6 Questions for Cole Moreton
Cole Moreton has written a beautiful new book for us called The Light Keeper, out next year.
A woman goes missing in the midst of the stress of trying for a baby. Her partner searches for her in the beautiful but deadly landscape of the South Downs, where huge cliffs fall away to the sea. And there in an old former lighthouse, on the brink of a four hundred foot drop, is a mysterious man who knows only too well that sometimes love takes you to the edge.
A novel of of hope, faith, grief, longing and love.
We caught up with Cole about writing, inspiration, and his future plans.
1. What were your favourite books when you were little?
The first one I remember is Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse by Ursula Moray Williams. A toy maker constructs a beautiful little wooden horse who wants to stay with him rather than go out into the world. Then the toymaker falls on hard times so the little wooden horse reluctantly decides to sell himself as an act of love. He gets into all sorts of scrapes, including having to join the pit ponies working down a mine, a chapter which terrified me when I was little. Every chapter ends on a cliffhanger and in classic style the hero is almost broken before he manages to find a happy ending. Even now, just thinking about it moves me. That little wooden horse is probably the reason I have been telling stories all my life.
2. Why was it important to you to write The Light Keeper?
I love to tell stories. It’s a privilege and shared stories help us understand our place in the world.
I’m a city boy, I was born and brought up in the East End of London, but I moved to the South Downs 15 years ago, not long after writing a book called Hungry for Home: a journey to America from the edge of Ireland. For that book I had spent many years going back and forth to the far west of County Kerry, a spectacular place where history is easily visible in the landscape. I was drawn to live in my part of Sussex because it was the closest thing I could find to some of Kerry’s raw beauty and still be able to get to London for work (in the days before Southern Rail and the Government made every journey a voyage of uncertainty!)
I began to explore and respond to the landscape around me - the rolling downland, the wide skies, the high cliffs - and as I did, stories began to emerge that I might tell. Some of them are drawn from or inspired by life, and there are a few elements of the book such as descriptions of the IVF process and some of the grief and longing that the characters experience, that have been very real to me. I also found writing fiction a great release from the stresses of my job as a journalist, covering some of the biggest stories of our times. And there are themes in The Light Keeper around faith, prayer, belonging and the nature of the divine - and how we can often encounter the sacred in the natural world - that I have been trying to work out for myself over the years.
Where do I belong? What can I hold on to when my life is in chaos? Where is God in all this? What happens when you pray? Do miracles happen? And if they seem to, why are they so mysterious and hard to live with? How do I leave when I need to stay - and how do I stay when I need to leave? Grief, love, faith and hope and all explored here, within the context of a women who has gone missing and a man who lives on the edge of a four hundred foot drop!
This book is very personal to me but it is not autobiography and it’s not writing as therapy: over many years of working and reworking the novel, the characters began to come to life and go in their own directions. I always thought that was a bit of a myth put about by writers to make the process sound more magical than it really is, but actually Jack, Sarah and the others in the book feel like real people to me now. I hope they will for you too.
3. Whose writing do you look to for inspiration?
A book I love and have re-read often over the years is Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams, which is set in Ireland and is about belonging, inspiration and of course love. It’s lyrical and romantic but also tough and clear-eyed and those are things I wanted for The Light Keeper. Tim Winton, the great Australian writer, is another whose books are like that. I could mention many more including Jon McGregor, author of Reservoir 13 and If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things; JoJo Moyes, whose writing gets overlooked in the phenomenal success of her stories; and for sheer pace, the king of crime Peter James, who I’m so glad to say has read and loved The Light Keeper.
I read a lot of Henning Mankell’s thrillers while I was thinking about The Light Keeper and was lucky enough to be sent to Sweden in the depths of winter to interview Kenneth Branagh, who was playing the detective Wallander in a remote location there. Some of that noir-ish atmosphere came back with me. The Light Keeper isn’t a detective story like those, but there are elements of mystery about it and I do aim to keep you turning the page.
Oh and if poetry or faith mean anything to you I would recommend a lost classic, a small book by the poet and critic Donald Davie called To Scorch Or Freeze. He came to faith late in life and this is a masterful modernist reworking of the Psalms that is full of truth and beauty.
4. Tell us about your writing process – do you have routines and rituals?
I don’t have routines and rituals. The Light Keeper was written over many years, between the cracks of doing journalism and raising a family, so it has been a question of grabbing hold of it - or letting it grab hold of me - as when I could. When our children were small and life was hectic I would sometimes go up to the cliffs to think about the story and fall asleep in the car instead! But I would say this really is a labour of love: there were many times when my mind turn the story over in that curious state just before sleep and the answer to some problem - a piece of dialogue, the end of a scene maybe - would occur to me and I would know I had to get up and write it down, however long that took, even though work was looming in the morning.
5. The South Downs plays such an important part in your novel – why did you choose that setting?
The South Downs National Park was formed while I was writing The Light Keeper. It’s a spectacular, dramatic and magical landscape that draws people from around the world. It is also a place where I have walked, talked, fretted, wondered, prayed and been silent over the years and felt the presence of God in the natural world. It’s a thin place, as they say. And in this book, the landscape is almost a character in its own right.
6. What’s next for you as an author?
I’ve returned to playing music and singing in recent years and performed a one-man show involving words, images and songs for my last book, a true story called The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away. I’m writing songs with my friend and collaborator David Perry that I hope to perform alongside readings and stories from The Light Keeper and there may be an album to go with the book. If you’d like me to come and play and tell stories and explore some of the themes in The Light Keeper at a place near you, let me know!
Cole Moreton is a writer and broadcaster exploring who we are and what we believe in. He interviews people for the Mail on Sunday and has been named Interviewer of the Year at the Press Awards. Cole writes and presents documentaries for Radio 4 and his series The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away won Radio Academy gold as the Audio Moment of the Year and Best Writing at the World’s Best Radio Awards in New York. Hungry for Home (Viking Penguin) was shortlisted for the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for First Book.
The Light Keeper is Cole’s fifth book, but his debut novel. He is also a singer and storyteller who has appeared at many festivals including Cheltenham and Greenbelt and is available to perform a one-man show exploring the themes in The Light Keeper. Cole lives near Beachy Head, co-hosts the Edge of England podcast and spends as much time as possible staring out to sea.