Sunday, February 28, 2016

1/2 Dozen for Keith Lee Morris

It's a great privilege to have Keith Lee Morris in for a few questions. His new novel, TRAVELERS REST, has recently hit shelves to rave reviews. Below, find out how running informs his process as well as how his various jobs -- from salvage crew for a train wreck to working at a French Quarter hotel -- have offered a lot of material. Plus some advice on love and handling criticism. 

Here goes:

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

This one's easy-- running. I started running about a decade ago when my older son got interested in running 5K races and wanted someone to train with. I was using it primarily as a way to make me quit smoking (which didn't work--I kept smoking for several years even when I was running regularly). But now I'm certifiably obsessed on my own. I run four days a week, nine miles each time out, with occasional longer runs thrown in (longest so far -- 22 miles). I'm now thinking of running my first marathon, which I always swore I wasn't interested in doing. But my father, who started running marathons when he was in his 50s, passed away recently, and I find myself wanting to do it as a tribute to him. First I have to lose the 10 pounds I gained when I was out West on my book tour. At any rate, running seems to have a pretty permanent hold on me by now--I don't feel good if I don't run, and I actually feel as if I can't THINK very well, either--I do a lot of the work that goes into writing by mulling over material while I'm out huffing and puffing along. As far as reading obsessions go, I suddenly feel compelled to read every word Edith Wharton ever wrote. I'm also pretty crazy about my cat.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

Can't stand writing. Or at least I despise the idea until I've gotten caught up in the process enough to forget what I'm doing. That does happen, fortunately--once things start to click, I forget that I had to drag myself kicking and screaming onto the page, into the characters' heads, into the particular fictional world I'm trying to create. But I guess I'm lazy by nature--I'd rather daydream than do just about anything--and writing is hard work, at least if you're doing it seriously, at least it is for me. I'm physically and emotionally exhausted after a three hour stretch working on a novel or story. I get a sense of satisfaction from HAVING written, which is why I've always done it and continue to do it, but I don't enjoy the writing itself. I used to bribe myself with cigarettes--come on, Keith, just keep writing and you can have a cigarette every time you finish another page--but now I have to work myself up to it without the benefit of guilty pleasures. Sorta sucks.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Bless your heart. Seek help. No, I don't know, I don't think that writers are by nature any different from anyone else, are they? It seems to me a mistake to think so. With a few exceptions, my closest friends aren't writers--most of my best friends are still the people I hung around with when I was growing up in Idaho or striking out on my own in my 20s, and they've got the same roil of thoughts and emotions and plans and dreams and memories going around in their heads that I do. The only difference is that writers develop the skill to untangle the whole mess and translate it into words that achieve a physical form on a page, which, when arranged well, can be rewarding and entertaining for other people to decipher and consider. Otherwise, I don't know that we're any different. Maybe we're a little more touchy. So, hey, I'd say, congratulations! Go for it! It's good to be able to fall in love with anyone . . . even a writer.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.
Nobody can stop you from writing, nobody can tell you what to write or how to write, and the only person you have to please is yourself. Pencil. Paper. Begin.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

Wow. A lot of things. Near as I can remember, these are the jobs I've been paid to do at one time or another besides writing fiction or teaching fiction writing. The first work for which I ever got paid was writing an article about the junior high school dance for my local newspaper, The Daily Bee, when I was fourteen. Then I covered high school sports. Then I mowed lawns. Then I worked in a sporting goods store. Stocked shelves at night in a grocery store. Worked on a salvage crew cleaning up after a train wreck. Worked at a different sporting goods store. Worked at a different grocery store, this time as a checker. Moved furniture. Sold hot dogs. Worked in a bookstore. Parked cars. Worked as a bellman. Worked as a concierge. Substitute taught at a middle school. Acted in a horror movie. Worked at a stereo/tv/appliance store. For about six months, babysat this really cool four-year-old named Scott. Desk clerk. Night auditor. Bartender at two different bars, the last of which was where I met my wife, who worked there as a waitress. I think that about wraps it up. After that, I was a graduate student at the University of Idaho, and I got paid for teaching freshman composition. Since then, which was over 20 years ago, I've gotten paid for writing and teaching writing (the latter much more than the former). There are great things about a career in academia, but I do miss having the wealth of material that came along with working all those different jobs. And you lose the sense of frustration and even desperation that, unfortunately, a lot of people in this country feel when it comes to figuring out how to make ends meet and find some work that seems important and rewarding. I was lucky--and am lucky--to have writing and teaching as a way to get my head above water and keep it there. It's a good life, and I'm thankful for it. The work you do definitely figures into what you write, though--for instance, the time I spent babysitting, in addition to teaching me something about being a father that I was able to put to good use later, gave me the material for a short story called "Mr. Jordan's Arrival," and I've used my experience working at a French Quarter hotel in New Orleans as the basis for at least two or three stories. It's something to think about for young writers planning their careers. It might seem easy and enjoyable to go the standard route--English major, MFA--but there's something to be said for having extensive knowledge in other areas. I've always envied writers like Ethan Canin, who's a physician, or Andrea Barrett, who has a strong background in science. Or ask a writer like Donald Ray Pollock, who spent most of his adult life working at a paper mill, how important work is when it comes to the writing you choose to do and are suited for--I'm pretty certain he'd tell you it means everything. So I would advise young writers to get as much experience as possible outside the confines of a classroom.

What's your worst writerly habit?

I probably spend too much time worrying about the opinions of people who don't know what they're talking about or don't really care. But almost everybody does this, right? It's a habit that applies to a lot more than writing, but it does apply to writing, especially. At the same time, I probably don't give enough thought to the opinions of people who do know what they're talking about and do care. Half the trick is being able to tell the difference, but only half. The other part is being able to forget about the useless and accept the useful, even when it hurts.

Keith Lee Morris's most recent novel is Travelers Rest, published by Little, Brown. 
His previous novels are The Dart League King and The Greyhound God
He is a creative writing professor at Clemson University.