Interview with CNFC Contest Judge, Donna Morrissey
In December 2022, CNFC volunteer, Nancy O’Rourke, interviewed the 2023 CNFC Contest Judge, Donna Morrissey. Read about Donna’s thoughts on writing, reading, and advice for CNFC contest writers.
Donna Morrissey has published seven national best-selling novels. She has received awards in Canada, the U.S. and England and her novel, Sylvanus Now, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. Donna’s fiction has been translated into several different languages. She was nominated for a Gemini for her script, The Clothesline Patch, and her latest novel, The Fortunate Brother, spent six weeks on the best seller list, and won the Arthur Ellis Award for best crime novel of 2017. Her memoir, Pluck, was released this year by Penguin, Canada and quickly hit the best sellers list.
Your primary genre has been fiction. What was it like, turning to memoir? What do you think are the major differences and similarities of each?
Memoir was easier than fiction to write in that I didn’t need any research, character development, plot intricacies. I knew it all. The challenge was stepping away from myself and seeing from a distance so’s to understand ‘what really happened back there.’ You have to be able to see your story from the inside and the outside so’s to give the reader the full view. So, writing memoir, you’re at the end of a story looking back. With fiction you’re typically at the beginning of a story ‘looking forward.’
With memoir you have to ‘enter’ yourself and write from the rawness of self. With fiction you have a character who carries the emotion for you. It’s challenging to write from ‘self.’ To ‘see’ self.
I think the biggest challenge with memoir versus fiction is ‘relevance.’ With fiction we are creating the events as we need them. With memoir, we have soooo many events that it is challenging to determine which event belongs in the story, which events don’t. Always you have to be brutally honest and ask: is this scene strengthening my story? Is it helping move my story forward? Does it contribute to the heart of my story?
In the last year, what have been your favourites reads and why?
This past year I’ve enjoyed reading all of Cormac McCarthy’s work. I think he is a genius wordsmith. I’ve also reread some of Joseph Conrad’s work. Oh my gawd, talk about genius!!! He wrote a number of novels/novellas about the sea, never uses the same adjective twice, and English was his second language. Just Brilliant.
Mostly I read ‘non-fiction.’ Simply because I have to understand the human psyche in order to portray it. Jordan Peterson’s biblical series and Maps of Meaning (found on his YouTube channel, along with transcripts) have provided me with tons of spiritual and educational learnings.
What are some of the elements that really excite you when you are reading through a story or essay?
I love creative expression. Authors who write deeply and poetically. Imagery and sensuous language. But a good plot and character development must be present to keep me reading. I’m an old fashion kind of reader. I wanna be intrigued. I want a beginning, middle, end. I want a plot and climactic ending. I want to be left with a feeling stirring within me from the author’s story.
For the CNFC contest submissions, I’ll be looking for the heart of the story—the main theme—and how strongly this theme is supported by the writing. I’ll also be paying attention to the moral compass of the essay. The reason for writing the essay should be clear, leaving the reader with a compelling take-away, something to ponder.
Do you have any advice for contest entrants?
Yes. What I did, and what has aided me more than anything else with my writing, and what I continue to do always, is READ. READ anything. Everything. The more you put in your head, the more there is to come out through your pen.
I suggest ‘critical’ reading. As in, read for specifics: how did the author use ‘setting’ in this scene? How did the author use ‘imagery?’ How did the author transition between scenes, how did they write those complex ‘group scenes?’ How did they write dialogue without it sounding stilted or shallow?
I typically mark really good ‘moment’s’ that inspire me. And just bask in the beauty of how an author expresses a thought or a mood. And it inspires me to write more deeply, poetically, creatively. I have my fav books that I refer to all the time for inspiration and learning. Never be alone. Have your fav authors teach you. And hey, they don’t have to be your favorite books/writers. They just have to be ‘good’ teachers. So, no need to start from the beginning of a book, simply pick it up and let it fall open. Then, read the page you open onto. Be specific with what you’re looking for. Am I looking for a good group scene? Find one. Mark it. Refer to it when you need inspiration/help with writing your own group scene. How did the author move around the characters, identify speakers, etc.?
I wish you the best of luck. Writing must be a passion, else you’ll walk from it. Here’s to passion! (-: