“It was a story I needed to tell.” Portico Prize-winning author Sally J Morgan on gender inequality, friendship and the North
A staple of Manchester’s cultural and literary life, The Portico Library is situated above The Bank pub on Mosley Street. The 19th century library houses more than 25,000 books and is filled with archives covering 450 years. While The Portico is a subscription library, it works with diverse communities in the region to create events, exhibitions and learning programmes. It is also the home of The Portico Prize, established in 1985, a biennial award which accepts submissions across all literary formats and gives £10,000 to an overall winner.
As we begin to emerge from a global health crisis, where it often felt like the North had been forgotten, what better way to celebrate the voice and spirit of the region than through a Northern-specific literary prize?
This year’s winner is Toto Among the Murderers by Sally J Morgan. Morgan was born in the Welsh mining town of Abertyleri, and grew up in Yorkshire. Today, she lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand. But her novel is firmly rooted in the North of England. Set mostly in Leeds and Sheffield in 1973, Toto Among the Murderers follows the story of Toto and her friends as they begin life after college. The book is also inspired by the author’s own experience of being offered a lift by the infamous murderers Fred and Rosemary West.
It’s an impressive debut set at a time when the lives of women were marred by the constant threat of sexual violence. But it also feels remarkably and distressingly contemporary. Here, Northern Soul chats to Morgan about gender inequality, friendship, the North, and what it means to win the 2022 Portico Prize.
Northern Soul: The Portico Prize is awarded to the book that ‘best evokes the spirit of the North of England’. What does that mean to you?
Sally J Morgan: If I understand your question right, I take it to mean that they were looking for books that portrayed the North with integrity, avoiding easy clichés and examining the complex realities of Northern lives.
NS: How does winning The Portico Prize feel?
SJM: Mind-blowing. It was nothing I expected and I was just really stoked to be on the shortlist. It’s massively affirming for me as a writer.
NS: Do you think that The Portico Prize is important both as a writer and a reader?
SJM: It’s really important, I think, for readers to be able to see themselves and the places they inhabit in contemporary literature. And it’s equally important that writers feel free to write about the places they know and care about. The Portico Prize has played a big part in shining a light on works which talk about lives outside the metropolis and enabling writing that documents and celebrates the North to reach wider audiences.
NS: There has been a lot of conversation centred around access to publishing. Did you feel any barriers when writing/trying to publish Toto Among the Murderers as a ‘Northern’ story?
SJM: I was going to write this story about this place no matter what. It was a story I needed to tell and I didn’t think it would make a difference where it was set. As it progressed though, I became more aware that the setting might mean that fewer publishers might be interested, and that in particular it might harm its chances for being picked up by American publishers who are, apparently, only interested in books set in London.
NS: There’s often a lot of emphasis placed on ‘young’ writers as emerging voices with the likes of things like ’30 under 30’ lists. As a writer seeking to publish their debut later in life, was it difficult to find a home for your manuscript when the current focus in publishing seems to be so much on younger voices?
SJM: I felt that there were quite a few things that would potentially work against me. I’m queer, neurodivergent, writing about Northern England but living in New Zealand and, probably most unforgivably, I’m definitely in the autumn of my years.
Luckily, I found an agent, Jonathan Ruppin, who was actively seeking ‘under-represented’ voices and he went out to bat for me with a vengeance. I got picked up by John Murray Originals and there were absolutely no problems there. I do have a suspicion that once it came out the press and literati were perhaps a little less interested in it than they might have been had I fitted a different profile. It took a long time to take off, but I’m really thankful that it finally got noticed.
NS: The narrative of Toto among the Murderers has a heavy emphasis on the complex and bonded nature of female friendships. Was this something you set out to explore or did this come naturally when you were writing the story?
SJM: I wanted to show friendship across a whole range of possibilities, across class and gender – non-sexual friendship between men and women, the camaraderie of people in the same stage of life, etc., and all the ways friendship can support you through the most testing parts of your life.
The intense friendship between women isn’t as well covered in literature as its male counterpart is, we saw it on screen in Thelma & Louise and in Greta Gerwig’s 2012 film Frances Ha, but it’s not as celebrated as it should be. It can be huge and consuming. There is a viewpoint that desire comes first, and love grows out of desire. And sometimes friendship stays on the side of non-sexual love, and sometimes crosses over into the physical. In Toto Among the Murderers, I wanted to show how love can grow out of friendship and turn into desire.
NS: The 1970s often conjure up a time where women feared for their lives and gender inequality was still something that was being sought. But the issues raised in the Toto are contemporary – glaringly so – and I wonder if it was your intention to highlight the fact that, while some things may have changed, violence against women is still prevalent?
SJM: Yes. Very much so. I was very aware of how these issues really never go away, and I wanted to talk about the ways young women form strategies to survive in a world where they live like prey animals. I wanted to write from the perspective of someone determined to fight back when she could, and evade when she had to.
NS: Given that you’re now based in New Zealand, how did you evoke 1970s Leeds? Was there a lot of research involved or were you working from memory?
SJM: When you’re writing about the past, you can’t go and visit it because it’s gone, sometimes without trace. The Leeds and Sheffield I wrote about are accessible in my head through my memories. I’m lucky to be blessed with a very strong visual and sensory memory. I can conjure places up in my mind and walk around them, remembering smell and tactility as well as almost filmic visuals. I also have a master’s degree in history, so I’m very geeky about research too, and getting my facts right. I once spent a day researching the shape and flavours of a certain brand of boiled sweets, and whether they were available in 1973. So it’s a lot of memory backed up with thorough fact-checking.
NS: Which other writers are you excited about at the moment?
SJM: There are a lot of great Irish writers around at the moment. I particularly like Sara Baume and her melding of the poetic into great character observation and storytelling.
SJM: Where do you start and where do you stop with a question like that? I grew up for part of my childhood in Yorkshire, I went to art school in Sheffield, and lived and worked in Leeds, Salford, Newcastle and Northumberland in my 20s and 30s. There is a deep sense of home attached to the North for me, and even though it’s a richly varied region, I love the sense of community and the deep and fearless honesty that pervades the place from top to bottom. I love its beauty too. The landscapes are folded and windswept and the cities are pockmarked with histories. The North of England never stops being interesting and I love writing about it.
NS: Do you have any advice for budding writers out there?
SJM: First of all, keep at it. It’s a lot harder work than people think, and you’ve got to be willing to keep editing and perfecting until your story rings true. Secondly, avoid trying to sound like your favourite author, no matter how much you might admire them, find confidence in your own voice. I found my voice by imagining my reader was a friend, and thinking about how I would engage them and keep them interested if I were telling this story on a long car journey or around a campfire.
NS: And lastly, what’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
SJM: I am. My next novel is set in Salford in the 1980s and I’m about a third of the way into it at the moment. It’ll probably have the same kind of vibe as Toto Among the Murderers but who knows what might happen within the story when the characters are in charge?
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Toto Among the Murders is Published by John Murray Press and available to buy now.
The 2022 Portico Prize shortlist: Ghosted by Jenn Ashworth (Sceptre/Hachette); The Outsiders by James Corbett (Lightning Books/Eye Books); The Family Tree by Sairish Hussain (HQ/HarperCollins); Sea State by Tabitha Lasley (4th Estate/HarperCollins); Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan (Faber).
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Spotted in Manchester's Northern Quarter. (photo by RM) pic.twitter.com/FcFSbbvtZ9