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Transcript: An Interview With Bourne Morris

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Bourne Morris for the Grammar Girl podcast. Listen here.

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language—writing, history, rules, and cool stuff. Today, I have an interview with Bourne Morris, a good friend who didn’t write her first novel—“the Red Queen”—until after she retired. She got an agent, got it published, and has just come out with her fourth novel, “A Woman of Two Minds.” She retired right when I started my job as a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, and I took over her office. Through mutual friends and interests, we became friends, and she’s a real inspiration to me. It’s never to late to start something new. I want all of you to remember that. And I hope you enjoy the interview.

Mignon: Thanks for being here today with me, Bourne.

Bourne: Thank you for asking me, Mignon.

Mignon: Yeah, we're more used to talking over lunch than we are doing an interview, but you have such an exciting life and so much to teach people about writing a novel that I thought the audience would love to hear from you. You have just published your fourth novel, correct?

Bourne: Correct, yes.

Mignon: Wonderful. And one of the reasons I wanted to have you on is because you started writing novels, publishing them particularly quite late in life after you actually retired from your position as a professor at the University of Nevada in Reno, right?

Bourne: Actually, writing novels became my third career because I spent 20 years in advertising, and then I managed an agency, and then I came up to Nevada, and I was hired as a professor in the Reynolds School of Journalism. And I did 26 years there, and then I started writing books when I retired in 2009.

Mignon: Did you always want to write novels or was this an idea that came to you sort of middle or later in life?

Bourne: I think I wrote something when I was in fourth grade. As I recall, it was a play I was writing with some other people, and I've always liked writing. I tried to do my senior thesis in college in my own poetry, which was never very good, I have to say, and then I would have ideas for novels all through my working career, but it was hard to find time to do much. I did find time to write an earlier version of the book I just published, but it wasn't very good. It was 500 pages that didn't work. I sort of ashcanned that, and then went back to the story that I wanted to write a few years ago and just published it this month.

Mignon: That's a story we hear from a lot of writers, that the first draft of the first novel is horrible.

Bourne: Yes.

Mignon: And I think a lot of people take comfort in knowing that that's a common experience. That book is now your fourth book that you published. You published three and then you came back to that first time-

Bourne: Yes, I wrote three other books that were published and they were academic mysteries. I think the experience of writing those three books may have helped me figure out how to write this fourth book, which is the one that's been in my mind for 25 years.

Mignon: Great. That book is called "A Woman of Two Minds." If someone has a gift card burning a hole in their pocket, tell the listeners what that new book is about, "A Woman of Two Minds."

Bourne: It's about two women and two survivors. One woman is an older woman who is the CEO of a big company and she's in a terrible automobile accident, and the second woman is a young woman of 23 who attempts to commit suicide and has a terrible experience in her childhood. A doctor comes to the older woman and says, "I can save your mind and your memory if you will allow me to transplant part of your brain into the body of this young woman whose brain has been damaged by her suicide attempt," and the older woman agrees.

Bourne: The young woman wakes up after lots of recovery, and she is a young woman in a young woman's body, but the older woman's mind absolutely dominates her, all of her thoughts and feelings and all of her memories. As the book progresses, the younger woman's memories begin to come back, but what happens is the younger woman is arrested for shooting her own mother, and she's put on trial, and the prosecutor finds out about this operation and the prosecutor is convinced that it's this operation that led the young woman to commit homicide, and he's about to prove it, and that's the story. The whole story is framed in the trial of this younger woman whose name is Kit Mackinsey. Yet, the older woman whose name is Maggie Carlson, dominates the younger woman throughout much of the book.

Mignon: Is this brain swapping, is it sort of a science fiction story or is it more of sort of a medical mystery story?

Bourne: It's probably more of a medical mystery because I got my scientific information from a neuroscientist who was kind enough to help me imagine how brain surgery of this kind might really happen. What would happen if you tried to do this, and how long it would take to recover from it? I tried to make it sound as authentic as possible so that although it is science fiction, it isn't that far from what we might be able to do someday.

Mignon: Neat. I know your first three books, the "Red Queen" series, were inspired by your experiences in administration at the university for all those years. I'm wondering if this new book, if there was anything in your life that sort of informed or inspired this work.

Bourne: Well, I think running a company for several years in California inspired the character of Maggie who is very good at what she does and very bright, and then it inspires the incipient character of Kit who begins to learn how to run a big company and becomes quite famous at it. At the time of her arrest for murder is the head of a Fortune 500 company, actually an international company.

Bourne: The other inspiration is when I was running a company in California, I went to a restaurant one day, and I looked around the room at the number of older women who'd had a lot of work done, and I wondered at that time what a woman would be willing to sacrifice to have a younger face in a younger body? That was the genesis of this story because I couldn't shake it. I kept writing various versions of it until finally I got to the one that was published this time.

Mignon: Great. You had this idea for a novel and you had sort of been thinking about stories for many years, and then you were getting closer to retirement. Through what steps did you take to begin life as a writer, your third act?

Bourne: The third act began right after I retired. I decided I still needed some experience and some skill writing fiction. I had written a lot of other things in the meanwhile, but I hadn't really mastered the fiction part. I took a class at UNR from a wonderful creative writer named Chris Coake, and it was in Chris's class that I wrote a very major scene from this book. I took that scene in to that class, and he gave me a lot of help on it. It was also wonderful sitting with other writing students. This was in the English department. That was a great course for me to take, and I recommended it to several other people who want to write a book, but are sort of struggling with the idea of it. It's a particularly good class for people who are interested in fiction or graphic novels.

Mignon: You didn't just wing it on your own?

Bourne: No, no.

Mignon: You had some support.

Bourne: I had some support. I had some criticism, and after I had finished that course, I sat down and wrote the other three books first. I wrote the "Red Queen" series first, got those published, went through that experience, and then went back to this book and finally got it to the point where I liked it.

Mignon: Great. Well, one reason I wanted to talk to you is I think a lot of people say that if you didn't write a novel in the first 60 years of your life, 70 years of your life, you're not going to later, you're not going to do it when you retire. That if you're serious about writing, you're going to write. Writers write. I hear this over and over again, and I find it annoying.

Bourne: Well, the only part that I agree with is that writers write. Yeah. I've been writing since fourth grade, and I think there's a tendency to write, and I kept a lot of the stuff that I had written in college, and then ultimately got rid of it because it wasn't very good. I did try to write this book 25 years ago, and that didn't work.

Bourne: Writers do keep on writing, but I don't know that you can't start a career as a novelist at any time. I mean, I think there are some wonderful books that have been written by people in their seventies and eighties, and sometimes your best writing comes when you're older.

Mignon: Right. What advice do you have for people who have maybe been thinking about writing for a long time and suddenly for whatever reason they retired, they got laid off, their kids are out of the house, they find themselves with some more time, and they're thinking maybe now's the time. How do you sort of-

Bourne: Well, I would say if you have a book you want to write, write your book. The late Mike Land, who was a wonderful writer once said, "Have your baby, plant your garden, write your book." You should do what you really want to do. If you have the time to do it, I would say sit down and start to write. You may want to do an outline. I never do, although I always know how the book ends. I just don't always know what's going to happen in the middle.

Bourne: The other piece of advice I would give is what I used to tell my students, which is write it. Write it with all the mistakes, spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes. Write it with factual errors. Just write it from beginning to end and then go back and start to edit. Don't stop and edit every day when you're writing because you'll never get it finished. I mean, there are a lot of writers who have a first chapter or first two chapters in their bottom drawer, and they keep rewriting the same two chapters and they never get the book written.

Mignon: Oh, that would be me.

Bourne: You've written some wonderful books.

Mignon: I feel called out. My fiction is in the drawer. Two chapters. Rewritten 20 times.

Bourne: Well, just write it until the end of the book and then go back and fix it.

Mignon: Are you part of a writer's group now? It sounded like the class was really good for you.

Bourne: Well, the class was great, and I would love to be part of a writer's group. Regrettably, I don't drive anymore so that's limited me a little bit in my ability just to go around about town and meet with writer's groups, but I know a few Nevada writers, and so we get together once in a while. I have wonderful readers for my books. Readers are very important, and I do see them often, and I depend upon them to read the book and tell me what's weak and what's inaccurate and what doesn't work for them.

Mignon: That's great. How do you structure your day? I know if you don't have a job, if you don't have stuff going on, sometimes the day can just get away from you. Do you struggle with keeping on a schedule, or is it just easy for you? How does that work?

Bourne: When I know I'm going to write, I start writing at one o'clock in the afternoon, and I write straight through until four or five in the afternoon. Four or five hours is about as much writing as I can do in a day. That leaves the morning for reading the New York Times and drinking a lot of coffee and it's not too rigorous a schedule, but then there are other days, particularly after I finished a book, where I just don't write at all. I kind of let it soak. I read a lot of other books because I think for writers the most important thing we do is read other people's writing. And so I do a lot of that, but my schedule is when I'm trying to get the book done and I give myself a deadline, that's what I do every afternoon.

Mignon: I think another thing people often wonder is for that first book especially, how did you find your publisher? What was that like?

Bourne: Well, first I found an agent. It took me about a year to find an agent who was genuinely interested. In this case it was the three academic mysteries, the "Red Queen" mysteries. I found one, and she liked it, and then she sold it to the publisher of that series.

Mignon: How did you find your agent?

Bourne: I found her by talking to people, and I talked to teachers, I talked to other writers and somebody said, you ought to really get to know Kimberly Cameron. I sent her my stuff and she liked it, and so we've been together since then.

Mignon: That's great. Are you working on a new book now?

Bourne: I have one on the hard drive, but I haven't been working on it. I've been taking a little time off and working on getting this book sold and thinking about the next one.

Mignon: Yeah, no. It's a lot of work promoting a book and making sure once you've written it, you still have to make sure everyone knows about it.

Bourne: Oh, yeah.

Mignon: Let's make sure they know about it. That book is called "A Woman of Two Minds by Bourne Morris," B. O. U. R. N. E.

Mignon: I have an unusual name and so do you. How did you get your name?

Bourne: It's a family name. There was a man named Bourne who was in Massachusetts many centuries ago, and he started a big family, and it's always been given to a man until I came along, and then it was given to me, and my grandmother did not approve.

Mignon: That's wonderful. Well, you've been breaking the glass ceiling. Weren't you the first woman to run the West coast office of Ogilvy and Mather?

Bourne: I was, and I was one of the first two women to run an advertising agency that came up through the corporate ranks.

Mignon: Yeah.

Bourne: But that was back in the seventies.

Mignon: Yeah.

Bourne: Yeah.

Mignon: Good for you. That's amazing. Yeah. My name's a family name too. My great, great grandmother's favorite flower was the mignonette.

Mignon: Well, thank you Bourne for being here with me today. Again, the book is "A Woman of Two Minds" and check it out. It sounds really great.

Bourne: Thank you very much, Mignon.

Mignon: You're welcome.

Thanks for listening. I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. You can find me at the home of my podcast network, QuickAndDirtyTips.com. And thank you to my producer Nathan Semes.