The Interview

The sanctuary of the night

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Anna Mundow
March 23, 2008

Morag Joss began writing crime fiction following a playful conversation with author P.D. James. Three "Sara Selkirk" mysteries followed, but it was Joss's superb novel of psychological suspense, "Half Broken Things," that prompted comparisons to both James and Ruth Rendell. "The Night Following" is a further departure, into the mind of a woman unmoored by marital betrayal and that of a man felled by sudden bereavement. Chance weaves together not only their conditions but also their destinies in a narrative of striking tension, inventiveness and compassion.

Morag Joss spoke from her home in Bath, England.

Q. This is a wonderfully strange novel. How did it materialize?

A. I was attracted to the idea of a pair of characters living nocturnally. I have patches of insomnia, and I'm fascinated by the otherness of the world at night. The stillness. Daytime preoccupations fall away, standards change, thoughts change. It's a canvas for reinvention, I think. I was drawn to the idea of leaving the pain of the world and embracing the night, not as a place where evil lurks but as sanctuary.

Q. Evil might not be lurking, but I felt I was reading a ghost story.

I'm thrilled you got that. Ghosts are everywhere. But I wanted to represent not darkness but rather absence of color, because the world the narrator escapes from is brash and terrifying to her. Well into the writing of the novel, I realized what it was about as opposed to what the story was. It's about levels of blindness, the grandmother's literally; the narrator's blindness to the infidelity; the blindness between people who are ostensibly close. But I wanted to show this, not tell it. There are strange, inexplicable elements - how the fiction that Ruth was writing fits in with the narrator's story - and if it passes people by, that's all right. I wouldn't have done that in previous books. Perhaps I'm getting more nerve.

Q. How do you make an everyday detail - a shopping bag of raspberries and eggs breaking - so shocking?

A. Well, "The Night Following" is very interior; the events are, to a large degree, mental events. So it's not just the colorful mess of the spilled raspberries and eggs; it's what she's reading into it. I suppose it's a metaphor for this terrible exposure, this spillage in her life.

Q. Is this woman your most poetic heroine?

A. I don't think of her as poetic. She's the character whose attachment to the world is most tenuous and whose marriage is an escape into safety; it's no coincidence her husband is an anesthesiologist. I think there are spirits who are just too frail for the events life throws at them. Where do these people hide and how do they survive?

Q. Do you do much psychological research?

A. I don't really. My father was a psychiatrist, the medical director of a mental hospital in Scotland, and when I was a student, I took vacation jobs there as a nursing assistant. So I did get to see mental illness, but I don't remember conversations about mental conditions. My father was a cheerful man with a robust attitude to such things. But I grew up knowing that there was a huge difference between how things looked and how they actually were, how concealed absolute mayhem can be.

Q. Will that be a theme in your next book?

A. Well, it's another story about reinvention. I was in the US last summer and I had torn ligaments in my knees that kept me on crutches and mostly indoors. This coincided with the collapse of the bridge in Minnesota, and I became mesmerized by the amateur video footage that kept being replayed on television. It got me thinking about a phenomenon I had heard of. Apparently, every time there is a disaster or an accident and not all the bodies are recovered, there is somebody who takes it as an opportunity to disappear. My story starts with a woman in Britain who has an Internet romance and comes to America to marry the man. There's a major hiccup and then an accident that leaves her with cash in hand, able to disappear in a new country. But it's not a road novel; it's a house novel, since she finds she cannot move far from the accident site and the widow of a critical person who's involved.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached at

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