Dec 022011
 

Keith Lee Morris has been compared to Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. He explores the world of bars and racetracks, of working class men on the edge and families struggling to stay afloat. In the dark corners of small-town taverns, his writing unhinges us. It takes us to places that are so familiar yet so startlingly strange in their portrayal, that it’s easy to forget you are actually reading a story and not sitting in the bar and watching it unfold. This is not to say that his work is entirely in the realist tradition. His more experimental work deals with the story in uncanny ways, and pushes back against strict verisimilitude. And his writing blends the best of both styles into a narrative that is at once compelling, sad, funny and utterly honest. To read Morris is to journey into the dark places of existence, to open your heart to sadness, to root for the underdog even when he doesn’t stand a chance. But you feel comfortable taking that journey because Morris is such a certain guide.

We spoke over the phone. Morris was in his office in South Carolina. His answers were sharp and enthusiastic. He spoke of writing, of teaching, of growing up in Idaho. For much of the interview, it felt more like we were sitting in a bar and having this conversation.

Morris teaches writing at Clemson University. He has published two novels, The Greyhound God (University of Nevada Press, 2003) and The Dart League King (Tin House Press, 2008), and two collections of stories, The Best Seats in the House and Other Stories (University of Nevada Press, 2004) and his most recent work, Call it What You Want (Tin House Press, 2010).

–Richard Farrell

…And Make Mine A Double:

An Interview With Keith Lee Morris

By Richard Farrell

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Richard Farrell (RJF): The Paris Review once asked William Maxwell this question: Do your best sentences come from the air or as a product of much working and reworking?

Keith Lee Morris (KLM): (Laughs, then answers without much pause.) I’ll say both. Or maybe I’ll say they come from the air more often. When the writing just seems to happen on its own, that’s when I feel I’m at my best.  But maybe it has to do with the fact that if you write enough, over and over, it becomes more automatic.  In that sense, it’s the product of hard work.  I suppose it’s like playing football. Tom Brady has thrown thousands of passes, so that it looks like it’s happening with ease.  But it’s because he’s done it so many times that it looks so easy. When I’m writing well, it’s like being in that zone, where I’m not conscious of what I’m doing. It’s the bad sentences that I go back and rework.  And maybe by working on them over and over that they get better.

I have whole stories that I almost don’t remember writing. I’m inside the scene itself, and the characters are talking and I’m not aware of it, I’m just trying to keep up. And when you’ve done this so many times, it just happens.

RJF: I once read an essay (sadly I can’t remember the title or the author) that said in short stories, a character doesn’t necessarily go through change like the traditional method says. But rather, something happens in the life of the character after which nothing can ever be the same.  So even if the character hasn’t come to something like an epiphany, even if the character isn’t yet aware of change, the life of the character is forever affected. Noting can be the same.  Do you agree with this?

KLM: Most rules don’t make sense in writing fiction. If someone tells me a rule to follow, it just goads me into trying to break it.  So I disagree that a story has to contain a change by which the character is forever changed in order for the story to be effective.  The reader has to feel the possibility of change.

Look at The Great Gatsby. One of the arguments goes, Who is the main character?  Is it Gatsby? If you buy into the argument of necessary change, then Gatsby can’t be the main character, because he is fixed. He doesn’t change at all.  Daisy, Daisy, Daisy—he’s like a broken record.  If it was really Gatsby’s story, the novel wouldn’t work. Even after he is shot and killed, the reader has the sense that change was never going to occur.  But up until that point, you think it might.  So I think that change matters, whether it’s internal or external, and it might not happen in the story, but it exists as a possibility.  Part of what makes the novel work, too, of course, is that Nick Carroway does change significantly.

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Dec 022011
 

Keith Lee Morris’ short story “Ayudame” is a tale of friendship, failed dreams, and possibly a sliver of salvation. Morris has written two novels, The Greyhound God and The Dart League King, as well as two collections of short stories.  ”Ayudame” comes from his collection Call It What You Want, available from Tin House Books. The story originally appeared in Third Coast magazine.  Morris teaches writing at Clemson University. (Read an interview with Keith Lee Morris on Numéro Cinq. )

—Richard Farrell

Ayudame

By Keith Lee Morris

 

Douglas “Deeder” Mumphrey was wakened from a dream of the record shop in Haight-Ashbury by his ten-year-old daughter, Grace, who was, surprisingly enough, standing by the side of the bed dressed and ready for school. It was Deeder’s turn, not his wife’s, to get Grace ready for her car pool ride, that much seemed sure, based on the fact that Grace stood by his side of the bed, not Theresa’s, and based on her serious and rather tired expression, which said several things to Deeder, such as “Dad’s lazy,” and “Dad’s forgetful,” and “Dad had too many beers last night,” and “I had to make my own breakfast,” all of which were true, more or less, not to say that the various truths contained in the expression didn’t annoy the hell out of Deeder, because they did, because why the hell should a ten-year-old girl be right about so many things when he himself, Deeder, a forty-one-year-old man, was rarely right about anything.

Deeder glanced over at his wife, her hair in the band she wore to keep it out of her face while she slept, soft snores coming from her puffed-out lips, and he was reminded of the argument they’d had the night before and he wondered how she could sometimes look like such a peaceful, easygoing person, and then he whispered “Sorry” to Grace and dragged himself out of bed, still smelling somewhere in the back of his head the incense he burned in his record store, the one he never had, back there in the Summer of Love when he was just born.

In the kitchen he brewed a pot of coffee and ran through a couple of spelling words with Grace to see if she was ready for her test, which she semi-was, not for lack of effort, but Grace wasn’t much of a speller. Rapture, censure, preacher, adventure–three out of four. Her forte was personal grooming–he marveled now at the way she’d managed to pick out the blouse, the pants, the matching socks all by herself, the way she looked so neat, her straight blond hair brushed just so.

There was Mrs. Adkins, pulling into the drive. He waved out the window, hoping she couldn’t see he was in his boxers. He made Grace give him a kiss on the cheek. “You stink, Dad,” she said. He watched her set her pack carefully in the back of the Adkins’ Aerostar, watched her climb in, smoothing her pant legs under her to keep them from wrinkling. Monterey Pop, the family’s black Lab, was lying with his head on his paws over by the sofa, wagging his tail slightly. Deeder poured some more food in his bowl and watched him come over and eat.

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Dec 012011
 

Chris Milk’s “The Wilderness Downtown” is an interactive play where your home and past are offered and yet remain out of reach. The film requires a few more steps before your viewing pleasure: if you don’t have Google Chrome or Safari as a browser, please download one of them to view this experimental and interactive film. And I would suggest, for this week, reading this commentary as an afterword. Let your experience of the interactive film come before mine.

Two weeks ago Numero Cinq Magazine‘s “At the Movies” presented Milk’s music video for the Gnarls Barkley song “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul.” But Milk also does experimental work. “The Wilderness Downtown” is an interactive music video Milk made with the band Arcade Fire for their song “We Used to Wait.” To begin you have to enter the address of your childhood home. The video then develops a montage using images of a hooded, faceless man running, a flock of birds, and images it pulls from Google Earth of your childhood home. The resulting film hangs in multiple windows, creating a hybrid montage / collage. Montage usually relies on one image following another and collage implies something static; here we have the collisions of montage happening side by side and the effect, I’d argue, shares the randomness of dream logic, a narrative choice that encourages us to be more associative than strictly interpretive, calling up our own memories rather than seeking to understand the artist’s intention.

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Nov 302011
 

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The Answer I Found in a Fortune Cookie:

Toward a Digital Conception of Nonfiction

By John Proctor

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I don’t know whether this is an ancient Chinese proverb or a mass-manufactured brainchild of an underpaid copywriter somewhere in Chicago. I do know that it was inside my fortune cookie after I had lunch at Hunan Delight about a year ago, and it changed the way I look at nonfiction. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so quick to gather meaning from mass-produced slips of paper, but isn’t that what books are made of? I come from a family of electricians and mechanics, and though I can barely keep the oil changed in my car and frequently need my wife’s help to operate my MacBook, I know this much: Digital circuits work in bits of information, each bit working into the systematic logic of the circuit. If any bit doesn’t logically fit, the circuit will malfunction. Each bit, though, works in a continuous  strand, but has its own infinitely variable sequential order. I teach a class on convergent media, and one of the things we talk about is how digital online media have changed the way we read, and think. One of the ways we talk about this is by making a distinction between “analog reading,” in which a person reads something from beginning to end without stopping, and “digital reading,” in which a reader stops to analyze a piece of writing into interlocked units.  The first reading of anything is usually mostly analog; subsequent readings, if they happen, are usually digital.

Two years ago, I started writing creative nonfiction in earnest. My first and most looming problem was that I didn’t really know what creative nonfiction was. I’d spent most of my life writing journals, poetry, criticism, fiction, and some freelance journalism, in that basic order. When I applied to MFA programs, most were in fiction. I’d seen the term “creative nonfiction” in passing, and had mostly thought it an unjust term – if it’s creative, can it be truly called nonfiction? And if it’s nonfiction, where’s the room for creativity on the writer’s part? Nonetheless, I was finding myself drawn more and more to nonfiction – about my own life, but also the world I saw around me. In the movie Sideways, a man tells the main character, a novel writer, “I like nonfiction. There is so much to know about this world. I think you read something somebody just invented, waste of time.” I found myself agreeing with the nonfiction reader. But I still felt a bit justified in distrusting a genre that is younger than I am – Lee Gutkind, the “Godfather of CNF,” says he’s been using the term “creative nonfiction” loosely since the 1970s, and the National Endowment for the Arts made the term official in 1983 in order to justify handing out fellowships for it.

That’s where the fortune cookie comes in. If the nonfiction writer’s subject is the world, and his or her place in it, the first responsibility of the writer is to reduce the world into workable units. Much like a reader must read something numerous times to piece out the analog parts and then find the digital circuit at work, the nonfiction writer must find the story-units in the world and then fit them into a working digital circuit of the writing.  In telling the myriad stories the world and the self contain, one of the writer’s first steps is shaping and condensing systematic and narrative units. For our purposes here I’ll coin the term “digital nonfiction” for this process – if an essay or a memoir or a news story (and, universally, the world) can be thought of as a digital circuit, and if all the millions and millions of stories are the analog parts, then the creativity of the nonfiction writer is primarily on how the writer sorts – or lists – those analog stories.

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Nov 292011
 


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Here’s a Childhood essay unlike any on NC so far, dubbed a geografictione[1] by its author, a psychogeographical meditation on suburbia by Cheryl Cowdy (who started life in Mississauga, a huge suburban agglomeration west of Toronto where many of dg’s relatives have lived from time to time).

We all live in the suburbs these days, and we’re all embarrassed by it. Here Cheryl challenges the notion that the suburbs are necessarily a cultural or imaginative dead end as she returns ambivalently to Mississauga, seeking the ghosts of untold stories – her own, but also those that might be buried within its golf course mountain of refuse.

Cheryl’s fascination with suburban spaces began long before the phenomenal success of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs album. Her Ph.D. dissertation investigated the often conflicted meanings of the suburbs in post-war English-Canadian literature. Her essay “Ravines and the Conscious Electrified Life of Houses: Margaret Atwood’s Suburban Kunstlerromane” appears in the current issue of Studies in Canadian Literature (36.1. 2011)

dg

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Mississauga: Cadence of Desire and Return

A Childhood Geografictione

By Cheryl Cowdy

To Aritha van Herk, for Places Far From Ellesmere,
from which this piece borrows generously,
most obviously in italics.

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“I had a lot of luck, then, which saved me from all kinds of side-tracks: neuroses first off, and perhaps psychosis, and psycho-professionalization, from which many intelligent people never recover. Next, the militant path, and finally—this may seem strange—it saved me from the suburbs, universe of my childhood, kind of wonderful, but which is often, all the same, a cultural dead end.” [2]

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Desire

Beneath the flight path of airplanes heading for or just leaving Lester B. Pearson Airport, the temptations of exile pass through your acoustic space approximately once every six minutes(58). Thankfully (perhaps) you haven’t experienced the same kind of luck as Guattari. Luck has saved you from certain undesirable side-tracks but not from the suburbs. Home: what you visit and abandon. In spite of your desire for escape, the universe of your childhood is a familiar ambivalence to which you reluctantly return, physically and psychically. Your dream geography if not the geography of your dreams.

Home: an asylum for your origins. A variety of exits off the 401, bringing your grandparents westward from Port Hope to Scarborough in the nineteen fifties. When the Empress of Canada landed in Montreal in 1966, it would have brought your mother, eighteen, blithe and bonny, to Scarborough too. The 401 a mosaic your grandfather pieced together from the air for the PSC Photographic Survey Corporation. Your  father spent his days piecing it together from the ground, laying humid asphalt over dirt, soil, concrete, then navigating the labyrinth of paved earth long nights moonlighting in a rented cab, ferrying the more privileged to invented island destinations.

The 401: Anecdotes accumulate along its paved shoulder; details get on here, merge, some leave by the next exit. Like the time a bunch of the guys got drunk after work and Dad streaked down the 401. Or the time he stopped his cab to help someone after a collision – only learning later that the guy had robbed a bank then had his face blown off by the cops in a gun fight. How could he drive without a face? Sometimes this anecdote drives in the lane beside another one; tall tales weave back and forth between lanes, stealing and sealing the gaps between stories and messing with their integrity.

What about Mum? Or your Gran, for that matter? Where are they? It’s almost always the fathers doing the driving. Not much material for a tall tale fitting women for bras in Simpson’s, although every woman must have heaved a story in her D-cup. Your mother tending the cash register evenings at the corner store after caring for you all day. Her escape from the explosives factory in Stevenston, Ayrshire, Scotland her one big story. After that, your mother’s stories occur in parentheses, take circuitous back routes, avoiding left-hand turns and never, never, getting on the 401.

Yes, highways are constructed and anecdotes accumulate. Can a “literature” be built here too? Is this a place from which to launch a world, a river, or even a short story? Can it launch itself? Mississauga is premeditated, its stories pre-fabricated. Fake lakes and mountains made out of garbage then turned into golf courses.  Can we transform ourselves if our surroundings are right? Somewhere there’s an exit-also-an-entrance that brings you back to or beyond the prequel.

A romantic child, you search optimistically for stories. The week your family moves to Meadowvale (Meadowjail) you notice the generic head of an Indian on the banner of the Mississauga News. Like Louise in Barbara Gowdy’s The Romantic, you look for Indians expectantly: Lake Wabukayne, the Credit River, Lake Aquitaine. (When you learn that “Aquitaine” is a European name, you switch allegiances; look for ladies in the fake lakes, under the stormwater collection equipment). Eventually you meet members of the Mississauga Nation who look nothing like the Indian on the local paper.  As you write this, the Six Nations are resurrecting their blockade against suburban development at Caledonia, resisting, like Oka, like Ipperwash, the suburban narratives with which we’ve barricaded them.

The Great Train Derailment of ‘79 was your own private Cuban Missile Crisis. For one night and all of the following day you watched Mississauga burn and waited for the knock on the door. Evacuation held the promise of Rapture, you could feel it in the texture of the toxic air.  You wished to join that community of the elect, the early evacuees who spent an entire week camping out on cots in the Square One Shopping Centre (every kid’s dream to be stranded in the mall after the lights go out). Instead, you are transported to more eastern points of the 401 – your familial origins – Scarborough and Agincourt and Flemingdon Park. Where it all began.

You will remember less about those 4 days of exile than you will about that one day of waiting.

You develop and move from one townhouse complex to another, somehow keeping track of all those unit numbers.

Complex/ kompleks/ n. & adj.n. 1. a building, series of rooms, network, etc. made up of related parts (the arts complex). 2. Psych. A related group of usu. repressed feelings or thoughts which cause abnormal behavior or mental states.  (inferiority complex; Oedipus complex). 3. (in general use) a preoccupation or obsession (has a complex about punctuality). 4. Chem. a compound in which molecules or ions form coordinate bonds to a metal atom or ion. – adj. 1. consisting of related parts; composite. 2. Complicated (a complex problem). 3. Math. containing real and imaginary parts. [French complexe or Latin complexus past part. of complectere embrace, assoc. with complexus braided]. [3]

There has to be a minotaur somewhere.

How to escape? Borrow more authentic addresses: Streetsville seems more small town, so for a time, you date Streetsville boys exclusively. Later you set your sights on bad boys from the city: Toronto: Downtown with a capital “D.” Whoring after strange places. Their addresses are rendered more exotic by the three-hour pilgrimage that takes you from the labyrinthine routes of the Mississauga Transit to the more pragmatic Toronto Transit Commission. Never getting on the 401, except the time dad snatched you back from an escapation attempt.

Escape artist, you look to Hollywood for familiar narratives, real and imaginary: Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club. It’s the 80s – you listen to The Smiths, The Cure – and so for a time you are saved by the treacherous optimism of the cynic from certain side-tracks, seductions of the dreaming screen. You seek out copses of wood in the ravine, beside the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles, grocery buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC. You aren’t picky at that time and will accept pre-fabricated nature if that’s the best they can offer. Writing place: hiding place. You write Songs of Disaffected Innocence and Experience. They never seem right.

Next the militant path. You drop out of high school for a while, sell remainders in the record department at Woolco (Square One, at last). Miraculously, you find salvation in a secondary school for the lost. When you graduate, you pick the University with the most alien geography, Montreal a universe in which to dream a different language. You step over the homeless who sleep in front of your door. You have a Murphy bed and a rat that isn’t a pet. You are only mildly dissatisfied with your verse.When asked where you are from, you can say, “Toronto.” You think you are happy.

Four months later, you return.

Return

Return: escape to embarkation/ escapation.

You’re not exactly certain how the return was effected. Somewhere along the highway you took the wrong exit, forgot to merge, got trapped in a narrative you don’t recall writing. All exits are also entrances. You should be in exile in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood along with everyone else in academe: you missed the Rapture again?

They cleaned up the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles and shopping buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC (evidence of your own adolescence may still be down there). Anecdotes accumulate, advertising copy trying desperately to disguise itself as his/tory:

“The 16 hectare (40 acre) Lake Aquitaine Park is one of Meadowvale Community’s best-known attractions. Designed in the late 1960s and opened in 1976, the park surrounds an artificial lake. This lake, considered a model by other cities, was the first stormwater management facility in the province to be a focus for a residential community. It is designed so the lake can significantly change water levels and store water during and after major storms.

Nature is being allowed to reclaim the edges of the lake, and new wetland and meadow areas are being nurtured. This will make the park more welcoming for fish, birds and other wildlife.”

Mississauga goes on with its falling, one molecule at a time: and you too in your ache to archive it there to read/ remember/ blame. To unhinge, and to carve with words, a reading act: this place of origins, of forbiddens and transgressions, of absence and remains.

Jeanette Winterson has a theory that “every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.” [4]

In the explorations of memory and place lie unsolved murders.

Some ghosts return because the narrative demands it. What are your ghosts doing now? Do they keep each other company, the streetwise adolescent ghost roaming the culs-de-sac and walking through the McDonald’s Drive-thru window at 2am, and the urban undergrad ghost haunting your condemned bachelor apartment on rue St. Denis? There are ghosts in Ottawa, some begging for change at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor (you have had more successful escapations). Do they sneer at the soccer mom?  If you wonder too much about which routes brought you back here, not just to the same community but the very same street you lived on prior to your first defection … from 6154 to 6205, a difference of only fifty-one numbers in eighteen years…

You dream yourself breaking into unruly houses, coveting secret passageways, and hidden rooms, always their subterranean floors. Nights you don’t dream thoughts toss and turn. (Stories in parentheses). Sometimes you rise, grope for notebook on night table, tiptoe into the bathroom, the only place you can write without waking husband, kids, dog, cat. Writing place: hiding place.

“You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings . . . serendipitously” writes John Barth. [4]

Perhaps you can’t reach Serendib by the 401.  How then to occupy a place? Be the crack in the plaster. Persistent mushroom exploding through dirt, soil, asphalt, concrete. You must live up to your fictions, that’s all there is to it; you must help yourself achieve geografictiones of the soul. Get off the highway then, and take the back roads. Excavate the stories from parenthetical constructions. Tear down the “No Exit” sign. See/k what has been wiped off the map. Construct an asylum for your origins, a mythology, a highway of heroes.

In good faith, you’re still losing your bearings.

–Cheryl Cowdy

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. “A fiction of geography/ geography of fiction: coming together in people and landscape and the harboured designations of fickle memory.” Aritha van Herk, Places Far From Ellesmere, Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College Press, 1990: 40.
  2. Guattari, Félix. “So What?” Chaosophy. New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 1995: 8
  3. Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Ed. Katherine Barber. Don Mills, ON: Oxford UP, 1998.
  4. Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London, UK: Vintage, 1991.
  5. Barth, John. The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Boston:  Little, Brown, 1991.