Monday, January 18, 2016

My First Time: Keith Lee Morris

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Keith Lee Morris, author of the new novel Travelers Rest, now out from Little, Brown. Benjamin Percy, author of The Dead Lands, had this to say about the novel: “It won’t take long—a page, maybe two—before you feel wondrously disquieted by Keith Lee Morris’s Travelers Rest. The novel traps its characters in the town of Good Night, Idaho, and the reader in its shaken snow globe of a world. The language dazzles and the circumstances chill and put this story in the good company of Stephen King’s The Shining, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.” Morris is a professor in the English Department at Clemson University. His four other books of fiction include the novels The Dart League King and The Greyhound God. He was born a Southerner, but he grew up in the Northwest, which probably explains his state of existential confusion. He has a wife, two sons, and three cats.

My First Published Story

I wanted to start off with the sentence, “It started off normally enough,” but then I realized that wasn’t true. Nothing was normal about it from the outset. I published my first story in 1994, but I have to go back at least three years before that in order for any of it to make sense.

In 1991, I had recently graduated at the ripe old age of 27 with a B.A. in English from the University of Idaho, and in trying to figure out what to do with myself for the rest of my life, I had returned to my hometown and taken a job bartending. That wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of my life, except that it did, because the waitress that I had started dating from that same bar turned out later to be my wife. I was pretending to be a writer at the time. This involved going to bars and pulling out tattered sheets of paper filled with squiggly handwriting and frowning at them mysteriously while I drank beer, occasionally adding a few more lines of squiggly handwriting and then sighing deeply. My wife made sure to let me know, later, that she was not at all impressed with this performance, but that she found something about me to like well enough in order to at least put up with me at the time.

I had one story that I recognized might not entirely be a piece of crap. I had started working on it a few years before, when I was living in New Orleans, and I sensed that the main character and his situation and the voice in which I was relating his situation might be moderately interesting to a person other than myself. For that reason, I was proceeding very cautiously, and the story kept getting longer, and there was no end in sight, in either space or time. One fine summer day (there is still nothing, in my experience, as fine as a fine summer day in Idaho), I was at my girlfriend/future wife’s house, where I had been frowning mysteriously at pages of squiggly handwriting while she took a nap. Her mother lived along a winding highway and kept a menagerie of domestic animals—dogs, cats, chickens—that would often wander out into the road and get squashed by 18-wheelers. It was a scary road, and you had to be prepared for it. On that day, I looked both ways several times before pulling out in my girlfriend/future wife’s Honda Civic (my Pontiac Sunbird wasn’t running, which was usually the case), and then looked in the rearview mirror several times, too, once I was on the road, just to make sure I wasn’t going to be squashed like the cats and the chickens, and what I saw was 20 or 30 sheets of paper filled with squiggly handwriting floating in the north Idaho breeze, spreading themselves out along a 100-yard stretch of treacherous asphalt—I had left the only copy of my one decent story on the roof of the car.

I’ve lived with my wife for almost 25 years now, and although we’ve raised two sons together and traveled all over the place and gone through all the various emotional experiences that people who’ve been together for 25 years have inevitably gone through, it’s still possible that the nicest thing she ever did for me was help me retrieve those flying sheets of paper from the shoulder of that dangerous road, and that she never looked more beautiful than she did right at that moment, dodging cars to grab the skittering scraps that would make up my future endeavor, frowning at me not-so-mysteriously (she was, justifiably, pretty angry) all the while.

Fast forward two-and-a-half or so years. Now I’m in grad school at the University of Idaho (again) with a wife and young son along for the ride. I am still, inexplicably, at work on the same old story. By this time, I’ve learned to use a computer, so the squiggly handwriting has been translated into a neat electronic file that mystifies and worries me. I am beginning to think that my dream of being accepted to an MFA program is highly unrealistic, having applied without success before I began the MA program and having made no significant progress since then. When I finish my one and only not so terrible halfway decent story, which is now 60 pages, I take it to one of my professors, who happens to be a novelist, and who, against all odds, says he likes it and thinks I should try to get it published.

To celebrate, I go, for reasons I still can’t quite completely fathom even in retrospect, to a local bar and write a strange, meditative poem about the Donner Party, who ate each other almost alive.

On my professor’s recommendation, I submitted the 60-page story to Quarterly West out of the University of Utah. He told me a publication there would be a feather in my cap when I applied for MFA programs. So I waited anxiously...actually, “anxiously” doesn’t adequately express it, since your whole life and the life of your new family hangs in the balance—it’s amazing, when I think of it, that all of us, we aspiring writers, subject ourselves to this particular form of torture, the waiting, the willingness to let other people arbitrarily decide our fate while we go doggedly about our usual business in the meantime—it almost makes me think we’re rather brave. Anyway, I waited anxiously, and then the weeks and months went by and I waited more anxiously, and then I became more anxiously anxious thinking that something had gone wrong, and I consulted my professor, who told me to be patient. So I did that. I waited patiently on the phone while I called Quarterly West and asked to speak to the Executive Editor. To my surprise, the Executive Editor came on the line. I asked him about my story. Again, to my surprise, he remembered it. Oh yeah, he said, I remember that one. We had a reading party and there was some interest in it and someone took it home and I don’t know what happened to it after that. Let me get back to you.

To this day, I have no idea what a “reading party” is. There was some interest in it. This was the only thing that stood out to me. I floated around on a cloud of possibilities for several days. The Executive Editor called me back. I’m sorry, he said, we lost your manuscript. There was some interest in it. Maybe you could resubmit it to us, and, to make up for the inconvenience, you could send something else along as well.

I was banking on that 60-page story, which by that time had acquired the unwieldy title of “The Often Unrecognized Similarity Between Astronauts, Hardware Salesmen, and Tropical Fish,” to make my future for me. I really didn’t even have anything else...other than that weird poem I’d written about the Donner Party recently. I hauled it out and looked at it. It was a narrative poem. Wow. Huh. If you took out the line breaks, it kind of told a story. Huh. Wow. I put it in the manila envelope with the 60-page epic and sent it to the Executive Editor at Quarterly West.

He called me. The 60-page story was, well, a little long, and a little long-winded, but hey!—what a great short-short that was about the Donner Party. They were pleased to say that they’d like to publish it in their next issue.

It was two pages long, and it was titled “Patty Reed, the Last Surviving Member of the Donner Party, Recollects at Age Ninety-Three,” and it was my first published story, an accident, the product of a lost submission, a poem without the line breaks. The other story, reduced to 40 pages and the one-word title “Astronauts,” was eventually published as well, in Puerto Del Sol out of New Mexico State. The next year I was in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. I was on my way, for better or worse, the way all of us are, scribbled sheets of paper tossed to the wind.

1 comment:

  1. David, thank you so much for featuring Keith Lee Morris. I first discovered him when I read his novel The Dart League King, which absolutely blew me away. I have read it several more times over the last few years, and it has become one of my favorite books. I've also read his short story collections and look forward to reading his other novels, especially his new one.