When I went to Mary Morris' reading for
her collection of short stories, The Lifeguard, at San Francisco's
Booksmith, she told the
audience a story about how she had gotten her start as a short story
writer. "I spent three years on a really bad novel," she recalled. "It
was called The Eagle, for reasons I never quite figured out, and
it was about a film crew that wanted to go to Bolivia...but I could
never get my film crew out of Victor's Cuban Café on the
Upper West Side. I could never get them to do what they were
supposed to do. I didn't even know why they were supposed to do it.
Another writer read my novel, and he did me the great service of
saying that this was a really bad novel, but that I was a good
Coming home by bus from the Breadloaf conference after this
liberating moment, she read a short story by Rosellen Brown in
Redbook and thought, "I may not be able to write a novel, but
I can do this." So she went home, wrote a short story, and sold it to
Redbook for $800. "I was a struggling grad student,
remember--$800 was four month's rent. So I thought, okay, I'll just
write another story. And they bought that and gave me another four
month's rent. So I figured, great, I'll pay my way through my entire
life with short stories. And I didn't sell another short story for ten
years. I spent those ten years writing 27 stories that nobody in
America wanted to publish, but at that point, I was hooked."
Afterwards, Morris and I walked to a nearby coffee shop, where I
asked her some more about short story writing.
RH: You mentioned that The Lifeguard wasn't
about "coming back" to short stories. You've been doing
them off and on, and it's just that now, you have enough for
MM: Short stories are my first love. I think my temperament
is really suited to the short story. I like those little moments, those
glimpses into people's lives. I like to catch people in those moments
and gestures, as opposed to novels with their long, multi-layered
narratives. I sometimes compare it to the difference between a
marriage and a fling. Writing a novel is more like a marriage; you
live with it every day, you work at it. A short story is like something
you could do in a fit of passion. It doesn't take up so much of you in
the same way.
I like to move from fiction to nonfiction, but short stories are
something I always do between the cracks. I always have ideas for
short stories. People will tell me their stories, or things will happen
to me, and I'll say to myself, "That's not a novel, but it's a story." So I
keep journals and lists of those stories. And I do them from time to
time. If it's the end of the semester, for example, I don't have a lot of
time to work on something long, so I'll work on a story. It comes, I
think, out of my poet's sensibility. I have a stronger sense of
language and poetry than I do for sweeping narratives.
I don't think it's genre so much as coherent vision. I think people
have ways of seeing, and that whether you say it in poem or
narrative...obviously, there are differences in language and character
and development, but why not try it all?
RH: I love the short story's ability to make ordinary
MM: Those are the moments I'm drawn to, both in stories and
in life. I was once sitting with the parents of a friend of mine in a
diner. The coffee came, and the husband passed the wife the cream
and sugar. She looked at him and said, "I don't take cream and sugar
in my coffee, and I never have." And I knew then he was having an
I'm very interested in motivation. What makes people do something,
what makes them become something? Why does life go one way and
not another? I don't think life is big cataclysmic changes; I think it's
small decisions that we make day by day. Those are the moments of
stories, the epiphanies that happen on a daily basis.
I always look at people and wonder, "What's their story?" What's the
real thing in this person's life? I remember once...I have a copy
center that I go to, and there's a girl that works there and she's
always a grump, always mean. I never want her to wait on me,
because she's always so grumpy. One day, I was standing in line, and
a man in front of me asked her, "How's the cello playing going?" And
her face was transformed. She was a musician; she didn't want to be
copying my manuscript, she wanted to be practicing her music. That
glimpse into her--those moments when you see something in a
person, and understand something about them you never realized
before...it's a little like being a fly on a wall.
RH: When you do nonfiction, you have similar goals in
terms of describing key moments with clarity and
MM: I tell people that I don't nonfiction any differently than
how I write fiction. I'm interested in the same things. I'm interested
in the story, the details, what makes people tick. Somebody once told
me that my travel writing isn't really travel writing, it's a story that
takes place during a journey, and I think that's really true. There's a
narrative of a person's life that happens in the context of travelling
in a strange place.
Fiction always comes out of something true for me, while nonfiction
always has an element of the inventive and imaginative. There's not
really such a difference between the two for me. Sure, I try to get
the facts right, and I do research, but basically, it's the same writer's
eye. My husband and I co-edited an anthology called Maiden
Voyages, filled with stories of women's journeys, and we made a
decision that we would not for the best travellers, but the writers
with the best stories about travel. And most of those writers were
people who wrote in other modes...Mary McCarthy, Isak Dinesen,
people with a novelist's eye for character and detail.
RH: What are you working on now?
MM: Ten years ago, when my daughter was born, I moved to
Southern California. I was a single parent trying to raise a child
alone, and for various reasons I got involved with New Age groups.
Not as a believer, but as an infiltrator. I got interested in the idea of
coping. I was having my own trouble coping, and I was looking at
people who were coping with living at the end of the line, in a sense.
They believed that extraterrestrials controlled their lives, or that
Armageddon was coming and they would be evacuated to the planets
that are being prepared for those of us who are light workers... I just
got interested in fanaticism, extreme belief, and coping. I flew
through the Crystal Cathedral as an angel. I became a member of the
Earth-based unit of the Ashtar Command. And I came to care for the
people I was involved with, tried to understand what their stories
I look at my three travel books as a sort of trilogy. Nothing to
Declare is about a single woman travelling in Latin America.
Wall to Wall is about a search for family. Angels and
Aliens...well, I view it as a travel book for the end of the
millennium, when there's no place to go but up. Everything has been
explored here that there is to explore, and there's no answer. We
don't know why we're here, what we're doing. We don't know why
we need so much, why we love so deeply. And so people go looking
for other answers.