Bradford Morrow is the author of six novels, including The Diviner’s Tale, Giovanni’s Gift, and Trinity Fields, and co-edited with David Shields The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death. The recipient of numerous awards, he founded and edits the literary journal Conjunctions and is a professor of literature at Bard College. Morrow lives in New York City.
The Uninnocent has been widely praised. Among other things, Karen Russell said about the collection “… a masterpiece of empathy and of storytelling.” A review by Publishers Weekly had this to say: “Bradford Morrow creates beautifully dark and soulfully intimate stories in his first collection…” From Joanna Scott: “I can’t think of another recent collection of short fiction that offers up such rich, layered, provocative mysteries.”
I want to start by saying I only interview authors whose work, in some way, digs a hole in my brain. Your new story collection The Uninnocent has dug deep, and pulled up all sorts of roots and worms and slugs and beetles and the occasional corpse. Let’s get down to brass tacks here. Brad, are you an uninnocent?
My initial response to this is to quote Kenneth Rexroth, who wrote, “An entomologist is not a bug.” But your question goes deeper than I can fully respond to, because it gets to the very nature of what imagination is all about. I have never murdered anyone, for instance. But as 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.
Truthfully. That is definitely the key to success for this type of story.
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. Even if we do not act in evil ways—and most of us don’t—we all have, in varying degrees, uninnocence in our hearts. Indeed, the Cranach painting of Adam and Eve on the dust jacket cover is meant to remind us that uninnocence traditionally has a central role in the very birth of humankind.
Totally agree. Writers need to look squarely at what exists in this world, and beyond, regardless of its rating on the good-to-evil scale. We have to shape our work without a judgmental hand in it. I had no difficulty reading any of the stories in The Uninnocent. In fact it was precisely this dichotomy that gives these stories their intense emotional swings. They kind of scream out: Hey— we’re human, here, you know. You mention the Adam and Eve story, which, if taken literally, implies uninnocence from the get-go. Do you go along with that? Or do you believe uninnocence is an acquired trait, a sort of biological coping mechanism that evolves within each person in their own time frame? A kind of: you get what you need when you need it.
To put it in the most simple terms, there is night and then there’s day. And then there is night again. We live a wholly dichotomous, binary existence from the moment we gasp in that first hard breath of air and begin to cry. I believe we’re all born imperfect and some of us do better than others at curbing, suppressing, supplanting the darker side of human nature that naturally exists within us. And, as I say, fortunately most people succeed at this. Eve, like Pandora, has always been one of my favorite figures in the historic, mythic narrative. Both Eve and Pandora were punished for having dared to be curious when a male god instructed them not to eat that apple, not to open that box. And by displaying what those gods considered acts of willfulness and, finally, of evil, humanity was born. So in a way, I think that “uninnocence” is our human birthright, our fate. Most of us work through our worst impulses and strive toward the far shore of kindness and light. So, obviously, I’m not going to suggest that I believe people should act as those in my book behave, nothing of the kind. I’m saying that some people do, and that is deeply interesting to me. By the way, while The Uninnocent specifically focuses on the darker aspects of the human experience, much of my work also investigates the good and charitable and inventive side of life, as well.
Many of the stories in this collection revolve around sibling relationships. Do you have any brothers or sisters?
I have one sister a couple of years younger than I am, but I’m afraid we don’t know each other all that well and so she doesn’t really figure into the book. But I have many friends who have extremely close and complex relationships with siblings, and I have always found that kinship to be a very rich one to write about.
In the story “Whom No Hate Stirs None Dances” (incredible title, by the way), we are, for a while, led up the proverbial garden path. It’s all so placid. Despite that a funeral has just taken place. But what comes to pass in this story — whew! Of course I won’t tell. But for me it was startling in the most wrenching way. And that your female protagonist had the ability to compartmentalize such a personal drama and go on living a rather normal-seeming life. Would you say she is a living example of what you wrote above: the good and charitable and inventive side of life… Or is it more complex than that for this character?
Well, I would say that Jenny, the protagonist of “Whom No Hate Stirs None Dances,” is fundamentally a good and charitable person. She takes care of her sick mother and in many ways holds the whole family together. But ultimately the way she carries out her subtle revenge on her brother Cutts, undermining his marriage at the end of the story in ways he may never understand, is certainly inventive, to say the least. Morally defensible, for sure, given what happened to her in her youth, and yet raw, even extreme in its probable consequences. This is hard to discuss without revealing the central event around which the story is built, so maybe I’ll leave it at that. By the way, the title comes from a Laura Riding poem but with the words shuffled just a bit.
I’m afraid I might do something similar if faced with Jenny’s circumstances. I felt extremely sympathetic toward her. How she managed to carry on all those years, and not flip out, was rather a miracle. All these stories have their primary setting in North America?
Yes, I intended the collection to be fundamentally American, though there are scenes in Italy, Greece, France in passing…
It is fundamentally American in a kind of haunting way. Small town America with its Rockewellian façade that is often rotting on the inside. Freshly painted clapboard covering up moldering plaster, cracked ceilings, poisonous heating systems. As I read through the stories, I found myself musing over pretty houses in tranquil settings. That fleeting moment when you imagine how sweet it all must be. Behind that nice solid door. But not always the case, right? It seems that’s what you go for in these stories, the rotting underside of what pretends to be lovely. Normal. Normal? What’s that?
Have you ever read Midas Dekkers’ remarkable book, The Way of All Flesh, a study of how everything is in a state of constant disintegration? If not, I highly recommend it. Similarly, The Uninnocent is all about entropy. Sometimes the rot resides in a miniature golf course or a misunderstood radio play, and sometimes it resides in our hearts or dreams. I’ve always loved a line in John Hawkes’s dark little masterpiece of a novel, Travesty. “The incipient infection is livelier than the health it destroys.” 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.
The Dekker book sounds quite interesting, I’ll have to check it out. I’m glad you mentioned the miniature golf course, because I want to talk some about your story “The Hoarder.” The story begins: “I have always been a hoarder.” Your protagonist in this one is a teenage boy who collects things, fairly normal things like shells, birds’ nests, butterflies. But he also hoards library books which he holds on to compulsively, accumulating late fees he doesn’t pay. He finds new things to hoard with each move the family makes to a new place. They move frequently. At the desert, he hoards old pottery shards. As if trying to grab “pieces of place” to form a kind of solid ground, or perhaps a remembrance, before the Dad uproots them to another new place. I see him as a boy desperate to establish roots. According to certain psychoanalytic theory, collectors are people who cannot establish lasting connections. This protagonist certainly fits that mold. Your thoughts?
I have to think that, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, these fragments he has tried to shore against his ruins. The boy in “The Hoarder” is, as I imagine him, unstable in the first place and has some serious outcast issues that make him want to surround himself with shells and birds’ nests as protective talismans. By collecting these objects in each new temporary home to which his father has dragged him and his siblings, he attempts to make some kind of connection with his new environs as an attempt to settle, a way of warding off loneliness and repeated defamiliarization. As I understand him, his hoarding is a defense against instability and lack of control over his life. I mean, if you can’t control your peripatetic father and your persecuting brother, and can’t control something as basic as a sense of home, you can compensate by doing something you can control. And these are his collections. He destroys them when it is announced the family will be moving yet again, after having worked so hard to assemble his shells, butterflies, shards, and that’s where the sociopathology begins to surface. His behavior has so much to do with controlling his environment, that when erotic compulsion enters into the mix his sometimes benign if eccentric habit moves into far more dangerous registers.
Brad, speaking of bird’s nests— I saw a photo of you birding, was that in Wales? Then just recently you posted online about the terrible bird migration tragedy in Utah, where they swooped down to what they believed was a body of water, only to end up crashing into a parking lot. A strange and horrible carnage. I always feel so moved when I see these migrations going gracefully through the sky. My spirit animal happens to be the bird. What is your spirit animal?
That photograph was taken in the highlands of Scotland, on the North Sea. I was there fishing unsuccessfully for salmon but the true joy of the trip was to see so many birds I’d never encountered before. My love of birds runs deep and is everpresent in my writings. An interviewer asked me earlier this year that given how much I love birds, what would the world be like for me without birds in it, and I was floored by how profoundly that idea upset me. I wrote a novella, Fall of the Birds, that was published recently as a Kindle Single, and it was my fictional response to that question. Devastating idea. For all my profound love of birds, I wouldn’t mind being a Norwegian Forest cat, however. Or a ringtail lemur. I think elephants are magnificent. I can’t come up with one spirit animal, I’m afraid. Bats I adore. Unicorns.
Bats… hmm… for real you like bats? What do you like about them? They terrify me. They carry disease. They’re so creepy looking.
Bats are acrobatic, they course through the night cutting arabesques in the air, they have beautiful little faces and a spectacular wing structure. As I wrote in a book of mine, A Bestiary, there is no need to be afraid of them since they don’t want to drink your blood. They eat mosquitoes who do want to drink your blood. Any airborne creature is a wonder to me. Birds of the night, I love them.
Well, I guess that you like bats adds up, since this collection has been linked, by some reviewers, to the word gothic.
The Uninnocent is without a doubt my most gothic work to date. I have long been drawn to the gothic. Emily and Charlotte Bronte, Poe, certain works by Hawthorne and James, even William Gaddis in Carpenter’s Gothic—these writers move the gothic well beyond genre squarely into the realm of literary fiction. 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.
Good is good. But getting back to “The Hoarder.” A hoarding teenage boy without a stable home life. A Dad who drags his kids all over the country. When they finally hit California, and there’s nowhere left to go, land-wise, the boy discovers a unique way to set up house for himself. I found that extremely ingenious.
When the book editor Otto Penzler asked me to write a story for an anthology of murder mysteries whose theme was, of all things, golf, I asked him if miniature golf was allowable. I told him that the sport of golf itself didn’t interest me at all, but that I would be really interested in writing a story that was centered around the fanciful, often monstrous architecture of miniature golf courses. Once I had the windmills and castles of a decrepit mini golf course to work with, a place for my protagonist to inhabit, “The Hoarder” was well underway.
Those mini golf courses can be quite hideous and at other times seem fanciful and fun. I once knocked over an entire box of popcorn on a mini golf course. It blew everywhere over the green. Then I got a hole-in-one at the end. The proprietor was so furious he refused to give me my free game coupon for getting the hole-in-one. Does that seem fair?
Not really, but if I ran a miniature golf course I might lose my sense of perspective, too!
Ha Ha! And we kids did laugh like hell! One of those magic moments in childhood that just double you over laughing ‘cause it’s so horrifying for someone else. Speaking of horrifying, you wrote a story called “Tsunami” that’s included here. Did you write the story around the word tsunami, or did that come in sometime during the course of this particular writing?
“Tsunami” really began a number of years ago when I noticed that I was somehow getting caught up in watching the news too much, and I began to wonder what it might be like to have a life so empty of promise that the cable channel news became your lifeline, or else your false idol of sorts, your way of sidestepping the huge problems in your own life. At the same time I found myself saddened and overwhelmed by the story of a mother in Texas who drowned her several children one by one in a bathtub. I suppose that the water of the tub writ large as a wave that could indiscriminately overpower innocent people was what might have brought me to begin writing that story. I feel very close to poor Lorraine––she breaks my heart. I’m sorry for the deaths she wrought, but her life was no picnic.
In “Tsunami” your protagonist does something I’ve not encountered often in a story. Basically she tells us in the first sentence that she’s married to an asshole. She lays it out: “…Lovell my husband with the most butt-backward name ever a good mother gave a bad son.” Boy she really hates this guy.
Well, I have to wonder if it isn’t finally herself she truly hates.
Hate is a complex deal. And now for my last question. By the way, Brad, you’ve been so generous and forthcoming. A joy to talk with. So tell us: Do the various characters that inhabit The Uninnocent have any one shared personality trait?
Other than being uninnocent? I think they’re all very imaginative and deeply injured. And as horribly as some of them behave, they have their author’s affection. I’ll grant that none of us would ever in our right minds want to follow the paths they have taken or share their fates. But I would like to think that some of us, at least, might want to take pause and try to understand who they are and how they got that way. They constitute pretty harsh mirrors, but I think that they’re mirrors worth gazing into even if we don’t fully or immediately recognize ourselves in them.
Author photo by Jessamine Chan from Publishers Weekly
Woodcut photo from A Bestiary by Kiki Smith