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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

#60 Morris Collins

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
Morris Collins

I was introduced to this guy through a much earlier Mourning Goats interviewee, Pat Walsh, and I'm so happy I was! One of my favorite sections of this interview has to be question 7, as we've been lucky enough to interview "the hot professor!" It was a pleasure reading about and learning from Morris. I hope you all enjoy! 

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

There was a coffee shop right on the Charles River I used to go to as a kid called Dancing Goats and right now, because it’s 5 AM and the coffee is still brewing, I could use some of that.

2. For those not familiar with your work, what would you consider your style? 

Horse Latitudes is dark in subject and sort of hyper-lyrical in style.  I was trying to use my prose to recreate the saturation of the tropics with some mix of beauty and sensory claustrophobia.  I imagine it, at times, as almost sickly, like something sweet gone bad.  The style changes as the book progresses, growing steadily more surreal and febrile—as the situation does.  I wanted the lyricism to be almost a lure, like a phantom light, and I hope it encourages the reader down a pretty dark path so that by the novel’s end—in a volcanic city on the brink of revolution—they’re not quite sure how they got there, but realize that’s where they were going all along.

Beyond this, though, the secret truth is I’m not sure that I have one defining writing style and I distrust the notion of each writer having only one authentic voice.  We all have our own obsessions and idiosyncrasies, and if those, as expressed by syntax, are what constitute a writer’s voice, I’d like to imagine that my voice has many registers.  For instance, the novel I’m working on now, Sleepwalkers of the North Atlantic, is very different from Horse Latitudes—it’s comedic, bizarre, and loquacious.  I know the general narrative of a writer’s development always involves them finding their ‘voice’, and it’s true, for me writing is almost wholly determined by voice and what sort of sentences it allows or requires, since I think this facilitates or determines what kind of thing can happen in your story. But those sets of opportunities and constraints change fairly radically for each piece.  Sometimes this worries me, because when we talk about great stylists we often refer to writers with one distinct voice, like Barry Hannah and Cormac McCarthy, or to lesser degrees Lorrie Moore and James Salter.  Though I suppose I’m conflating style and voice a little here.  How about this: no matter its particulars, I assume my style is generally ostentatious and maximalist.  I’m a slow writer so the language has to be fun for me while I’m writing.  Anyway, I recently heard Matt Bell say that he didn’t want to write every book in the voice of a Russian sea captain.  And who would?

3. Your first novel, Horse Latitudes, came out in September. What can you tell us about it? 

I like to call it a tropical gothic, though I’m not sure what that means, really, beyond that it’s a dark novel drawing on the American gothic tradition—but it’s set in the tropics.  It’s about guilt and trauma-- as those things might be rendered in a weird, increasingly surreal adventure novel.  It’s also strongly influenced by medieval post-plague literature and a sort of perverse notion of the quest narrative where the quest has been deformed into a gothic circle.  Or how about plot?  Basically, a guy whose life has exploded after an act of violence in the US heads south into Mexico and becomes caught up in a quest to save a young girl from slave traffickers.  As expected, I guess, things are not what they seem and he’s drawn increasingly deeper into a dangerous landscape of impossible choices and moral ambiguity.   To be clear, though: it’s hopefully a fun novel to read, like some mash-up of Malcolm Lowry and one of Graham Greene’s entertainments with Angela Carter thrown in.  That is to say: things get weird, fast.   There’s a journey through a walled city of prostitutes, a town of private detectives, roadblocks, bullfights, pirate ports, and a trip down a jungle river haunted by a goddess as well as demented intelligence officers and slave traffickers. And it all converges, or circles up, as any novel should, in a city on the brink of revolution and storm and volcanic eruption.  So it’s a quiet book, obviously.       

4. And, the reviews have been fantastic, "knockout debut novel," "an adventurous moral thriller," how are you taking all the praise? 

I could do with plenty more.  I’m sort of imagining that now that my first book is published, my life is going to be an undeviating sequence of success and approbation.  I’ve cleared out my bank account so as to make room for the spoils and I’m finding new abdominal muscles every day!  No, seriously—early readers, blurbers, and booksellers have just been so generous with their time and attention.  My real feeling is a pretty intense and sheepish gratitude. 

5. What was your book release party in Massachusetts on August 13th? 

The release was great. We held it at Brookline Booksmith, which is one of the great Indie bookstores in a great books town. Brookline Booksmith has such an eclectic and well-curated stock, which is no surprise considering how smart and cool and keyed-in to the literary community the staff are.  It’s an amazing place with a real tie to the community and a pretty damn good example of why and how indie bookstores remain essential. So yeah, the launch was a lot of fun. At least for me. It was a literary event, so obviously there was a plethora of wine and cheese. And people saying plethora.  None of which, actually, you can find in Horse Latitudes.

6. How did you get involved with MP publishing? 

Almost by accident, really.  I wrote Horse Latitudes a while ago—back in 2007-2008 and not being a savvy or speedy networker just sort of sat on it while I continued to write other stuff.  Anyway, back in October 2011 I read a post Stephen Graham Jones had written on his blog about his then forthcoming novel, Growing Up Dead in Texas.  The book sounded cool—as all of his books do—and he went on in his post to rave about the experience he was having with his publisher, MP Publishing USA.  I checked them out and realized pretty quickly that the folks running MP in the US were many of the same people who had been doing MacAdam/Cage—which had always been sort of a touchstone press for me.  A press whose list I knew I’d love every season.  Actually, when writing Horse Latitudes, I had kind of imagined it as a book for them, but by the time I was finished they weren’t really taking submissions anymore.  But MP was up and running and putting out some really cool books—and they were reading full manuscript submissions, which is pretty rare.  So I sent it to them in fall 2011 and kind of forgot about it until June 2012 when the then editor-in-chief, Guy Intoci, reached out really enthusiastically.  By this point the book was being considered at a couple other places, but Guy’s enthusiasm and support and the way I’d seen him launch their previous list, made it a pretty easy and exciting decision.  Actually, just the day before Guy’s call, I had picked up a copy of Steve Abee’s Johnny Future where he had given Guy a shout-out in the acknowledgments—so it all felt kind of like fate.  Guy’s not at MP anymore, but the folks I’ve worked with—Pat Walsh, Marthine Satris, Briah Skelley, Michelle Dotter, Nick Sinatra—have all been really enthusiastic, smart, and passionate.  I feel pretty lucky.  

7. Found your ratings on RateMyProfessor.com and I've gotta ask, how does it feel to be the "hot professor?"

It’s like this: perched on my desk before them, the young, I slowly remove my pipe from its idle crook in my Alexandrine jaw and ash it into the Etruscan cinerary urn I’ve brought with me for this express purpose.  Come class time, I slip from my corduroy blazer so now only my fine slacks, Italian loafers, and thin cashmere turtleneck protect my almost bare body from the eyes of the American youth.  But from their hearts and minds, from the empty scaffolding of their nascent souls—what barriers remain are mine to fell.

 “Corruption,” I say them, “derives from the Latin corruptus, to destroy or spoil.  And yet, as you must recall, when accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, Socrates says, ‘I have never been anyone’s teacher.’”

Do they see me wink beneath my monocle?

Do they see me as I slide from the table and using my stylus as pointer, stand before them in my supple riding boots, my cape, my terracotta ascot? Do their eyes even once slip to the hooded falcon perched on my gloved arm?  Hardly. I strum my lute. I stretch.  I eat grapes.  I swear, Goat, I eat at least a pound of grapes in every class and let the sound of seeds expelled, one by one, into my Turkish brass spittoon play plangent choir to my every bon mot.

“Syphilitic wonder,” I say to them, “did not stop Nietzsche from crying, ‘too much is not enough.’”

I weep, I sweat, my clothes are too tight.  I eat with my hands from my tureen of curried lamb.
“Such is beauty,” I wail, “that the nymphs tore Orpheus limb from limb!”

Oh, but see them: the nimble sweep and flutter of fingers over phones, the dulcet languor of their yawns. Like any teacher, I long to show them what they might give, but my love is like a buccaneer with his faithful manatee. My love is my gangrenous hand, my rotting teeth, my falcon stuffed and dead these many years. At the threshold of every desire there lurks a hag in a bonnet, and the roster must lie—they can’t all be named Chris and Megan. God, look, there are ants in my goulash! Did you know Aeschylus was killed by a falling tortoise? Imagine: a tortoise fell from the sky and for an instant Aeschylus must have felt sure it was his final epiphany, a sign from the gods, which it was, but when his head opened, the revelation, kids, was that even the slowest things move too fast for this life. 

8. Did you write any novels before Horse Latitudes? Do you think any of them will see the light of day?

Horse Latitudes was the first novel I completed.  Previous to it, I had gotten pretty deep into two other novels, both of which I really liked, but both of which I abandoned because they contained several flaws at the level of conception.  So I doubt they will ever find their way into print. Anyway, I wrote Horse Latitudes when I was 24-25, so I’m not sure I want to dip much deeper into my youth than that. 

9. What's your writing schedule like? Do you write every day? 

I try to write every day, early in the morning.  I wish I was one of those writers who could just write through the night.  It’s a more romantic image: pounding coffee in some Hopperesque diner—all chrome and neon and silence—until the sun comes up and the newsies wander in and the trains start to whistle again.  But I’m not. Yeah, I usually see the sun come up, but it’s because I got up to start working at 4:30 or 5:00.  This involves me dressing as best I can in the dark and then staring very hard at the coffee machine until I can untangle the three-step sequence in which I grind coffee, put that coffee inside the coffee machine, and then add the right amount of water to a different part of the machine.  It’s amazing how much can go wrong between any of those steps, and like any narrative, when you reverse the normal order of events you have a story on your hands.

10. How much social media involvement do you have pushing for your novel? Do you think it's necessary in this age? 

It certainly seems necessary.  Some books appear to take on a public energy and life of their own, but for the most part it seems that these days a book requires the writer and the publisher both to really pound the pavement.  I’ll be honest, though, it’s not something I’m very good at and I think the best way to do it is to engage as actively as one can with the general literary world.  Obviously, I’ve got to publicize my events and publications and reviews, all the stuff that pertains to me and my book.  I’ve got an obligation to my publisher, to bookstores, to the people kind enough to interview me, and to my own future in the literary marketplace (whatever that means) to do that, even if I am self-conscious about it, or am sure that everyone on my Facebook feed is saying what I often say: “I already bought your freaking book! Why can’t you post a good cat video?”  But I’ve always been a fairly active book reviewer and, ideally, what I’d like to do is simply enter the book world as a literary citizen commenting on and promoting the work of others.  When I read a writer reviewing or discussing a book he or she loves with passion and erudition, I’m usually drawn to the book being reviewed and the person doing the reviewing.  This is actually how I’ve discovered many writers I love and one of the pleasures, I hope, in finally getting a novel published is that I’ll be able to join the conversation even more actively.

11. Which do you find harder to write, long-form, short-form, or non-fiction? 

Well long form is probably the hardest, since it requires the longest commitment and there are so many opportunities to screw up.  Generally, though, I think, it’s also the form I’m best wired for, or drawn to.  I appreciate the possibilities for fugue and play and inversion.  I like having the space to mess around and let things build and change as we go.   Horse Latitudes is a literary thriller or an adventure novel or whatever you want to call it, so it’s plot heavy, or anyway there’s a lot going on, but still I’m not a natural storyteller, which is to say I don’t think I really see stories as these perfect intersections of character and causality.   I like the room for episode and event.  I figure if I can ratchet up the intensity (whether situational or syntactical) in an extreme situation we’ll see the way the characters’ vulnerabilities forces them into compelling action.  While my best—and still unpublished—short story is fairly traditional, most of my most successful short stories are more tricks of language.  A fun voice and interesting situation exploded toward conclusion in a few pages, which is not, I feel, how the great short story writers do things.  

12. How did you enjoy your MFA from Penn State? Do you think it was worth it? 

Absolutely!  Penn State’s program was a fully-funded three-year program where we were paid a good stipend to teach one course per semester—three of which were, in my case, creative writing.  So, yeah, it was pretty ideal.  It was small and intimate and because everyone was well-funded and not competing, say, for the one or two available fellowships, the environment was supportive and friendly—and not surprisingly a lot of people did good work there.  I was lucky to study with great writers who were diligent and thoughtful teachers and with classmates who were smart and talented and generous.  Unfortunately it’s gone now, a casualty, I guess, of the financial crisis.  Though I have hopes, considering the work its alums are doing and the popularity of creative writing on campus, that one day it will be back.  Currently, they’ve got a one-of-a-kind five-year BA/MA for Penn State undergrads, which will, I think be a good way to bolster the undergrad program which is already filled with really strong writers.  I say this with some pride, too, because two of my former students have made it into the program and they’re really impressive, talented, and smart writers and it’s exciting to see them doing such good work.

But back to your question: my experience at Penn State was rigorous in theory, art, and criticism. And I was lucky to be surrounded by dedicated and talented people—writers who every week awed and inspired me with their work and their discipline in a town of mountains and rolling fields and all the bucolic pleasures of the good life.  A town where a pitcher of beer was 3 dollars.  It’s hard to ask for much more than that.

13. What's the most stressful and most rewarding part about publishing a novel so far and why? (aka, is it writing it, promoting it, getting a publisher, etc.?) 

Well the book is just now coming out, so it’s possible that my answers on both counts might change, but as far as I can tell, publication—and all its variables—is the most stressful part of the whole thing.  The issue, primarily, is that I’m a control freak and when it comes to the actual publication process there’s so much that I have basically no control over—from big obvious things like cover and flap copy, to pub dates and typesetting, print-run and review/blurb garnering.  It’s kind of like being a sports fan—total investment with zero control.  Except it feels like some subtle and fairly obvious aspects of my sanity, not to mention professional livelihood, are riding on these things, which I won’t feel about sports for another few weeks until the Red Sox are in the World Series. 

As for the most rewarding part? That’s got to be doing the writing.  Any other answer is probably insane.  The pleasures of being deep at work, say only fifty pages out from the conclusion of the first draft…That’s probably the most fun.   

14. Do you read while you're working on a new project or do you try and separate the two? 

Yeah, absolutely I read.  I can’t imagine not.  Usually the more I’m reading, the more I’m writing.  But it’s a sort of tricky calculus to decide what to read.  Usually, at first, I want to read something similar in tone or style or intent to what I’m working on, and then as I get deeper in and my piece has established its own rules, I try to switch my reading up and read things that are entirely different from what I’m working on.  Often, nonfiction or poetry.  Or another way to look at it: at first I want to stimulate whatever gets the prose flowing, and then I want to leave that alone and just sort of feed my intellect and let that carry over (or not).

Also, when I’m struggling, I use reading as a crutch.  I think Martin Amis mentioned that when he was stuck, he’d say to himself, “okay, how would Dickens, do this?  Or Bellow?  Or Nabokov?”  And you know, even if you can definitely see those influences on his prose, certainly the answer he usually comes to—he claims—is, how should Martin Amis approach this?  And I’ll do something similar, but often with a slightly less specific method.  When I’m struggling I’ll read writers whose prose I love, whose work really speaks to me on some sonic level and I’ll just let those sentences—their cadences and variations—wash over me until they’ve inspired the right amount of pleasure and then I can get back to work.  Obviously, if I wrote at night I could just have a few beers, I guess, but a dawn routine demands a little more purity.  

15. What's your goal when you sit down to write? Is there one? 

I write for pleasure, and my goal when I sit down is to break through my levels of anxiety and doubt and sort of connect with what Jerome Charyn has called the “lyric joy” that is the undercurrent of all art.  Someone like Jerome Charyn, actually, is a good example of this.  His books—especially the early ones—are insane.  They’re these completely absurd fugues where the primary organizing principle behind them is his clear joy in their composition. Like, you’re sure that this vision for him is so real and beautiful and necessary that it becomes those things, if briefly, for you.  God, I know that sounds pretentious.  But it’s true, and I can’t imagine why else anyone would write.   Why else would you bother but to shape your dread and awe, your moments of fear and beauty, all those freaky, anxious psychic abstractions into some form?  Basically, it’s a lot of fun and I think that’s all I’ll say about that since there’s nothing more uncomfortable than someone trying to communicate their hidden pleasure in general terms.  I’m just glad that the form mine takes is more or less socially acceptable.  A squirrel collection might be just as necessary for some.

16. What does your writing area look like? Do you write from home? Coffee shop? Office? 

I wrote most of Horse Latitudes in the back crannies of Webster’s CafĂ©, a little used bookstore in State College, PA.  Nowadays, though, since my powers of concentration seem to diminish by the day I write mostly from my home office.  It’s a nice room and pretty standard: bookshelves, lamps, a pull-out futon (it’s also the guest bedroom, I guess). Above my desk I’ve got a few corkboards tacked with postcards of paintings and lists of words I like or notes to myself, many of which are totally contradictory.  Also there’s a fortune cookie fortune “To win at anything, a race, your life—you have to go a little berserk”—which I think is pretty good writing advice. My desk itself is the usual blur of notes, quotations, drafts,  and other totemic objects: a riding flask from the nineteenth century, a blue bear totem, a glass blue bird, ivory elephant and—until my place was robbed a few weeks back—a bunch of knives including the coolest bowie knife in the world.  It’s now—with my back-up hard drive—bopping around a pawn shop somewhere.  So if you’re passing through Boston and you see someone just sort of swaggering down the road with a knife too cool to be found east of the Rockies, give me a call, because I’d like to get it back. 

17. Who are some of your biggest influence in writing? 

This is kind of the impossible question, since there are so many and the list is constantly changing.  For Horse Latitudes it would include writers who are literary and inventive within certain gothic, adventure, or mystery genres like James Lee Burke, James Sallis, Faulkner, Margaret Atwood, William Gay and as much as anyone else, Chaucer. For my work now, that list would be entirely different, people like Leonard Michaels, Jerome Charyn, Thomas Bernhard, Aimee Bender, Saul Bellow, Anne Michaels, Hawthorne.  In general, though, always, whenever I’m struggling in writing, or in life, I turn to Jim Harrison.  All of his early stuff is great, but I think Farmer is pretty underappreciated and Warlock is a really strong comic novel.  Even more, it’s his early poetry I’m especially drawn to.  I think I’ve read Letter to Yesenin twenty times. And his Ghazals are probably just behind that.  But yeah, Letters to Yesenin, it’s just so desperate and beautiful.  A howl that turns into a fierce cry of joy.  Otherwise, Jeanette Winterson’s Gut Symmetries is a pretty amazing postmodern novel.  Cynthia Ozick’s Puttermesser Papers has the most gut-wrenching and perfect ending I can imagine—whatever art is supposed to do, it does it.  And Possession by A.S. Byatt is formally as impressive a novel as I’ve read.  It’s not really an influence, I don’t think.  But a touchstone, still.  

18. How did you get involved in the WI8, in February, and what was involved once you got there?

Well, MP was generous enough to send me as their guest author and for that I’m immensely grateful because it was a great experience. Four days in Kansas City, meeting booksellers from all across the country, hanging out with other writers—all of whom were more experienced at this than I was—and trying to keep up with my editor Pat Walsh, who as many of your readers probably know, is sort of an indefatigable font of energy.   The man is always going. To put this in some context: the conference was bookended by blizzards, so getting into Kansas City was not very easy, and once there, getting out was even more difficult. So, yeah, that first day I left my house in Baltimore at 3:30 AM and didn’t get into Kansas City until 1 AM.  But when I arrived, hours, obviously, after I was supposed to there was Pat, chatting, pounding the (icy) pavement, talking books—a real old school man of letters.  Beyond trying and failing to keep up with Pat, meeting people, talking up Horse Latitudes, buying people drinks, and eating a lot of barbecue, I did a book signing where I shared a table with Jill McCorkle who was really very nice.  Sherman Alexie, Dave Eggers, Phillip Kerr, were all just a few feet away, so when some of their lines got too long people would wander over to me and sort of stare at me while I rambled with speed and gusto.  Then I’d write strange messages in their books.  

19. You had a bit of a rough spot lately, everything looking up? 

Yeah, our apartment was broken into and all the computers were stolen, plus my back-up hard drive and some of my knives.  Most major work was backed-up on email. But yeah I lost some stories and a poem I’d been working on a lot recently.  Also taken: lots of syllabi and assignment sheets (which means this just added hours to my class prep this fall, but who knows, maybe I’ll write them clearer and better than I ever had before).  Overall, though, I was pretty lucky.  They were junkies looking for fast cash and didn’t seem to realize, say, what a first edition of Horse Latitudes might one day be worth.  They also left the deeply trippy first paperback printing I have of Paul Bowles’s Up Above the World, which has probably the most insane cover I’ve ever seen.

20. What's next for Morris Collins?

Finishing up a new novel, soon, I hope.  Sleepwalkers of the North Atlantic.  I’m kind of superstitious about talking about these things, but very generally it’s a dark comic novel set in Boston and Northern Maine about a caddy at a Boston country club who is hired to find a member’s daughter and becomes caught up in a plot to steal Native American land in Maine.  It sort of riffs on Hawthorne and takes on issues of New England’s history and American identity and is, so far, pretty insane and wild and a lot of fun to write. Plus I’ve got a few stories and poems bouncing around and an essay in the works on Jewish magic realism in the work of Isaac Babel, Jerome Charyn, and Cynthia Ozick.  Also, of course there’s the perpetual search for steady employment.  So I gotta get my ass in the chair.  There’s going to be a lot of early mornings for the next few months, I hope.

Thank you!

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