Morrison has unimpeachable credentials: articles in the Times Literary Supplement, Observer, Independent, Guardian, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and professor of creative writing at Goldsmiths College in London.
He has written novels (including South of the River and The Last Weekend, adapted for television), plus poetry, literary criticism and libretti. His latest works include a collection of poems, A Discoverie of Witches, and a study of the James Bulger murder. A Renaissance man, Morrison is interested in every aspect of writing.
What might be less known about Morrison is his Irish ancestry. His mother, Agnes O’Shea, came from Killorglin. Qualifying as a doctor, she met her future husband in England and settled there. Oddly enough, Morrison’s father persuaded her to change her name to Kim, perhaps feeling it would make her more English. Morrison himself had no idea of the details of his mother’s background until much later. When he did discover his Irish heritage, he explored it with typical thoroughness, later publishing Things My Mother Never Told Me.
Morrison now lives and works in London with his wife and family, but given his parentage (and the fact that he has been invited to the WCLF), to which side would he say he inclines? He thinks about it. “I consider myself English, mainly because I grew up in England and because I’ve never lived in Ireland.” A pause, a smile. “But emotionally I incline to the Irish side.”
To which parent would he say he attributes his exceptional writing ability? “I’m not sure I attribute it to either, or that it’s exceptional. But, if pushed, I’d say both. My father was an energetic letter-writer and kept a diary — but didn’t read books. My mother was a reader and, though she didn’t write a great deal, when she spoke she was far more nuanced and thoughtful than my father.”
This isn’t his first visit to Ireland. “I’ve visited Kerry more often since my mother’s death than I did when she was alive. I have cousins still living in her birthplace, Killorglin, and there are other O’Sheas I’m in touch with not far away. The family pub burned down two years ago and, tragically, two of my relations, the women who ran it, died in the fire.”
Given his wide and varied output, does he think of himself as a writer or a poet? Or does he see any difference between the two? “I began as a poet and I’ve gone back to poetry in recent years. There is a difference between poetry and prose, yes, but so long as I’m writing I don’t mind which it is I’m doing.
“I think of poetry as being the expression of a moment’s thought and feeling, whereas fiction is concerned with narrative. An over-simple distinction, but one that helps me get my bearings.”
‘And when did all this start?’
“I wrote a few terrible poems in my teens — self-pity, thwarted love and the cruelty of parents who don’t understand were among the themes. Better ones included a satire on school life, inspired by Eliot’s The Waste Land. I stopped writing as an undergrad at university — then picked it up again as a PhD student.”
And he hasn’t stopped since.