The Secret of global success
''Some say I'm an overnight success,'' says Kate Morton. "Well that was a very long night that lasted about 10 years." Photo: Gillian Van Niekerk
The woman bustles in late, noisily rearranges her shopping bags - seemingly oblivious to the tutting crowd - and then finally settles down near the front of the cafe in an upmarket German bookshop, just as Australia's newest literary sensation takes the microphone to speak about her work.
Halfway through the laboriously translated Q&A session, the woman leans over. ''What is the name of this writer?'' she asks me.
''Kate Morton,'' I whisper back. ''She's Australian. Did you come here to see her?''
''No,'' she replies, bluntly. ''I came here for the cake. They make very good cake here.''
She pauses and then leans over again. ''But she speaks very well. I like the story she tells of her book. Now I must to buy one.''
She's not alone. As Morton finishes talking, the queue for her to sign copies of her fourth and latest book, The Secret Keeper, snakes out of the cafe, around the store. As it continues to grow, it becomes easier to understand just why she's now the most successful Australian author, in terms of worldwide sales, since Colleen McCullough.
And even that plaudit might be doing her a disservice. After all, McCullough was always published from the US, whereas Morton is a bona fide home-grown publishing triumph.
''But it does all feel a bit overwhelming, when I think about it,'' Morton says over a schnitzel the size of a small tablecloth and a huge glass of red in a cafe in the backstreets of Frankfurt. ''So I try not to. I simply love writing good stories; that's my passion.
''I write what I'd like to read and just hope that, along the way, others might like to read them, too.''
So far, so good. In Germany, the tall, slim woman with long, brown hair and a newly cut 1970s it-girl fringe tops the bestseller lists regularly, as she's also done in Spain, Italy and Australia. Her sweeping historical sagas revolve around mysterious, long-kept family secrets, usually played out in England in different eras. In Britain they have hit No.1 on The Times bestseller list - beaten in annual sales only by J. K. Rowling - and in the US, The New York Times list.
By this week, the sales of her first three books, The Shifting Fog,
The Forgotten Garden and The Distant Hours - some of which have just been released in different parts of the world - stand at 17.5 million and rising. Next week The Secret Keeper will be released in Australia. It has already been released in Britain, and will soon come out in the US, and Germany on January 28.
Last week, a lavish dinner was held in her honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the biggest book marketplace in the world, attended by leading publishers from around the globe. ''I don't know this has ever been done for an Australian author before,'' says Robert Gorman, the chief executive of her Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin.
''It's a real rarity. But she's now published in 39 countries in 26 different languages, which is an incredible achievement, and the film rights to The Forgotten Garden have just been sold to Clint Eastwood's film company.''
Some of those attending were in no doubt, either, about how much Morton deserved the glitzy occasion at one of the city's top restaurants.
''We're all Anglophiles and she writes in such a beautiful English style,'' says Lisa Keim, subsidiary rights director of Morton's US publisher, Simon & Schuster. ''Her stories have such great mysteries at their heart; no one writes about family secrets like she does. In Canada, she's considered a goddess.''
Jonathan Atkins, the international development director of her British publisher, Pan Macmillan, says she creates great characters and wonderful stories that make people want to read again. ''Her sales in the UK are going from strength to strength,'' he says. ''There are a lot of Australian authors who are huge in Australia, like Di Morrissey, Bryce Courtenay and Matthew Reilly, but they don't do very well overseas. She really does connect.''
At home, reviews have been mixed: either absolutely glowing, or disparaging and snarly about such a commercially successful style that, her critics say, has literary pretensions. Morton takes both attitudes in her stride.
''Some say I'm an overnight success,'' she laughs. ''Well, that was a very long night that lasted about 10 years. But while I do, of course, now feel the pressure of having had books that have been very successful, I just know I have to concentrate on writing for myself. I can't worry about genres or markets or what might be commercial or not. That never works.''
At 36 and commanding million-dollar advances, she juggles her writing career with her family life as the mother of two boys, Oliver, 9, and Louis, 4, and as the wife of her childhood sweetheart, composer-musician Davin, 39. It's been a long, hard struggle to get to this point, and she's determined not to let anyone spoil it.
Born in South Australia, the eldest of three girls, she developed a love of old books from shuffling around antique stores with her collector mother, Diane. As a kid, she devoured Enid Blyton and Daphne du Maurier classics as fast as she could find them, and they offered an escape whenever real life grew tough.
With her father Warren, a civil engineer, the family moved around constantly with his projects.
By the time she was five, she had lived in nine houses throughout country NSW and Queensland. They finally settled on Tamborine Mountain.
She did her degree in English at the University of Queensland, earning first-class honours, then went to England for a summer course in acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She attended one audition, for a play at the Old Vic. ''But one of the actors there told me if I wanted a career in theatre, I'd need to be prepared to live in a cardboard box,'' Morton says. ''People might think writing is a hard business, but it's nowhere near acting. But then I was saved the choice. I was offered a scholarship to do my master's on tragedy in Victorian novels, so came home to do that.''
She studied and started writing in her spare time. She fell in love with it immediately. ''Once I discovered writing, I realised it offers everything that the theatre does but you can do it yourself, in your own time,'' she says. ''It was a much better fit for me. I realised that's what I had to do …''
But it wasn't easy.
Money was tight and at one point, fearing she and Davin might lose their house in Brisbane when they didn't have enough to pay the mortgage, she worked in an all-you-can-eat fish restaurant, replenishing buckets of prawns, and then as a waitress at weddings.
''It was soul-destroying,'' Morton says. ''But it was such a good education. It made me realise what kind of person I never want to become: the kind at a wedding who is offered a prawn, and takes six.''
It wasn't a simple path to publication, either. Her first book was rejected by every publisher and filed away in her bottom drawer. Her second book went exactly the same way. Finally, after reaching the halfway point on her third, she had her first baby and put the manuscript aside. At that point she got a call from Selwa Anthony, the agent who had discovered her.
''We have a publisher interested,'' Anthony said. ''How long will it take you to finish it?'' Morton was thrilled. ''Maybe two months?''
Anthony didn't miss a beat. ''Make that one month,'' she said. ''We might lose the deal, otherwise.''
Morton finished the book; it was a big hit; and it looked like a smooth run from there. But it wasn't. The second book did famously but then, while writing the third, Morton got lost.
The book wasn't working and, 60,000 words in, she finally decided to file it with the other rejects in that crowded bottom drawer and start again. ''That was hard, very hard,'' she says.
''But it's an awful feeling when you know you're writing the wrong book. So I stopped and started another and completely fell in love with the new story. It just felt right.''
Just how right can be seen from the way many agents around the world now report publishers constantly asking if they have anything ''like Kate Morton''.
''She's created a genre completely of her own,'' Anthony says.
''But that has to be good for Australian authors. It makes everyone take us a lot more seriously.''
As for Morton, now touring Britain, the US and Canada before travelling with her book around Australia, she feels blessed to be in this position, whether her readers are diehard fans or merely discover her en route to their favourite cake. ''It's all I ever dreamt of,'' she says. ''I just love falling between the covers of a book and becoming lost in other people's lives. I now can't stop it.
''It's a compulsion.''
■The Secret Keeper is published by Allen& Unwin on Wednesday.