An interview with Margaret Morgan

by Samuel Elliott

Prior to embarking on a writing career, Margaret Morgan spent several years practicing criminal law. From there, she utilised her perennial passion for writing, crossing over into screen-writing and script-doctoring, with her credits including work on Country Practice andWater Rats. Aside from penning works for the small-screen, Morgan’s short stories have been published in a myriad of noteworthy publications, including Going Down Swinging and Meanjin, among others. Some time ago, Morgan returned to university, completing abachelor’s degree in Advanced Science in Biology at Macquarie University, where she focused on plant science, genetics and parasitology. These areas of studies were a lifelong interest that proved to largely shape the inspiration for her debut novel, The Second Cure.

About The Second Cure

Presented within the scope of a gripping thriller, The Second Cure is a platform through which Morgan poses the questions – What would happen if humans were the primary host for a parasite? How would this change our brain function? Would it change the way we vote, live and love?

So I understand that it was during your return to university where the impetus for The Second Cure came about?

It was. I was taking field trips up to Smith lake and I was teaching students about plant identification. One night we were just sitting by the lake and I just started thinking about toxoplosmosis and particularly about host behavioural modification, which is such an amazing, mind-blowing field and started considering what would happen if it changed enough to start really affecting humans and human behaviour in order to maintain its survival.

Because the way that it changes the brain cells in rodents that are infected, it makes them unafraid of cats, is basically a method in which it ensures its life cycle, because its sexual reproduction happens inside cats. So my version toxoplosmosis pestis has its sexual reproduction inside humans and it needs humans to change their behaviour in order to ensure that it is transmitted. More reckless sexual behaviour, spike in unplanned pregnancies, that sort of thing.

It also just occurred to me what a wonderful metaphor the whole thing of mutualism and parasitism is for human interaction generally, for the way that relationships work. You might have one person who might be giving and giving and giving with another person that is just taking, taking, taking or you might have one that works really evenly, the power base.

That’s also a great metaphor for how society works, you’ve got the sorts of societies whereeveryone contributes according to their ability and looks after everybody, through to the cutthroat, hyper-capitalist sort where there is full on parasitism from the elite over the workers and it just struck me as this beautiful way to combine my biological interests with my political interests, so it just sort of said to me – novel! That’s how it happened.

Still discussing Tox, I felt that it was something you wanted to explore in its fullness, but that you purposefully crafted it so that it would not be life-threatening on its own. I felt like you wanted to essentially explore humanity bringing about its own upheaval without the tox doing that? As compared to something deadly like the bubonic plague?

Yeah, I wasn’t interested in something that was just going to wipe people out. I think it’s a lotmore interesting to explore something that starts off with relative subtle effects.

Obviously not subtle on poor old cats. [Laughs]. But, yeah, I wanted something that didn’taffect everybody, or affect everyone in the same way. I thought that that was important too, if everybody all started developing these changed behaviours, became more progressive, losttheir religion, became more empathetic, well, you know, where’s the story in that?

Going on from that, another aspect I found particularly fascinating about Tox, was how it adversely affected people’s faiths. That is, those of a spiritual faith. Could you talk a little bit about that, was that something you found in your research?

There’s quite a bit of good evidence, particularly regarding people who are extremely religious, with MRI kind of studies, that look at parts of the brain of people who are deeply religious and what lights up when they’re in a spiritual frame of mind, such as if they are praying or meditating. I think it’s the left-temporal lobe that’s really very active. And there’splenty of cases of people who have brain injuries that suddenly become deeply religious, which tells you a great deal about the nature of religious belief.

But, of course, I’m not suggest that it is entirely physiological, but if you grow up in a

Muslim society, and you are religious, you’re not going to suddenly become a Baptist. You’re going to become whatever the culture is telling you to be and, of course, there’s going to be people within that culture that don’t believe, but will feel that there is no alternative but to play the game and try.

But I do think there is a genetic component to religious belief and religious faith, I think that it’s something probably to do with evolutionary biology, something that has been selectedfor. If you go back to most of our existence as humans, not in the last 10,000 years but prior to that, it was small tribal groups and cohesion and a sense of being, of belonging, was just essential for survival and what better way to ensure that kind of cohesion than by having someone in that group, who had access to the gods, select individuals that could explain why everything was happening.

So, I think that the majority of the world is religious because it has been to our speciesadvantage for that to be the case. But of course, we’re no longer now in those small groups, we now are in massive cities and we’re not just interacting with those twenty-other people,we’re interacting with thousands of other people all the time. So, those kind of behaviours that may have had an advantage to us, no longer have an advantage and I think that that’swhy that tribalism of religious belief, is so oppressive in so many cultures.

If you look terrorism and the rise of the far-right, to me it seems that it’s like a genetic traitthat has outworn its usefulness, a bit like the appendix. Obviously, it gives many people agreat deal of strength and I’ve tried to show that in the character of Winnie and I’m not suggesting that all religion is bad at all, because I don’t think it is, I think that it’s actually very helpful for a lot of people, and if it does help people rationalise being good, that’s good.

Aside from religious faith, you also explore humanity’s tendency, in times of crisis, to look to individuals, leaders, that they perceive as saviours, but who are really fear-mongering despots. Within the case of The Second Cure, there’s Effenberg, and how he is given free rein to ascend to an almost godlike position of power.

That’s right, that sort of points to this whole idea of hierarchical societies and how they feed on fear, to function. And again, to create a sense of the other and a fear of the otheŗ a fear of change, so someone like Effenberg can exploit that fear, like look what we’re seeing inAmerica at the moment. It all comes down to fear and this sense of the other. The conservative mind, and there’s been some great studies done on this too, tends to process threats differently from the progressive mind. This is obviously not black and white and it happens to degrees and some people will fit in this and others won’t, but there’s a tendency,the evidence is pretty strong, that what will happen with the progressive mind is that, initially the fear will hit the amygdala, but then it is mediated by the frontal cortex, which kind of brings the logic bit and will say ‘well, hang on, this person has different coloured skin from me, but I know rationally that’s not a threat, therefore my response is going to be a progressive response’.

Whereas someone who is deeply conservative, will look at that person, and the brain won’thave the same process as being mediated, so fear is the main driver. People like that, you do an analysis like that, and they have an enlarged amygdala. Whether that’s because they werebig in the first place and that led them to being more fear-driven, or if a fear-driven environment makes the amygdala bigger through constant use, that’s that cause and effectdebate which I think is still open.

Tox isn’t singularly destructive, there’s also many effects that would be enjoyable, pleasurable even. Obviously, you’ve balanced it out, so that some who have been affectedmight even enjoy the condition and the symptoms, such as the orgasmic symphonies and those beautiful artworks and this newfound joy in eating – to have that level of appreciation would be amazing. Is that what you wanted to depict? That balance?

Don’t you envy them? [Laughs]. When I was first thinking about Tox, I was thinking about lots of good things happening to people, and then I realised there wouldn’t be enough drama, if there wasn’t also sort of negative aspects as well.

In the initial draft, I didn’t have Winnie being nearly as a sympathetic character and I realised that I absolutely had to. Because I had to make what she goes through, something that thereader will care about because if I didn’t do that, then everybody would say – ‘Who needs a cure? Let’s just bugger off cats’. [Laughs]

So, I really had to focus on the negative side of things to make it dramatically work, the losing of one’s faith and of one’s core, essentially losing the meaning of one’s life. That sort of thing. If you’ve always thought the meaning of your life was one of religious belief then it would be terrifying to lose that, it would be just horrible. I really had to put my head inside that of a believer to do that and I think that was actually a really interesting process for me personally.

I think it’s made me more tolerant. [Laughs].-

You obviously have a much more advanced knowledge of science and the workings of science than the average writer or reader would. So how did you go about writing this story so that included all details pertinent to explaining Tox, but never so much as to inundate, or entirely lose a reader?

I do have a writing group that I’m with and I think that’s helped a bit. They’ve read bits overtime, but I think it also comes from my work in television, where I was doing the legal consulting. I remember that there was such a fine line between research driving a drama and research being a tool of the drama – you can’t ever let the research overwhelm it.

It’s a question of getting this balance right and I hate really bad, implausible research. Thereis a way to use reality and real research in fiction that doesn’t have to overwhelm it, but it also has to be right. It’s a fine line, but I think it’s an important one.

But I’ve also written popular science writing online before and I think that’s helped. I have a science blog and I think that writing that blog certainly helped me in terms of expressing myscientific ideas, in a way that’s accessible to people who aren’t scientists.

Can we talk a little bit about your writing process? You mentioned before that the idea came to you when you were completing your Science degree?

Yeah, it did. I got about 20,000 words written, and that was when I started a course at the Australian Writer’s Centre, that’s a six-month course, one night a week, where everyone comes in with the beginning of their manuscript and each week, you kind of workshop somebody’s. The idea is that you end up with the full draft at the end.

I’m not one of those people who sits down, and says ‘OK, at 7 o’clock I’ve got to write for two hours’, I can’t do that. I wouldn’t write every day, I know that there are some people thatsay that you should. I really loathe so many of those prescriptive things about writing. There’s two things you’ve got to do – read a lot and write a lot. If you keep writing, you’ll finish a novel.

You’ve just got to motivate yourself, you can’t just wait for inspiration to come from theclouds. I don’t like this idea of writers block, that’s sort of mystifying to me. If you’re stuck, it’s because there’s something wrong with what you’re writing, and you’ve just got to sitdown and work out what that is and fix it. With writing, there’s a billion different ways of how to do it, it’s such a personal thing and it does come down to your character and the lifeyou lead.

I carry a notebook around everywhere, I write notes, ideas will often come to me, just as I’mfalling asleep. I’m a great believer in the old subconscious backburner, the way that solutions to writing issues, you know plot questions and stuff, will come to you when you least expect it. I love that feeling so much. The other day, I was driving and I had to pull over, because I had this great idea for this new novel I’m now writing.

What about some of your influences, contemporary or classic?

I love the worlds that are created by people like Kim Stanley Robinson, I think in terms ofworld building, there’s no one better, I think he’s an absolute genius. Iain M Banks I just adore, I love his writing. I’m actually very heavily into crime fiction and thrillers and stuff, psychological thrillers, I think they are fascinating, I like the way they structure revelation throughout. That’s really important, at which point to let the audience in and at which point you let them be ahead of the protagonist, or behind the protagonist, in terms of craft I think that’s really good.

For non-fiction, there’s one book that I absolutely adore, and that’s Darwin’s Dangerous Ideaby Daniel Dennett. He’s a philosopher but it’s about evolution and how if you take theessential idea of evolutionary theory, he looks at it like acid that just burns through various dogmas and it is just so beautifully written. It’s written not as a biologist but as a philosopher. It’s one of those books that you keep thinking about years afterwards.

I read very, very widely, you have to, you need to know. –

The Second Cure has just come out, you’ve mentioned that you’re working on another novelnow, would you consider using your scriptwriting talents to put to good use on a film adaption for The Second Cure?

I’ve started the document [Laughs]. You can die of encouragement in that industry, but it is opening up a lot more now. I think a 4-to-6 episode series on Netflix would be perfect for it. Idon’t know if I would write it all myself, I’d probably want to get a couple of other writers onboard to help me.

Have you mapped out a cast in your head?

Of course! [Laughs]. Richard Roxborough would be a great Effenberg. I was thinking Judy Davis for Marion. So at the moment, my brain is between the two, the novel and the screenplay.

The Second Cure is now available from Penguin Random House and can be purchased, here: https://www.penguin.com.au/books/the-second-cure-9780143790235

About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at: 
www.facebook.com/samuelelliottauthor

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