FOR her fourth novel, ‘a scary screwball noir’, Carole Morin created an evil twin with a life even more outlandish than her own, writes Jackie McGlone
Namedrops keep falling on my head while I’m talking to Carole Morin – although, to be fair, she protests several times that she really doesn’t want to let so many famous names fall into the conversation. Please do, I urge her, because, hey, what’s a Glasgow-born novelist like her to do when fate intervenes and she finds herself beating the late Stanley Kubrick in a dessert-eating contest, or drinking mojitos with Fidel Castro in Havana, or being mistaken for Graham Greene’s Eurasian daughter in Hanoi?
All of the above and much, much more has actually happened to Morin, who is most definitely not Eurasian. She was born, grew up and educated in Bridgeton, although she cultivates Chinoiserie in her appearance.
Today she’s sporting sooty black hair and wearing an electric-blue cheongsam. Even her latest anarchic novel – Spying On Strange Men – is to have a Chinese edition. She wrote the book sitting under a parasol in a garden in Beijing, where she was recovering from pollution-induced pneumonia.
Morin has written four novels and has been described as “Sylvia Plath with a sense of humour”, “a modern Dorothy Parker put through a Quentin Tarantino meat-grinder with a dash of Grace Kelly on top”, and “Lolita with a brain”. She’s based in Soho, where she lives in with her “thrill-a-minute” husband of 23 years, Don Watson.
Their flat is decorated in virginal white, apart from the “blood-red” carpet in the bedroom. There’s a wall of glass in the living room, but it’s always tropically hot, hence Morin’s penchant for writing wearing white Chinese silk pyjamas. Watson, who thinks his wife’s the cat’s PJ’s anyway, does a job that closely resembles that of the mysterious diplomat husband of Vivien Lash, narrator of Spying On Strange Men. “Don’s on secondment to the Foreign Office,” says Morin cagily. “We can’t really talk about his work.” He’s a spy? “No comment.”
Aside from her close encounters with the uber-famous and a career that has included being writer-in-residence at Wormwood Scrubs and Literary Fellow at the University of East Anglia, there’s a great deal that Morin can’t really talk about. Her age, for instance. Blue-eyed, alabaster-skinned, she looks about 12, despite the wound-red gash of red lipstick and air of knowing innocence.
“Just say that I’m 124 years old but that I look young for my age,” she drawls. “Unlike everyone I know I haven’t had Botox.”
She was in her early thirties when we first met on publication of her brilliant second novel, Dead Glamorous: The Autobiography of Seduction & Self-Destruction (1996), the tale of Maria Money, granddaughter of a Glaswegian, Rachmanesque slum landlord, based on Morin’s maternal “Grandfather Money”, who owned 60 smoke-blackened tenements in Glasgow’s East End and was filthy rich.
Her mother Maggie inherited his fortune – and spent it on sybaritic holidays and glamorous clothes, while Morin’s father, John, a recovering alcoholic, stayed in Glasgow – in one of the Money flats.
“At least Grandfather Money – I really don’t want to reveal his name – also had the decency or perhaps it was bad taste to live in one of his own slums,” says Morin, whose brother John killed himself, allegedly shaming the family by throwing himself off the roof of one of the tenements owned by his grandfather. He was 26. The suicide, she points out, always has the last word, so the subject fascinates her.
Spying On Strange Men is, in Morin’s words, “scary screwball noir”, telling of a twisted love triangle. Vivien Lash is an art terrorist, who spies on strange men, such as her Creepy Neighbour, to create installations. Lash – “my evil twin” – has a faithless husband and a rich movie director boyfriend.
“It’s kind of Double Indemnity [the classic 1944 film noir starring Barbara Stanwyck] but without the insurance policy. Vivien and her lover don’t need money to escape, but before she escapes she must kill her husband.
“Spying On Strange Men is a love story gone very, very wrong, although I never explain my books,” says Morin, whose first novel, Lampshades (1991), had a teenage narrator obsessed with Hitler, while her third, Penniless in Park Lane (2001), boasted a heroine having an affair with a decadent Labour minister, “one of Toady’s cronies.” All of her wickedly entertaining, pitch-black novels are being reissued in new editions.
They are an ingenious blend of fact and fiction, full of epigrams and authorial aperçus. To wit: “Lies are easy to believe but the truth sounds false.”
Certainly, her ambiguous stories lie somewhere between, although with her “grotesque gallery,” of relatives, I wonder why she ever bothers to make anything up.
“Writing is hard work,” she says. “Even when you start with the raw ingredients – a mad family, a sense of humour, talent …it’s hard work. But you do get to sit around in silk pyjamas all day. Also, I love it when people think that the truth is lies and lies are true.”
Morin left home at 18. “I’m glad I grew up in Glasgow – with all the gloom and glamour. I still have an accent and a strong Scottish identity,” she notes, adding that her next book, Liberace’s Love Child, about a child assassin, is set in 1970s Scotland, partly in Edinburgh. However, she continues, “I’m an educated Scottish person who escaped.”
Her first – and only – office job was at Granta magazine, where she used to call Graham Greene at home in France, trying to persuade him to write articles.
“He preferred to be called Mr Graham and would always decline with elaborate politeness. He asked me if I was ‘as beautiful as my voice’. Or maybe that was [Ryszard] Kapuscinski, who was always more of a flirt. ‘Africa, you must go to Africa, you will fall in love with Africa.’” She can still hear the renowned Polish writer whispering in her ear.
She did go to Africa and had all her clothes stolen before the Aga Khan’s party. “But that’s another story! Then we went to Hanoi, where I was mistaken for Graham Greene’s Eurasian daughter. I neither confirmed nor denied this story because it came with a free five-star hotel room.”
There was no such luxury when she met Stanley Kubrick in the late 1980s. Her then boyfriend, an actor, was playing a soldier in Full Metal Jacket. “He was sleeping rough in Hyde Park – I was in a nearby hotel of course.” Kubrick found out and loaned “Mad Jack” his caravan, where Morin lived briefly, indulging in dessert-eating contests with the sweet-toothed director. She always won because she’d never eaten a first course. “I’m not claiming I knew him well,” she says. “But he was really nice to us, the least weird man you’ve ever met.”
As for Castro, she encountered him when she and Watson visited Havana. “We were staying at the Nacional Hotel, where there was a reception for him. Castro made a beeline for me. He started talking in Spanish, but I hadn’t a clue what he was saying so I asked him what cigar he smoked. Don couldn’t believe I’d asked that! Castro said he smoked Cohibas – the state brand – but I think he was lying and that he thought I was someone else. That’s always happening.”
Later, Morin e-mails asking if I’d like to know what happened when she went, at the age of 16, as “a junior diplomat” to the United States, under an international educational project. (Her Bridgeton headteacher remarked that she’d never known anyone less diplomatic.)
She writes: “I was always having to go to the White House with other young diplos/honours students to meet the president. So Ronald Reagan creaks over to me (think he recognised me from the last time I was there) and said: ‘Are you having fun?’
“But I thought he said, ‘Are you chewing gum?’
“So I replied, ‘Yeah, do you want a bit?’”
Then Morin told the leader of the western world that he was good in Dark Victory – the 1939 Bette Davis movie, in which he’s a bar-hopping playboy.
“That story went down well with Nicky Campbell,” adds the incorrigible Morin.
• Spying On Strange Men by Carole Morin (Dragon Ink, £9.99). www.carolemorin.co.uk