In Conversation with Thomas Morris

In Conversation with Thomas Morris

Thomas Morris is from South Wales. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, he has lived in Dublin since 2005, where he now edits The Stinging Fly. He edited Dubliners 100: 15 New Stories Inspired By The Original (Tramp Press) and his debut short story collection, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, will be published by Faber in 2015. 

John Lavin: The idea behind A Fiction Map of Wales is to create a series of individual portraits of life in 21st Century Wales, thereby creating an honest, albeit fractured, vision of the nation as a whole. The thinking behind this is that art, despite being the product of someone’s imagination, can offer a truer reflection of society than either newsprint or historical documentation. Do you think that this is true? And do you think that it is important to write creatively about Wales – or indeed any location – in order to understand it?’

Thomas Morris: There’s that lovely Bernard Shaw quote: ‘You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.’ And I think the same can be said of a town or a nation’s soul (inasmuch as these things can be said to have souls). But I’d argue for a broader sense of the phrase ‘works of art’. There are non-fiction writers who are definitely artists. And I’d much rather read non-fiction writers like Jon Winokur on Alaska than a crap piece of Literary Fiction about the place.

Books People can be highly precious and hierarchical when it comes to fiction. They seem to think that Fiction or The Novel is the Greatest of All Arts, and they therefore laud all manner of dull, turgid crap. A 5,000-word New Yorker non-fiction piece about Detroit asylum seekers is worth ten times a 50,000-word Worthy Novel about Detroit asylum seekers — if the said novel’s only strength is its about-ness.

But having said all that, people do seem to respond to story. How many people would rather go watch another Oliver Twist movie, compared to reading some journalism from the time?

But when you’re dealing with fiction, there has to be an understanding that this is fiction, and the place is always being shown through the lens of the author, or the particular characters in that particular story. I’m hopeful that people will identify and recognize some of the things I say about —or show of— Caerphilly in my own story-collection, but I know that there’ll be people who are utterly convinced I’ve gotten it wrong, that my depiction is anything but ‘true’. But again, the responses to an author’s representation of place can itself be enlightening. When the Western Mail called Caradoc Evans’ work ‘literary filth’, that tells us almost as much about the Wales he was dealing with as the stories do themselves.

You have chosen to add your hometown of Caerphilly to the Fiction Map of Wales and indeed I believe the majority of the short stories in your forthcoming début collection, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber 2015), are also set in or around that location. Do you think that it is important for a short story writer to focus his or her attentions on a specific geographic location? And if so, why?

I don’t think it’s important, no. But I think there are writers who could probably benefit—at least in the beginning—from writing about a place they know. I never set out to write specifically about Caerphilly—or to set my stories in the town. It just started happening. And when it did start happening, my stories were suddenly a lot better than they’d been before.

I think readers enjoy it in a collection, though. On one level, it can give the collection a feeling of unity (something which short-story detractors don’t always feel is achieved in collections). And on another level, there’s something voyeuristic about the whole thing. It’s like being afforded a Google Maps journey with gossipy narration. (There’s also something fun for a reader when they can start making connection between locations across the stories; when they can begin building the fictional world through parallax views of the place.)

But no, specific geographical location isn’t necessarily important to a short-story writer. Specific psychological states, however—that’s important. And sometimes, setting a story in a specific town or place can allow the writer to delve deeper into the psychology of a character. But it’s not essential.

The protagonist of ‘Bolt’ is a deeply untraditional male character drawn to middle-aged mother figures (presumably in part because of the abusive father alluded to). A male narrator who is happy to reveal that he ejaculated ‘in his pants’ the first time he undressed his girlfriend and one who is horrified and frankly scared when the middle-aged counsellor he goes home with asks him to beat her up during sex. What I like about this portrayal is its honesty. There’s no fake male braggadocio on show here. Do you think that, as a rule, authors of either gender write about men as well as they might? Because sometimes I feel as though a writer will approach the topic of masculinity having already accepted a certain degree of gender stereotypes as fact.

I haven’t given it much thought to be honest – neither about the work of others nor my own. When I was writing the stories, I was only thinking in terms of the particular characters and their particular situations. Now that people are beginning to read the stories, it’s genuinely intriguing to hear what they see as my ‘concerns’ or ‘themes’ – and masculinity (or rather, ‘masculinities’) is the one that thing that seems to be coming up.

But in general I am interested in the idea of adulthood, or adultness, or the lines between being a boy and being a man. Physical considerations aside, I think the biggest distinguishing feature is responsibility. The more responsibilities you have, the more ‘adult’ you are expected (or are forced) to be. So this becomes interesting when you have characters who are of adult age, but who haven’t yet been given any genuine responsibility. In ‘Bolt’, the narrator is living rent-free with his ex-girlfriend’s mother and he’s just mooching about the place. So if you suddenly have him in a situation where he’s being asked to behave adult-like, there’s an interesting space to explore, I think.

In terms of Andy’s premature ejaculation, I think an admission like that partially stems from the way I try to write character. It’s similar to how I seem to interact with people when I meet them for the first time. It’s almost a tic at this stage – I tell an embarrassing story as a means of making a connection. And in the writing, I think it comes back to the old idea of comedy – who wants to watch a stand-up comedian that appears to have their shit together? We’d much rather hear the fat guy talk about how crap in bed he is. (Though the person who appears to have their shit together is also a good premise for a short story….)

But yes, now I think about it, I do think that the tender and the vulnerable are missing from a lot of representations of masculinity. Or rather, if those things are present, they tend to become the characters’ defining traits. I wonder if comedy is perhaps the best way of getting the whole muddled mix just right? I’m thinking of Keith Barrett in Marion and Geoff. To me, he seems like an utterly honest and nuanced representation of a befuddled masculinity.

One of the other things that I like about the narrator of ‘Bolt’ is that he is really quite an ambiguous personality. The reader feels warmth and empathy towards his predicament but then he goes and rings his ex-girlfriend up so that her answerphone will record him having a fairly seedy sexual encounter with a middle-aged counsellor. The reader cannot trust him entirely, and it brings home the point that the characters in ‘Bolt’ are not people the reader knows. They are, in fact, total strangers. To my mind the short story form should unsettle rather than reassure – would you agree?

The ‘knowing’ aspect is interesting to me. Especially on the level of character motivation – why does this person do this and that etc? ‘Bolt’ was an attempt to write a story with as little introspection as possible. I had written a glacially-slower novella before the story-collection, a novella where nothing happened – and it all happened very slowly (there was a lot of pondering and flashbacks. And even more pondering about flashbacks…) So after spending three years in that world, I was keen to try and make something happen and see what can be deduced about the characters from having them do things.

I think it’s interesting to ask how much we can or can’t know about someone if all we have access to is their speech and actions, their behaviour. But in terms of this limited introspection, ‘Bolt’ is quite different to the rest of the collection; on the whole, the other stories try to go deep into the emotional state of their characters.

A friend of mine who’s read the book said that ‘Bolt’ was ’empty’ – I think he meant in a nice way; at least I hope he meant in a nice way – but I can see what he means. The narrator is resisting depth. Of course, there’s always a risk with this kind of story-telling that the reader will just think that the writing lacks depth. But there we go….

As for the story story form and what it should and shouldn’t do – I don’t think there should be shoulds in writing beside: be interesting.

When I’m writing I seek out the areas with most heat, and sometimes that might lead to unsettling things. But more often that not, I think the best writers are able to both unsettle and reassure you. I’d have very little time for writing that only did the latter.

Could you tell us a little bit about your forthcoming début short story collection, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing?

Ten stories, all set in Caerphilly. (Though one story sees a group of guys from the town heading to Dublin for a stag do.) The Caerphilly aspect wasn’t a conscious decision at first, but I noticed that my stories were beginning to all take place in the town. I think being away from the place allowed me to begin to write about it in a way I wouldn’t have if I were still there. I’d have thought it was corny or obvious, or in some way cheap. But I was able to shake some of the self-consciousness by being physically distant from the place. I began to think that people might actually be interested to read about the town.

I always cringe a little when I hear the phrase ‘stories about ordinary people’ – as if the author is some extraordinary figure, deigning to descend to the level of the normal folk. But I guess others might likely describe the book as collection of stories about ordinary people experiencing heightened moments: realism with a kink. There are stories in the book about young school-teachers going a little mad, single mothers trying to keep their families together, confused teenagers in states of panic, and various people in various states of mental deterioration. There’s also a story about two pensioners going to Caerphilly’s Big Cheese festival on a date. And the stories themselves deal with the typical short-story territories: those small incidents that can make or break a person.

But again, this all sounds too easy to say after the fact. I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote the stories. My first aim is always to write a readable sentence, and then I’ll see where that takes me. After that, I’m concerned with emotional honesty – the kind of harshness you have towards yourself when you’re drunk and alone in a toilet cubicle. Those ‘dark nights of the soul’ moments. And if I can find a way of doing that which also amuses me, then all the better. I’m interested in the tragicomic; if something tries to be wholly comic or wholly tragic, I find it’s often neither.

Are there any writers that have particularly inspired you?

Embarrassingly, there are a lot of white American men on my shelves: Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, Frederick Barthelme, Richard Yates, and Raymond Carver. Then there’s a lot of American woman: Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor, Miranda July, AM Holmes. In the last year I’ve become fascinated by entry points – the way a writer gets a story up and going. And I think those female authors I mention are all exquisite when it comes to form. They seem to be able to tell a story at a slant, in a way that disarms. I love Dylan Thomas’s short stories, but no one ever seems to talk about them. I think Ali Smith and Jon McGregor are superb. Irish writers: I adore Frank O’Connor and I like Kevin Barry’s work a lot. I just read The Miracle Shed by Philip McCann and thought some of the writing was incredible.

Do you have a set writing routine?

No, but it’s usually at night, between 10pm and 3am. I sometimes slump to bed thinking, I’ve just written the greatest story ever and then I wake up and read the piece again and go, ‘Oh.’

I draft a lot.

You recently became editor of the influential Irish literary magazine, The Stinging Fly. How do you see the magazine developing over the next few years?

The magazine was established in 17 years ago as a means of giving new talent a platform. And I don’t see that ethos changing any time soon. But as our reputation grows, I would hope that being published in the magazine would allow more opportunities and exposure for those writers.

There are a lot more magazines and journals in Ireland now, so we’re going to have to stay alert and ensure that we keep finding and developing the talent. I really enjoy the editorial conversations with authors, and being there as a sounding board as a writer takes a story through the drafting process. And that should always be our priority, I think: helping support new writers. But maybe in future the idea of ‘support’ will change—we’re already looking at mentoring schemes and finding new ways of helping talented people put words to paper.

You are a Welsh writer that has lived in Ireland for almost ten years now. Do you see many similarities and/or differences between these two Celtic nations and their rich literary traditions?

The more I think about it, the more I think the two are incomparable. I think that Welsh language poetry has a rich tradition, but I don’t think the same can be said for our prose writers or playwrights. We neglect our authors and we don’t do enough to support new talent. It absolutely breaks my heart that New Welsh Review still isn’t accepting prose submissions. I don’t know the reasons behind this—I’m afraid to ask; and perhaps there’s a very valid reason—but how can you have a national literary culture if there are so few places for emerging writers to publish?

Ireland—though the Irish mightn’t see it so—genuinely excel at nurturing talent. There’s a supportive literary community and established writers generally send the lift back down. The downside is a lot of hype for pretty average writers (‘The most exciting new voice in Irish fiction!’) but it’s probably a small price to pay for the exposure that new Irish writers consistently receive. (An interesting exercise: googling ‘new voice in Irish fiction‘ gives you 36,000 results. Googling ‘new voice in Welsh fiction’ gives you zero. One could draw lot of conclusions from this…)

But again, we’re a lot smaller as a country, and a lot of what we do gets swallowed up by England or by the tag ‘British writer’. For example, how many people know that Jon Ronson is Welsh? Or Sarah Waters? It’s not so much that Welsh writing has an identity crisis, as the fact we don’t have an identity. Conversely, though, I find that liberating. If you say the words ‘Irish short story’ people have a sense of it, and a series of expectations. Being Welsh, I feel freer—in terms of expectation and the weight of lineage—than I might have if I were Irish.

I hope the above doesn’t sound like too much of a rant. There are so many talented and committed people working in the Welsh arts. I just think we need to spend less time writing inquiries into the scene and just spend more time setting things up. I love the example of Tramp Press in Dublin. Two women, who were a little bit pissed off that Irish publishing was so male-centric, and rather than just complaining about it on Twitter, they went and set up a publishing house. The same with The Stinging Fly — Declan Meade saw that there was nowhere for emerging writers to publish, so he established the magazine. To hell with the fact there’s no money. That’s why it excites me when I see initiatives in Wales like the Terry Hetherington Award. The organizers should be applauded and more people should follow their lead. Then maybe in twenty, thirty, forty years, we can see how rich our Welsh writing tradition really is.


 original illustration by Dean Lewis