The Beatrice Interview

Mary Morris

"I don't think life is big cataclysmic changes; I think it's small decisions that we make day by day."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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 writer."

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 a collection.

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 moments extraordinary.

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 affair.

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'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 precision.

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 were.

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.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Charles Baxter | Complete Interview Index | Deborah Eisenberg

All materials copyright © Ron Hogan