An Interview with Mary Morris
Questions by Douglas Silver
Mary Morris is the author of fifteen books – seven novels, including most recently The Jazz Palace (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), three collections of short stories, and four travel memoirs, including the travel classic, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. Her numerous short stories, articles and travel essays have appeared in such places as The Atlantic, Narrative, The Paris Review, and The New York Times. Morris is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rome Prize in Literature. In 2016 The Jazz Palace was awarded the Anisfield-Wolf Award for fiction. This prize goes to a literary work that addresses the issues of racism and cultural diversity. Her new novel, Gateway to the Moon, was published in April 2018 by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. For more information see www.marymorris.net.
This interview was conducted by email, over June 2018.
Doug Silver: You’ve written seven novels, three short story collections, and four travel memoirs. Your first book was published in the early 1980s. I’m curious what inspires you to write fiction, and if that inspiration has altered or evolved over the last 35 years.
Mary Morris: What inspires me is always one thing: Stories. I love to hear stories and I love to tell them. I’ve always found human behavior somewhat confounding. As Alberto Moravio said once, life is chaos; only stories make sense. And Michael Chabon wrote in an essay on the short that a story is the shortest distance between two brains. In other words stories help us know ourselves and understand who we are and why we do what we do. A recent study has shown that stories make us more empathic. Whatever the reason I am always entranced by what people do and why they do it. It never ceases to surprise me. I always want to hear more. If you want to get my attention, tell me a good story. My mind might wander during a concert or at a museum, but I’ll always stay focused if someone is telling me a good story.
DS: What influence has social media had on fiction–both in its creation and reception? Has it changed the way you approach your work?
MM: Well, there are stories out there that are being written as tweets, but I don’t think that social media has had any impact on the way I write fiction. It has, however, changed the way I think about my work going out into the world. A few years ago I was going to have lunch with a friend. She’s a well-known writer and she was actually on her way to a chemo treatment. I thought we were having lunch so that I could support her, but she turned the tables, so to speak. The Jazz Palace was going to be published the following spring and it had been a while since I’d had a book out. I think her first words to me were something like, “Everything’s different now.” For the next two hours, as I took furious notes, my friend explained the role of social media in publishing and how I needed to find a platform that I was comfortable with.
A few nights later I took a former student of mine to dinner who was about to move to France to live with a baker. When I asked her how she planned on earning a living, she told me that she did freelance work setting up social media platforms for authors, so I hired her and for the next year or so she helped me create a social media presence. To be honest I kind of love it. It is a community and I find that it can be supportive. It can also be a great big time suck.
For better or worse, this is now going to be with us permanently and all artists must learn how to put themselves out there. Which, of course, is antithetical to the solitude we require to make our art.
DS: Several characters in Gateway to the Moon are historical figures. What, if any challenges, did this present? Specifically, I’m wondering if fidelity to your research ever encroached upon your narrative impulses.
MM: It presented many challenges. On the one hand I wanted to create characters of my own but at the same time I felt the need to be somewhat true to history as we know it. The most difficult for me was writing the character of Christopher Columbus. How could I possibly get into the head of this incredible towering presence of a man in our history? How could I begin to imagine what he’d think or sound like at all? In the end, I decided not to make him speak too much. I just couldn’t imagine him chatting. But after doing a lot of reading about him, I found a way into what I thought his inner life might be. I think I was reading a biography about Columbus that was talking about his obsession with Cathay and the riches and gold that he’d find there. Somehow silk worms jumped into my brain. I’m not a linear thinker. I can find a detail like that and it becomes the structural beam that the narrative can rest on. I began reading about silk worms and then I just decided that Columbus would dream about them. Dreams, after all, like silk, are spun, aren’t they? When I wrote that he dreams of silk worms I knew I was “in.” I liked writing about his dreamy, megalomaniacal states such as when he imagines all the riches that will be bestowed upon him by the great Khan. I found that this approach of finding a detail worked for the other historic characters as well. When I learned that NASA was thinking about naming boulders after the crew members of Columbus’ first voyage, I decided that I wanted a boulder named after Pedro de Terreros, Columbus’s cabin boy who ran the Santa Maria aground. Learning about the boulders on Mars let me open up Pedro’s point of view, however briefly, in the novel. I began my writing life as a poet so this kind of associative thinking is part of the way I write.
But there came a moment when I decided that if I was going to tell the story I had to allow myself certain liberties. Poetic license, right?
E. L. Doctorow, a writer I loved and who was a mentor to me, once said that he did all the research, then forgot about it and made up the story he wanted to tell. I didn’t do exactly that, but I did take liberties for the sake of the story.
DS: You share a notable characteristic with several characters in Gateway to the Moon: you spent much of your life identifying as a converso, or crypto-Jew. How did your relationship to Judaism inform your approach to this novel? Did the novel alter your relationship to Judaism?
MM: My parents named me Mary so that no one would know I was Jewish by my name. It wasn’t long after the war and I think that impacted on their decision and they were also very interested in assimilating. And my mother for reasons of her own hated organized religion. She used to joke that if the Jews had just accepted Christ as our savior, “none of this would have happened.” She also claimed to have been sexually assaulted by an important rabbi and, while I think this probably did happen, I never understood why she turned her back on Judaism with such vehemence.
She couldn’t stand the holidays. We’d go to my grandparents to celebrate them. And we always had a Christmas tree so my grandmother would never come to our house when it was up. I know that this was very hard on my grandmother who was Orthodox (though my mother also claimed my grandmother wasn’t religious until after her husband died suddenly). Anyway I have gone in the opposite direction. I have wanted to learn whatever I can about my heritage. In college I began to study Hebrew and learn what ever I could. I didn’t want to be a secret Jew.
However over my entire life I’ve rarely been taken for Jewish. Irish, Italian, but almost never Jewish. In fact, people have said incredibly anti-Semitic things to my face because they didn’t know my heritage. (Once a neighbor suggested that we not send our daughter to a certain camp because there were a lot of Jews there. I replied that she’d just had her Bat Mitzvah so I thought she could handle it. I don’t think they’ve spoken to me since.)
Anyway my parents did whatever they could to assimilate, and I grew up knowing very little about Judaism. In my late teens I began to explore my Jewish roots. I took Hebrew classes. I went to Israel, where I have family. My parents tried to hide all of this from me but I wanted to know. I think I identified with the secret Jews because, yes, I have for a long time felt as if I were one of them.
DS: Perhaps the most striking element of the conversos in Entrada de la Luna is that they do not know the origins or rationale of many of the rituals they practice. This devotion seems no less genuine for its lack of context. The conversos do not know the complete story of Judaism, and yet it does not deter them from continuing the story of their Judaism. Is faith mostly a story we tell ourselves?
MM: Let me just begin by saying that I am a person of faith. I do believe in destiny. At the same time there are too many unknowns in our fragile lives. I think we tell ourselves stories to believe that our lives have meaning. I don’t believe in a hereafter. (I wish I did.) I don’t think I’ll see the people I love again, but that doesn’t mean that our lives don’t have a great deal of purpose as we are living them.
Perhaps the epigraph to Gateway from Andre Malraux best answers this question: The great mystery is not that we have been flung at random among the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness. Stories enable us to find images that help us to deny our nothingness. So in this sense, yes, storytelling is a human necessity and an act of faith. We tell ourselves stories all the time just to get through the day. At least I know I do.
DS: At several points along Luis de Torres’ journey, I thought back to your memoir Nothing to Declare. While the circumstances were different, both you and Luis coped with loneliness and spiritual deprivation, and yet emerged with an expanded worldview and sense of self. Did you reflect on your own travels while writing Luis’ journey?
MM: Luis de Torres is one of the important historical figures in the book. He was a converso and probably a crypto Jew who had been the translator for the governor of Murcia. He was hired by Columbus as his interpreter and he was one of perhaps a few secret Jews who were on Columbus’ first journey. I don’t know that my own travels specifically impacted on the way I thought about Luis’ journey though I will say that I’ve shared some of the moments he has, looking at the night sky. But aren’t we all journeymen/women by definition, moving through life, destination unknown? I didn’t reflect consciously on my travels while writing Gateway, but travel informs pretty much everything I do and write about, so on some level I am always thinking about it. For example there’s a lot that’s unknown when we travel and it can also be very lonely. In my solo travels I’ve been quite lonely myself. Once in Istanbul I asked for a table for one and the host looked at me so sadly. Loneliness brings with it a kind of longing. I do think that these elements become part of Luis’ experience so yes, in that way travel certainly influenced the way I wrote about Luis.
DS: Celestial bodies play an important, though subtle, role throughout the novel. Luis learns to chart the moon and stars while traversing the high seas, while for Miguel, a budding astronomer with a homemade telescope, the night sky introduces him to the vastness of the universe and forces him to ponder mysteries both cosmic and personal. I was struck by the beautiful parallel between religion and the galaxy, how both are methods for guidance as well as a lens through which to glimpse untold possibilities. In this sense, despite the five-hundred year separation, the night sky becomes a shared communion for these men. Did you have this idea in mind?
MM: I was definitely intending that the reader see a parallel between the moon and the stars, the cosmic and the personal. It is the common thread that connects Luis in his journey to Miguel in his search. Just as Luis in 1492 learns to map out the stars, Miguel in 1992 is learning how to find them. Given that everyone in the novel is related I liked the continuity, the sense of consistency that the sky gave to these characters and to the novel as a whole.
DS: In your estimate, what challenges are in store for the next generation of fiction writers? What will be the effect of the continuing shift from print to digital books?
MM: There are challenges in every era. Some people succeed and many do not. Is it harder to publish now? Yes. Is it harder to find a publisher who will commit and stick with you, regardless of your sales figures? Definitely yes. But the fact is the world still needs stories. The important thing is, if it is your passion, your calling, if you have no choice but to write, then that is what you must do. I write every day and I read every day. And, to answer the last part of your question, I don’t see the shift from print to digital as being either good or bad for writers. It is just the direction that the technology is going now.
In the New York Public Library right, at the entrance to the Rose Reading Room, there are four murals that outline the history of human literary development from stone to parchment to the printing press. Maybe it’s time that someone painted the digital one.
Douglas Silver’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Printers Row, Epoch, The Cincinnati Review, Callaloo, Southern Humanities Review, Narrative, and elsewhere. A former writer-in-residence at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation and an Elizabeth George grant recipient, he lives in New York where he has recently completed a novel and short story collection. Learn more at www.DouglasSilver.com