Heading for the Rapids

Thomas Morris in interview with Susanne Stich

Susanne Stich

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June 2016 will see the launch of the paperback edition of Welshman Thomas Morris’ debut short story collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber & Faber 2015), which was just nominated for the prestigious Edge Hill Short Story Prize and the Wales Book of the Year Award. Having been based in Dublin since 2005, Morris is also the current editor of literary magazine The Stinging Fly. I recently met him at the Cuírt Literary Festival in Galway, which led to the following interview. In our conversation we covered a vast amount of ground, ranging from the effects of bilingualism to fake plumbers, and the parallels between writing and football. In the process, Morris shared some wonderful insights into his approach to craft.

Susanne Stich: Before we talk about the collection, I’d like to ask you about your background. You grew up in Caerphilly, South Wales, where most of the stories are set, and you were educated solely through the Welsh language until the age of eighteen. How did that shape your imagination, and which role did English play in your early life? Did the two languages flow into each other, or were you conscious of them representing conflicting ideas?  

Thomas Morris: There’s a temptation to go down the ‘I have a split personality, and I’m a different person in each language’ route here. And while an argument could be made for it, it’s really not something I think about all that much. I have friends for whom this is more acute: they who were raised in Welsh-speaking homes. But for me, I spoke English in the house and then Welsh in school. Or to put it another way: I’d have breakfast in English, lunch in Welsh, then dinner in English again. That said, when I came to Dublin I’d never written an essay in English before (aside from English lit essays), so I was certainly stretching and reaching for vocabulary.

But more significant perhaps is the fact that I stammer very badly when I speak Welsh. I used to stammer in both languages when I was a kid, though it improved as I got older and now it’s more or less fine in English. But in my early twenties, when I settled properly in Dublin, I stopped regularly speaking Welsh. And when I speak it now I struggle to say three or four words without stuttering. It feels as if I’m trapped in a former, younger, less confident self. It’s odd and frustrating, and I’m sure a therapist would have a field day with it all.

SS: One of three epigraphs in We Don’t Know What We’re Doing comes from a note at the National Gallery accompanying a landscape by 17th century painter Van Ruisdael:‘The watermills belonged to the manor of Singraven near Denekamp… While the watermills do exist, the setting is Ruisdael’s invention: There are no hills near Denekamp.’

Can you talk about how the contradictions between real, remembered and imagined places (in this case, Caerphilly) and the self-imposed ‘distances’ in your life shaped the collection?

TM: I spent a lot of time ensuring details of the town were accurate, but then occasionally I felt a character or story, or just the spirit of place, required that the town work a little differently to how it does in real life. So I took a few small liberties; I improved a view here and there, and I shortened the duration of the Big Cheese Festival by a day. And I also merged a few things – the way one might merge two characters to create a believable one. But I stand by those decisions. Caerphilly, the town, and Caerphilly, the fictional setting, will – and should always be – different things. One is an ‘objective’ place, the other is an idea summoned through the lens of subjective experience: be that my own or the characters’.

But to answer the latter part of your question: I can’t for the life of me think of much that would be interesting to say about the idea of my own distance from Caerphilly. Everything you can guess about it (the necessity of it; the pull of it; the alienation) is probably true. When I was putting the book together, I lived back in Wales for a few months. I’d walk around Morrisons (the supermarket) for half an hour, just listening in to people’s conversations. Being in Ireland for ten years, I’ve taken on some Irish phrasing and vocabulary, so it took a bit of re-immersion (and my sister’s proofreading) to wheedle those Irish phrases out and get the Welsh phrasing right – without it ever sounding camp, or whatever the Welsh equivalent of ‘Oirish’ is.

Beyond that, my lives in Caerphilly and Dublin are quite different. One is grounded in books, the other in family and school friends. I encounter different versions of life in both places, and for now I seem to be able to invent more vivid fictional hills in Caerphilly than I might do in Dublin.

SS: Let’s look at some of the individual stories. The book features a whimsical cast of characters on the fringes of small town society, going about their business against the timeless backdrop of Caerphilly castle. They drift in and out of relationships, work dead-end jobs and can’t quite imagine a positive future. Their encounters with others are tinged with a sense of alienation.

‘[T]his house, these rooms, this phone, these voices – you know they should mean more to you, but they don’t. It’s like the opposite of déjà vu (56),’ you write in the story ‘Fugue’, where a young woman temporarily returns home for the Christmas holidays.

TM: Firstly – and I’ve wanted to address this for a while – I don’t think many of the characters are working ‘dead-end jobs’. There’s a teacher, a nursery leader, a graphic designer, a swimming instructor, a journalist, a counsellor, an accountant, a video editor, a few policemen, a scattering of school kids, and a fake plumber. There are a few characters working jobs that are, for them, a means to an end – a man who serves burgers but who stresses the fact he’s writing a play; a woman unhappily working at a café who then gets a job in child care; and then there’s a lost, young guy who works in a video store – but well, the store is closing. And then there’s a man who’s unemployed, having been made redundant by the council.

I think a lot of fiction just tends to ignore work and working life – perhaps because it’s not seen as literary, or perhaps because the writers themselves haven’t had ‘jobs’ in a long time. And when a book comes along that does describe characters going around, having jobs, I think some reviewers project themselves into things and go, ‘Ugh, I wouldn’t want to do that job. This story must therefore be about how awful these jobs are.’

I’m personally anti-work; or rather, I’m anti doing jobs you don’t want to do. I find it absurd that we spend so much of our time doing jobs we hate. And while I wouldn’t want to be a teacher – and I couldn’t think of anything more boring than being an accountant – I’m not trying to be dismissive of these jobs. It’s about predilection and motivation: my best friend is an accountant and he couldn’t think of anything more boring than writing a book of short stories.

On the question of alienation – I think that’s especially true for the character in ‘Fugue’. She’s someone who has moved away and is returning home for a limited amount of time. The story sprung from all the submissions I read at The Stinging Fly, stories with titles like ‘Homecoming’ and ‘Coming Home’; the coming-home trope is one that’s rich in tradition, and I wanted to have a go at it. In ‘Fugue’ Bethan’s sense of self is brittle – she’s made a new self away from the town and family, and now she’s found she can’t quite fit back into her old body. It’s a feeling I experienced when I used to go home – it’s uncanny and frankly creepy, and ‘Fugue’ ended up being kind of horrific because of it. I had tried to write something beautiful and poignant, like the glorious dénouement in Frank O’Connor’s ‘Uprooted’, but the story demanded something else.

In the other stories, I think it’s less about this kind of alienation, and more about everyday loneliness and the inability to get past the Self – even when that sense of Self is ostensibly stable. Ultimately, we’re all brains with legs, and sometimes it’s hard to get past that fact.

SS: I’m intrigued by what you’re saying about work and literature. You definitely have a point there. It’s a huge topic and would merit a discussion of its own. I also love that image of the brain with legs!

Going back to the collection, one of the key things I was struck by was the well-observed dialogue. It seemed to me like a scaffolding for everything else that unfolds. Which comes first for you, dialogue, or character and story? Or, on a related note, how do you know you’ve got something on your hands that will make it into a story?

TM: It feels slightly disingenuous of me to speak generally here. After all, I’ve only published one collection. But I’ll give you an example of how ‘Bolt’, the opening story, came together:

1)  I met a man who worked at Xtravision. In his living room, he had a carrier bag full of chocolate and popcorn – food that was past its sell-by-date, but still okay to eat.

2)  I took a flight to New York and was sat next to a flirtatious middle-aged counsellor. At one stage, she picked up a magazine and read one of the headlines aloud: ‘How to have a perfect marriage’, then she said to me, ‘Well, let’s see where I went wrong.’ It was such a good line, and I immediately knew I would have to write about her.

3)  In New York a friend told me about a horse that had bolted from its owners but had stopped when it reached a red light; the friend’s husband had just lost his job at a video store.

4)  I once lived with a girlfriend and her mother.

5)  I read an interview with George Saunders where he talked about the importance of ‘heading for the rapids’ – of always choosing the most interesting thing to happen in your story.

I thought, okay – video store, a young man living with his girlfriend’s mum, a middle-aged counsellor, go. Then I wrote the opening line and just kept going. I never got to use the actual line of dialogue from the real counsellor, but the seed grew into something much bigger.

Of course, each story took a different route. With ‘Strange Traffic’ and ‘all the boys’, for example, I had the scenarios first: a pensioner asking a pensioner on a date; a stag weekend in Dublin. I’ve learned that there are always two elements to the short stories I write – the situation, and then the story itself. For a long time I thought the situation was the story.

SS: Wow, that distinction sounds like a great tool. And thanks for unpacking ‘Bolt’.

On a different note: I read that you trialled at Cardiff City and played Welsh League football for a while. There are various references to football in the book, but I also felt (and you might think this is off the wall) that its underlying principles inform some of your stories, especially ‘Fugue’, ‘Clap Hands’, ‘all the boys’ and ‘Nos Da’. These stories have quite large casts, and there is great emphasis on the different characters’ interactions and movements. In places this reminded me of footballers on the pitch.

TM: Well – perhaps this isn’t so off the wall… In football, we talk of ‘formations’; in writing we talk of ‘form’. I think of the traditional Chekhovian model of a short story as being the literary equivalent of 4-4-2. It’s sturdy and it works, but we’ve grown wise to what’s going on, of how our strings are being pulled. In the same way football teams come up with new formations to get the edge over the opposition, so too do writers need to find new ways to smuggle harsh truths into their work. I’m interested in literary forms and the way they can be manipulated to engender thematic concerns. And for whatever reasons, I often think of football when I’m thinking of these issues – the way that the same team of eleven players can be re-calibrated just by placing them in different areas on the pitch.

But to bring it directly back to your question, I suppose I’ve seen that male friendships can often take on the same form as relationships that arise from being on a sports team. It’s no coincidence that so many stag-trippers get team jerseys made up for themselves. There’s always a strong sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’, and there being an opposition to take on – it could be another set of lads, or it could just be the waiting staff at a restaurant. But regardless of who the opposition are, there’s a sense of competitiveness. And this competitiveness can turn in on itself, as the individual members try to assert their own dominance. For a lot of guys, conversation itself is competitive. There’s always something to win. I’m interested in those dynamics, and I’m also interested in the guys who just concede victory at the off – you know, anything for a quiet life…

SS: All of this connects with the story ‘all the boys’ in particular, which reveals the psychological underbelly of a Welsh crowd on a stag night in Dublin’s Temple Bar. I loved your use of the future tense, which creates a sense of inevitability in terms of how these guys’ lives will play themselves out. Here are two quotes illustrating the clash between group and individual experience:

At some point in the night someone will say that the euro feels like Monopoly money, and everyone will agree. After forty minutes of wandering and arguing they’ll land on Dame Street, at an empty Chinese restaurant. (187)

He’ll feel small now, as if he’s shrinking even, as if he’s been dragged down from that vast sky and put here in Dublin, with his past and everything he knows about himself left behind. (192)

Can you talk about the experience of writing these ‘boys’?

TM: The football analogy is actually quite apt here. When I was writing the story I wanted the relationship between the boys to feel authentic. I thought about rubbish football films, where it’s obvious the matches are staged and not real; and the actors don’t know how to play properly. Even the camera angles aren’t convincing, and the commentators – even when they enlist real ones – just don’t sound the same.

Funnily enough, though, the boys are actually the same boys from the story ‘17’, but ten years later. They’re roughly based on friends of mine – who’ve now read the stories and recognize elements of themselves. But I think it’s still quite a sanitized version of what goes on at stags. I’ve heard of far seedier, far more disturbing – and surreal – things going on during these weekends. It’s a surprise to me that more people don’t get killed.

Anyway, I think being in a group creates a certain reticence. The insecurities are still there, but they’re leaked out when no one is looking. You’ve the boy who asks the barman for half a pint, but for it to be poured into a pint glass because he doesn’t want the others thinking he’s ‘gay’. Or you’ve got the father drinking his son’s pints when no one is looking, in order to save him from getting wrecked. There’s vulnerability and a protection of others going on, but it’s rarely something that can be openly acknowledged. But there’ll always be pockets of downtime, and moments for one guy to ask the other if he’s alright – but the official conversation is one of ridicule and piss-taking; it’s about establishing – and then repeating – jokes and tropes that will come to define the weekend.

Writing-wise, once I found the future tense the story came quickly. As you say, it adds a sense of inevitability, and that inevitability was somehow transmitted to the writing: when I arrived at a scene I just seemed to know what would happen next. So the challenge then was less about the plot and more about the finessing of characters: ensuring each one was individuated, and yet not so detailed that it distracted from the narrative arc. I had to establish short-hands and know when to use small brushstrokes.

But I should add that it’s only now that I’ve written the story – and I’m asked to talk about it — that I can see all this. I don’t come into a story thinking, ‘I know x and I want to tell x’. That would be boring for me, and I think it’d be boring for anyone who’d read the thing.

SS: Let’s look at another, rather different male character. In ‘How Sad, How Lovely’ the hapless narrator cries over poignant situations he observes in the street. He also has worms and shaves his head when things get too complicated. A kind of idiot savant, he watches kids in the park and gets beaten up over it. With the girl he fancies rejecting him, he reads a series of Hermann Hesse novels he picks up in a charity shop. There’s an underlying theme in this story (and some of the others) that reminded me of J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and his longing to be the ‘catcher in the rye’ who protects children from a ‘phoney’ adult existence. For me, this also resonated with your third epigraph: ‘Any fool can cry wolf; to cry sheep is inspired’ (Donald Barthelme).

TM: It took a few drafts for this particular personality to emerge. In the end he seemed to take on some of the features of the alienated characters I was reading at the time – I was reading Sartre’s Nausea and Philip McCann’s The Miracle Shed. I’d also recently read the new Sandra Smith translation of The Outsider, in which Meursault’s personality comes across quite differently to how it does in earlier translations. At some stage in the writing I thought it’d be amusing to let those influences work their way in – and I think it explains some of the over-wroughtness that I allowed myself to get away with; it seemed romantically continental and existential, though it probably verges on pastiche in some passages. But I was comfortable with that, because I do think this character would see things in that register. And I suppose I felt that the prose needed relief – some flight – from all the grossness of the worms nestling in the man’s arse.

Most of the characters in the book pop up in other stories, but I didn’t want that to happen for this character. He’s on his own – without friends or family – and I think it’s this separateness that allows for him to confess such vulnerabilities in his narration. It sounds like a monologue in the dark, a voice at the point of breaking, and he’s telling his story as a means of unburdening, I suppose.

The Barthelme epigraph, for me, is about how the daily and the perennial are as life-threatening as the sudden wolf at the farm gate. It takes a degree of clarity – or honesty perhaps – to confess that it’s the sheep, and not the wolf that’s fucking with our heads.

SS: At times your characters and situations reminded me of Miranda July’s stories. You’re great at blending whimsical humour and poignancy with something that’s quite visceral and physical. In ‘Clap Hands’ a man and his little son who are clad in matching plumbers’ outfits are called to a house that has mushrooms growing from the bathroom wall. It turns out the man isn’t a plumber at all. ‘Me and the boy, we don’t know what we’re doing (140),’ he confesses (giving your collection its title). The lady of the house doesn’t seem to mind, though. She simply makes the impostor a cup of tea. There’s a similarly offbeat scenario in ‘Big Pit’ when an estranged brother and sister take a beautiful Japanese stranger into a coal mine. After resurfacing, to her brother’s horror, the sister wipes coal dust from the Japanese girl’s face, a moment which culminates in a stunning epiphany about the siblings’ relationship and shared past. Do you plan such scenes or do they ‘happen’ accidentally?

TM: I really enjoyed Miranda July’s collection. I can’t remember many of the stories that clearly, but I loved the feeling in them, the way the prose moved so smoothly while at the same time taking such strange left-turns. She’s brilliant at entry points – she finds ways into stories that on the surface seem very easy and natural, but are really quite inspired.

But yes, those two scenes you mention – they weren’t planned from the off; I had no idea they were going to happen until they did.

With ‘Big Pit’, the very first draft was about two brothers – the narrator had had an affair with the other’s wife. The story was crass and wasn’t going anywhere. I knew I needed to inject another dimension into it, so I went all-out Oulipo, and took a copy of Donald Barthelme’s 60 Stories and flicked through to random pages, putting my finger down on random lines and wrote down the first five words I found. I ended up with bonsai and Japan and a few other words I can’t remember now. My strategy then was to link these words and images together, and see where things went. It subsequently took a lot of work to find the logic in these connections, and to make it feel as if it came naturally out of the story and its characters. I think this way of writing is, in some way, akin to psychoanalysis: what stories do we tell when we connect the images that rise to the surface?

Before I knew it, the narrator’s brother had become a sister, and the more I wrote, the more I realized that the sister was unhinged in a frightening way. She’s the one who’s pushing the story, and the narrator is going along with it. If you’ve ever supported someone who’s suffering with ill mental health, you’ll know that this is how things can go: you find yourself in situations where you don’t know what ‘support’ even means anymore: should you intervene or should you try to shepherd the situation by just going along with it? You don’t know if you’re helping or causing more damage. It’s a horrible situation.

There’s a lot about ‘looking’ in the story, a lot of references to eyes and perception. Once I got all the characters down that coal mine, the air of the story changed, and that question of perception was imbued with another layer of significance. But that final sequence took a lot of work. It was a solid three weeks’ in the making, just massaging those three paragraphs until the right loose change fell out. There were a lot of strands that needed to come together, and it wasn’t immediately obvious how to do it. Essentially, the narration is telescoped: it’s the brother’s point of view, but it’s mostly his distant- and one-step-removed perspective of what his sister is doing.

With the fake plumber in ‘Clap Hands’, I still laugh when he comes into the scene. I sometimes write things purely to amuse myself: a giant leap, which I don’t ever imagine will actually stay in the story, but just something to get the story moving.  And then, lo and behold, the thing seems to signify something far more interesting than what I come up with when I’m actively searching for something ‘profound’. So yes, a lot of happy accidents, but ones whose logic I only retrospectively understand. But I’m reluctant to explain my understanding of them – as I don’t want to limit the ways the stories can be taken up by readers.

SS: The story ‘Nos Da’ (Welsh for "good-night") feels different from the others. It seems to operate on a larger scale, and contains an element of magic realism. The narrator, an unhappily divorced father of two, becomes addicted to attending so-called viewing booths, which allow him to secretly watch his ex-wife, children and current girlfriend. In parallel, he has access to visual versions of his own and other people’s pasts. On top of that, unlike most of the other stories, this one ends on a hopeful note. In another interview you say that it took you two years to write ‘Nos Da’ and left you feeling drained. Can you talk about this story, and perhaps also about the influence that the visual, as in films and photographs, has on your work?

TM: I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but I was interested in exploring how we balance our present-day lives with our past-lives; and how we balance our working life with our non-working life. The particular set-up was one I’d had in mind for years, but I just didn’t know how to get the tone or story right. Early drafts were poor George Saunders-imitations, and I couldn’t find the right vehicle for the emotional heft of the story.

The hope that you mention is what took so much out of me. I dug deep into my own lonelinessess and sadnessess. It felt like I was drilling for oil, and I had to keep going further and further down to get the real stuff. I have a tendency to draw on my emotional state at the time of writing, and I wasn’t in a good place for a while, and the story reflected this – not so much on the level of the sentence, but on the level of opportunities for the characters: I couldn’t see a way out for them, a means of coming through. I’d also been ‘ambitious’: I had tried to write the thing from three points of view; and it just hadn’t come together. On reflection, I guess I was trying to evade the sustained heartbreak of one point-of-view.

In the final drafts I managed to pare everything down and tried to find what, I suppose, the Guide Books would call ‘the central dramatic conflict’. After that, I took a long time actively imagining what it would be like to be in the protagonist’s situation. It became an exercise in hypothetical empathy and it left me very low. Anyhow, I eventually struck on the image of the castle moat becoming an ice-rink – the latency of which I only understood later – and that seemed to offer a degree of grace that had previously been missing in the story.

With regards to the influence of film: it’s massive. When I get readers’ block, I’ll watch a film. With this story, I was thinking of Charlie Kaufmann and Michel Gondry, Powell and Pressburger, and Defending Your Life especially. The idea for this story partly came from watching that film when I was eight years old. Its principal conceit – that your whole life has been recorded – stayed with me. A few people have also mentioned the influence of Black Mirror as well. The last ten years, there’s been arguments made about TV and film being the best medium for storytelling etc, and I don’t think much about it either way, but I do think that dialogue is often a lot stronger onscreen than it is in fiction.

As for photographs: I once had a job working for Paul McGuinness, the U2 manager. He hired me to organize his personal photographs of the band, and I spent 5 months doing that. It was a surreal experience, and one that captured my imagination about how we put a narrative together – how we shape it; the moments we leave out, the events we emphasize. That was on my mind in ‘Nos Da’ when it came to the Memory Tapes – where people make films from the footage of their lives.

SS: Any nuggets you’d like to share about your writing process? On your website, for instance, I noticed a list of songs you were listening to while writing the stories, including tracks by St.Vincent, Joanna Newsom and Bob Dylan. What does music do for your creative process?

TM: I often use music to set the mood and temperature for a story. I’m jealous of the way music can capture mood so quickly; and I’m jealous of the fact that sometimes creating a mood is all a song needs to do. As for process: I’m generally a rubbish writer until I’m drafting. And I draft a lot.

SS: Before we finish, may I ask you about Dylan Thomas? I know, this is a horribly obvious question to ask a Welsh writer. Given that in your fortnightly short story newsletter ‘A Small, Good Thing’ you recently recommended Dylan Thomas’ story ‘A Visit to Grandpa’s’ I can’t help it, though. Did you enjoy his writing as a kid, or were you confronted with it ad nauseam? And how about more contemporary Welsh writers?

TM: I never read Dylan Thomas as a kid, never studied him in school. The first I read of him was in Dublin; I found myself one day gravitating towards the Welsh literature section in the library, and there was Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. It’s a beautiful book, and some of the stories of childhood are right up with the very best of them. I find Dylan Thomas’s poetry difficult, but I love the lyricism in his prose, and the stories are frequently really funny. But no, Welsh writing in English didn’t get much of a look-in when I was at school. Most kids in Wales will, at some point, read Of Mice And Men, but very few kids will have studied the same Welsh writers as each other, which is very different to the Canonical curriculum of the Irish Leaving Certificate. It’s something I think we might need to look at in Wales, though that would depend on one’s feelings towards the idea of a Nation...

For a long time, I resisted reading contemporary Welsh writers, mostly out of spite and envy. The envy has, thankfully, subsided, and I’m beginning to read Welsh writers. I loved Jonathan Edwards’s poetry collection My Family And Other Superheroes; Carys Davies is a superb story writer, and I’m an admirer of Natalie Holborow’s work. She has a debut poetry collection coming out next year with Parthian. I also hope to read Joao Morais in book form in the next while. He’s very good.

SS: You’ve written a number of fascinating articles about the short story form, which can be accessed via your website:http://tolmorris.tumblr.com. In one of these you say that you ‘don’t believe there are any suitable definitions for a short story—any such ark would be too small to house such beautiful animals,’ which I found refreshing.

Can you name a writer who recently surprised you with their stories and why?

TM: Dorthe Nors. She’s able to cram so much into three or four pages. Her stories are funny and sad, wry and profound, and really very much worth reading.

SS: Last question: what do you see yourself writing in twenty years from now?

TM: I see myself writing Aaron Ramsey’s autobiography. It’s going to be in 2nd person, present tense, and will span his entire life from the moment of his conception right up until his very last kick as a professional footballer.

But seriously, no, I haven’t a clue. And to be honest, I’ve got no idea what my second book will be about either. But I think that’s okay. It’s good to surprise yourself.

SS: Thank you so much, Thomas, it’s been illuminating. Best of luck with the awards you’ve been nominated for!