Friday, October 26, 2007

Keith Lee Morris, award-winning literary writer and novelist

Name: Keith Lee Morris

First clue you wanted to be a writer; summarize the situation: It didn’t come until pretty late. Most writers I know say they knew they wanted to write when they were 13, 14, whatever. I didn’t really start reading literature seriously until I was around 19 or 20, and I think I was 21 when it started to dawn on me that I wanted to give fiction writing a try. It wasn’t a revelation or burst of inspiration or anything like that—just a slowly growing recognition that I wanted to try to contribute something myself to an art form that was in the process of changing my life and my thinking.

Earliest remembered writing and publishing experience: Earliest writing experience—when I was in grade school, I wrote a fascinating play about the Civil War in which Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Ulysses S. Grant shot and killed one another in a church. The play was an astounding treatise on the horrors of war—it consisted of 4 entire hand-written pages. A masterpiece that should have achieved its aim—world peace—but somehow, tragically, didn’t. Publishing experience—my first published short story was a hefty two pages in length. I wrote it as a poem then decided it was a story—which meant I took out the line breaks. I had sent a much longer story to a magazine called Quarterly West, and they lost it--near as I can figure at some wild, drunken editing party (seriously). By way of an apology, they asked me to send the story again and told me to feel free to include something else for them to look at if I wanted—usually magazines will only consider one story at a time from a particular author. They didn’t like the story I’d sent originally, but chose to publish the shorter piece I submitted with it. So my first publication was a short story that I wrote in one sitting and thought was a poem and submitted to a magazine as the result of an accident. I was deceived into thinking it would always be that easy.

What part of your education helped you most on your path to writing? That would have to be Marianne Love’s sophomore English class. But there were other helpful parts, too, and I suppose I should mention at least one, the MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. I was involved with a great group of people there, and I had as much time to write as I wanted—that doesn’t happen once you get out in the real world.

Who influenced you most along your way and how? Honestly I would have to say that writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy, Willa Cather, Fyodor Dostoevsky, JD Salinger, TS Eliot—the list goes on and on—influenced my work more than any writers I actually know. But I do think that friends of mine who write fiction also influence me—we trade manuscripts back and forth and edit each other’s work, and that’s always very helpful. I would also have to say that my old friends back in Idaho, the ones who’ve stuck with me through thick and thin over the course of 20 or 30 years, have influenced me greatly. And I’ve had wonderful support from my family.

Most satisfying piece(s) you’ve ever written----its audience: Well, my first novel, The Greyhound God, might not be the best thing I’ve written, but it’s the one I’m most emotionally attached to. The main character, Luke Rivers, seems like a real person to me, someone I can go back and encounter from time to time.

Your publications or venues for writing: I’ve published in literary journals large and small, and my books have been with university presses, or, in the case of my new novel, The Dart League King, with a smaller commercial press, Tin House Books.

Nuggets of advice for young writers in middle school and high school: Never quit. I’ve seen a lot of good writers fall by the wayside simply because they weren’t persistent enough. Develop a thick skin—don’t let rejections get you down, because there are bound to be a lot of them unless you’re extraordinarily lucky. Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Of the two, I’d say reading is probably more important in the early stages. Write things you care about—your writing is the statement you’re making to the world, and if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you’re just wasting your time. Listen carefully to good editors and good readers, but never abandon your own vision for someone else’s. Always try to do something new, something you haven’t seen someone else do.