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 (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.
RJF: Much of your writing explores the motif of heterosexual male relationships. Specifically, the friendships between men. I think this is a rare thing to write about. Hemingway did this, of course, but you explore this territory with a more overt emotional compass. What is it about this male dynamic that is so interesting to you?
KLM: That’s interesting. I’ve never been asked that before. I’d say that some of it comes from my own experience. I’ve had the same set of half a dozen male friends since middle school. After I get off the phone, I’m calling one of them. We’ve been friends since I was, I guess, thirteen. His wife was just recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I call him every week to check in. So I guess this comes through in my writing from this sort of personal experience and this strong group of friends. And we all make the trek back home every year, to our small town in Idaho. I have guy friends that are writers, too. Steve Almond, Brock Clarke. So I guess, on reflection, that those kinds of long-term close friendships are important and they make their way into my writing.
RJF: Following up on this topic: What rituals exist for the contemporary male? You write a lot about bars, dart games, dog races, etc. Your male characters have this ‘lovable loser’ quality—they’re always getting drunk and stoned and getting into trouble, but you test them, too. Do you think that men today have lost some sense of the sacred ritual or the passage from boyhood to manhood?
KLM: Like the Hemingway thing, bullfights and war? Hunting, fishing, sports, sexual encounters? Those are the kind of standard coming of age rituals, I suppose. But I think my characters tend not to participate in rituals. Take Luke Rivers (the protagonist in The Greyhound God). When he was young, he went through a lot—the death of family members, a psychological breakdown, being in a mental hospital. So at a time when he would have been experiencing the traditional coming of age rituals, he was experiencing other things. He has this close bond with his wife, and while he goes through the ‘buddy stuff’ in the bars and at the track, his experiences are not typical. Even his friendships are atypical. He’s exploring his identity in the novel.
Typically characters I identify with have difficulty with rituals. They don’t see themselves as going through the traditional rites of passage.
Another example would be the character Deeder in my short story “Ayudame.” He was based on a friend of mine I grew up with, a working class, blue collar guy, but I crosscut him with another friend who had always dreamed of opening a record shop. And I wondered what it would be like for this character who never stopped dreaming of that record shop, who still felt that he should have been born in the 1960s. I guess I think about the different ways to create male characters who don’t go through the typical “coming of age” scenarios.
You called them ‘lovable losers.’ I grew up in northern Idaho. I went to school in the second-lowest funded district in the second lowest-funded state in the country at the time. A lot of those guys I knew didn’t even make it into high school. They just dropped out after eighth grade and disappeared. So I’m writing about people that are familiar to me. I’m actually uncomfortable around writers a lot of the time, you know? Guys with PhD’s and professors. It’s just not where I came from.
And I’ve been lucky. A lot of my friends have embraced my writing. Even if they aren’t readers or if normally they’d be reading books I’d hate, they still read all of my stories and books.
RJF: In your story collection, Call it What you Want, you refer to two types of stories. You have your traditional, realist stories and a type you call “dream stories.” Do these two types of writing inform each other as you go?
KLM: They do inform one another. Even in the ‘dream stories’ you’ll find the same types of characters at the center. And I think, because of my immersion in the dream stories, my realist stories aim at a language that is different. If you look at the end of “Ayudame” you’ll see that. The sentences become long and lyrical. So maybe the dream stories are a way of getting at the more lyrical writing. Something about me wanting to write those types of sentences.
RJF: I’m going to quote you back to yourself here. In The Greyhound God, you write this about fathers: “A father is anyone with answers to the questions that keep you awake at night.” Do you think this is the writer’s task, to answer the questions that keep us awake at night?
KLM: (Laughs) Well, it’s a lofty ambition. I meet a lot of writers who don’t want any meaning at all attributed to their stories. Maybe this is a result of the post-modern era. Authors won’t take ownership of their message. There’s a sense that, as a group, we don’t have that kind of influence anymore. If you take the most famous writer in America, if Stephen King died tomorrow, they wouldn’t turn out in the streets like they did in Paris when Victor Hugo died. So things have changed.
But I do mean something when I write. I’m trying to get across an idea, even if I’m sometimes not entirely sure what that idea is. I’m exploring, too, while I’m telling a story. I’m certainly looking to find answers for myself when I write, so if I happen to answer some questions for someone else, then great. Part of the process is sharing ideas. Some writers think of a story as art. Like a story is the same thing as a painting. For me, a book is a form of communication. It’s a conversation.
RJF: Someone once asked Graham Swift what the essence of storytelling was. He replied that a story is “the relation of something strange.” He talked about overhearing a guy in a bar tell a story and that guy’s urge to relate the strange. He said he wanted to remember that guy in the bar when he wrote stories, that he wanted to be in that bar, too. Here’s the longer part of his response: “It begins with strangeness, it takes us out of ourselves but back to ourselves. It offers compassion.” Since so many of your stories are bar stories, I’m wondering how you think about Swift’s answer.
KLM: I hadn’t thought about stories that way before. But bars are fascinating. There’s nowhere else where you get people from all different walks of life coming together. And everyone’s there for the same reason, to have a drink and maybe to talk. So a lot of my stories are set in bars because the possibilities between people are so fascinating. But I think, even in the opening stages of a story, familiarity is just as important as strangeness. Think about it, if a total stranger walks up to you and starts talking, you’ll probably go the other way. If someone sits down with a strange story, you need to be interested in the person before you’ll be interested in his story
There has to be something familiar in a story. Until something is familiar in a character, we probably don’t want to hear what they have to say. We don’t want someone’s back-story until we are interested in him. So the element of the familiar matters. The strangeness has to come out of the familiar first for it to matter. I’d say it goes from familiarity to strangeness and then back again.
RJF: Here’s a more personal question. When did you first realize that you were going to be a writer?
KLM: It was later for me. I was in my twenties and I’d dropped out of college. I thought about acting for a while. I acted in some community theater, but I realized I sucked as an actor. I was acting in some locally written plays, and some of them were pretty bad, and I started thinking, damn, I could do as well as that. So I first started by writing plays. And I started reading more fiction, but I was well into my twenties. Back in middle school and high school, my teachers always told me I had talent as a writer, but I didn’t get serious about it until I was much older.
RJF: Was there an important person who influenced you to pursue it more seriously?
KLM: I suppose it was my parents first, who instilled in me the notion that I was responsible to do something, to not just be a bum. And I was well on my way to being a bum for a while.
The usual suspects, of course—my professors and writing teachers at The University of Idaho and UNC-Greensboro. But I can think of some less obvious examples, too. There was a guy in New Orleans who owned a bookstore. It was just a hole-in-the-wall shop, with books stacked from the floor to the ceiling. All these great books, literature, history, philosophy. I’d walk in and ask him what to read and he’d point me to a bunch of books, then I’d go back and tell him what I liked and didn’t like, and he’d suggest more. So I read a lot of good books because of him.
One person for sure had a big influence. I was dating a girl at the University of Idaho and I was writing short stories. I wasn’t in college then, but she took some of the stories to her English professor to read without me knowing it. He asked her to bring me in, to come and see him. He told me I needed to get back in school and get some formal guidance. He didn’t have to do that. I was nobody to him, and he took the time to call me in off the street. Walter Hesford. I’ll always be grateful to him. And as a professor now, it really taught me that you can’t ignore anybody. You never know who’s out there.
RJF: This is a weird question but I’m going to ask it anyway. Are there places you won’t go in your writing? Are there topics, for one reason or another, that you won’t touch?
KLM: I know I’m supposed to say, ‘no,’ right? But I’ll try to answer this.
I’m really reluctant to write about people that will be hurt if they recognized themselves. I’ll radically alter plots and characters to avoid that. So I shy away from material if it’s too close to someone. Other than that, probably not.
I do feel like I’ll write a story then go back and look at it and if I don’t like a character or a situation, I won’t send it out. I don’t always know where a story’s going when I’m writing it, so when it’s finished, I’ll sometimes decide that what comes out is too negative, that there’s absolutely nothing hopeful that the story has to offer, and for that reason I’ll dismiss it. If I can’t see anything in there that I would want to read about, I don’t want to force anyone else to read it.
RJF: My editor here at Numéro Cinq, Douglas Glover, was also my advisor in grad school. His nickname was “The Shredder” and he was insistent that his students think deeply in terms of structure. He said a lot of new writers, even in an MFA program, don’t understand structure. So it’s for him that I ask you this: How do you think structure in writing?
KLM: I had a professor like that in grad school, too. Michael Parker. He really focused on structure and the integrity of language, the integrity of the story as a whole. He forced me to recognize things that I hadn’t been thinking about. To this day, I have this little Michael Parker running around in my head, making me pay attention to structure, both at the sentence and the story level.
But to be honest, I couldn’t care less about structure. Yet of course I’m aware of it. When I wrote The Dart League King, I was experimenting a lot with structure. And as a writing teacher, I force my students to pay attention to it. Paying attention to structure is important, but it’s not structure that I’m interested in.. It’s a precursor to or a byproduct of what I write. In itself, it’s not what I’m interested in. Writers write for different reasons, and I think all writers have parts of the process that they submit to grudgingly.
I know a lot of writers who just love writing sentences, and they have to be forced to think in terms of plot. But I want to write stories—I’m interested primarily in narrative and the ideas contained in narrative. You have to consider structure as part of how to create a story, though—and if structure is one of your weaknesses as a writer, it’s your responsibility to shore up the weaknesses in order to get the material out there.
—Richard Farrell & Keith Lee Morris
Richard Farrell is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq where he has published memoir, craft essays and book reviews. He is the Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” appeared in the most recent Hunger Mountain Menagerie and has been nominated for a Puschcart Prize. He lives in San Diego, CA and is currently at work on a collection of short stories.
“The strangeness has to come out of the familiar first for it to matter.” Thank you Keith for that bit of advice. I try to capture that essence when I write. I’ve now put your quote on my office wall!