The Beatrice Interview

Bradford Morrow

A Gift to Literature

interviewed by Ron Hogan


"The first word in the book is 'imagine,' the last line is 'Enraptured, I closed my eyes and then opened them on a whole new world...'

That's Bradford Morrow, talking about his most recent novel, Giovanni's Gift. It's narrated by Grant, a man in his mid-thirties who, in the wake of a failed marriage, visits his aunt and uncle out west. Intrigued by a series of unsettling 'night visits' that they've been receiving and the contents of a cigar box belonging to Giovanni Trentas, a family friend who died under mysterious circumstances, Grant tries to uncover the truth. As a result, the violent nature of the 'visits' begins to escalate...

If the imagery seems a bit Gothic, it should come as no surprise. In addition to three previous novels (Come Sunday, The Almanac Branch, and Trinity Fields), Morrow was the co- editor (with Patrick McGrath) of an influential anthology titled The New Gothic, which brought together excerpts from authors as diverse as Anne Rice, John Edgar Wideman, Kathy Acker, and Martin Amis, united by their reimagining of Gothic tropes for a modern age. "Two hundred year old furnitures and narrative strategies were being revamped and made contemporary all over again," Morrow explains. "Instead of a traditional crypt, for instance, you might have -- as in John Hawkes' Travesty -- a car with locked doors, the heat turned all the way up, speeding along a French countryside road at night at 140 kilometers an hour. The same qualities are inherent in both those images: claustrophobia, darkness, a certain sinister illness and a certain state of mind."

But, as readers across the country are discovering, although some of the images in Giovanni's Gift clearly operate in that mode, the book is more than an updating of the Gothic transplanted to the western United States. When Beatrice caught up with Morrow in San Francisco, we started out by talking about the several different stories that are woven into Grant's tale.

BM: What I wanted to do in Giovanni's Gift was to mix several genres at the same time. I wanted to make a mythological scenario, a retelling of the Pandora myth. It's also a murder mystery, although I wanted to build a murder mystery without the usual springs and pulleys; I wanted to make a mystery where the reader actually could figure out at some point during the narrative what was actually going on so that an element of dramatic irony would kick in at a certain point. You'd be watching our narrator, Grant, go through his motions and start to discover himself. In that way, it's also a Bildungsroman, to use that old German word -- a novel, in other words, in which we see the progress of a person growing up, coming to learn about himself and the difficulties of discovering one's own identity. And it's a Gothic set in the Western mountains.

On top of all that, it's the most autobiographical book I've ever written or probably ever will dare to write. I am not Grant, but my aunt and uncle have in fact suffered some of the midnight harrassments that I describe in the book. And the box that's on the book jacket is the actual box that my aunt gave me. It didn't have my name on it at the time(laughs), but other than that, it's reproduced pretty exactly. It creates a physical metaphor; when you open the book, you're opening Pandora's box, with all these different secrets, stories, genres, gremlins and more locked up inside it.

RH: Some of the descriptions of that Western landscape are gorgeous in the amount of detail that you bring to them.

BM: Landscape is really a character, and so is language, as it is in all my books. As it did in my previous book, Trinity Fields, I think landscape becomes an interactive element with the characters. Man is a part of nature; nature is ultimately indifferent to man and will rise up to take care of itself. In the book, one of the things that I think truly comes to the fore is our relationship to geography, and in this case the mythic geography of the Western landscape.

That's one of the reasons I never say what state this takes place in. Graham Tate, a fabular character of Gothic evil in the book, is the one who wants to draw lines across creeks and over mountains.

RH: One of the versions of the Pandora myth that you make explicit reference to in the book is Nathaniel Hawthorne's.

BM: Hawthorne's Wonder Book for Boys and Girls is used a substructure to the book that I wanted to weave into the box as a benevolent figure in the same way that whoever put all those gremlins and sprites into Pandora's box also put in Hope. All my books have some subtextual structure that a reader need not notice, but can deepen your appreciation. In Trinity Fields, it was Shakespeare's The Tempest, because that was Robert Oppenheimer's favorite play; Shakespeare used his own earlier sources such as North's translation of Plutarch. As Cormac McCarthy says, books come from books.

Pandora ("all-giving" in Greek), whose curiosity led her to open the forbidden box, gave us our humanity, for better or worse--much like Eve did when she ate that apple. Eve and Pandora are, for me, sisters in a way--and Eve is right there in the Milton quote from Paradise Lost at the beginning of the book. One of the "gifts" in Giovanni's Gift is the chance for redemption, after the Fall (the book is set in autumn for good reason!).And I was halfway through the book before I realized that the narrator's name -- Grant -- was also a form of a gift. So once you begin playing with language, you never know what will happen.

RH: Another thing that I like about Grant is that although he's of a certain age, apart from one reference by Graham Tate to 'slackers' there's no setup for him to be a "Generation X" character. He's very well-rounded, with a deep interior life.

BM: Grant's born into a family of diplomats, so his family life was nomadic to begin with. I wanted him to be an American, but a real American in that he could be from anywhere. He's thoughtful, well-read, and yet he stumbles a lot, makes vast mistakes in judgment. I didn't want to make a character; I don't even like the word 'character' as such. I don't like the word 'fiction,' for that matter. I don't think of Giovanni's Gift as a fiction and I don't think of Grant as a character, if you'll allow me that fantasy. He's a friend, he's someone I know, and I wanted to see him through this moment of altruistic hubris, going out to help somebody that he couldn't possibly help.

People have asked me why I didn't create a character that was more immediately likable, and I thought, "Is King Lear likable? Is Beckett's Molloy likable?" Likability is not something that per se interests me as a writer, in a protagonist or in any other character. What interests me is a roundedness to our humanity, a whole mix of things. Like I say, it was Pandora, like Eve -- another great character, who was told not to eat that apple just as Pandora was told not to open that box --, who gave us our humanity with the good and the bad: all the secrets and betrayals, the mistakes and screwups, the moments of quiet joy and triumph.

I wanted to see Grant through a true crisis into a situation where he does discover the possibility for love and therefore, like Pandora, releases hope as the last of the sprites out of the box. When he goes back to Rome at the end, he stays at a hotel called Speranza -- it's shameless of me to call it that, but I needed that fabular element at the end, that chance for Grant to redeem himself.

RH: What's the book tour for Giovanni's Gift been like?

BM: It's very emotional and rewarding to read from the book to people, to talk to them about it like I'm doing with you. I can come away from the experience with a deeper understanding about what it is that I've done and what I might want to do in the future.

When I was on the road for The Almanac Branch, I was in Tacoma, Washington, and met a man on a local radio variety show between an expert on removing aphids from house plants and an insurance agent who specialized in living wills. After the show, the salesman came up to me with a copy of the book and said, "Well, I don't read books, but I think my wife would like it," so I signed a copy for his wife. After that, he would phone me every so often and say, "Brad, it's Roger Daisley calling. How's that new book coming?" I never hung up on him; I'd tell him it was fine, chat for a bit. He'd send me Christmas cards, and I started thinking, "Gee, this guy really wants to sell me a living will."

One day he asked me what Trinity Fields was about, and I told him, "I usually don't talk about it, because I barely know myself until it's done, and even then I'm not quite sure. But it's about two boys who grow up in Los Alamos, best friends hidden away in the New Mexico hills. They come of age during the Vietnam War; one of them gets involved with the anti-war movement and the other one goes to Vietnam." So Roger asks me where in Vietnam, and I told him what I knew at the time, and Roger said, "You know, I think your man ended up in Laos." I said, "Okay, tell me more." So he told me that we ran a secret war in Laos, codenamed Raven, that people don't know very much about. While he was telling me this, I wrote the word LAOS and saw at once that LAOS is contained twice in LOS ALAMOS, and I decided then that this character did end up in Laos. So I asked Roger how he knew so much about the program, and it turned out that he ran the covert operations in Laos for two years. I ended up interviewing him for about a hundred hours, and we became good friends.

So you never know who you're going to meet on a book tour. I don't see the road so much as an opportunity to market my book so much as an chance to hang out with everybody around the idea of my book.

RH: It seems that you're fortunate in having a really strong literary community at home in New York to hang around the ideas of your books and their books as well.

BM: It's across the country, it's not just New York. I think that kind of regionalism is done for. I like regions, don't get me wrong, but when I go out around the country for three weeks solid, I realize that we are one big community, one truly raucous country. There's a lot of wonderful writers all over the country. It's definitely not a New York centered thing anymore. If it ever was.

I'll tell you something else. The book reviews and features in regional newspapers are often more thoughtful, more intelligent, and more constructive than what you'll find coming out of New York. I've been very impressed by some of the things that I've read about my book from certain critics. There was a review in The Portland Oregonian by a man named Floyd Skloots, and the last three paragraphs of his review were really illuminating. I must have known deep down the things that it told me about Grant and his quest, but this critic really did shed light on the book for me.

Literary America is completely decentralized now. There's wonderful writing going on in Oregon, New Mexico, California, the south, the midwest... everywhere.

RH: And some of that great writing and criticism is also showing up on the Internet as well.

BM: I completely agree, and it's growing apace. I've been reading a wonderful book by Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies, and the ideas that he brings to the table are fascinating, even though he and I don't necessarily reach the same conclusions. I've come to believe more and more that the printed word need not come to be in locked battle with the electronic word. They can both serve each other and be valuable in their own right. One should not ultimately triumph over the other, and I don't think it will happen. Learning to use both properly, though, will not be easy. It will be a juggling act for the soul for each of us to recognize that the book is irreplaceable as the fundamental reading tool.

I mean, I love the smell of a book, the feel of a book, the pace of page turning and so forth. You can tell from looking at a copy of Giovanni's Gift that Viking has made a special object that would be impossible to replicate in cyberspace. At the same time, works can be discussed online. Extra information can be provided. Both forms are valuable.

Visit Bradford Morrow's site at Web del Sol

RH: You sound so enthusiastic about the act of literary creation, and about talking about your book on that level. I know there's a lot of publicity hoopla about this book, particularly a 'behind the scenes' article in New York magazine, but it seems like you've been able to push a lot of that aside mentally.

BM: The way I've dealt with the hoopla is that it's over there, and this is Morrow over here. I'm just a novelist. It felt like I was running for my life when I wrote this book. I'd been through four surgeries. I'd had peritonitis and knew that I had a fifth and theoretically final surgery coming up. So when I wrote the book over the course of six months, it was an obsession for me. I was convinced that it could be my last book, and I wanted to get it in with the other three novels so that if it turned out that that was all I was able to write, I would have a quartet with facets that would reflect on each other in certain ways. Now I hope I get to write four more and four more after that.

RH: I understand that Trinity Fields was conceived as the first of an interlocking trilogy of novels.

BM: It is. I'm working on a novel right now called The Prague Sonatas, a relatively short novel, and after that I'll start working on Ariel, the second volume in the Trinity Fields trilogy. I have the idea for the third volume in my head, but I sit on ideas for a long time before I write them.

In fact, one error that was in the New York article was the Cent'Anni lunch situation, where it appeared that I went in with the idea for Ariel but was talked into the idea for Giovanni's Gift. Well, all my friends have been patiently listening to me talk about Giovanni's Gift for seven years, saying, "When's he going to write that book?" I didn't have an editor tell me what to do. I went in with two books, and although I had told them at one point that I wanted to do Ariel next, I decided I'd rather do this story instead, in part because the character of Ariel needs a little time to grow up. She was born in 1969 at Trinity Fields and is in a chronological timeframe that I, as her adoring progenitor, have to respect. I wanted her to grow up a little bit more before I undertook that book. So Giovanni's Gift was the obvious story to do next.

If there was anything in that article that made me feel uncomfortable, it was that single notion that an editor would tell me what to do. Barbara Grossman's a wonderful editor, and she was excited by the idea, but she would never tell me what to do. I think that writers can sometimes take... not direction, but guidance towards an idea; I was grateful for her enthusiasm and went charging straight into the book. In a way, I think the pace of this narrative and the compulsion people have told me they feel when reading it is a mirroring of the compulsion that I felt to write it.

RH: I know that I had to sit and read it straight through for five or six hours.

BM: I've heard that from several people. And if I've made a good book, it'll also be a book you can go back and read more slowly as you begin to discover substrata of meaning and other stories that I've built into the book, woven into its myth.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Charles Baxter | Madison Smartt Bell

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan