posted Feb 9, 2005
Mary Morris is the author of critical favorites and best-sellers in several genres, a respected teacher, and a stalwart on the writers' conference circuit. Revenge, her new novel, just out from St. Martin's, is the absorbing story of two women, mutual fascination, and edgy conceptual art. We caught up with her recently in Brooklyn, just down the street from failbetter.com world headquarters.
Loretta Partlow, the protagonist of your new novel, Revenge, can't face her own dark secrets. But she puts those of her friends into her books, often barely disguised. Does she go too far in pursuit of a good story? Have you ever done so?
Does Loretta go too far? I wish I could take the high moral ground here and say, "Oh, mercy no." [As for me,] I'm going to pass the buck to the writer Charles D'Ambrosio who said once that he's a nice guy, he gives to charity, he's loyal to his friends, but he'd steal a crumb from a starving man's lips for the sake of a story. It's so sad, but really all writers worth their salt would. Jazz musicians have understood this for decades. They are always "stealing." I read somewhere that a jazz musician is someone who knows how to take advantage of whatever is given. I have a cousin I love who won't tell me a thing because she knows it will appear in a story. I draw from everything. I always have. Recently I saw a show of Romare Beardon's work and it was fascinating to see how he cut up everything to make his collages. I feel that's a bit my process. I get all these snippets and scraps and whatever and it comes together into a story and to be honest I don't exactly care where they come from.
As the novelist John Berger once said, a writer draws from three sources: experience, witness, and imagination. Experience is what happens to us, witness is what happens to others, imagination is what we make up. I think all writers, and artists for that matter, are drawing from those three places. It's the witness part that gets a little sticky, but we all draw from what we read, what we hear, even what we overhear. (I have actually written an essay on eavesdropping as a legitimate literary endeavor.) Many people can't face their own dark stories, but feel free to feed on those of others. We all appropriate. And I don't think Loretta goes too far with that. I think she does what any writer would do. But the way she uses Andrea, then cuts her out of her life, that is going too far.
Judged by the countless awards she's won, and how well-known she is, Loretta is an impressive figure. And she can eat so much, while staying so thin! Is she also a good writer?
Well, that's a good question. I recently read a review of Revenge that described Loretta's work as a cross between Barbara Cartland and Stephen King. I didn't mean for her to be seen that way. I intended for Loretta to be viewed as a writer who is enormously talented, but driven and perhaps not the best judge of her own work. Personally I think she is a good writer. I think the proof of it is in the way she is able to reimagine and transform Andrea's story and make it her own. I think she proves she has a kind of greatness in her. She just has no scruples, which isn't the same thing.
Then there's Andrea GellerLoretta's neighbor and a painter with a compelling life story she wants Loretta to write about. Is she a good artist? In Revenge, you describe her paintings and installations, which seem paradigmatic of Chelsea-style conceptualism, but you never pass judgment on them. And Loretta's first comment, on seeing Andrea's latest work, is "interesting," which is hard to read as praise. Should we read it instead as your dismissal of contemporary conceptualism?
There is a certain kind of conceptualism that I just don't get or I'm not drawn tothe works of Carl Andre, for example. But there is lots of other conceptual art that I find very compelling. What I admire about Andrea (as opposed to Andrestrange how similar these names are...), and what in truth I admire in most art, is a kind of obsessiveness. I am drawn to repetition, the need to do something over and over again. When I first saw Jennifer Bartlett's Rhapsody, I was just blown away. Hundreds of ceramic tiles with images on them that don't add up to much individually but the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. I like that work that has a certain conceit that might get repeated over and over again. I think of the architectural imaginings of Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidiokind of a protracted joke that somehow adds up to something utterly beautiful and magical. Gregory Crewdsen. Cindy Sherman. And my friend, Josh Dorman. I am drawn to artists who put it out there with a certain compulsion. I suppose it is something I do as well as a writer. So I am drawn to that in my character. On the other hand I don't think she's a great artist by any means, perhaps for the same reason. Her obsessions are too autobiographical. Andrea never actually reaches beyond the parameters of self and that circular route back to the self is her short-coming.
Like Loretta Partlow, most writers have confronted writer's block. Have you? Have you found that anything in particular tends to bring it on? How do you deal with it-by pressing ahead with what you're working on, by working on something else, or by taking a break from writing?
I love to write. I always have. I enjoy the physical process of writing. I like the mental work. I look forward to doing it every day. If anything I seem to suffer from the opposite of being blocked. I have too much I want to do and say and a million ways I want to say it. But to answer the question, at times I may be stuck, which I think is different than blocked. I don't know where a novel is going. I don't know how to resolve a story. I have trouble giving up material, throwing out a beginning, an ending. When I'm stuck, I try to shake things up a bit. I always have a ton to doreading, teaching work, journalism assignments that I am behind on. So it is not a problem to find something else. I also write a lot of poetry that I never publish or even show many people, but when I'm stuck I might go over the poems, revise them a little, fiddle with something.
I also always have at least one or two hobbies that I'm not ego-invested in, such as ice skating or playing jazz piano. I am not bad at these things, but I am also not good at them and I don't care. I try to do things for pleasure and that helps my writing. I think writing should come from a somewhat loose, improvisational place, and definitely not one in which your self-esteem is all tied up. That's what I think blocks artists. When the ego gets in the way.
Can you describe your writing routine? How has it evolved over the course of your career? How do you deal with disruptions to your routine?
My routine is very simple. I work every day. I work every minute I can, not because I have to, but because I want to. A day when I don't write is a day when I don't feel good. As Moravio said, life is chaos, only literature makes sense. Writing focuses me as much as yoga focuses other people. I hate days when I don't or can't do it. It feels like a waste. I read this really interesting essay on sleep recently which said that while scientists still don't know what sleep is for there is a possibility it may be for problem-solving. I have to say I do a lot of work when I'm asleep. I often wake up in the middle of the night and know where a story is going and then I have to get right down to my studio and write it. My husband and I have this agreement. If I am puttering around the house and I point to my head, it means I'm working, so he can't talk to me until I'm done.
My normal routine is to try and go for a swim very early, before eight. Come home, walk the dog, straighten up, whatever, then settle in. I don't take phone calls. I don't make lunch dates unless I have to. I do whatever I can to protect my writing time. I have always done this. When I am working I consume gallons of liquids (coffee, water, diet Cokes) and eat cottage cheese, but I never wash a dish or do anything orderly.
At a certain moment in the afternoon my mind just stops. It can't do anymore. Three or four hours; that's about it. Then I settle down to the business of my lifeerrands, teaching demands, another walk for the dog. And those dishes in the sink! The biggest distraction was having a child. Then I had to really carve out the time. But the child grew up very quickly, and now of course I am nostalgic for it all.
As George Eliot said the most difficult thing for a writer is pulling your chair to your desk. I don't really have that problem, though email, surfing the net, and just life do manage to get in the way. But I think the best advice for any writer is just sit there, every day, for as many hours as you can. Something is bound to happen.
For both Andrea and Loretta, the creative process is akin to therapythat is, it focuses on the self, and specifically on dealing with, and hopefully resolving, intensely personal problems. Is this how the best art is made?
No, not necessarily. Going back to John Berger, I think there has been to be a pretty good mix of experience, witness, and imagination. If you don't throw imagination in, if you're just writing from your own lonely soul, it's going to be solipsistic and solipsism isn't art.
You've taught creative writing for a number of years, notably at Sarah Lawrence and Princeton. No doubt you've developed a method for reading and critiquing student work. When reviewing drafts of your own writing, do you read them in the same way? Look for the same things? Point yourself, in your edits, toward the same goals?
You know I've often said to my students when discussing their work that "I wish I had someone like me." Someone with the wisdom and experience and knowledge I bring to the critiques of their work to my work. I am kidding, of course, but the truth is I wish I could bring my cool, diagnostic sense to my own stories. You know there was a piece in the newspaper recently about filmmakers and their pet projectsthose gezillion dollar projects that come from some deep autobiographical place the artist can't let go of. How they all flop. I think the big thing for a writer is to somehow bring a sense of critical detachment to one's own work and therefore to one's self.. It is what I try to do as a teacher. But it is very very hard to do it for oneself.
So to answer the question: I try. It is difficult. We can always see the other better than we can see ourselves. But it is one of the things I like about teaching. I feel like a ballet dancer in workshopstretching myself, staying in shape. I learn from my students all the time and one of the things I learn is how to read my own work.
There are some tricks for doing this. I try to create a certain amount of fictive distance from my own work. As much detachment as I can muster such as working in different places. I like to edit in cafes. I especially like to edit on trains and planes. I am living in dread of the day when they allow cellphones on airplanes. Subways are very good places to work. Sometimes I will ride the subway just to read my own work. I take walks, show things to friends, and sometimes put work away. But I definitely make every effort to bring that cold critical eye to my own work (the one that my poor students suffer under from time to time). I try, though again I don't always succeed, to read my own work as if someone else wrote it.
You've said that short stories are your first love. If you had to work in only one genre, would you write only short stories? What motivates you to continue writing novels, and non-fiction?
If someone put a gun to my head, I'd say short stories because they are a good cross between narrative and poetry. But the truth is I love all the genres, including poetry. No, that's not true. I've never been interested in writing plays, though I love to see them. I began my writing life as a poet and poetry remains a "hobby."
What motivates me to write novels and non-fiction? I like writing novels because I like big stories. And I really enjoy non-fiction most of the time. There are some things I do for money. Others for love. But I am always happiest when it's about the latter.
You've said that you like to move back and forth between fiction and non-fiction, between novels and short stories. Should your readers expect to wait a while for your next novel? What should they look for in the interim?
Well, I'm going to be doing a book on the Mississippi River for Holt. It's a project I've wanted to do for a long timefloat down the Mississippi in a houseboat which I'm supposed to pilot myself. We'll see. I know, as we speak, very little about river navigation. And then I've been working for a long time, since 1997, on a big historic novel set in Chicago during the Jazz Age. Well, actually it goes until about 1965. A lot of the research I did for the jazz book is finding its way into the Mississippi book. It's really just a matter of which one gets finished first and sees the light of day.
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