November 2010

J. T. Hill


An Interview with Keith Lee Morris

Keith Lee Morris is the author of four acclaimed books of fiction. In 2003, Jessa Crispin described his first novel, The Greyhound God, as “much denser than it seems at first glance." The same could be said of all Morris’s work since; the accessibility of his prose and his characters masks the mystery and emotional depth inevitably revealed in each story.

His second novel, 2008’s The Dart League King, was hailed by Publishers Weekly in a starred review as “impossible to put down.” In that book, Morris shows his range as chapters shift between five different, equally compelling characters. The same range is on display in Call It What You Want, Morris’s second story collection, released earlier this year from Tin House. The stories in Call It What You Want are as likely to recall Raymond Carver and John Cheever as Paul Auster and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which is to say they are distinctively Keith Lee Morris. Recently Keith was kind enough to respond to some questions about geography, his influences, the state of publishing, melancholy, and the secrets behind speculative fiction.

The stories in Call It What You Want range from gritty to whimsical, though a consistent tone of melancholy holds together the collection. The book shifts gears midway through, from straightforward realism to what you’ve called a “dream logic.” What was the thinking behind the ordering of the stories?

Originally, the collection was going to be made up entirely of “dream” stories. The working title was 50 Dreams. Then it was 40 Dreams. Then it was 30 Dreams, then 25 Dreams. You get the idea. Not as many dreams to go around as I thought there were. I think, actually, that I did finish more than 30, but most of them were very short, no longer than 1,500 words or so, and many of them I didn’t think were strong enough to go in a collection, or they just didn’t seem to fit with the others, or whatever. Meanwhile, I’d been writing some stories like “Testimony” in my more normal mode, and I liked some of them, and my agent and the folks at Tin House liked them, so the collection became a combination of the dream stories and these more straightforward ones. So then the question was, how do you get these very different critters to co-exist? How do you get a story like “What I Want From You,” narrated by a woman whose husband and oldest son have both died tragically within the past six months, and a story like “My Roommate Kevin Is Awesome,” in which a college freshman tears a hole in the space-time continuum of the universe in order to bring Ray Charles to his dorm room so that he can impress girls and get laid, to live under the same roof? The most logical answer seemed to be to work from the inside out, from the stories that had their center in real world settings and situations (most of them Idaho, where my fiction tends to be set) to the stories that began to break off and escape the boundaries of reality. I wanted to create a kind of “down the rabbit hole” effect. At the same time, I wanted the collection to have an emotional resonance -- or an emotional roundness, maybe, if that makes any sense -- so we arranged the most absurd stories to appear near the end, but not at the end -- the last two stories rein things back in a good bit. It ended up being a little bit like a mobius strip, I think -- the two ends connect to form a ring, but you can’t tell which is the inside and which is the outside anymore. Both the first and last stories end with two characters together in a room falling asleep, but it’s hard to tell which is more real -- the story that takes place in the world we recognize, where the hopes and dreams of the characters never come to fruition, or the story that takes place in a dream world where the character’s greatest wish comes true, where the emotional life of the character seems to force a reality into being. Which is more a reflection of who we are -- the social self that conducts its business in the daytime world, or the private self that dreams at night unimpeded? Long answer to a short question. Apologies.   

About those stories in the second half... There are elements of speculative fiction, but more often the stories recall Auster’s New York Trilogy more than, say, Kelly Link or Judy Budnitz. What were you reading while working on stories like “Visitation,” “Tired Heart,” and “The Culvert”?

I’ve never read much Auster. When I first started writing what you might call speculative fiction, I used to get rejection notes from editors saying, well, it’s clear that you’ve read your Borges, and at the time I hadn’t read a word of Borges. So then I started reading Borges, and I could certainly see why editors thought I was influenced by him. Funny how that happens. I went to grad school with Kelly Link (whose work I admire very much), and we traded stories back and forth outside of workshop a little bit. At that time (mid '90s), it was nice to know someone else who had the same interest in weird fiction, because most of the stuff getting published then was pretty straightforward. I think the difference -- or part of the difference -- between Kelly’s work and my work is that her work is usually rooted in fairy tales or horror stories or pulp fiction or pop culture while mine is rooted more in the world of Carver or the early Richard Ford, writers who were telling stories about the kind of people I grew up with. As far as who I was reading while I was writing the stories... wow, I have no idea. It’s hard for me to remember who I was reading last week. But there are a few writers whose work tipped me in the direction of doing something other than straight realism all the time. John Barth’s stories always seemed like so much fun that I felt compelled to try out some imitations. Donald Barthelme, same thing. Crazy stuff like Woody Allen’s early plays, God and Death, and of course his films like Sleeper and Stardust Memories. And Ingmar Bergman’s films, particularly Wild Strawberries, which is largely mimetic but somehow still has its tent pitched right on the edge of dream the whole time. There’s always been something very haunting to me about Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, and that book followed me around for years (something about “The Culvert,” especially, always makes me remember To the Lighthouse, and I can never put my finger on it exactly). And then two more obscure works specifically -- Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries and Jean Giono’s Joy of Man’s Desiring.  Neither of those novels could be called speculative fiction, but there’s a strange texture to both of them that makes them feel like dreams.

Do you always know before writing it whether a story will adhere to the rules of realism? What is the process for deciding which “world” the story will inhabit?

That’s a tough one. Maybe I would say I intuit it more than know it sometimes, but yes, it feels pretty clear to me which mode I’m working in. With the “dream” stories in Call It What You Want, I almost always started off with what was actually part of a dream I’d had (or I mean that a certain part of a dream was in my mind when I set out to write -- it wouldn’t necessarily surface at the beginning of the story), so I knew the stories were going to have that quality to them, even in cases like “Harmonica,” most of which is just the same as my very ground level Idaho stories, but which turns in a more ominous, surreal direction in the end. Even in the case of that story, I knew it was going to take that turn eventually.

Is speculative fiction, or fiction that follows a dreamier logic, better suited to the short story than the novel?

I’m glad you asked that, because I’m currently right in the middle of finding that out for myself. I’m working on a novel about a family that disappears in a small town in Idaho during a snowstorm -- they’re all in the same place, but they can’t find one another, and somehow two or three physical laws of the universe seem to have become bent. It’s very difficult to sustain over the long haul, no doubt about it. I keep thinking of a book like House of Leaves, which I loved for the first 100, 150 pages, but started to grow increasingly impatient with the longer it went on.  

Lorrie Moore has said the short story as a form is inherently melancholy. The stories in Call It What You Want tend to affirm this. Do you agree with her?

No, unless she’s saying all literature -- all art -- is inherently melancholy. If anything, aren’t novels more melancholy? You spend 400 pages with your main character, then he/she goes off and dies on you. Is she suggesting that short stories are merely melancholy while novels are tragic? I doubt it, but that might be closer to the truth.  

iA lot of your characters live in or hail from your native Idaho, which I often think of, however approximate my geography, as the Pacific Northwest. A lot of your working class characters could pass for the offspring of characters in the stories of Raymond Carver, who also came from that part of the country. They seem (your characters and Carver’s) damned by a restlessness rivaled only by an implacable passivity. Does this similarity have any connection to the region? How does the working class in Idaho or Washington differ from the working class in the South, where you’ve also spent a number of years?

Pacific Northwest! Bingo! I’m impressed. Most people want to call it the Midwest. People, say, “Oh, you’re from Idaho! I’ve got a cousin in Dubuque!” I love your description of these characters (whether Carver’s or mine). I think it has more to do with small towns in general. I see the same thing with kids in the small town in South Carolina where I live now. I loved my hometown in Idaho -- still do -- and I spent most of the time I was there thinking about how I was going to leave. But then you get out in the world, you go live in some city (LA was like this for me) and it’s really, really big and it’s really, really intimidating, and the people are cold, or they’re manipulative, or they just don’t care. So you go home. And then you get there and you think, what the hell am I supposed to do here? For me, that pattern went on for a long time. Eventually something happens -- often more or less purely by luck -- that causes you to either leave for good or stay.

Speaking of staying, this is your second book with Tin House, a smaller press with a huge reputation for quality. How would you describe your experience publishing there?

I love Tin House. I think of pretty much all the people who work for Tin House as my friends. I don’t know of anything better I could say about a publishing experience. Do I wish they could pay me a six-figure advance? Absolutely. But other than that, I’m happy as a clam. They’re bright, sharp, enthusiastic people who publish books they care about. Plus they’ve got a really cool apartment up above the office where they let me stay when I’m in Portland.   

I don’t know if he offers out-of-town housing to his writers, but another small press editor, Fred Ramey of Unbridled, spoke in a recent interview of the business model of the large conglomerate publishing houses, of their reliance on blockbusters and a growing disinterest in literary fiction. With less time and money spent on novels and short story collections, a hole in the marketplace seems to be filling with great books by small presses like Unbridled, Tin House, Soft Skull, and many others. As a reader and writer of literary fiction, what changes in publishing do you see in the near and/or distant future?

I once thought that things would go the same route music did in the late '80s/early '90s, where the big record labels started aiming at the lowest common denominator and looking only at the bottom line, opening up the field for indie labels to put out all the really good music that was bubbling to the surface as a revolt against the crap on mainstream radio. But now I’m not so sure. One problem is that music can spread a lot faster than literature. Someone tells you about a band, you pull up a song on YouTube or wherever, you like it, you purchase and download the band’s latest album immediately, you listen to it in an hour, you tell your friend about it, your friend listens to a song on Youtube, etc. Fewer people talk about books, they’re more expensive to produce and to buy, they take a significant amount of time to read, and you don’t get hooked on them as quickly. So the process by which an indie press book ends up in the hands of new readers can be the same as with music, but it’s much slower -- it’s Pony vs. Federal Express.  

Then there’s the problem with the economy -- books are looking like a luxury item these days. And I don’t think things will improve until the Republican party’s current policies and methods are thoroughly and emphatically rejected by voters across the country, which doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon. Then there’s the problem of our digital/electronic culture, in which fewer and fewer people want to bother with books. I’ve seen recent surveys showing that people under 30 prefer everything they read to be delivered via computer. Parents don’t even buy picture books for their kids anymore. Newspapers are moribund, college courses are moving online -- it’s not hard to see books disappearing almost completely, kept alive only in the dusty aisles of used bookstores.  

This is a true story -- in my intro to fiction writing class one day recently, I mentioned A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave EGGERS, for christsakes -- I mean it wasn’t like I was trying to dig up their knowledge of William Makepeace Thackery) and not one person in the class had read it, or any of Eggers’s other books. Then one of the students mentioned “David After the Dentist” (I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but I do now -- and I’m betting whoever is reading this knows, too, since as of the time I’m writing this, the Youtube clip has been viewed 70 MILLION TIMES).  Everyone knew “David After the Dentist,” (who I admit is pretty cute and funny) and because everyone knew “David After the Dentist,” the comment my student made was more helpful as a workshop critique than the literary reference I had made. Some kid who says two or three funny things under the influence of laughing gas is a more handy cultural touchstone than a writer who could arguably have been considered, a mere 10 years or so ago, to be the F. Scott Fitzgerald or J.D. Salinger of his generation. But cry me a river, right? Waah, waah, waah.

The only thing anyone who loves literature can do is keep going. Keep writing, keep reading good books, keep trying to encourage other people to read them. The thing I love about small presses is that they’re generally doing what they do for the right reasons -- they’re not in it to make a bazillion bucks, they’re in it because they want to be part of a literary culture. Sure, people are in it to make a living, but it’s a modest living. I hear people -- and I mean ordinary people, someone you meet at a bar or coffee shop, your kid’s math teacher, the guy at the bus stop -- talking about how they’re going to write a bestseller someday (usually a memoir -- why do people in this culture find themselves so fascinating, or suspect that other people will?), and my advice is always that if you want to make money, you should take up the industrial arts. Become a plumber or electrician. It’ll take less time to learn how to do adequately, and there’s a much greater chance of financial success. Or spend all the time you would put into writing a book coming up with a really foolproof plan for robbing a bank. Or go buy a lottery ticket -- you’ve got just about as much chance of striking it rich, and it won’t take up nearly as much of your time. Literature will survive somehow because there are people who love it and think that it’s important. Big presses, small presses, university presses, online -- who knows?  Right now all bets are off, I think. What happens if we can no longer power the electric grid? If terrorists wipe out the Internet?  

You’ve published short fiction in just about every important literary journal in the country. You’re also the fiction editor of a respected journal, The South Carolina Review. What do you see as the role of the small literary magazine? Should the role or focus of these journals change from what they have been?

Well, I’ve hardly published in every important journal, but I’ve published in some places I respect. Small literary magazines are still fighting the good fight, and no, I don’t think they should try to change. I think they may be forced to in many cases, if they want to survive, but that’s simply going back to my long-winded lunatic response to the last question. What lit mags do best is introduce readers to new writers and new stories -- look at how many of the authors and works in your typical anthology arrived on the scene originally through small lit journals. A bunch. It may be a losing battle for many journals, but it’s a fight worth continuing.

Any thoughts on revered journals like Shenandoah and TriQuarterly that have gone to the online format?

I lament the disappearance of all printed materials equally and in general. Someday, I’m sure, when I open the box and find myself referred to a website for information on the product, I’ll feel nostalgic over the loss of printed instructions on how to assemble my lawnmower.

Like the protagonist of your story “Guests,” you’ve moved from out west to the American South. In life and in fiction, where do you feel most at home?

Home will always be Sandpoint, Idaho, no matter what. It’s been painful lately to see how firmly the Tea Partiers have taken hold there, but I’m encouraged by the number of liberal friends I still have in the area, and I’m still close with my old friends there WHO’VE UNDOUBTEDLY BEEN BRAINWASHED AND GONE OVER TO THE DARK SIDE!!!! WAKE UP BEFORE YOU’RE DOOMED!!!!!!

What’s the last book you reread that wasn’t for a class you were teaching?

Ironweed by William Kennedy. One of those books I appreciated more the second time through.

What advice do you give your writing students you wish someone would have given you?

Don’t let anyone tell you how to write. You should listen to what people say -- especially if they’ve had some success themselves, because if they’ve had some success it’s not entirely accidental -- and ask yourself whether you agree with it and whether you can apply it to your own work, but ultimately it’s YOUR work. It belongs to YOU. Sticking obstinately to your own vision may mean that you’ll make some huge mistakes (God knows I did, and do), but I think ultimately it can pay off. And if it doesn’t, at least you can say that you screwed up your own way instead of somebody else’s.

Your Largehearted Boy Book Notes for The Dart League King and Call It What You Want, featuring Neko Case, Sufjan Stevens, Wilco, and 1970s Elton John, made me wish I could type “Keith Lee Morris” into Pandora and get a similar playlist. Can you tease us with a few tracks that might appear on the playlist of the novel you’re working on?

I love Largehearted Boy. If I despair of every other reason for writing fiction, I’ll still keep going as long as there’s the possibility I’ll be asked to do a playlist for Largehearted Boy. But am I going to jinx the novel I’m working on now? Nope. I’m having enough trouble as it is.

James Tate Hill is a writer living in Greensboro, North Carolina. His fiction has appeared, most recently, in Sonora Review.