Rusty Morrison interviews Bradford Morrow

BM_JessamineChanPhotoCredit[Cropped]_Oct2011Bradford Morrow is the author of the novels Come Sunday, The Almanac Branch (PEN/Faulkner finalist), Trinity Fields, Giovanni’s Gift, Ariel’s Crossing, and The Diviner’s Tale as well as the short story collection, The Uninnocent. Founding editor of the literary journal Conjunctions, Morrow is the recipient of numerous awards including the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, the PEN/Nora Magid Award for editing, an O. Henry award and Pushcart Prize. He co-edited The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth with Sam Hamill, The New Gothic with Patrick McGrath, and most recently The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death with David Shields. Morrow is a professor of literature and Bard Center Fellow at Bard College and divides his time between New York City and a farmhouse in upstate New York. His website is

(Photo by Jessamine Chan.)

A short story from The Uninnocent by Bradford Morrow follows the interview.

The Uninnocent cover finalRusty Morrison: These are dark stories of complex, enthralling, frighteningly believable motivation—we find ourselves inside the minds of speakers who commit unspeakable acts. Yet you are able to give them voices that articulate their insanities with such generosity. I finished each story literally shaking. As Karen Russell says of them, your protagonists are “charming, monstrous, wholly sympathetic.” Most of the stories in The Uninnocent are written from the first person point of view. It must have been a daunting task to enter the mind of each of these protagonists and find the means to make each one completely comprehensible to us, while communicating how each one has twisted reality to make their deeds acceptable to themselves. Also, I am amazed that each protagonist is so unique—no two are anything alike, except that each one inexorably becomes so clearly an un-reliable witness. Can you talk about how you managed this feat? Which stories were more difficult than others? Did you have a method to manage each madness?

Bradford Morrow: I hope you’ll forgive me for being deeply pleased that these stories left you literally shaking, Rusty. Myself, I have always been fascinated by aberrant, even abhorrent psyches, especially when they are driven by a keen if way-off-center intelligence. So when one of my protagonists, the boy in the first story, “The Hoarder,” tells us that his big brother Tom repeatedly calls him a “weird little bastard” and his response is, “I didn’t mind him saying so. I was a weird little bastard,” I find him endearing and even courageous. He is sick, yes, but in a not altogether sane world, and though I cannot save him from himself, I can appreciate his pluck. Sometimes I think of myself as the parent of an insane asylum’s worth of characters who are twisted outsiders, unable to make a place for themselves in society—“All the Things that Are Wrong with Me” is set, in fact, in a mental institution—but who operate rather well within the precincts of their own obsessions and inverted ethics. Because I don’t despise them and even feel a protective fondness for them even when they do things I would never do, I suppose I’m better able to plumb the depths of their madness with a kind of humane, disinterested precision.

As for any story being more difficult than another, I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer to the question. That said, while a story such as “(Mis)laid” might appear to have been more labor-intensive than, say, “Ellie’s Idea,” the latter being composed in a more straightforward voice, albeit the voice of a passive-aggressive naïf, I rewrote Ellie’s narrative over and over again before finally locating her voice. It was a real struggle for me, and more than once I felt like giving up on the thing. Whereas “(Mis)laid,” which uses an unusual narrative strategy I’d never seen before and was therefore totally unfamiliar, came rather immediately to me, the back and forth of voices becoming almost musical in structure, a fugue from one of the prettier precincts of hell. It really so often comes down to voice, finding the voice. Once I have the voice that will thread through the story, I am able to enter the labyrinth and see what minotaurs of the mind await me.

Rusty M: A couple stories are not written in the first person. I am especially smitten by “(Mis)laid,” which begins “What we have here is a man who on a lovely September morning (touch of early autumn chill in the sweet New England air, some sugar maple leaves already turning red under a crisp blue sky) mislaid his mind.” It is one of the most delicious first sentences I’ve read in ages! In its language, and in its formal structures, you’ve set up so masterfully what I believe James Woods calls the “free indirect style” of third person. I will borrow from Woods to say that “we inhabit omniscience and partiality at once” in this story’s shocks and gentilities. I am intrigued especially by your use of the parenthetical aside, how you use it to replicate for the reader the way a mind can stray—albeit as a departure into whimsy, or irony, or anger, or despair, or deliciousness of detail. Will you talk about your choices in creating this story? How did it begin, and was it easy or difficult to manage?

Bradford M: As I mentioned, “(Mis)laid” was unexplored formal terrain for me. It’s not really a call and response narrative. Nor is it necessarily two different voices. My sense is that the voices emanate from the same narrator, because he/they knows/know the characters, the setting, the action with equal authority but from slightly different, skewed angles. Maybe it’s a (bi)polar work! Either way, as the story progresses, the parenthetical voice comes increasingly to the fore though neither voice is more or less important to the telling of the story than the other. We need both.

I have no clear recollection of how I hit upon this design, but do recall that it came rather organically. I noticed I was using an unwonted number of parentheses and at some moment thought why not heed the impulse and pursue it to its logical (or illogical) end (see how it seeps into the flow?) and hope (if hope it is) for the best. What’s interesting is when I’ve performed it with another author—both Robert Olen Butler and Benjamin Hale have done it with me—it streams back and forth quickly and smoothly even as it creates a comic tension. The story, a classic if unusual love triangle gone very wrong, involves hostage-taking, adultery, betrayal, murder, and so forth, but is fundamentally comical. It taps into ways in which the media and police bungle their way through such standoffs and gunplay on an alarmingly routine basis in America. So for sure it’s also tragic. I think the story wouldn’t have achieved a synthesis of the comic and tragic without the parenthetical asides working in concert with the primary narrative.

Rusty M: How did this collection’s project begin for you? Did you realize at some early point that you had a knack for entering the darker motions of human behavior? Which stories did you write first? Which one last? Did the process or project change for you as you worked from the early to later stories?

Bradford M: I wrote the title story first, I believe, back in the ’90s and “The Enigma of Grover’s Mill” most recently, commissioned by Joyce Carol Oates for an anthology she did, New Jersey Noir. When I was writing the other ten stories I didn’t really have a collection as such in mind. I was writing novels all through the period these stories came about and most of my sustained writing energy was directed there.

When the legendary mystery editor Otto Penzler approached me at a bookstore reception one evening, and asked me if I’d ever consider writing a murder story and I quixotically agreed, that idea of making a book of dark stories came into fledgling being. I asked Otto, who was editing a five-volume series of murder mysteries centered around sports, which sport was the least popular among his authors. Golf, he said. I then asked if he’d consider a miniature golf story, because I wanted to be able to work with the evocative and creepy windmills and castles and other architectural dwarves of a putt-putt course. When he lit up at the idea and said yes, I wrote “The Hoarder” soon after and began writing, one after the other, many of the stories in The Uninnocent, each of them darker than the other. In many ways, I consider Otto to be the godfather of the collection.

Rusty M: Are any of these stories drawn from actual experiences? Or observations of actual behaviors you’ve witnessed?

Bradford M: That’s a difficult question to answer, because I never knowingly base any of my characters on people I know, and rarely base stories on events I have experienced personally. My novel Giovanni’s Gift is an exception—I set out to write it as a nonfiction book about a series of deeply unnerving nighttime disturbances, mysterious harassments that were going on at my aunt and uncle’s remote mountain ranch near Steamboat Springs. The problem was that twenty pages into the book I found myself changing things, turning fact into fiction, and so realized that the best way for me to delve into the truth of the situation was to make it into a novel. Have I met people like Lorraine, the desperately delusional and TV-saturated narrator of “Tsunami”? Yes, I have. But did my Lorraine-like model murder her children and potentially a number of others close to her? Not to my knowledge, although sadly she did commit suicide last year. I read about a man who had lost his sight and then years later miraculously regained it, and that was the kernel of “Amazing Grace,” but I hope for his sake that when his miracle happened his outcome was far better than the poor fellow in my story, a motivational speaker who is betrayed by everyone around him. And who, in turn, once sighted again, subtly betrays them right back.

So no and yes. As a person, I’m an observer. As a fiction writer, I’m an inventor who is informed by my observations.

Rusty M: In terms of character development, do you have a personal favorite in these stories? If so, which one, and why?

Bradford M: John Fowles once wrote in a copy of his masterpiece, The Magus, “I see this as my cripple, but like most parents, love this child most foolishly.” I pretty much feel the same about all the stories. I love them most foolishly and couldn’t possibly pick one over the other, although I will say that I’m proud of having written “Lush” and believe it strikes deep and difficult chords. I’ve had some moving and humbling responses to that story. I selected the dozen stories in The Uninnocent from a larger pool of published and unpublished stories, so really they’re all personal favorites.

Rusty M: In one story, you take us into the occult, in another, the concept of the extraterrestrial is central. I don’t want to give away anything about these stories, or even say which they are. I don’t want to ruin the delicious experience of falling into their mysteries. So, this may be a difficult question to answer. But can you say anything about your desire to write outside of the norms of what most people consider ‘the real’? Your reasons, your interest? And/or how these stories came to you? What compelled you to write either or both of them?

Bradford M: “The Enigma of Grover’s Mill” was not initially meant to include a character who may or may not be an alien, but since the background narrative is Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds that possibility grew more and more compelling. Honestly, I was following my narrator’s lead as the story developed. And given that he has a somewhat tenuous hold on so-called reality—which is to say his reality isn’t necessarily shared by others—I didn’t stop him from creating theories that would help explain the curious, inexplicable evils going on around him. To this day I couldn’t say for sure whether Franklin, the despicable infiltrator and seducer in the story, is of this world or not. And I like it that I don’t quite know for sure. This inconclusiveness breathes life into the character, at least for me. We’re all of us inconclusive to some degree, unpredictable and mysterious even to ourselves. This is probably why I’m drawn to portraying inexplicable people, people whose realities don’t rely on conventional wisdom.

Rusty M: As the senior editor of Conjunctions, one of the most prestigious magazines in the USA, how do you find the time to write? Can you speak to the interrelationship between editing and writing? Do you feel the two serve each other? I suspect that they do, since you are an excellent editor and an excellent writer. I’m just very curious about how you would speak to this.

Bradford M: When I started Conjunctions in my late twenties, I had no idea it would survive, indeed thrive, this long, but I’m grateful it has. Robert Coover once asked me this question in front of an audience at a conference at a Brown University and my off-the-cuff response was that I used to be a jazz musician, and in a jazz group there are times when you solo and times when you comp behind other soloists, and each is vital to the music. Editing Conjunctions and writing my fiction are each creative activities and both are omnipresent during my workdays, both are demanding, time-consuming, and wildly energizing and sustaining. I learn about writing from my editing, and vice versa. They’re so intertwined in my life at this point that they’re like some systole and diastole of the imagination. I feel profoundly fortunate to be doing both. One thing is for sure. I’m never at a loss what to do with my waking hours.

Rusty M: What is your current writing project? Will you say a bit about it? Would you let us publish a brief excerpt from something new? Or, may we re-publish one of the short stories from The Uninnocent, so that our readers may have a tempting taste of that collection?

Bradford M: I have several projects in the works—a novel, a collection of essays, and another short story collection. The Prague Sonata is a novel I’ve been at work on for a long time and is about a young woman musicologist who stumbles upon an unascribed eighteenth-century holograph manuscript, one movement of a lost sonata, and becomes obsessed with finding the other parts of the work. It takes her from New York to Prague to London to Texas and finally to Prague, Nebraska. More than that I’d best not say. It will be finished later this year. Meditations on a Shadow is a collection of essays written over the years, personal not critical essays, which I’m assembling now. And Fall of the Birds is a novella which, along with another long story about two manuscript forgers, will anchor my second collection of stories which promise to be in the same key as The Uninnocent but perhaps with even more elements of the fantastic in play.


Click the preview page to read “The Hoarder” from Bradford Morrow’s The UninnocentNew Picture