I’ve just had the pleasure of interviewing Roz Morris, who is English and the author of three novels, a travel memoir and a series for writers. She once had a secret career as a ghostwriter, where she sold 4 million books writing as other people, but is now obeying the commands of her own soul, which are to write literary fiction with a strong sense of story. She is also an editor and writing coach, and has taught masterclasses in Europe and for The Guardian newspaper in London.
We mainly discuss Ever Rest, (Spark Furnace 2021), her just-published novel. The premise:
Twenty years ago, Hugo and Ash were on top of the world. As the acclaimed rock band Ashbirds they were poised for superstardom. Then Ash went missing, lost in a mountaineering accident, and the lives of Hugo and everyone around him were changed forever. Irrepressible, infuriating, mesmerizing Ash left a hole they could never hope to fill.
Two decades later, Ash’s fiancée Elza is still struggling to move on, her private grief outshone by the glare of media attention. Hugo is now a recluse in Nepal, shunning his old life. Robert, an ambitious session player, feels blessed and cursed by his brief time with Ashbirds, unable to achieve recognition in his own right.
While the Ashbirds legend burns brighter than ever, Elza, Hugo and Robert are as stranded as if they were the ones lost in the ice. How far must they go to come back to life?
Garry Craig Powell: Welcome to Late Last Night Books, Roz. You’re here to talk about your latest novel, Ever Rest, which has just been published. I reviewed it recently on Goodreads (Garry Craig Powell’s review of Ever Rest | Goodreads) and gave several reasons why I think it’s unusually worthy of attention. Perhaps we could touch on those points? But first, yesterday I read Schopenhauer’s essay on how to read, and one of his ideas is that if a book is worth reading, you should read it twice. I have read Ever Rest twice now and would urge everyone not only to buy your book and read it, but read it twice. It’s well worth it.
Roz Morris: Thank you! I love books that you have to read twice. On the first read, I’m in thrall to the author’s pacing, caught in their performance. I often feel I need to go back at a slower stroll, to settle, savour the richness.
GCP: Yes. I think you often find more depth the second time around too. At least on the first reading I find I’m more caught up with story and may miss some of the subtleties and themes. As far as that goes, novels about rock stars are not so unusual, but I’ve never read one that combines a focus on the glamorous and spoiled world of celebrity music with another on the incredibly dangerous, tough and disciplined one of Himalayan climbing. Those two worlds, which Hugo Bird inhabits with equal ease, are almost polar opposites, aren’t they? Could you tell us why you decided to juxtapose these seemingly unrelated ways of living?
RM: For me, it started with the Himalaya. I had the idea of the man trapped in ice and the people who were waiting for him. Their emotions are held in stasis while they wait for resolution, a resolution that will come slowly and as the fates decree – if at all. Also, it had the idea of trapped youth. The man in the ice would be as young as the day he fell, while the world got older. And this was where music arrived in the story for me, because this sense of preserved youth is also in music. Music tells you who you were at a particular moment – a year, an age, a time.
And then, as you’ve noted, Garry, the worlds of music and mountaineering juxtapose in illuminating ways. Music is highly controlled, in so many ways – the precision required to play it, the marketing of image etc. The mountain is an exact antithesis. It’s a world that’s hostile to life, where the cold and the thin air can close down your body and mind. When you’re there, nothing cares about your achievements or your status or how fast you can play arpeggios. It’s a boundary between two lands, the land of mastery and the land of fragility. And when you stand in that other place, and look back at our vigour and our dreams, there’s a sense of wonder: look what we all made.
GCP: It struck me that the over-arching theme of the novel is the question of what makes life worth living. I can’t remember who said that the only worthwhile theme of any serious novel, in fact, is what we live for, and how. Even in the nineteenth century this is the theme of the greatest novelists, but it seems particularly urgent now that most people in Europe no longer have a religion, or any kind of metaphysics, and our societies are almost completely secular. Do we simply live for pleasure, then?
RM: I’m very interested in the idea of ‘aliveness’ – a term coined by scholars of DH Lawrence. It’s the sense that we’re full of passions we don’t understand. How do we live fully and fulfillingly? What is that anyway? What do we chase, and where does that go wrong?
I think it’s also a personal quest for me. When I was about 10, my father quoted to me the line by Henry David Thoreau, that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’. It scared me deeply. I did not want that. So I look for ‘aliveness’.
Actually I’ve never considered where this preoccupation originated. Thank you for asking.
GCP: Sure. The world of rock in its heyday up to about 1995 had an ambivalent answer, I think. On the one hand, many of its stars lived lives of unashamed hedonism and excess. On the other, their fans felt a kind of spiritual awe for them (known as mana by psychologists) and invested their work with quasi-religious significance. We see this with Elza in the novel. She was not merely Ashten’s girlfriend, but in a sense his acolyte too, believing as she did that he had written the soundtrack to her life.
RM: Elza’s experience is mainly personal. She’s 19 and a beautiful, charismatic man is performing songs about her. Then, as the years wear on, those songs preserve the romance for all time – in her own mind and in the minds of the fans. She is part of an epic story of him.
I’m glad you raised the spiritual dimension. That’s another of my curiosities – the idea of gods. Rockstars are some of our modern gods. They come from a world of uninhibited emotion and exploration. At a certain age, our musician gods help us work out who we are.
There’s also the cult of celebrity. I’ve seen this first hand in my work as a ghostwriter. There are fans who admire a celebrity largely for their work – perhaps as a performer or a hero – and then there are fans who seek deeper ownership of the person. It can be very predatory. An obvious example is stalking, but I didn’t want stalkers in Ever Rest, it seemed clichéd. Instead I wrote about some of the quieter versions of fan obsession, which are every bit as disturbing if you’re the recipient. We judge our gods quite cruelly sometimes, and have the oddest requirements of them.
GCP: Absolutely. And then you have this other world, the harsh world of the Himalayas, where Ashten perishes (I think we can say that, since the reader learns of it on the first page) and Hugo flourishes, and yet another member of the band, or would-be member of the band, Robert, longs to go too. It struck me that the only thing those worlds have in common is that they are both thrilling, both giving the people who succeed in them a heightened existence, one that has nothing to do with mundane reality. In a word, both are worlds for super-men, heroes. Am I on the right track here? Was this a conscious choice you were making?
RM: Indeed it is. It’s the quality of ‘aliveness’ again.
GCP: Yes, and I love that concept, by the way. Let’s go into this more deeply. One way to look at the decision Ashten and Hugo make to climb Everest is that they simply have inflated egos, and in a sense are showing off. And that might be more true of one of them than the other.
RM: Certainly Ashten has the ego. He believes he is made for phenomenal things. Some people think he’s simply full of bull. Hugo does too, to an extent. But Hugo also loves Ashten’s vision. Ashten demands that the world should be special and that magnifies life for Hugo.
GCP: But on the other hand, I think there’s another element here, which I mentioned in my review. There’s a sense in which both of the original Ashbirds, Ashten and Hugo, make a conscious decision to live as heroes. There’s an archetypal quality to their lives – the Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell and others have called it. And surely this is the basic mythic theme of literature. There’s a larger-than-life dimension to some of the characters, particularly Hugo, which reminds me of some of the heroes of Russian literature: Pierre Bezuhov, or Raskolnikov, or Ivan Karamazov.
RM: I’m glad you saw that in them. I felt it was a very youthful impulse. Ashten and Hugo meet when they’re 14. They’re discovering their power. They’re energetic and desperate to express themselves, and to bust out of the boring town they live in. And yes – they feel they deserve to be heroes. They don’t want to be humdrum and mundane. Or quietly desperate. That terrifies them.
GCP: They certainly aren’t humdrum or mundane. I must admit I’m dismayed by the apparent popularity of victim narratives in contemporary fiction – another kind of mundanity. Whether readers actually want them or are simply being fed them by activist publishers, I don’t know. But even a casual glance at the bestsellers shows that most of the stories are about people from minorities who are oppressed and bravely fight for their rights. I don’t deny that some groups of people have had particularly tough lives, but there seems to be an adolescent quality to a lot of contemporary fiction: the goodies (the minority protagonists) are more or less wholly good, notwithstanding minor faults, while the baddies (the white patriarchy) are wholly bad. There’s very little nuance. And the reader is not invited to participate in any kind of profound questioning of what it means to be human, but only to feel pity for the protagonist, and herself, if she identifies with her. Do you agree with any of this?
RM: I certainly do agree. I’ve talked to agents and publishers about this, and they seem to be hamstrung by marketing departments that want stories about current newsworthy issues. There’s nothing wrong with that, but they seem to want them presented as easy messages, almost soundbites, not as perceptive explorations of humanity. I find that very disappointing because there’s rich material here, being sold short.
I know several authors who feel their books have been emotionally dumbed down by publishers and are unhappy about it. It’s even happening to existing books that have more than earned their spurs – they’re being repackaged for simplistic niches. You might have seen the stories in the British press at the beginning of June about Jeanette Winterson, who discovered her novels had been rebranded with blurbs that misrepresented them as, she said, ‘cosy, domestic wimmin’s fiction of the worst kind’. Reader, she burned them and posted a picture of it on Twitter.
Where does that leave readers? They – we – still crave these richer experiences. We get them now from character-led TV shows – Succcession, Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Trust, The Affair, Your Honor, The Night Of… These are stories about our lives now, but they don’t sacrifice depth for tweetworthy dogmas. They explore the massive complication of being human, as character-driven literary fiction always has. It proves there’s still a huge appetite for this depth, because a TV show costs a helluva lot more to produce than a novel. And publishers are missing a trick – those stories could easily start as novels and transfer to the screen.
GCP: I agree – and did sympathise with Winterson, too, by the way. Another aspect of the novel that I admire is the emotional complexity of the characters. You’ve made some bold and unusual choices. Ashten, the charismatic and beautiful singer, who looks a bit like Jim Morrison, and dies, is not so much the tragic character the press wants him to be, but something else altogether. Robert, the session musician who worked with the Ashbirds on their third album, and hopes to transform his career with the comeback album twenty years later, believes himself to be a gifted composer, but may not be – Hugo seems to think he is not. And the supremely talented and brave Hugo, who is as close to a true hero as anyone, is far from perfect either. He is autocratic, insensitive, abrasive. Could anyone live with him? And finally there’s Elza, the most enigmatic character of all. An apparently introverted, self-effacing commercial artist who cherishes deeply romantic feelings for Ashten, who was only her boyfriend for six months, she is faced with a difficult choice when Hugo reveals things to her about Ashten which turn her world upside down. I think she’s the central character in the novel—I don’t know if you agree—and found it fascinating that you chose such a quiet, undramatic character as the nucleus of the story.
RM: I was never sure who was the central character, so I let the reader decide. They largely seem to have voted for Elza!
From my point of view, it’s an ensemble piece and I had to inhabit several minds and hearts. I loved that, because I could appreciate so many interesting flaws and strengths. Elza, for instance, appears quiet – the fans and record bosses probably wonder why she captivated a superstar like Ashten. But inside, Elza is far from quiet. She’s paralysed by her fame and her emotions. She makes art, but she daren’t make art that has real personal meaning. She is stuck.
GCP: Yes, she is, and that leads me to another idea—again I hope I’m not projecting my own obsessions on to your novel. (Although to some extent I’m sure we all do that.)
RM: Please do project your own obsessions! A novel is a conversation with the reader. It asks, what does this mean to you? What do you understand by this? It’s different for everybody.
GCP: In the end, in spite of the true joy that all the musicians derive from the comeback of the band, and in spite of the high stakes of mountain climbing and the noble charity work Hugo does with the Nepalese Sherpas, we get the sense that however exciting these lives are, they leave something essential to be desired. And perhaps that something is love? Another of the themes of the novel is love, isn’t it? There’s the happy marriage of Robert and Gina, on the one hand, and on the other, there’s Elza with her sentimental attachment to the memory of Ashten, and her burgeoning relationship with Elliot, a more ordinary man, but probably a better one. If anything’s going to make her unstuck, it’s coming to terms with who Ash was and being able to really love again.
RM: You’ve absolutely nailed that: love is the engine of the novel. There’s the love of fans for their idol – a safe, indestructible love. There’s intense teenage romantic love. There’s the deep understanding between friends who pull each other along the same seeking thread. There’s the complex love in a longlasting relationship, after hard knocks and daily grind. There are love songs, too – many ofthe most famous Ashbirds songs are about love, and thus we come back to the fans, who adopted Ashbirds at a formative, impressionable age.
I think love is a thematic obsession for me. My other novels wear a lot of love on their sleeves, in various ways. It’s an aspect of aliveness – being passionately alive.
GCP: Hugo is certainly passionate alive, but then there’s his love life. We don’t want to give too much away, but for most of the novel he doesn’t appear to have one, and when he does develop a meaningful relationship towards the end, we wonder if anyone can sustain a love with a man who no longer feels comfortable with normal people, living normal lives.
RM: I felt Hugo never recovered from the loss of Ashten. Although Ashten was exploitive and selfish and treacherous, he woke a spark in Hugo. He made the world a bigger place, full of possibilities. As he did for many people.
I was very interested in this – the nature of charisma. What is it? Why will people follow one person and not another? What do they do to each other? Why will they tolerate hubris and bad behaviour from one person and not another? What is at work here?
GCP: Right. Even Hugo behaves in ways no one would tolerate from anyone else, and he’s a charismatic character too, though less obviously than Ash.
Another engaging facet of the novel is its treatment of death. So many novels deal with it in the most tawdry way, as if it were merely a device for pulling the reader’s heartstrings. In Ever Rest, your focus is not so much on death as it is experienced by the dying person—in fact we don’t learn about that at all—as on how others connected to that person are affected by it, and deal with it. I think it’s fair to say that Elza really only understands who Ashten was twenty years after his death. It takes her that long to get perspective.
RM: Yes, that was another of my interests – the nature of death for the people left behind. It is a puzzling thing – a person can disappear, go through a transformation that means they are no longer real except in people’s memories and mementoes. In Ashten’s case, he is still everywhere, in recordings, posters, record sleeves, videos and concert footage.
I was curious, also, about the enduring nature of this loss. When you lose somebody you are close to, you don’t get to the end of that loss. So although Ashten is a special case because he was famous – much recorded, much photographed, much discussed – this persistence is actually what happens to everyone who loses a cherished person. They are still present in places, smells, snapshots, the physical features of their relatives, the times you remember with them. Loss is not a tunnel you get to the end of. It’s a thing you get used to. The person is always coming back to you, like Ashten is in the mountain.
GCP: You’re very good at keeping up a kind of rhythmic structure – it’s as if now and then a chorus or bridge comes back in a song. In fact the novel is brilliantly crafted—plenty of conflict, mostly showing rather than telling, but with brief passages of exposition and description where necessary, lots of sensory imagery, often very striking, and the dialogue is taut and swift-moving and sounds natural. It’s also superbly researched. As I said in my review, I know a little about both the worlds you portray, and found the portrayals very convincing.
RM: Thank you! I was well trained by the editors I used to ghostwrite for. I had to write about deeds I’d never done, in the personality of people I definitely wasn’t – people who were brave or ruthless or alight with unusual confidence. I learned the kinds of questions to ask. I used to say we were both faking – they faked that they could write, I faked that I’d lived the stuff of books.
But the music is different. That comes from personal experience. I used to be in a band. I studied singing for a few years and I’ve composed music for as long as I remember. I don’t get time to play music now, which is a regret, but I can invent music very easily, like Hugo does in the novel. I have fragments of songs in Ever Rest and they arrived to me fully formed, lines singing through my head, complete with chords and melodies.
GCP: I’m not surprised, somehow! Are there any indications yet of how the novel is selling, or is it too early? What about reviews? I do hope it does well—it deserves to.
RM: Too early to tell, I think. But I’ve had lovely reviews, and from readers spanning a wide range of tastes. Fingers crossed…. And thank you for a lovely chat.
Find Roz Morris at http://rozmorris.org
Tweet her at @Roz_Morris