Kiran Dass speaks to Sally J. Morgan, whose brush with serial killers inspired her first novel.
In the 1970s, Gloucester couple Fred and Rosemary West committed a series of brutal attacks where they tortured young women to death in the cellar of their home. An art student in Sheffield in the late 60s and early 70s, Wellington-based writer and arts professor Sally J. Morgan briefly encountered the deadly duo in 1973 while hitch-hiking.
A pregnant Rosemary tried to coerce Morgan into the couple's small grey car, insisting, "Don't be frightened of us. Look, I'm pregnant, how's a pregnant woman going to hurt you?" Sharp instinct saw Morgan firmly decline the offer and it wasn't until decades later she realised how close she'd come to a gruesome end. It is this encounter that forms the basis of her debut novel, Toto Among the Murderers.
"I had never put this hitching incident together with the Wests. Their deeds only came to light in the 90s, which was 20 years after I had refused a lift with them. News reports contained photos, which showed them looking stolid and middle-aged. Rosemary in particular had changed a lot physically. It was only when I saw a documentary containing pictures of their younger selves and a description of their car that the realisation hit me," she says. "I went into shock, waves of nausea came over me. To be honest, this still happens if I think about it too closely."
Sick of the portrayal of young women being merely hunted and vulnerable, Morgan says she was interested in exploring the ways that women fight back and survive. A novel about resistance, Toto Among the Murderers is mostly set in grimy Chapeltown, the roughest part of Leeds, if not Yorkshire, in 1973 - an area then populated by junkies, sex workers and bohemian drifters on the margins. Art school graduate Toto is a flame-haired wild child who tests life's edges by following the direction of her outstretched thumb. For her, fear is "the armature that underpins her life" as she drinks a skinful, gets stoned and runs with the wrong crowd. As reports of young women going missing and being attacked in the area increasingly emerge in the news, Toto edges closer to harm's way.
"Only after I realised that I'd been a target for the Wests did I set out to really understand these people," says Morgan. "I spent hours watching documentaries and reading up on them. I might be a bit of an expert on psychopaths now!"
So what was it that rang alarm bells for Morgan about a seemingly harmless young pregnant woman? She says that when she was 10 her family moved to a new town and she was the victim of bullying.
"Two girls tried to trick me into doing something they knew would physically hurt me. Their tactic was to pretend to be my friend and to offer me a treat. All the while they had these sneaky, glinting smiles, right up until the moment they pounced. Rose West had that same, twisted smile; the same wheedling, insincere voice. That and the way the man [Fred West, who was driving] didn't engage with me until right at the end, when he couldn't contain himself any further and had to take a good look, told me they meant me harm. I just knew they did."
Morgan says despite this macabre encounter, most of her more memorable hitch-hiking experiences were more funny than threatening, including the time she and her boyfriend at the time were picked up by a swish gun-running couple in a black limousine.
"My boyfriend put our backpacks in the trunk and, when he slid into the backseat beside me, he whispered, 'There are machine guns in the boot.' The man and woman driving the limousine were charming and bought us sandwiches and took us all the way to our front door. You couldn't have met a lovelier pair of gun-runners!"
One of Morgan's favourite stories, though, is being picked up by a travelling salesman who seemed to be high on amphetamines. Driving so fast he was stopped by a traffic officer, the salesman convinced him his passengers were newlyweds on the way to their honeymoon. The officer softened, even congratulating Morgan on being such a beautiful bride. "I thanked him demurely," she laughs.
Describing her time at art school as "anarchistic, political and pleasure-seeking all rolled together," Morgan remembers it as a heady time when people were in bands and "everybody was a leftie.
"We had sit-ins about almost anything and were influenced by the Situationists, who said everything in life was political. We must have been a nightmare to teach. My big brush with pop culture came when I was living in Manchester in the late 70s and saw Joy Division before they were famous."
While she was a student in pre-Thatcher days, Morgan says her next novel is set in Manchester during that period. Interested in exploring the pivotal point in life between innocence and knowingness, Morgan thinks it's amazing anyone survives over the age of 21. The headstrong Toto is 21 and thinks she's streetwise and knows it all.
At a crossroads in her life, she's beginning to understand that she needs survival strategies. Born in Wales, Morgan came to New Zealand 19 years ago with her Kiwi ex-girlfriend. She says New Zealand immediately felt like home and she became a citizen as soon as she could.
"New Zealand is very like Wales. Small, stroppy and fixated on rugby. The landscape around Wellington where I live is rugged, like the Welsh coastline I grew up on near Swansea."
While Toto is her first published novel, she says she has been a "secret writer" since her teens. Taking her eight years to complete, she wrote the novel around a full-time job at Massey University and study for a PhD. She says the world of the book was built through a combination of memory, observation and research. It's rich in historical and sensory detail and Morgan, who has an MA in history, says she is "very nerdy about things being historically correct".
Her arts background also informs her writing. While writing Toto, she drew maps of neighbourhoods and the interiors of buildings so she could visualise them clearly enough to write about them.
"I often ask myself questions which evoke the senses while writing: How does this place smell? What direction does the light come from? What plants are in bloom at this time of year? What are the sounds?
"And much of my artwork has been a combination of image and text. I'm a hybrid - and happily so."
Toto Among the Murderers, by Sally J. Morgan (John Murray Originals, $35).