Morgan Matson has no qualms about admitting to petty crime in order to be where she is now: sipping Coke at a luxury hotel miles away from home, counting down the hours till she meets her adoring readers.
It’s a long weekend in the Philippines for The Unexpected Everything author — a book signing in Cebu, another in Makati, then an appearance at the Manila International Book Fair. And before all that, the press.
“I just graduated college and I knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t know where to start. I was in LA at the time and we had mailboxes with a shelf for bigger packages in our apartment building. One of my neighbors ordered a catalogue for extension classes at a university, and I just took it. A month later I was back in school,” a giggling Morgan tells GIST.
Through those classes, Morgan was able to build a portfolio, get teacher recommendations, and other requirements for graduate school. Most of all it allowed her to get into the writing groove. “It all started from stealing that catalogue and I feel really bad now,” she continues with a trace of guilt. “Sorry, neighbor.”
Our conversation wanders off into music, musicals, apps, and social media — somehow betraying our age (she’s celebrating her 35th birthday in the country). She’s a slave to technology and is
as easily distracted as any young professional out there. Though it may not seem like it given that she’s already published four thick volumes of fiction, all of which are best-sellers.
All the books I could’ve written if I weren’t on my phone all the time
“As soon as I come home, after this trip, I’m going to go off Twitter for two months because I’m going to write my (next) book,” she says, adding that Twitter and Instagram are two of her biggest productivity offenders.
In fact we may not be reading The Unexpected Everything if the notoriously addictive microblogging site hadn’t been “out of order” three years ago. “I was on a book tour for Since You’ve Been Gone in Washington DC. Normally I’d just go out for lunch and have my phone with me, looking at Twitter. But it was down, so I’d gone to lunch by myself, carrying a book with me. My mind was wandering and I started thinking about growing up in (a political environment) — ‘What kind of girl would that be, who’d grow up always having to be aware of everything she says and how she is perceived?’ And then I thought, ‘Oh that’s interesting.’ That’s where the idea came from,” she shares, then after a short pause, cries: “What were all the other books I could’ve written if I weren’t on my phone all the time!”
Change “writing” to your choice endeavor and “Twitter” to your digital addiction and you’d be exclaiming, “Same!” to Morgan. Her struggles with being organized and passion for pop culture make her very relatable — something that can be said about her characters as well. You’d see in the pages of her novels girls and boys going on road trips, making playlists, and chatting via messaging apps, complete with emojis.
Since reading Ann Brashares (Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries), and Sarah Dessen (Along for the Ride) — authors whom Morgan names as her influences — she’s aspired for the same accessibility in their stories. “There’s a little bit of magic and (fairy tale) in them, but they’re mostly based on realism,” she says. “These women gave me the confidence to think that maybe I could do it, too.”
You don’t need the brooding bad boy who treats you badly
Her first attempt at writing YA fiction was, in her words, “so bad,” that’s why she pursued the night classes and, eventually, graduate studies. “I find that structure helps me a lot. I work best when there’s someone who’ll say, ‘Okay, write ten pages and bring them into class next week,’” explains Morgan.
One thing she reveals she can’t learn in school is the formula for generating plots. “You wish it happens the same way, so you could recreate the circumstances that lead to new ideas,” she continues. “But inspiration is like one of those rabbits that, in trying to chase it, goes further away. You have to just be living your life not trying to find a new idea, and that’s sort of when one pops up.”
With The Unexpected Everything, the theme may have been inspired by politics, but Morgan is not the storyteller who’d deliberately tuck commentaries in her books. “I can’t think that way when I’m writing,” she says. Upon reflection, though, she notes that her characters exemplify her beliefs. “All the love interests (in my novels) are nice guys. Through them, I’m kind of saying, ‘Don’t settle for less, young women. You don’t need to have the brooding bad boy who treats you badly. There are really good boys out there. Give them a shot.’”
She adds that the book has a different view on friendship as well. “There are so many books where there are friends turning on each other, with so much drama and infighting,” continues Morgan. “Your friendships can be wonderful things that make you happy. You don’t have to be friends with someone who makes you feel bad.”
My books aren’t movies
Many successful contemporary YA novels are famous for their action-packed storyline and fantastic worlds. And right away they’re branded a success when they’re optioned for a major motion picture. We ask if it’s a dream; Morgan replies that it might have been a few years ago. “Some books make great movies. You go, ‘Oh I see this, I see everything.’ And I’m not sure that my books are movies,” reasons Morgan. “Their climax is emotional. It’s
not necessarily big and dramatic. It’s someone admitting something — sometimes to themselves, which does not make for a great movie.”
It’s not to say that she’s shutting down any prospects of an adaptation. She’s even entertained our subtle prodding for her to pen a stage play or a musical; she has a background in theater and loves music, after all (Morgan highly recommends Sing Street). “It’d be interesting to do that for your own book, sort of tear it apart,” she affirms.
Before getting too far ahead in the future, we stir the conversation back to the present, to her book tour. “The fact that I’m here halfway across the world because people read my books and liked them, that blows my mind,” the young novelist says about her adventure so far. “I love meeting readers because so much of your working life is you alone by the computer in silence.”
“My mother is still like, ‘Are you sure you don’t want a regular job?’” shares Morgan, stressing that her mom is as concerned as the next parent whose child has just confessed that she wanted to become a writer. It’s also her message of consolation to aspiring writers — don’t be discouraged despite the little support. But she’s quick to caution them on making hasty decisions, suggesting that they find a job where they can exercise their talents and at the same time earn a living.
“Sometimes it doesn’t have to be one or the other,” she says. “You can always do both until you can do just one. You should want to do different stuff before you write full-time anyway, because you have to get as much experience as you can. Pursue your dreams, but be practical. You can’t write if you’re worried about making your rent.”
Morgan herself worked at a publishing house as an editor and wrote on the side before becoming
a full-time writer. She only quit her day job after selling her first book — which she finished with great difficulty. “First books are really hard because you have to figure out what works for you,” shares Morgan. “You’re learning it all at the same moment. But I’ll also say that don’t just focus on writing. People don’t think about the fact that you’re going to need something to write about.”
What she has discovered four books later, however, is that it doesn’t get easier on the next novel. But as challenges are a given in anything that’s worth undertaking, Morgan’s biggest piece of advice is: finish something. “I clearly remember that moment — ‘Oh no, I’m going down the hill; I’m going to finish this book.’ And then I knew I could write another book because I’ve done it already,” she recalls. “That’s how you know you could write a book: because you’ve written a book.”