February 2011

Jedediah Berry

features

An Interview with Bradford Morrow

The narrator of Bradford Morrowís new novel, The Divinerís Tale, often treks into the wilderness in search of lost things or, more often, subterranean water currents. A few pages into the book, she characterizes her chosen art of dowsing this way: ďCalm quiet and then the quick stab of discovery... Mine is by definition a lonerís trade, a kind of work that involves spending a lot of time both in your head and on your feet, conversing with the invisible and sometimes the inexplicable.Ē

Itís hard not to read in those words something of a meditation on Morrowís own craft as a writer. But it could also describe a readerís experience of The Divinerís Tale, which winds its way between a seen and an unseen world, between familiar forms and startling visions. It is, in Peter Straubís words, ďa seamless breathing breathtaking unity of the literary and the suspense novel [which] detonates the very notion of genre.Ē

Morrow is the author of five previous novels, including Arielís Crossing and Giovanniís Gift. He is the founding editor of the literary journal Conjunctions, and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the PEN/Nora Magid Award for editing. He also teaches at Bard College, where I studied with him in the late nineties. The following interview was conducted via email in December 2010 and January 2011.


The diviner of the title is Cassandra Brooks, a single mother of twin boys, and a dowser by trade. I understand that you spent some time with members of the American Society of Dowsers, learning their techniques and even doing some dowsing yourself. What was it that initially led you to this world? And what compelled you to write a character who dowses for a living?

Of all my novels, The Divinerís Tale has the most humble beginnings. The basement of my old farmhouse kept flooding some years ago, and an excavator friend of mine suggested I hire a dowser to try to locate the underground stream causing the trouble. Iíll freely admit I was totally skeptical when he brought by an older man, who in a very matter-of-fact kind of way started walking back and forth across the land above the house with a divining rod. I remember thinking, youíre really going to pay money for this pantomime? But skepticism turned to fascination when I saw what happened. His rod now and then suddenly bent downward. Heíd stop, drop a marker on the spot, and move on. I had no idea what I was truly witnessing, but I began to realize I was glimpsing into a world that was a mystery to me, primitive and esoteric at the same time. And by ďprimitiveĒ I mean primeval, not savage. Anyway, he told me and Jimmy, the excavator, the depth, direction, and even the strength of the stream, and then left. Needless to say, when Jimmy and his crew started digging, they found the water right where the dowser said it would be. It was pretty easy after that to divert the flow around the house down the hill. That ďwater witch,Ē as Jimmy called him, not only saved us having to blindly excavate the whole front yard, but he introduced me to a mystifying craft that over time I became more and more interested in.

When I started writing the book, some years after that encounter with the water witch, dowsing had somehow crystallized more into a metaphoric idea for me than a fact of life. Dowsing, divining -- the ability to see beyond what is normally visible to us -- is an ancient practice with rich possibilities, I thought, for a novelist. But as I got deeper into Cassandraís story, I realized that watching others dowse just wasnít enough. I wanted to study with people who were real practitioners, real adherents. So a few summers ago my partner, Cara, and I drove up to Danbury, New Hampshire, where the American Society of Dowsers has its headquarters, and attended their annual convention. We both studied beginning dowsing. Sure, I took notes, and all that. But more interesting, I found myself utterly convinced by what I saw, heard, and experienced firsthand. I had wonderful teachers, experienced experts who are acknowledged in the book, and came away with a solid store of knowledge about fundamental techniques of dowsing. On the last day, when the fifty or so students were presented with their certificates, I was floored when the committee of instructors announced my name first. Turns out theyíd collectively dowsed the order in which the certificates were to be handed out. One of my teachers gave me a beautiful Y-rod made out of dogwood to mark the occasion. It was a real honor, though Iíd never suggest you hire me on to find water if your wellís gone dry. Iím still a member of ASD, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year.

As for Cass, my narrator, being a single mother of two and making a living as a dowser and schoolteacher, I can only say she came very naturally to me. I wanted to explore what itís like being an outsider in a rural community, and also to be the only female in a family of male diviners whose lineage goes back for generations. Her ability to, if you will, see around some corners while being blind to some things that are right in front of her nose, was a trait that appealed to me. Sheís a very complex, simple person.

Sheís also deeply connected, through her work and her past, to the land she inhabits. The natural world is very much a character in this book, not just because of the depictions of flora, fauna, and geology, but because of the atmosphere -- often foreboding, sometimes sublime -- provided by the setting. How did you prepare to write those passages dealing with the landscape? I often wondered if you, like Cass in preparation for her dowsing assignments, spent some time with survey maps. Though the upstate New York county she calls home is fictional, isnít it?

Corinth County, like Covey Island, is not a place you can find on any map, though both are deeply rooted in scapes that do exist. The natural world in these places -- both their originals and fictional counterparts -- are ones I know intimately, especially that of upstate New York where Iíve lived for over two decades. I completely agree with you that nature is more than a mere backdrop, a scenario, in this book. Itís a full-fledged, active character, a participant. This is nothing new in my work, really, as Iíve always scripted the natural world into my fiction in such a way that if I put a Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the books, Nature would be listed right there along with the rest of the cast. That said, having a diviner as narrator made it all the more imperative that nature have a voice and will. As I understand the gentle art of dowsing, the diviner essentially dialogues with the earth, asks the earth questions, and water or minerals or whatever the diviner is communicating with answers or not, depending on whether or not it wants to be found. But yes, birds, trees, flowers, streams, stars, the air itself are engaged participants in The Divinerís Tale, and Cassís relationship with flora and fauna is crucial to the development of her story. Nature sometimes prophecies action even before the gifted Cass does, such as in that scene on Covey Island when sheís alone at the family cemetery raking and cleaning up the plots after a harsh winter. I find that scene particularly disturbing because Iíve experienced moments like that, alone in the woods near my rural house, where the tenor, mood, feeling of the forest suddenly changes character.

I spent a little time with maps, and read through some geological surveys of upstate counties, where I learned terminology and how the layers of rocks and minerals are formed beneath our feet in Cassís world. Mostly, though, I was going on years of personal observation. Iím an avid birder, for instance, so elements such as bird life and behavior came easily to me. Birds act sometimes like a kind of Greek chorus in the novel, I found -- it was never a good sign when they abruptly went silent!

Thereís definitely an aura of menace here, and The Divinerís Tale is a book that keeps some big secrets at its heart, and some otherworldly happenings right out front. In other words, youíre working with narrative structures typical to mystery and thriller novels, as well as to the gothic tale. Would you say a little about your relationship to those genres, and how you wanted to employ them in this book?

Iíve been drawn to the gothic from as far back as I can remember. In my twenties, when I wasnít communing with my 18th-century heroes -- Swift, Sterne, and the rest -- I was deeply into 18th- and 19th-century gothic classics such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and even books like Middlemarch, which had to my mind a gothic atmosphere and texture. While not strictly speaking a gothicist, Thomas Hardy was for a long time my favorite writer. I gravitated toward both his dark view of the human lot and his intense, profound use of the natural world to frame the tragedies of such characters as Tess and Jude. So yes, foreboding, uneasiness, dread, these all strike me as essential to the human experience, and thereís no doubt that these feelings, which contribute to an aura of menace, as you say, are woven into the fabric of most every page of The Divinerís Tale. And this dark aura lies at the very heart of the gothic.

Regarding the mystery components in the novel, I can say right up front that I was not interested in cobbling together a whodunit, but wanted instead to create a detailed character study of a woman on the edge, a family in crisis, and to set at the periphery of this action a tormenting, dangerous figure whose threatening presence only pushes the narrator toward either emotional collapse or spiritual revelation. In P.D. Jamesís excellent little book, Talking About Detective Fiction, she discusses Ronald Knoxís rules for authors to follow when writing mysteries. The list is so cobwebby itís laughable, of course, and James herself concludes that ďRules and restrictions do not produce original, or good, literature.Ē Needless to say, I broke nearly all, if not all, of them -- at some point quite deliberately. One in particular -- that all supernatural agencies are ruled out -- Iím decidedly guilty of ignoring. Still, while I consider The Divinerís Tale to be a very unconventional mystery -- mashing mystery with fantasy, literary, and other kinds of narrative form -- thereís no question that the story holds its secrets. Some readers will see through to these secrets, even while Cassandra -- diviner though she is -- cannot. Others will experience her discoveries right along with her, riding the curve of the story as it unfolds. Either way, it became my intention to use what gothic and mystery tropes I thought were useful to the novel, and either alter or ignore the rest. At the end of the day, itís a novel. One that employs genre, but isnít restricted by genre. Having said that, I was both surprised and very honored that the most respected mystery editor in the world, Otto Penzler, was enthusiastic about the manuscript and decided to publish it.

And this portrait of, as you say, a woman on the edge, is itself fraught with questions of form. Her sanity is thrown into doubt by a vision she has, and at one point she begins thinking of her life as a movie which threatens ďto veer even deeper into the fantastic.Ē In fact there are many questions in this book about the border between the real and the unreal, and about where and how we find guidance when up against such slippery matters.

I agree with you. One of the crucial themes raised in the book is how do we learn to trust ourselves about whatís right, whatís real, when others assure us that our perceptions are mistaken, our insights skewed. Doubt, especially self-doubt, is something that Cass wrestles with every waking moment. Even when objective facts ought to convince her that sheís right to trust herself, she often questions the veracity of what sheís seen or knows -- and when she becomes convinced sheís right, people around her question her sanity. One of the reasons Iím so fond of a relatively minor figure in the novel, Ben Partridge, the fish hatchery man, is because he at first openly, unabashedly doubts Cass and her world of divination, but when he witnesses her dowse his land, sees for himself her gift at work, he lets go of his earlier bias against her and becomes one of her most vocal advocates. What was unreal to him has become real, and he was wise enough to change his mind, even though he canít logically explain what has happened. Thinking about it, I realize that doubt is one of the centralizing themes in much of my work. The first line of Arielís Crossing, my last novel before The Divinerís Tale, goes ďDoŮa Francisca de PeŮa never believed in ghosts, and even after she became one herself she couldnít help but have her doubts.Ē So it goes.

In many if not all of your books, characters work through language in a way thatís always struck me as somehow writerly. I've come to think of it as the author sharing with his characters the responsibility of tracing meanings and associations. Hereís an example from The Diviner's Tale, when Cassandra recalls when her pregnancy first became physically evident: "Show, I thought at the time. What a word. As if it were a performance, an exhibition of a work in progress with a collaborator nowhere to be found."

I wonder how you think through this technique (if that's the right term for it). Is this the privileging of character with an authorial perspective? Or simply a representation of how you see people understanding the world via language?

Interesting question. I suppose my answer would be that when Iím writing in first person, allowing, if you will, a protagonist to steer the story, flesh out the narrative in language, weigh in with streaming asides, reveries, conjectures, and so forth, I have to believe in that character -- a voice, in fact -- as being steeped in language. Clearly, any character I might imagine into being would have to carry some of his or her progenitorís DNA. And because I swim in the ocean of language awake and asleep, and most especially when Iím writing, itís natural that my understanding of the world of my characters is awash in language as well. I try quietly to account for any given narratorís verbal gift with some biographical backgrounding. Cass, for instance, is a country woman, making half of her living as a dowser -- a very non-verbal activity, one during which youíre listening to the earth more than talking about it. But sheís also a school teacher, as is her mother, and an aficionado of Greek literature, self-taught. So it seems natural that she would think in terms of the possible secondary meanings of words, making free associations as she narrates her way along.

In a 1997 interview with Ron Hogan, you described writing your fourth novel, Giovanniís Gift, in a period of ill health, when you thought that it could be your last book. You said you wanted to finish it and have it join the others so thereíd be ďa quartet with facets that would reflect on each other in certain ways.Ē Youíve published two more novels since then, as well as a childrenís book illustrated by Gahan Wilson, and as founding editor of the literary journal Conjunctions, youíve overseen the publication of over twenty more volumes (number 56 will be out this spring). Youíve also taught countless students enrolled in your literature and writing classes at Bard College. With another novel, a creative nonfiction book, and a story collection in the works, and with new issues of Conjunctions always underway, I wonder what your sense is now of your literary project as a whole. Has it evolved significantly, or opened up somehow, since then? And speaking of which, how do you balance the writing, the editing, and the teaching?

Looking back, I still marvel -- as do some of my doctors, with whom Iím still friendly these years later -- that I made it through the peritonitis that truly ought to have killed me, not to mention the many follow-up surgeries required to bring me back to the full health I now very gratefully enjoy. This seemed a questionable prospect when I was in the middle of my deathly illness, and so I was forced into the unusual position of trying to sum up a literary life that could have been cut short of what Iíd always hopefully imagined would take place over a longer arc of time. That quartet I referred to when talking with Ron Hogan was Come Sunday, The Almanac Branch, Trinity Fields, and Giovanniís Gift. As I saw it then, and still do in many ways, Come Sunday and Trinity Fields represented my deep interest in history and a kind of epic narrative in which large-scale political conflicts provide the emotional scape that informs my characters and their actions, while The Almanac Branch and Giovanniís Gift derive from a Gothic-based tradition of investigating these larger human themes from a more compressed, smaller-scale vantage, within the compact realm of family. While all four books investigate similar themes, their voicings, settings, and range are very different. The battle, for example, that takes place on a remote mountain ranch in Giovanniís Gift reflects, in some ways, basic elements of human discord that are writ large in the wars described in Trinity Fields.

As for the writings and editing work Iíve accomplished since that near-death experience, I can only say how grateful I am, every day, to have been blessed with the chance to continue. Trinity was meant to be the first book in a trilogy, one written in each decade of my forties, fifties, and sixties, presumptuous as that notion is given how fragile our lives are, and with the publication of Arielís Crossing I was able to take that ambitious project another step toward completion. The Divinerís Tale allowed me the opportunity to explore a story that draws not only on Gothic traditions, but on fantasy and fabulism, even the miraculous, in ways I hadnít done before. The long novel Iím in the midst of finishing now, The Prague Sonata, is affording me a chance to explore one of my lifelong passions: music. Working with the legendary Gahan Wilson on Didnít Didnít Do It was another dream come true, and I have quite a few other childrenís books sitting in my notebooks, as well. Conjunctions, as far as I see it from my granted too-close-to-really-know perspective, seems to have grown, matured, since the late nineties. When I think of all the wonderful younger writers Iíve had the privilege to publish in the last decade, it leaves me with a great sense of fulfillment.

As for balancing my writing, editing, and teaching, I must say Iím never at a loss for something to fill the hours! To be honest, though, itís not unusual in the history of literary lives for a writer to work also as an editor. In the early 20th century, such authors as Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Wyndham Lewis, Willa Cather -- the list is long -- found time and energy to do both. It was considered quite natural going back into earlier centuries as well. Poe, for example, worked at Burtonís Gentlemanís Magazine and Grahamís Magazine as an editor, and dreamed of launching his own journal, The Stylus, but died before he could realize that dream. Many 18th century writers were also very active editors, as well. So, I see it as part of a long tradition. That said, it obviously requires juggling and dedication to the various projects. I was asked about this once when I was speaking at Brown University, and off the top of my head came up with a musical analogy. When I worked as a jazz musician back in my twenties, I equally loved soloing and comping behind other soloists. Both involved spontaneous invention, and both involved listening, responding to what others were playing, how they were thinking their ways through the intricate meanings of whatever piece we were improvising. Writing short stories and novels involves soloing; editing is a kind of comping. Each informs and enriches the other.