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Mary McGarry Morris: Novelist

Here's an excerpt from an interview I did with Mary McGarry Morris. It was first published in 1999 in The Country and Abroad.

Kelly: Did you want to be a writer when you were very young?

Morris: I did. I did. It was one of those things I always knew I wanted to do, wanted to be. I never had any doubt about it. I just assumed that was what life held for me.

Kelly: Yet you were a social worker for a while.

Morris: For about six years. When it came time for the children to get ready for college, and tuition, I became a social worker. It wasn't by training or anything like that.

Kelly: I was going to ask that; had you majored in sociology in college?

Morris: No. English.

Kelly: Did you study creative writing in college?

Morris: No, not really. I only had a few creative writing courses. The only writing I actually enjoyed was playwriting. I didn't enjoy my other writing courses. I had expository writing--I didn't enjoy that at all. I had one creative writing course; I didn't like that either. I didn't like being told what to write and being graded on it...I always thought I would be a newspaper reporter. It seemed that would be a more practical way to look at a writing life.

Kelly: Did you do any newspaper reporting?

Morris: Nothing beyond school.

Kelly: Did you like it?

Morris: Yeah, I did. But I also knew by that time that it was creative writing I wanted to do.

Kelly: What literary influences operated on you?

Morris: That's such a difficult question, I guess because I think of myself as being so much like other people in that regard. Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner--writers like that. American writers like Steinbeck. I can't think of anything terribly obscure.

Kelly: I notice that a lot of critics compare you to Carson McCullers. Do you see that?

Morris: I guess I do. It doesn't surprise me, let's put it that way. I don't know that I think of myself that way, or that I really know why they would say that. I like her. I don't think I make any conscious attempt to write like Carson McCullers. Other critics have mentioned Flannery O'Connor, and it's the same thing. I really don't know why that is, but I guess I'm not surprised by it, either.

Kelly: Are you character-driven, theme-driven, or plot-driven?

Morris: I suppose a lot of people would say "plot-driven." [Laughing] But I feel that it's the character for me, and that the characters are the most important element. Then I get very anxious that a good story [be] told, too. It's important for me to try and mesh the two.

Kelly: Does the good story come out of the characters? Do you create the story for the characters?

Morris: It's kind of wondering what their story is, you know? Because sometimes I've come up with fascinating, wonderful characters, but I never seem to be able to do anything with them, to get very far with them. And that's actually because they don't have good stories. It's frustrating, because everything seems right otherwise.

Kelly: Another thing I realized in the critical comments about your work: at least one person has said: "This woman is so normal. But her characters are so unremittingly bizarre, or troubled, or criminal, or degenerate." How do you react to that?

Morris: I disagree, if only about the characters, because I myself am extremely normal, as far as I can see. I think there's a lot of exaggeration [in the comments about] my characters. I really don't feel they're all that twisted and strange. I tend to see them as people I know, as people that most of us know. I think what happens is that [critics]see someone who appears to be very ordinary, with an ordinary life, and read a lot into that. I don't think my characters are that strange.

Kelly: Is there a lot of autobiography in your work?

Morris: Probably in Songs in Ordinary Time. It's the most obvious, because the family I wrote about is structured much like mine was, growing up. The actual story in the book is different; things that happened in the book didn't happen in my family. My father was alcoholic; the father in the book is alcoholic. My mother raised us alone. My father lived near us, just a few blocks away. So it was certainly very close. It's not the story of my life, but it was certainly very close.

Kelly: Are you a determinist, do you think?

Morris: I don't know; I wonder about that all the time. I guess that's one of those things that one moment I think one way and the next minute I have questions. That's probably what I'm always wondering about writing about. I don't know that I know that, or ever will.
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