narrator frequently points out the things that he/she/it/us can’t know. The narrator is only godlike in the sense suggested by that phrase of Einstein’s, about god not playing dice. My narrator is a spectator without real power except the ability to cheer on the side-lines.
Anyway, the style / content and where it came from…
It’s been brewing for many years. I had the idea – of a novel where I would write alternatives and then toss a coin to “choose” which to go with – about 15 years ago, and started to write it (differently) but got waylaid. But I never forgot about it and eventually found the right story for it. (I think!) What made me want to write this story eventually was that I got to the point where I couldn’t not. I told my agent that I’d be presenting her with something very different, very risky, and possibly unpublishable, but that I was going to write it anyway even if it wasn’t published. I also specifically didn’t want a contract at first, until I knew that it was working.
You have said that you feel that, of all the books you’ve written, Wasted is the one that most reflects you. In what ways do you see it reflecting yourself? And with which character do you identify most strongly and why?
I think what I’ve been saying is that it has more of me and my heart and soul in it. I don’t think it’s that I am like any of the characters, particularly: it’s more the voice, the oddness, the style of writing and the rule-breaking. It’s on the edge. It’s sort of “out there” and although many people would see me as quite conventional and controlled, inside I’m more radical than I appear, and I love to take risks in writing but haven’t done so for a long time now. Wasted is a very risky book – risky to write, anyway. It’s the book I’ve wanted to dare to write for so long. I also admit that I influence the narrator heavily, so the narrator expresses my thoughts, or at least my thoughts at that moment. Or at least my questions… (Author as narrator is one of the rules I’ve broken – you’re supposed to keep yourself out.)
Jess is the “sane” voice between the extremes of Jack’s obsessive coin-tossing, her mother’s drinking and even her father’s reliance on maths to explain the world. Because you give the reader the chance to choose the story’s ending, you never, truly, reveal to what extent you support Jess’s position. Are you willing to reveal and explain it here?
I hadn’t thought about this. I don’t think the author’s job is to support one position or another, necessarily. Do you? Also, in this sense I am not the same as the narrator – the narrator’s role is simply to show you what you’re allowed to see, not to judge the characters. I (myself, not the narrator) sometimes agree with Jack and sometimes with Jess. Jess’s position is the one I would probably take myself in real life, as I don’t like confrontation. I simply think that Jess was in love, and was torn between that love and the love for her mother and the wish not to hurt her. I think that lots of people of all ages have this twin-directional tugging of their loyalties, and experience the emotional blackmail that families are so good at unintentionally producing.
Many, in talking and writing about Wasted, discuss chance, luck and fate. Yet this is only the surface of what the story is about. Ultimately, like the story of Oedipus, it’s the story of tragedy, of obsession and compulsion, the desire to control and the loss of control - and the realisation that some things are just beyond our control. In constructing the story what did you, as the author - and the omniscient narrator - want to come through most strongly? What other theme, other than chance, fate and luck do you think you might have used to illustrate the point about the choices we make and the power we give away?
I think it’s all of those things that you mention, because they are all inextricably tangled in how the world probably works. They are the big questions that most of us don’t have answers for, and I certainly don’t, though I have some convictions about aspects of them. I suppose another way to have tackled it would have been to bring religion in, but I’ve done that in other books and other ways. I think there’s enough in Wasted without bringing that thorny subject in!
Each of your characters represents different ways of how life might be lived and explained and controlled. Through each, you make some sort of socio-psychological comment. To what extent did you write this book to teach? Was it your intention, in setting out, to create a story with a message this powerful that would really make readers think seriously about how they choose to live their lives?
Help! A socio-psychological comment? Did I? Well, I didn’t mean to. Honest, I’m just telling a story and those were the characters that grew. No, I never set out to teach. What I wanted to do was create a sense of wonder about the world and our lives and question how it all might work. The word “message” is a problem for me: it implies a didacticism, a kind of “Here’s the message – now go away and follow it.” I’d hate if anyone thought I was doing that. I think, however, as with many stories, that there are a lot of messages you could take from it – different readers are taking different messages, and that’s the perfect situation for me, because there is no one answer. There’s no doubt, though, in my mind about one thing: it is by “chance” that each of us is here on this earth and I call that lucky. Though as Jack would say, “Luck is just what we call it.” And so would the narrator. So would I!
You involve the reader strongly in the story, you bring the reader on board, alongside the omniscient narrator and you ask the reader to choose their own ending – by tossing a coin. What sort of response have you had from readers to being made part of the book in this way?
I don’t ask the reader to choose their own ending. I ask the reader to choose to toss a coin and thereby see whether Schrodinger’s cat is dead or alive… Just as Jack chooses to toss a coin at various points but can’t choose the outcome, the reader has the chance to do that. What I expected was that no one would bother to toss the coin and would just read both. What I’m hearing is that by that point, most readers have completely bought into the situation and are really nervous about tossing the coin. Then they do. And then, of course, they read both. Though one reviewer said you shouldn’t, as it would mess with your mind…
Someone commented to me, when I explained the nature of the book to them, “Oh, one of those smart arse writers, trying to be clever, playing with their readers!” Without saying “people are entitled to their opinions”, how do you respond to that “criticism”?
I’d suggest the person read the book, though not if he/she is determined to be annoyed! All authors play with readers. It’s part of the job description. But readers play with authors, too, and readers have the most control: they can choose not to read. And then writers are nothing.
Wasted reflects elements of physics, philosophy and spiritual considerations, the sort of things that make up those “what’s it all about” questions. You read philosophy at university so what, in your personal opinion, drives the world, the universe, and how things are?
I can’t even tell you how one human being works, let alone the world! What I think is that there is no one thing that fully explains “how things are” – even god, if you believe in a god. Even if you are right that god creates everything, that doesn’t explain everything. I think the world is far too complicated for us to understand entirely. I have two rock-solid beliefs (though rocks can be shattered): that there is no god (in the all-knowing / all-powerful / creator sense); and that although many philosophers and neuroscientists seem to be able convincingly to disprove free-will, free-will is also common-sensically (can that be a word, please??) and socially essential, and if you can’t prove it logically you have to believe it faithfully. So, I believe that both causal determinism and pre-determination are unsupportable as full explanations of “how things are”. And, by the way, please don’t pick me up too much on the philosophy I studied – it was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten most of it! All I’m saying is that this is my philosophy. I don’t tell anyone else to believe it but I chose to structure my story round it.
In the novel you have a quote by Marcus Aurelius – “Never let the future disturb you” which is perhaps not that far from his other quote “Everything that happens, happens as it should, and if you observe carefully, you will find this to be so.” Do you think that Stoic philosophy, as elaborated by Marcus Aurelius, speaks to the chaos of modern life faced by both adults and young people? And, would you say that ultimately, this is the final position you reach in the novel, and that trying to determine and control every outcome is just futile?
I hadn’t thought of it like that but I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. As I say, the existence of some form of free-will is crucial to everything. So, we can make the small decisions and therefore affect outcomes. But things also happen to us which we could not control or predict. (And prediction only makes sense in the sense of “likely consequence” – chaos theory intrudes when we look ahead too far.) So there’s no point in worrying too much. Of course, we do worry about the future, because we’re human and we can’t always control our thoughts, but we do ourselves no favours when we worry about the far-off bits and other aspects that are not in our control.
In a similar vein you use the famous example from Chaos Theory in Wasted - “A butterfly flaps its wings in New York and a hurricane happens in Indonesia.” This speaks directly to the power of universal energy and of unintended consequences. How do you, Nicola Morgan, the author (not the omniscient narrator) feel about personal power/free will vs. the power of the universal energy? How important is it to find personal balance between one thing and the other?
I think there’s a seesaw balance between our interior partial free will and the exterior world acting on us all. Yes, I suppose happiness and a good mental state comes from finding a balance between the two, finding a way to exercise as much judicious control as possible and then a stoic resilience to what happens. Que sera sera, but first I’m going to do my damndest to make que sera the best it can be. We do what we can and then need to let go of everything else. But it’s hard in practice, isn’t it? So, don’t get the idea that I’m going round all calm and stoical – ask my family!
At one point in the story Jack says, “You have to take control even when it appears you have none.” Ironically, he, like Jess’s mum, Sylvia, gives his power and control away – Jack to his coin, Sylvia to alcohol. Excluding giving one’s control away to a ritual or to a substance, how do you personally feel about surrendering to no control and accepting that you can’t control everything – which is the ultimate conclusion you draw in the story?
Easier said than done! I’m rubbish at it, actually. I’m all talk, I am. I am a massive control freak. But I also work more in the present and future than the past, at least with the big decisions and events in life. On the other hand, I can lie awake for hours worrying about a tiny thing I said or didn’t say.
Referring to one section in the book – do you believe in parallel worlds/parallel dimensions and alternative realities – or does that way madness lie?
No, I don’t believe in them. Mainly because my brain can’t cope. So, I let it go. It’s also a very frightening thought. A bit like heaven, which I think is pretty much the most frightening concept that religious people have come up with. I can’t get my head round it – much easier not to believe in it!
The title Wasted could be interpreted in multiple ways – did you deliberately choose a title with multiple meanings and if so, what effect did you want to achieve?
Yes, it was deliberate. Also, to be honest, I wanted a short, dramatic, in-your-face title. A bit of shock value, if you must know. But I think it is quite a shocking book, so I think it’s valid.
Writing from the point of view of omniscient narrator keeps the reader removed from Jess and Jack – keeps the reader in the position of onlooker. From an analytical perspective, what is your view of omniscient narrators in YA fiction – and in this story per se? What did you plan to achieve, or hope to convey, by using this god-like narratorial voice?
Everyone is asking about this and I don’t have a good answer. It’s just the voice that came when I started writing. In my mind, the narrator was god-like and looking down, and talking to the reader directly, so this is just the voice that came. I can’t really explain it and it wasn’t really planned. I can’t plan voices – I can only control them once they are there.
Wasted is your 9th novel – do you feel it’s your best yet and if so why?
I have no idea. Some reviewers have been kind enough to say as much. I just know I was horribly nervous about it but am now less so. But still nervous!
If you could be something other than an author, what would you choose to be and why?
If I could sing, I’d like to be a singer! If I could paint, I’d like to be a painter. If I could only be something to do with things I can actually do, I’d turn scruffy houses / flats into great ones. And grow lettuce. I’d also have a lot more time for hobbies and I would not screw my neck muscles up at the computer. I think I’d be healthier. But not so fulfilled.
The style and the idea of Wasted are unique, how did your agent and publisher first respond when you sent in the manuscript?
They both absolutely loved it, which surprised me, to be honest. They had no suggestions or worries at all. It was the easiest of my books from that point of view – hardly any edits and then only tiny ones.
You’ve been on a blog tour for the past month with Wasted, how do you find people have responded to the story?
I’ve been thrilled and very, very relieved. I really didn’t know if people would like it. I thought it would be a love-it-or-hate-it book, but more people have loved it than I’d expected. (So far!) I am waiting for some people to hate it, as I feel sure they will. I’d like to say that I’d be able to deal with this easily, but I know I won’t. Thing is, if we believe the good reviews, we have to believe the bad ones, too.
Many thanks to Nicola Morgan for the opportunity of interviewing her, and here’s wishing her much success with Wasted! My own sense is that this intriguing and fascinating novel is one which will be the source of much discussion and thinking – and in many diverse quarters!
Thanks so much, Nicky – your questions were incredibly testing and perceptive!
For more information about Nicola Morgan and Wasted:
To learn more about Nicola Morgan visit her website
Buy a copy of Wasted
Talk about Wasted on the Wasted blog
Read Nicola’s blog, Help I Need A Publisher
Follow Nicola Morgan on Twitter
All images in this blog post courtesy of Nicola Morgan