One of Australia’s most successful authors returns home

By Melanie Kembrey

Kate Morton is one of Australia’s most successful literary exports, having sold more than 16 million books around the world.Credit:Davin Patterson

I’m not going to lie, I expected to find Kate Morton living in a grand old English manor perched on a hill in the rugged countryside. We would sit down for our interview sipping a freshly squeezed lemonade, both with a slight sheen of sweat from the sweltering sun; the cuckoos (I don’t know what they are, but they feel right for the scene) would be calling; and there would be a mysterious antique rattle mislaid between the pages of a family album (how curious, I would think, Morton’s three children are not babies…).

Perhaps, midway through the interview as I headed to the toilette to freshen up, I would stumble upon a chiming grandfather clock with, is that, a slip of paper poking out of a secret drawer? As I leaned in to investigate, the ever-elegant Morton would sweep in front of me – “This way, please” – and brusquely draw a red velvet curtain across the timepiece, and any questions I wanted to ask.

So, yes, you might say I’ve had my head in far too many Kate Morton books. It’s a set-up that’s probably familiar to the readers of her six, soon to be seven, novels – and there are more than 16 million of you according to her publisher’s sales data. Morton’s novels are often described as Australia’s most successful literary exports since Colleen McCullough’s 1977 bestseller The Thorn Birds and she’s easily a multi-millionaire having earned more than $17 million in royalties (sorry, I know it’s undignified to talk about money and art, but do you know how great the odds are for an Australian author to make that kind of dosh?). She’s the master of her own genre; from her breakthrough debut The Shifting Fog in 2006 to next month’s Homecoming, Morton’s stories frequently feature grand houses, family secrets, lost children and a past that refuses to let go of the present.

Kate Morton at her Brisbane home. After five years abroad she returned from London in 2020.Credit:Davin Patterson

“I’m sure there are some things you don’t want to know,” Morton, 47, replies when I ask whether there are any secrets in the history of her home in the inner-Brisbane suburb of Paddington, where vintage stores, boutique homewares and cool-kid cafes abound on leafy hills looking towards the skyline. It’s not quite the “big old Gothic house” called Halcyon that is at the heart of Homecoming, but the elevated 1920s workers’ cottage does feel idyllic.

Though perhaps that’s Morton as well. She’s a calm and considered presence as we sit on the verandah overlooking the backyard, left empty by her much-loved golden retriever Wilbur who has gone on holiday. If you wanted to do a Kate Morton walking literary tour, this street would be a good stop. She’s lived in three houses, over two decades, on the same road. Her three boys – now in their teens – were each born in different houses, as were all but one of her novels.

Like one of the symbolic resonances that echo through her storylines, Morton was experiencing her own homecoming while she wrote Homecoming. As the pandemic’s grip tightened in early 2020, Morton, her musician-composer husband Davin Patterson, and the kids relocated from England to their farm in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. The property sounds, and Morton’s Instagram pictures verify, as though it would have met my initial expectations for the interview. Morton describes it as a “cottage up in the hills” – there are creeks, willows, waterfalls, pear trees lining driveways, and cows (to complete the pretty picture, there are also five calves).

Wilbur, the farm dog.Credit:Instagram/@katemortonauthor

They had been living in a cosy (read: no writing room) Victorian home in Hampstead, London after an initial six-month sojourn turned into five years abroad. In reverse, a temporary return to Australia turned into a permanent one, as pandemic lockdowns and border closures continued. They chose to settle in the Brisbane house where I met Morton, as the kids grew up there and Queensland was a familiar landscape to them all (also, surely, for the convenience of the future literary walking tours).

As she left behind her life in the UK, she also bid farewell to a fictional one. Morton had started writing – there were 20,000 words on the page – a new novel set in Europe. But looking out of her window at the golden fields of South Australia every day made it difficult to conjure the winter grey of London. The story went stale. It became the book equivalent of paint by numbers. Her new Australian setting became the start of a new novel.

“Once we got to Australia, I felt so distanced from that story; not just geographically, but intellectually, I just couldn’t feel it. And for me, that’s very important. As a writer, it’s not just an intellectual exercise. I need to feel and believe it when I’m working on it. And I just couldn’t regain that connection,” Morton says. “What was happening on a daily level was so removed from that manuscript I was working on that I would sit down with my notebook or the scenes I was writing, and it just felt false.”

Author Kate Morton at the launch of her debut The Shifting Fog in 2006.Credit:Getty

Luckily, Morton is always squirrelling away nuts for when she needs them (“Don’t tell me your family secrets unless you are willing for them to end up in a novel,” she warns). One such nut came when she was doing some lockdown exploring and wandered past a house in South Australia named Halcyon. She gave the name to the grand estate where Homecoming kicks into action on a sweltering Christmas Eve of 1959 in the fictional town of Tambilla in the Adelaide Hills. A grocer discovers Halcyon’s residents – English transplant Isabel Turner and three of her children – dead on a picnic blanket by a river. Her fourth child, a newborn, is missing. Nearly six decades later, the mystery is revived when journalist Jess discovers a book in her grandmother’s house about the once-famous murder case.

Morton often bases the architecture of her fictional houses on real ones, and the design of Homecoming’s Halcyon was inspired by Martindale Hall, a sandstone Georgian-style mansion built by a wealthy pastoralist near Mintaro in South Australia in 1879 (the house is open to the public and featured in Peter Weir’s 1975 Picnic at Hanging Rock).

Kate Morton based the grand manor in her latest novel on Martindale Hall, pictured.

“I sometimes think that every writer of my generation is very influenced in terms of the way we see things by film. So, when I’m writing, I see things in that way. The way you might have a long shot as you’re going up the driveway, and then you approach the house, then you’re at the door, and you’ve got the door handle in a close-up, and then it opens, and you get the shot up the stairs. I can see what I need to see for the story, as it appears in my head at that time.”

The foundation for her obsession with houses was laid early. Her civil-engineer father and collector and artist mother were always moving around, knocking down and rebuilding. Born in the Riverland of South Australia, Morton spent most of her childhood in “an old house built on the mountain” (I told you there were a lot of them) after her parents decided to restore a dilapidated property on Tambourine Mountain in South East Queensland. Her mother turned an old silver shed into an antique shop, recruiting Morton on her treasure-finding missions.

“It was very full but with little, almost room-like, displays, so there’d be a dressing table and on it, you know, the old crocheted doily and kid gloves or whatever else would all be laid out. I can remember sort of wafting through and picking things up and trying them on and putting records on the gramophone,” Morton says.

Kate Morton lived in Hampstead, in London, for five years.

“I was always very aware of houses as places where lives happened. I can still look at real estate windows or plans and just imagine what it would be like to live there, which, of course, feeds into writing.”

Later, her parents relocated an old church from Brisbane, which had been fated with demolition, to the property. They restored the church, and then opened it for weddings. The whole family helped out running events – Morton and her three sisters as waiters; her husband, who she met when she was 18 after she saw him in a band in Brisbane, playing the piano. Morton went on to study speech and drama at Trinity College London and English at the University of Queensland, and started writing in her early 20s.
The first two manuscripts for The Shifting Fog – which became one of the most successful debuts of all time in the United Kingdom and has sold more than 100,000 copies in Australia – were rejected. After Morton gave up on having “published author” as a moniker, she continued writing as a refuge from the demands of being a mother to a newborn. That’s when she first experienced a true sense of connection to her work that she still chases today.

Kate Morton: “I have never once lasted 24 hours without having a new notebook.”Credit:Davin Patterson

Now, Morton has her process down pat. And, perhaps most importantly, she is confident in her stories. She believes Homecoming is her best novel (to be fair to Morton, who is modest to a fault, she only agreed to this statement after I asked her about a Publishers Weekly review describing it as such). She says she doesn’t think about the expectations of readers, critics and publishers, and with her annual sales (one year in Britain, she was beaten only by J.K. Rowling, and in Australia, she’s sold more than 637,000 novels), she doesn’t have to. In fact, she doesn’t have to keep writing. Why not go hang out with those baby calves more?

“I always say, ‘I’m going to have a break after this, I really need to decompress, empty my brain’, and I have never once lasted 24 hours without having a new notebook,” Morton says. “I think for many writers it is a compulsion, a way of understanding the world. It’s a way of expressing – it sounds hoity-toity, sort of highfalutin – your humanity through understanding other people and how they relate to the world. And no matter how difficult it is, to get to the end is such an incredible moment.”

While financial freedom to write what and when you want is rare, the spotlight that comes with it can get hot. Morton hit the headlines in 2018 during a high-profile legal battle with her longstanding literary agent Selwa Anthony. Anthony sued the novelist for breach of contract after they cut ties in 2015, and Morton counter-sued accusing her first agent of depriving her of opportunities when she was a new author. Morton won the case, but there’s no sense of vindication to be detected and there’s an obvious reluctance to discuss what was no doubt a traumatic time professionally and personally.

“For me, it strangely all seems a very long time ago. Exacerbated, I think, by the fact that the past few years with the pandemic has been so collectively hard and uncertain and time lost all meaning and people’s lives changed,” Morton says.

“Because of all that, I find now I just feel very focused on the book. I keep on saying it, but, you know, because I lived there, I’m so grateful that something positive came out of the past few years, and that finally I’m on the cusp of being able to welcome readers inside. So, that’s sort of where my focus is.”

As I prepare to leave her to her literary and literal homes, I spy Morton’s writing room and ask if I can see where the magic happens. It’s a simple room near the front of the house, fairy lights strung across a bay window. I linger by the doorway, but it feels as though Morton doesn’t want me to look too long. She probably wasn’t expecting this request. If there was a red velvet curtain, it would be brusquely pulled across the room.

Kate Morton’s Homecoming is published by Allen & Unwin on April 4.

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