Keith Lee Morris is the author of three previous novels, The Greyhound God and The Dart League King, a Barnes & Noble Discover pick, and, most recently, Travelers Rest. His short stories have been published in New Stories from the South, Tin House, A Public Space, New England Review, and Southern Review, which awarded him its Eudora Welty Prize in Fiction. Morris lives in South Carolina, where he is a professor of creative writing at Clemson University.
To read an exercise on skipping over implausibility inspired by Travelers Rest, click here.
In this interview, Morris discusses pushing against conventional reality in stories, making predictions about characters, and the tonal difference between allowing characters to react to or ignore unusual details in a story.
The novel’s first chapter is utterly realistic. The characters seem like “real” people, the situation (pulling off the highway due to snow) is plausible, and it’s certainly true that there are many small, beautiful, forgotten towns just off the Interstate. And yet there’s something about the last line of the chapter—”You’d never even know they were here”—that is full of foreboding. What was your approach to this chapter? It poses a certain challenge: you’re setting up the reader for a world that will gradually get stranger and stranger. Did you have a plan for how to plant the seeds for those changes?
Keith Lee Morris
The truth is, the first chapter wasn’t written until after the first draft of the novel was complete. The book originally began with what is now Chapter 3, Uncle Robbie waking up in the hotel in the middle of the night. But in talking to people who read the first draft, I got the idea that the opening was a little too abrupt and confusing. So the decision to include the first two introductory chapters was initially a practical move. But you’re right—Chapter 1 sets up a number of the elements that will be in play throughout the novel—the constant snowfall, the tensions between family members, the strange but oddly familiar small town. Nothing overtly strange happens, but things feel strange; that’s enough for the time being. In the next several chapters, the boundaries of conventional reality feel like they’re getting pushed up against a little bit, but nothing truly “otherworldly” happens for a while—and yet the reader senses that it’s coming.
The novel is told from four different characters’ perspectives. It’s a structure that carries risks: you might lose the reader while changing POV, or the reader might feel more attached to one than the others, or the reader might feel that the shifts intrude upon the suspense that’s being built in each chapter. How did you balance the POV and the shifts to maintain a steady amount of suspense and interest in each character?
Keith Lee Morris
One of the key things to me is that readers have to get their hopes up for each character in a way that’s particular to that character. Very early on in a narrative we begin to make predictions, project outcomes—we do it unconsciously. If we like the characters, we begin to form an idea of what we hope will happen and also what we most deeply fear. Each character has to seem at least somewhat equal in that regard—if we don’t know what we want for a certain character, what we’re afraid might befall them, our interest is bound to lag behind in the chapters devoted to that character’s POV. So part of the battle is to make sure the reader can identify what would make each character happiest and what could potentially destroy him/her. And then I think it’s important to end the chapters on a strong note. I’ve always thought the most important sentence in any story or chapter or even entire novel is the last one. It’s what the reader’s left with. If you leave the character in an interesting place, the reader will be eager each time to pick him/her up again.
When I was studying for a MFA, one of my writing professors said that the surest way to help readers buy into implausible parts of a story was to acknowledge them. So, if there’s a body on the street and everyone’s just carrying on as if nothing is wrong, a character ought to say, “That’s weird.” It seems like you’re doing something similar in the novel, particularly in one of Tonio’s early chapters, when he walks out of the hotel and thinks, “What the hell went on in this town, anyway? Who exactly lived here?” Of course, it’s natural for a character to wonder about things that seem a little off, but did you also feel that you needed to nod to the reader, to say, “Yeah, it’s kind of odd. You’re not crazy. Stick with me?”
Keith Lee Morris
To me it’s a tonal thing. Sure, if you want the reader to take the events of the story at face value, then those events have to seem plausible, and one way to make them seem plausible is to have the characters react in a way that seems to anticipate the way that we ourselves, or at least some other reasonable person, might react. But maybe that’s not what you want. Authors like Barthelme and Delillo and even Flannery O’Connor get a lot of mileage out of having characters react (or fail to, as is often the case) in a way that we might not normally expect—they ignore the dead bodies in the street, so to speak. And in the case of those authors, the characters’ failure to respond in a “realistic” or predictable way lends the narrative the feeling of absurdity or irony that they’re after; the technique also produces a lot of the funniest passages—think of the Willie Mink scene in White Noise, for instance, in which one character fails to respond at all coherently or logically to the threat of being shot. Or an even better example– the “Misfit” scene in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” in which O’Connor uses the oddness of the characters’ responses to make the scene both unexpectedly horrifying and uncomfortably amusing—it’s the strangely implausible nature of both the action and the reactions that literally leaves us not knowing whether to laugh or cry. In Travelers Rest, yes, you’re right, it mostly served my purposes to try keep the reader and the characters on the same page in terms of their feelings about the strangeness of the situation—although there are occasions, as in the Julia sections, in which she seems to embrace the bizarre and rather dangerous situation she finds herself in, that it’s not working that way entirely.
The novel is set in a kind of nowhere place, like the hotel in The Shining or the island in the television show Lost. The rules are different than in the regular world, but I wonder if they’re trying to reveal something about the regular world. For example, late in the novel Dewey thinks that “any time you imagined something, that imagined thing took its place in the world, in the mind of the person who imagined it, which was as real a place as Kalamazoo, Michigan, or Schenectady, New York, or maybe even more real, maybe the only real place.” This is undeniably true, as any artist or imaginative person can attest, but it’s also a bit dangerous, as your novel suggests. What drew you to this idea, the tension between dreaming and being swept away by the dream?
Keith Lee Morris
So much of our experience is internal and subjective. We pretend things that happen entirely in our own heads aren’t “real”—but they are real in the sense that they take their place in our memories and our thoughts in the same way that external events do, events that people other than ourselves can recognize as having taken place. If I dream that my wife is cheating on me with my best friend, it’s likely to change the way I feel about both of them when I wake up, at least until I get a cup of coffee and starting thinking more clearly. Most of us can sort out the differences between our own dreams or superstitions or initial misperceptions and the “facts” of the external world, but not always, and many people have trouble with it a lot of the time—it’s probably as good an explanation as any for why Donald Trump is currently the frontrunner for the nomination of one of our two major parties. We live with examples of mass delusion all the time. In the novel, I’m trying to point out how thin the line is between our perceptible fictions and fact, how susceptible we are to our own self-created illusions, and how the consequences can be very real.