- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Review, Writing

Bradford Morrow on Language, Writing, Books, Fiction, Darkness, and More


Happy birthday, Bradford Morrow, writer and editor par excellence! Over the years, Big Other has published reviews of Morrow’s fine books, like Gabriel Blackwell’s review of The Diviner’s Tale and Tim Horvath’s review of The Uninnocent. I also reflected on the latter here and reviewed the former elsewhere. Go read Morrow’s books, in other words. And here are some more of Morrow’s words, culled from interviews he’s given over the years:


“As a person, I’m an observer. As a fiction writer, I’m an inventor who is informed by my observations.”


“So yes, foreboding, uneasiness, dread, these all strike me as essential to the human experience […]”


“And because I swim in the ocean of language awake and asleep, and most especially when I’m writing, it’s natural that my understanding of the world of my characters is awash in language as well.”


“Language is process and the dictionary a beautiful brocade of paradox…And so, while language is our greatest gift, it is also our gravest. We can speak with one another, but insofar as we are successful, we can only approximate ideas, intentions of significance.”


“Everything comes back to ideas harnessed within sounds, utterance. Words are the oldest fossils. Primordial, primeval.”


“Books have sedimentary qualities, difficult moments of expertise or resonances, overtones. Every word we use has been trampled on so much. Emerson was right when he said that every word was once a poem. Each word is so completely evolved, evolving, used, overused, that for a writer to assemble them in a way that is somehow innovative, audacious, fulfilling, suggestive, represents an enormously dynamic event. The whole idea borders on hubris—but we enter the fray because for all the weaknesses and failed moments in any text, there are those incidents of epiphany and unexpected insight. That’s the reason I remain interested in words, and novels. It’s why I do what I do.”


“When I inhabit a character, I have the opportunity of seeing the world twice: I, myself, get to see it, but I am also allowed to see it through fictive, narrational eyes, at the same time. So I’ll visit a place that already has a resonance for me, a timbre. That’s how characters become manifest in me; it’s partly through the language that appears when writing.”


“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.”


“When I worked as a jazz musician back in my twenties, I equally loved soloing and comping behind other soloists. Both involved spontaneous invention, and both involved listening, responding to what others were playing, how they were thinking their ways through the intricate meanings of whatever piece we were improvising. Writing short stories and novels involves soloing; editing is a kind of comping. Each informs and enriches the other.”


“Narrative, be it on the scale of a short paragraph or a long novel, is told in words whose origins are ultimately musical. Emerson wrote, Every word was once a poem. And I would suggest that every poem was once a musical phrase.”


“To return to the personal, I think one exceptional blessing in being a novelist is that every failure of your life can work to your labor’s benefit. You understand your defeats as narrative possibilities. When you’re defeated you’re defeated, but as a novelist you may learn through exposure to deprivation, failures, sadnesses, emptinesses even, to build from the rubble. You lost, therefore you get to write a sentence.”


“My taste in literature, like my taste in music, and even in people, is eclectic. I’ve never been one to limit myself in my preoccupations, my affections. Which is not to say my taste is chaotic or even all that catholic. Just that for better or worse I manage a wide embrace. Besides Willa Cather, I’m completely devoted to John Donne, for instance, and Yeats. But also William Burroughs and William Gaddis. What these writers have in common, for want of a sharper word, is genius. Originality, dynamism, vision, and a gift for language that’s electric.”


“I may be overly optimistic or utterly blind, but my view of contemporary American fiction is that it is as rich as ever. Some of the best work is being written in what until recently was considered, at least among the conventional literati, genre fiction. Horror, gothic, mystery, fantasy, fabulism. There are so many stunningly original and serious writers working these fields.”


“One of the many reasons the gothic interests me is because, ironically, it is a way of measuring the possibilities of good in humanity. Yes, the focus is on illness as opposed to health. On madness rather than sanity. Dark versus light in every possible way. But through the fictive lens that examines evil we have the chance of refining our understanding of what a fragile, precious thing is good.”


“Reality bears the burden of its own weight, and so do the many things we cannot know. The universe is not our fault, yet it’s not our accomplishment, either. As writers, we are small recorders, imaginative instruments trying to relate the proximate to the larger idea, the greatest of which we likely cannot and won’t be able to understand, because there are so many probable cosmoses passing through us, even as we talk in this space that we recognize, because we can’t see around the corner, at least not without mirrors and simulacra. And thus, fiction. I think fiction was my choice because it was the last lot left to me in terms of the idea of a pursuit of how I could know anything that experience and imagination have funneled down, or up, to me, and then revisit it in words.”


“I do think that much contemporary criticism is stuck in the past and that too many reviewers want those who are exploring ways to revolutionize genre to stick to the rules. I think of them as genre police. They make too many false arrests and lead potential readers astray, keep them caged away from renegades whose work they might well dig reading.”


“Again, we cannot see around the corner. Or better, let’s say we can. What do we see? Most probably yet another corner. There will always be another corner we can never see around, and that’s my best rationale for employing my fiction as a means of examining how the past engages the present, the present the future. Fiction, like that flower, has bite.”


“I try to embrace what I feel is somewhat paradoxical and self-contradictory. In a work of art I look for the ineffable, to be so completely combined with the utterly understandable in a way that you don’t even notice that they’re infiltrating one another, that the organism is dead and very alive at the same time.”


“[A]s an empathic writer, I need to be able to work my way into dark places where I can imagine how such a violent moment like that might feel , and express it in words. It is absolutely unsettling to do, and clearly upsetting for some people to read. But it is real, it is impossible to avoid as a writer, and so I don’t have much choice if I want to write truthfully.”


“We could say that we’re the deadly alive.”


“We live in memory. We live quite often thinking about what comes next, but there’s only a single and momentary instant which is factually now. And basically, once that now has come and gone, our imagination takes over and begins to measure, interpret, and color what just happened. As a writer, I’m very comfortable collapsing time, braiding the present and the past around the narrative thread.”


“Process, the acts that occur in between. The fictional moment. The imaginative moment. The moment that is life-giving. These moments are always about the synaptic.”


“One of the reasons we write novels is that we’re fascinated by the idea of good and evil. They are dichotomous, but inform one another, and what occurs between them is life—morality, good or evil, light or dark, entropy or health, life, death, ethics, up, down, in, out, choice—these distinctions make it inevitable for someone who wants to make narratives which address the extremes and what flows between. Narrative, even antinarrative, is about diastolic/systolic motion.”


“I don’t think a book closes itself to the reader. The reader owns the possibility of opening the door, and once inside, wandering that mansion of language, it’s anybody’s guess what will result. The text-reader relationship is one of mutual impact. The reader and writer are in mutual incursion.”


“I don’t want to write the kind of fiction that leads the reader by the nose, deprivational fiction that withholds some rich excesses of language, unseen deep metaphor, layerings of possible meanings, narrative sleights and overtones, and so forth. By the same token, I do hope my novels find readers who go into them thinking, ‘I’m going to reinvent this narrative for myself, word-by-word, idea-by-idea. I’ll be faithful to the signifiers and crises, a close and thoughtful reader, but I’m here to participate.’ Then the writer’s got a collaborator. Ultimately, all art is collaborative. I believe it was Sven Birkerts, in The Gutenberg Elegies, who nicely developed the argument that every reader is ultimately a co-producer, and a novel is projected like an internalized film in your head.”


“There’s always something more than can ever be realized textually. I know that beyond the peripheries, out in the darknesses beyond the text proper…is a richer universe yet. I like to think there’s another narrative hovering just at the extremities of all novels. This, again, is where the reader comes into the mix. It’s as if all text is hypertext. All is subject to interpretive interaction.”


“A text is ultimately an artificial construction, as we all know. But here’s my thought, that gains on the idea of realism: tell me what else is not a so-called fabrication, even in the moment. At the moment someone is reading this interview, tell me they’re not inventing, not fabricating, intertextualizing. The whole notion of dividing so-called realism or naturalism from so-called metafiction or nonrealism is more and more, to my mind, reductivist. Where bogusness enters in here is that the ‘real’ is really ‘real’ in the arts, whereas we know it is artifice by definition. We don’t have to write a manifesto to understand this small idea. When you write a novel, you construct a universe that does and does not exist. An ideational hardness informs every mental picture, but it remains—if you’ll pardon the word—’virtual,’ a mindscape. Paradoxically, a reader’s life can be utterly changed by this string of linguistic particles that comprise sentences, paragraphs, narratives. Every single person who reads it brings the entirety of their knowledge of language, their system of prejudices, their totality of geographic experience, ethnographic experience . . . they make a new novel when they read your book. We, as writers, can do our best managing words and images so that they satisfy us. After that, the reader is fully in control. Gaddis made a great comment in this regard, that once the book is published, that’s it. The writer can’t go chasing after readers saying, I meant this, I meant that!”


“I’ve come to believe more and more that the printed word need not come to be in locked battle with the electronic word. They can both serve each other and be valuable in their own right. One should not ultimately triumph over the other, and I don’t think it will happen. Learning to use both properly, though, will not be easy. It will be a juggling act for the soul for each of us to recognize that the book is irreplaceable as the fundamental reading tool.”


“If you can’t empathize and embrace, you can’t understand, and if you can’t understand, you’re on your way to becoming evil.”


“And we are all uninnocent, I think, because we are all gifted with nightmares, with occasionally angry thoughts and existential confusion, with the burden and accumulation of our lives watching others do astonishingly wrong things.”


“Just as illness and death are the ‘normal’ outcomes of health and life, the struggle we all face on a daily basis with doing the right thing, the proper thing, the good thing, when it is so much easier to hedge, to veer, to sidestep virtue, is normal. Is human.”


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