Of Sentient Donkeys, Supple Ironies and Artful Digressions: An Interview with James Morrison

James Morrison is a Detroit native, Professor of Literature, Film and Creative Writing at Claremont McKenna College, and an extraordinary writer. He is the author of a memoir, Broken Fever (2001), a novel, The Lost Girl (2007), a collection of short stories, Said and Done (2009) and most recently the novella Everyday Ghosts. Morrison’s work in Everyday Ghosts balances hilarity (the shrieking antics of a hay-feverish monk who has a terrible fear of ants) and the graceful sort of light-touch poignancy inside of an image or line of dialogue, by which his reader is moved, altered, grateful, for having entered such particular narrative richness. James Morrison’s essay “Happiness in a Corner: On Jonathan Strong” appears in MQR’s current print issue, Fall 2011. He agreed to talk with me in October, 2011.

You write with great admiration and understanding on the work of Jonathan Strong in your essay “Happiness in a Corner: On Jonathan Strong.” How did you come to have such affinity for his work?

I first encountered the work of Jonathan Strong in the reading room on the third floor of the Detroit Public Library’s main branch. When I was a student at Wayne State, I used to go there whenever I could and read bound copies of the literary journals of past decades. I happened across Strong’s story “Supperburger” in Partisan Review and was immediately struck by the sense in which the story seemed to have a voice within a voice. It’s narrated in the first person by a smart but somewhat naïve kid, yet though this voice is rendered exactly, with great plausibility, there’s also a sophistication about the story’s structure that goes beyond the narrator’s awareness or capacities. The result is a kind of irony that’s very supple, and in my essay on Strong, I wanted to convey the many forms of this technique and its implications. I think it’s one of the things that makes Jonathan Strong such a distinctive writer.

Supple irony.” It sounds acrobatic almost, for a writer to render voice on many different registers, through structure, and especially through irony, which I suppose we often take for granted as a more “turgid” form, one that reveals one layer of meaning, instead of many at once. Would you share with me one of your favorite examples of Strong’s “supple irony”?

In my essay, I mention Strong’s use of a sort of disguised first-person narration in his novel An Untold Tale. As I suggest in the essay, it’s a Nabokovian technique, but with a quality of warmth rarely evident in Nabokov’s work, at least on the surface. An Untold Tale is set in a small New England village with as many secrets as Peyton Place, and it’s told in what seems to be a collective voice, a third-person plural. But it becomes gradually clear that a character in the story is really the one doing the narrating, though covertly, and the effect is to ask us constantly to look beneath the telling of the tale. The book becomes a very moving meditation on our abilities and inabilities to narrate our own and others’ lives. “Mine is the sole case I can plead,” the narrator says when he finally claims ownership of his own “untold” tale. “Doesn’t it always depend on the tale spinner? Take the teller from the story and what do you have but rootless formulation?”

In the MQR essay you also trace Strong’s long career and his notable bravery as writer who has followed his own rules and remained consistently productive, regardless of the whims of the literary marketplace.

After encountering “Supperburger,” I sought out all Strong’s other work, which at that point consisted only of a collection of stories and a novel (Tike and Five Stories and Ourselves). I loved them both, but it was several years before Strong’s next book, the novel Elsewhere, appeared. Despite the high profile of the first two books, Strong’s work entered a bit of a voice-in-the-wilderness period in the seventies and eighties – an especially puzzling development considering how great Elsewhere is, what a leap forward it is in terms of form and technique. The fact is, Strong kept writing all this time, following his own direction with no attention to the literary marketplace. He’s still doing that – I’ve learned that, with two novels forthcoming and four published in as many years, he has just finished a new book, “Whippoorwill.” As I note in my essay, this is a remarkable renaissance in the career of an extraordinary writer. In fact, I think Jonathan Strong is among the most underrated writers in the country, and I wrote my essay partly in an effort to help bring more attention to his work.

It’s stunning to observe a career like his–fearless and prolific. Rather prolific yourself, you recently released a novella, Everyday Ghosts, under the imprint of Gemma Books, which is geared towards adult literacy learners. The novella deals beautifully with the inner lives of a group of monks, in particular, the story of Pete, who has entered the monastery as a way of escaping his past. Tell me about the experiences you drew upon in writing for this audience.

Twenty years ago, early in my career, I taught in an open-admissions two-year college with a mission to educate adult learners. Many of these students had left high school earlier in their lives, finished recently, and were now striving to earn an associate’s degree. As these circumstances might suggest, these were a remarkable group of people, ambitious and perseverant, who had already achieved a kind of triumph simply by making their way into those classrooms. Yet many continued to struggle with reading and writing.

Absolutely–entering the classroom is a triumph for many literacy learners. As you moved into reading with your students, what did you learn about the material that they wanted to read?

The remedial courses I taught were among the most challenging of my career. They were split between students who needed to be convinced of the value of these skills – since they had gotten through much of their lives without them – and students who felt a sense of shame and inadequacy due to their need for more learning. Most, though, were tough-minded and sharp-witted, with a keen sense of their own dignity and a quick eye for condescension. Once when I assigned an essay by E. B. White, a student asked skeptically, “Isn’t he a children’s writer?” It became clear very quickly that they would not allow themselves to be treated like children, so my own impulses to simplify constantly had to be re-thought, balanced with more complicated challenges. I chose readings that had a particular kind of rigorous formal simplicity with an underlying complexity of thought and feeling (including much standard fare of comp courses at the time, from Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of a Moth” to E. M. Forster’s “What I Believe”). This was the kind of audience I had in mind while writing Everyday Ghosts.

Mainly, I wanted to avoid “talking down” to an audience of new readers. My teaching experience had convinced me that as long as the writing was concrete, as long as sentences were sharply honed, as long as ideas were connected clearly, as long as the pacing had some momentum – in other words, as long as the writing adhered to certain well-known standards for good writing across the board – new readers could respond to it.

Rigorous formal simplicity with underlying complexity: sounds like a reasonable set of standards. Your book manages to appeal to readers of any literacy level. What other “complicated challenges” did you consider as you approached the story of Pete the monk? Do you find that the concepts that presented themselves in the writing of Everyday Ghosts are familiar to your previous work?

The biggest challenge in writing the book was crafting a very direct through-line. Plotting is – if not exactly my great weakness as a writer – something I remain somewhat suspicious of in its most transparent forms at a theoretical level, because I have internalized the lessons of modernism so completely. My previous novel, The Lost Girl, is quite fragmented and digressive in its structure, and even Everyday Ghosts digresses somewhat at some key moments. But I was happy to be able to make these digressions work, ultimately, toward the elaboration of key motifs in the plotline as well as at a more abstract, thematic level. I would have to say that this achievement was also the most satisfying to me.

In my opinion, digressions are entirely necessary for humanizing a piece of art, and certainly contribute to the richness of the world that you create in Everyday Ghosts, a relatively compressed narrative that reads in clear, unadorned sentences. The challenge in that piece, I imagine, would be to create digressions that behave as stories that live within the larger story, texturizing, without overcomplicating. How did telling a story in the mode of Everyday Ghosts affect the way that you approach this tendency to digress, in terms of style, in terms of voice?

I am an over-writer. In large part this is a commitment of mine; many of the writers I most admire are maximalists, and I learned by trying to imitate them. What’s more, a highly wrought style seems most congenial to the kind of irony that seems most suited to my main concerns – namely, the intricate relation between what people think they know and what they don’t or can’t know, about themselves and others. What I learned in writing Everyday Ghosts was that many of these kinds of literary effects are not necessarily dependent on elaborate sentence structures or hyperbolic attitudes. Though the sentences are scaled down in this book, I hope they remain fully textured, and when the plot carries much of the emotion of the book, then the ironic energies of a literary construct can emerge even more pointedly than when subjectivity predominates and plot follows. One of the stylistic models for The Lost Girl – if you can believe it – was Henry James; Everyday Ghosts is much more Muriel Spark, though a kinder, gentler Spark, I hope – and with a little touch of Thomas Merton.

There’s a wonderful moment in Everyday Ghosts in which the grumpy Father Gabriel urges Brother Pete, who has not yet taken final vows, to leave the monastery: He says, “You haven’t had a home for a long time. We can’t live in the world and we can’t live anywhere else. Do you want to go on living as a ghost?” Can you tell me how you brought ghosts into your work?

I’m very interested in the dynamics of marginality: what gets discounted, what gets considered unimportant and why. I’m also interested in loneliness and solitude – each in itself and in relation to the other. The Lost Girl is in large part about a thirteen year old girl home alone watching television talk shows! On the one hand, I try to show in much of my writing the countervailing significance of the readily discounted; by the end of that novel, I really do hope the reader will have come to love its main character. But she doesn’t really know how to make claims to love, or what it would mean to do so; though she has a loving family, she is often unacknowledged and left behind. I don’t think those conditions are uncommon, and those who live with them sometimes feel, themselves, a bit ghost-like. The main character of my novella could be described very similarly.

Of course, the novella is also set in a monastery, with all that implies about other kinds of hauntings and ghostliness. Among its other associations, the title is meant to suggest something of the relation between mystic experience and its everyday counterparts.

A sentient donkey tells a portion of Everyday Ghosts in the close third person point of view. How did you decide to include the voice of Neb the donkey in your narration?

Yes, Everyday Ghosts includes the perspective of a character who has not previously seemed to have a voice, and it’s meant to suggest some possibility of redemption. I’ve always loved stories or moments in which characters who seem to have been absent or oblivious surprisingly reveal forms of awareness we didn’t suspect they had. In movies, I’d mention scenes like the one in The Elephant Man where the doctor hears the elephant man – whom he had been assuming was not cognizant – reciting a psalm through the door of his room, and suddenly realizes that this is a man of learning and mindfulness and sensibility. Or in Mike Leigh’s great film High Hopes, where the camera cuts to an elderly woman whom we’d been thinking was just terminally out of it – and even though nobody else is noticing, we see in the expression on her face the extent of her sadness, that we’d had no idea about previously. I find these among the most heartbreaking moments in film. Similar moments appear in fiction in which characters’ voices are repressed but manage to work their way back in – the voice of Gretta in Joyce’s story “The Dead” is one example, as is Nabokov’s Lolita, where the narrator flatly denies Lolita’s voice, but the novel, very gradually and lovingly, eventually makes us hear it all the same and realize what is at stake, and what is lost, in its repression. Other examples appear in stories like Katherine Anne Porter’s “He” or Lars Gustaffson’s “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases.” I wanted to try something like this on a small scale at the end of Everyday Ghosts.

Also, I love stories in which animals suddenly seem to have a kind of human consciousness – especially if this is set up with some care, as I tried to achieve in my book, and especially if there seems to be some awareness of the pitfalls of anthropomorphism. There’s Robert Bresson’s amazing film, Au Hasard, Balthasar, for example, which is a direct (though somewhat distant) inspiration for Neb in Everyday Ghosts. The editors of William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, wanted him to take out a section in which the point of view is briefly focused through a dog’s perspective. He ignored them, thank goodness.

Find out more at jamesmorrisonbooks.com.

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