“There are only three journals that matter and one of them is Conjunctions.”
— Walter Abish, author of How German Is It
Behold the man — Bradford Morrow, who spans in both biography and experience the best explorations of the teachers and writers of two centuries, the 20th and our new toddling era. Both a generous reader and writer, a community-maker in his years as founder and editor of the pioneering Conjunctions, bearing standards paradoxically rigorous, curious, and fluid, author of Giovanni’s Gift, among some other eight books, this year he came out with two new books: one, the novel The Diviner’s Tale, a genre cloverleaf, combining elements of paranormal mystery, the detective story, the confessional, and a shaggy-dog story, told by a woman whose credibility proves as convincing as Norman Rush’s similar feat of male-to-female ventriloquism in Mating. The second, the collection of short stories The Uninnocent, shows similar insight, plunging the reader again and again into some icy waters. Why? Because he pushes characters to extremes while luring us into unguessable sympathies: you, dear reader, become complicit with the metaphysical and actual body count of these stories. Who would you be under such complex circumstances? Would you dare call yourself good?
Such is the sly question in ghostly ink between Morrow’s lines. Meanwhile, his formal play (see, for instance, the highly pleasurable psychological Rubik’s cube of a story,”Mis(laid)”) is subtle; in its subtlety lies intrigue.
*And if you want more gritty specifics embracing Morrow’s upbringing and aesthetics, in addition to the interview that follows, may I direct you to the well-written biography?
** And if you want the opening of Paradise Lost, one of the undergirdings of postwar American fiction, see this:
Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us . . .
(First dot) You have tackled so many large topics in your work, and have used such varying technique, and yet your last novel, The Diviner’s Tale, as well as this most recent book of short stories, The Uninnocent, both come out of a truly American gothic sensibility. The Uninnocent bears every kind of smudged, glowing thumbprint of America gone awry: absentee fathers haunt these stories, as do grotesque physical accidents, incest, murder, subterfuge, numbing devices.
(Second dot) You have a deep connection to Willa Cather.
Can you connect these two points for your lay readers?
Brad Morrow: That’s a really intriguing question. I see several possible ways to connect those dots, although perhaps the simplest explanation for what on the surface might seem an affinity for two quite different aesthetics would be to cite Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” — as a writer my interests are wildly wide-ranging. My taste in literature, like my taste in music, and even in people, is eclectic. I’ve never been one to limit myself in my preoccupations, my affections. Which is not to say my taste is chaotic or even all that catholic. Just that for better or worse I manage a wide embrace. Besides Willa Cather, I’m completely devoted to John Donne, for instance, and Yeats. But also William Burroughs and William Gaddis. What these writers have in common, for want of a sharper word, is genius. Originality, dynamism, vision, and a gift for language that’s electric.
Two more specific vectors between the gothic and Willa Cather involve, first, her use of landscape as an active character — a trait that’s ever-present in my most gothic work — and, second, for all her reputation as a kind of pioneer realist, Cather is a modernist chronicler of all manner of violent and tragic behaviors. Her landscapes are often aggressive, uncooperative, and even fatally destructive to the humans who inhabit them. Likewise, her characters are capable of depravities that would take aback the darkest noir writer. When the cruel Wick Cutter blithely slits open the eyes of a woodpecker in A Lost Lady and enjoys watching the poor creature flop around helplessly trying to find its way back to its nest, you know you’re in the presence of a writer who understands evil. Murder, betrayal, deception, downfalls. Cather explores all these themes pretty relentlessly, though she also is a brilliant celebrant of human triumph against adversity, as well.
Another personal connection to Willa Cather, having nothing to do with the gothic, is that my mother was born and raised in Red Cloud, Nebraska, and my grandparents, great grandparents, and great-great grandparents farmed the same rolling Nebraska lands that Cather’s family did. Most are buried there, many a stone’s throw from the graves of Cather’s family and friends. So there’s that, as well. Cather and I, generations apart, left small towns in Nebraska and Colorado to end up in New York where we each became novelists and editors. Sentimental or not, I feel she’s a kind of forebear.
EM: Again, forgive me this dyadism, two quotations:
“We were uninnocent, but the very isolation that in some ways damned us has also acted as our benefactor and protector.” — The Uninnocent
“The druggist’s was empty, its row of stools with mottled vinyl aligned kind of sad somehow before the long counter, Coke taps, pie racks, ketchup bottles, the stainless-steel malted cup — ” — “Whom No Hate Stirs None Dances”
While I don’t feel this about every writer, may I venture that in your embrace of such complex and often evil characters, a lapsed idealism lives? Not that polemic pulses your fiction, but rather that some American nostalgia unites these stories. As if all might be better if we could get back to — to what? The land, perhaps, the freedom of an individual facing the vastness of the world and needing to make those insuperably huge American choices. Cather’s prairie redux! As if each character might, somewhere before the second coming or apocalypse, recognize the worth of ethics and community. Your characters are often anachronistic vigilantes, pursuing their own form of righteousness. I might be pushing it here, but the voice rising from your pages suggests that while your pariahs’ psychologies rarely bear Edenic backstories, the arcs of their stories contain a ghostly hint: some lost key lives in the backstory of the States. Discuss?
BM: I agree that many characters in these stories would like to get back to the Garden but that the path, if there ever was one, is overgrown with thorny flora and guarded by treacherous fauna. Indeed, Jack, in “All the Things That Are Wrong With Me,” tries to create his own Edenic animal garden in which the lion lies down with the lamb, but he is blinded by naïveté and an ignorance of community rules, and so is fated for a hard fall. Both narrators in “Lush” try their very best to overcome alcoholism and injury, but in the end it’s unclear if their dreams, despite their striving and hope, can finally create a haven that’s strong enough to protect them from their demons.
As for the role of America in the book, I can say simply that the stories were meant to be individual investigations rather than a political map of the patchwork quilt that is our culture. Having said that, though, it is interesting that the first story in the collection, “The Hoarder,” involves a family moving from place to place across the country, beginning in the Outer Banks on the East Coast, passing through the Midwest and pausing in the Southwest for a time, then ending up in California. The youthful collector, on his own westward journey, at first contents himself with innocent enough things to assemble — sea shells, birds’ nests, pottery shards; things he finds on beaches, in forests, and on the desert. But just as the country itself in its westward expansion, fueled by Manifest Destiny and other questionable political philosophies that hardly disguised an underlying rapacity, moved inevitably away from idealism, this boy increasingly finds himself driven to take things from others in order to feel in control of a life that’s slipping away from him.
While evil is obviously universal, various forms of evil portrayed in The Uninnocent do seem to me to be, as you suggest, distinctly American. An unstable idealism that sometimes erupts into irrevocable acts of violence or crime does reside in the hearts of many of these characters, which despite my better judgment is one of the reasons I so deeply empathize with even the worst among them. Some are naive, others psychotic, still others believe that they are doing the right thing even though the rest of the world would strongly disagree. Just as America is a young country, a number of people portrayed here struggle with maturity at a fairly tender age. Again, I’m not saying the characters in The Uninnocent are meant to be small portraits of the country itself. But all of them are in one way or another the products of America and, as William Carlos Williams put it, “The pure products of America go crazy.”
EM: How does music affect your writing?
BM: Music was crucial to my life long before I ever thought of writing, even well before I got into reading books beyond The Phantom Toll Booth or The Cat in the Hat. My mother was church organist and choir director at the First Methodist Church in Littleton, Colorado, and was an accomplished opera singer. She had me taking piano lessons before my hands could barely reach the ivories and my feet the pedals. So music is in my blood and soul. Every kind of music, I might add, from classical to jazz, rock to rap, from sea chanteys to you name it. I’ve learned a lot from Bach and Stravinsky, Debussy and Copland, Bird and Coltrane, Leadbelly and John McLaughlin, the Geto Boys and NWA. A list of all the composers and musicians who have influenced me would run into the hundreds. I doubt I could write any of the sentences that I do without that core musical background. Narrative, be it on the scale of a short paragraph or a long novel, is told in words whose origins are ultimately musical. Emerson wrote, Every word was once a poem. And I would suggest that every poem was once a musical phrase.
EM: Who was your first ideal reader?
BM: I had a professor at the University of Colorado, the late and much-missed Edward Nolan, who had an enormous impact on me and read my work with care and blazing intelligence. He got me to read Woolf and Yeats and Ezra Pound and could discuss the dynamics of a sentence or phrase with dazzling precision and nuance. But in fact I have been blessed over the years with a number of dear friends who happen also to be super sharp readers of my work, and who’ve been unafraid to suggest possible improvements to this text or that. Rarely have I felt like I’m singing alone in the dark, thanks to these gracious intimates.
EM: When I first read your response, above, I thought you had written thanks to these gracious inmates. Which made me think, since I believe you have a great panopticon view of American letters (belles lettres?) and much recent literary history — what is your view of our current literary prison? Prison or paradise? While we are a rebellious clan, is there some uniting moment which we are living through? DeLillo once famously said the novelist had great freedom, living in the margins of a dying art, yet also that terrorists had usurped our ability to form compelling narrative. Answer any part of this, or go off on your own spree.
BM: I may be overly optimistic or utterly blind, but my view of contemporary American fiction is that it is as rich as ever. Some of the best work is being written in what until recently was considered, at least among the conventional literati, genre fiction. Horror, gothic, mystery, fantasy, fabulism. There are so many stunningly original and serious writers working these fields. I have to think that anybody reading this interview would agree. Just one example, though there are many, would be Elizabeth Hand. She composes sentences of ravishing beauty. She is capable of creating metaphor systems that are so dynamic and provocative. She can turn a fictive moment that seems deeply rooted in the everyday into something that, in fact, touches upon the sublime, the miraculous. Just read her novella Cleopatra Brimstone and tell me that American fiction isn’t pulsing with life. Like I say, I could list dozens of authors here whose work I admire and follow with care and excitement. That said, I do think that much contemporary criticism is stuck in the past and that too many reviewers want those who are exploring ways to revolutionize genre to stick to the rules. I think of them as genre police. They make too many false arrests and lead potential readers astray, keep them caged away from renegades whose work they might well dig reading.
EM: Coming off your rich response: did you have an early model in your young life of generosity, whether literary or existential?
BM: A few, Edie. Ezra Pound had a huge impact on me. Poet, critic, translator, editor, promoter of others’ works, shaper of Kulchur. Even now, looking back to the Pound Era (Hugh Kenner’s phrase for those astonishing years that saw everyone from Joyce to Eliot to Williams to H.D. rise into view with novels and poems sizzling with genius), I marvel at how crucial Ezra Pound’s generosity was to modernism. So certainly Pound. Also, I was devoted to Allen Ginsberg who similarly moved outward beyond his own poetry to help other writers find their voices and audiences. Kenneth Rexroth, who introduced Ginsberg’s first reading of Howl and was at least initially godfather to the Beat movement, was my mentor when I was in my 20s. Like Pound, Kenneth was a critic and translator as well as an exceptional poet who delved deeply into the mysteries of love. His generosity toward me, a young writer 50 years his junior, was a real inspiration. Kenneth was a polymath, knew everything about everything, truly the most exquisite mind I have ever encountered, and so he too was a model. Interesting that I’m only citing poets. The most generous prose fiction writer who inspired me in my 30s was John Hawkes. His generosity toward me I try to pay forward as often as I can. Jack was constantly encouraging me and a whole host of other writers — Jeff Eugenides, Rick Moody, Joanna Scott, Mary Caponegro, so many others. I will never forget his introducing me at Brown University when I gave my first public reading. He had a wild wit, a luminescence, that inspires me to this day.