Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Lost in an Elaborate Dream with Real-Life Consequences: An Interview with Keith Lee Morris

I read Keith Lee Morris’s new novel Travelers Rest, under perfect conditions: during the recent Snowzilla snowstorm that shut down the DC area for several days. Perfect conditions because of course there is no better time to sink into a novel when you know you have all the time in the world, and perfect conditions because the story takes place in a mysterious Idaho town where the Snow. Never. Lets. Up. Ever.

Elegant yet accessible prose, vivid characters with thoughtful POV shifts, swirling snow carrying us through time, a creepy hotel…the writer in me was battling with the reader in me. What will happen next!? And how did he do this!?

Lucky for me, I know Keith, who has visited the Converse low-res MFA program several times, including one summer where we ran workshop together. He was kind enough to answer a few questions I had about the book and offer some writing tips…and if you do nothing else today, you MUST read his response to #6, where he reimagines The Great Gatsby in the age of smartphones. Hilarious!!
1.     Describe your book in ten words or less. (I’ll spot you the words of the title as freebies!)

Family explores old hotel, upsets fundamental balance of the universe.

2.     Much of the story in TRAVELERS REST takes place during a major snowstorm, and the falling, whirling snow is described many times, each time uniquely and elegantly. What advice can you give for writers who struggle with descriptive writing? How did you approach writing about this ongoing snowstorm and keep the writing fresh?

Because I'm one of those people who walks around with his head in the clouds most of the time, physical description is always a challenge for me. I don't pay much attention to physical detail as I go about my everyday business, so I have to really force myself to concentrate on it in my writing. The snow in Travelers Rest presented an extreme version of the problem--I knew from the outset that the snow was going to keep falling throughout the entire novel, and I knew that I was going to try to use it as a way to both create the overall mood and explore the individual characters’ perceptions. That meant I was going to end up describing it over and over again,  and I had to figure out how to keep it interesting, to make the snow feel like a constant presence without merely being repetitious. Add to that the problem that I now live in South Carolina, where we only see snow once or twice a year.

Ultimately, my memories of growing up in Idaho came to my rescue. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time standing at my bedroom window, in the dark, watching the snow outside in the hope that enough would pile up for school to be cancelled. I watched so often and so intensely (I really hated school) that I got to be an expert on the finer points of drifting and falling snow. When I had to write those descriptive passages in Travelers Rest, I would often just sit in a dark room and close my eyes and go back to that place by my bedroom window as a child and channel those memories; it was an exercise in making memories live in the present moment, which, perhaps not coincidentally, turned out to be a very important part of what the book is about.

As far as advice for younger writers goes, I’d say that being good at physical description is just like everything else in writing fiction—you have to be willing to slow down, concentrate fully, experience the world you’re describing with your own senses, and stick with the moment doggedly until you find just the right words to represent the tangible, real-world subject you’re attempting to bring to life on the page.      

3.     The book balances four major points of view. What advice do you have for those writers wishing to try multiple viewpoints? Did the book start with four voices in your original vision?

To me, by far, the trickiest element to deal with when you’re employing multiple POVS is not character, but plot. Yes—there’s always a danger that one of your characters will simply be more compelling than the others, or less compelling, so that readers find themselves becoming impatient when they’re not reading about the characters or situations that most interest them. I think that happens to some extent in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which is one of my favorite novels published in the last few years, and was hugely successful, obviously—but as much as I was absorbed in the movement of the story, I couldn’t help feeling a slight sense of disappointment every time the narration switched to the character that I found the least interesting of the two. I was so caught up in one of the POVs that I didn’t want the author to take me away from it.

But I think the hardest part of writing from multiple POVS is managing the timing and keeping the plot from stalling out or becoming repetitive. There will, after all, almost certainly be some overlap in the shifting POVS, and one challenge is to navigate that overlap without making readers feel as if they’ve heard the same thing before—the trick there, to me, is to make each of the POV characters’ experiences and thoughts distinct enough that going over the same ground from inside one characters’ perspective feels almost nothing like covering that same ground from another’s (Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is the quintessential example of how to do that effectively). And of course you have to keep the plot from feeling like it’s bogging down.

Another challenge when you’re working with multiple POVS—especially when that means as many as four or five—is to keep the character present in the reader’s experience of the story even when that character’s perspective isn’t being represented. For instance, there’s a stretch of about 100 pages or more in Travelers Rest in which the father, Tonio, doesn’t appear at all. That’s where the good old-fashioned notion of the cliffhanger comes into play a little bit—if readers aren’t going to see or hear from a character for a long time, it’s a good idea to leave that character in an interesting predicament that readers won’t forget or become tired of speculating about—it can even help to increase the tension, as long as you don’t try to stretch the situation out too far, in which case it can become frustrating or annoying. 

4.     I simply love 10-year-old Dewey! He’s smart yet vulnerable and always 100% believable as a kid. So many young literary characters feel overly-precocious and precious, but I never worried that Dewey was going to disappoint me. How did you capture him so wonderfully? Any tips for writing about kids?

You know, I wish I had some really great secret to impart here, but I don’t. I don’t write about kids a whole lot, so I’m happy to hear you say that you liked Dewey. It helps, of course, to have raised kids yourself, or to be in the process of raising kids yourself. [Note: I do not recommend procreation for the sole purpose of writing more believable elementary school characters]. One thing I’ve always felt is that you shouldn’t try overtly to make children sound like children—just stay true to what kids do and think and let them interact more or less like adults, like your other characters. Nothing’s worse than a five-year-old character who prefaces everything she says with shouts of “Mooommmmy! Daaaaadddy!” Kids don’t do that anyway. It also really helps in writing child characters, I think, if you have vivid memories of your own childhood and can recollect clearly how you thought and felt at a particular age. But that’s obviously not something you can teach anyone.

5.     Why did you choose to include the supernatural element in this story? Was that your intention from the start, or something that showed up along the way that you initially embraced/feared?

For about twenty years, I’ve been writing what I like to call “dream stories”—narratives that are based loosely on actual dreams and that adhere to a kind of dream logic rather than what we think of as the operating principles of the everyday world. Travelers Rest was just the extension of that mode to novel-length form. I was shocked, honestly, when people started referring to it as a genre novel or even a cross-genre novel—that never occurred to me. I was just writing the same kind of fiction I’d been writing for a long time and publishing in literary magazines. There’s definitely something otherworldly in the novel, if not downright supernatural (I guess I’d be hard-pressed to explain the distinction between those two terms, but the first one sounds more appropriate to me for some reason), but the way I thought of it the whole time was that the characters were lost in an elaborate dream that nevertheless had real-world consequences.

6.     Technology had to be part of the challenge when putting this plot together, dispensing with cellphones and the like. Any thoughts about how modern technology helps/hinders writers today as they consider plot?

Oh, God, yes, this is one of my favorite things to whine about! 90% of the conflicts in literary history can be resolved in five minutes or less with a cell phone. Gatsby and Daisy have been in touch all these years as Facebook friends, so when he gets to West Egg he already has her number in his contacts list. He shoots her a text and she asks Siri for directions and heads right over. Meanwhile, Nick Carraway has run a Google search on Gatsby and turned up his past criminal history and fake identity and tweets something about how his new neighbor is f-ed up. Daisy follows her cousin Nick on Twitter, so she sees the tweet and aborts her trip, opting to call up her husband and Jordan Baker on speaker phone and propose a round of golf instead. The End.

Of course, one solution to the problem is to fully embrace technology and social media, keep up with all the latest trends and be able to employ them artfully in your work, but for this you need access to a 7-year-old. I only have an 18-year-old at home, and he’s long since grown tired of my ineptitude, so that he now answers my questions about technology with nothing but three-letter texts from behind the bathroom door, where he’s blow drying his hair—lol, idk, wtf? And then of course if you do go this route, unless you publish your story or novel online immediately upon completion of a first draft, everything you wrote will be outdated and all but indecipherable, capable of being dredged up only from the deepest caverns of cultural memory, by the time it ever gets to its first reader.

So yes, in this case, with Travelers Rest, it seemed essential to get rid of most forms of contemporary technology, and my editor, Ben George, and I spent way more time than probably either of us wanted to talking about what would happen in the magnetically charged atmosphere of the town of Good Night, Idaho (which was the explanation I came up with for why things don’t operate normally) if you were to, say, plug in a toaster. The problem did lead to some fun scenes, though—like the ones in which everyone in town keeps refusing Tonio’s credit cards, or how Robbie (Dewey’s derelict uncle) finds all the old 70s songs on the town’s one ancient jukebox.    

About Keith Lee Morris
Keith Lee Morris is the author of two previous novels, The Greyhound God and The Dart League King, a Barnes & Noble Discover pick. His short stories have been published in New Stories from the South, Tin House, A Public Space, New England Review, and Southern Review, which awarded him its Eudora Welty Prize in fiction. Morris lives in South Carolina, where he is a professor of creative writing at Clemson University. 


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.