Tag Archives: Keith Lee Morris

An Interview with Keith Lee Morris

2 Apr
Keith Lee Morris' novel Travelers Rest culminates in "an operatic grand finale," according to a reviewer for England's The Independent.

Keith Lee Morris’ novel Travelers Rest culminates in “an operatic grand finale,” according to a reviewer for The Independent.

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Michael Noll

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.

Michael Noll

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

Keith Lee Morris builds upon the long tradition of haunted hotels with his spooky, unsettling novel Travelers Rest.

Keith Lee Morris builds upon the long tradition of haunted hotels with his spooky, unsettling novel Travelers Rest.

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.

Michael Noll

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.

April 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Skip Over Implausibility

8 Mar
Keith Lee Morris builds upon the long tradition of haunted hotels with his spooky, unsettling novel Travelers Rest.

Keith Lee Morris builds upon the long tradition of stories about haunted hotels with his spooky, unsettling novel Travelers Rest.

In most writing workshops, someone will eventually say about a story, “I just don’t believe the character would do that.” As a piece of criticism, the statement is almost always true. Most real people would not do the most interesting things characters do in fiction. Of course, someone will also argue, “Well, I know someone who did exactly that.” But that is besides the point. Both statements mistakenly accept the premise that fiction and real life are connected in all ways. They are connected, of course, in that by reading about fictional characters, we often discover things about ourselves that we previously could not put our finger on. Writers have a knack for defining readers’ sense of their own identities. Nonetheless, the plausibility of something in real life isn’t relevant to fiction. All that matters is that readers believe that something is plausible. Richard Ford likes to say that fiction makes the impossible possible. I’d further this notion: in fiction, anything is plausible and possible if the writer wants it to be.

A great example of creating plausibility can be found in Keith Lee Morris’s new novel Travelers Rest. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

Anyone who reads Travelers Rest will immediately think, “This is sort of like The Shining.” A family driving from Seattle to Charleston gets caught in a snowstorm and stays the night in a creepy hotel just off the highway in the emptiness of Idaho. A series of increasingly unsettling things occur in the hotel, with no guarantee that the characters will escape. As readers, many of you may be giggling in excitement over this summary, and for good reason: creepy hotels make for awesome stories. But for writers, a supernatural hotel poses a big problem.

Here’s why: Imagine that you’ve pulled off the road and walked into a hotel in utter disrepair, run by a man who looked “as if he’d been stored in a crate of mothballs and tipped up onto his feet just moments before their arrival.” Would you stay? Probably not. And if you found out the hotel had no electricity? You’d be out the door in a flash, right?

That’s real life. Fiction has different goals; it doesn’t want to keep its inhabitants safe.

So, Travelers Rest needs its characters to say, “Sure, we’ll stay in this weird place.” It needs, in other words, for the implausible to occur, for characters to do something most of us wouldn’t do. So, how does the novel make this implausible thing plausible? Here’s the passage where it happens:

While Tonio asked about a room, she got her bearings and surveyed the hotel’s interior. The first impression was one of disorder. In the dim and rather dusty light of the lobby she saw ladders and toolboxes and paint cans and drop cloths and sawhorses—clearly the place was under renovation. Maybe the hotel wasn’t even open, and they wouldn’t be staying here after all. That would be disappointing. Why? She studied the room more closely. An enormous fireplace that, if it contained a roaring fire, would have dispelled every shred of the hotel’s gloom. Beautiful old gas lamps on the walls, tasteful (although awfully faded) wallpaper, elaborate moldings in the corners of the room, a high ceiling with a breathtaking chandelier that spanned almost half the lobby, a grand wooden staircase ascending to a second-floor landing, solid over-stuffed chairs (Dewey was sitting in one of them and wiping dust from the arm), a huge circular ottoman directly beneath the chandelier. It must have been a stunningly opulent place at one time—what could it possibly be doing in this little town?

Several things are going on here. First, the details are peculiar, but they exist within a realm of what might be tolerated. The word murder isn’t spelled backward on the wall, and young twin girls don’t appear and disappear. (Though, of course, these things don’t happen in The Shining right away, either.) The place is very dusty and under construction—weird, by real-world standards, but not clearly supernatural. And yet, something is obviously wrong. The character at the heart of the scene isn’t sure the hotel is even open. She isn’t sure it’s possible to stay the night. In short, she’s voicing the warnings that most of us would heed in real life.

So what makes her stay? The answer is in a buried line: “That would be disappointing.” She considers the possibility of leaving and responds with a desire to stay. She’s intrigued by the place—but note that it doesn’t actually say that. A sentence like this—”She was weirdly excited by the place”—might tip the writer’s hand too much. The character would become a puppet, not a character with (the illusion of) free will. The beauty of “That would be disappointing” is that it slips an implausible character decision past us. By the time we finish the paragraph (which continues on a bit longer), we’re already sold on the hotel. We want to understand what it’s doing out in the middle of nowhere.

The line has given readers permission to do exactly what we want: follow the characters into a place they—and we—should not enter.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create plausibility, using Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris as a model:

  1. Identify the decision that the novel depends upon. If Morris’ characters walk out of the hotel, the novel ceases to exist. It’s true that some novels don’t rely on implausible character decisions. But many—including novels with “realistic” plots—do: characters associate with people they shouldn’t, go places they shouldn’t, get angry when they should know better, and stay a little longer than is wise. From there, the plot takes off. What is that moment in your story? (It happens in stories as well as novels.)
  2. Provide an initial description of the situation. Morris’ character notices the hotel’s sawhorses and drop cloths and her son wiping dust off the chair. These details are odd—but they do not scream, “Run!” How can you describe the situation at the heart of the crucial decision in the same way? Let a character notice details that raise a flag of warning—but make the details within a realm of might be tolerated.
  3. Raise the possibility of making a good choice. Morris’ character wonders if they’ll stay at the hotel, if it’s even open. The door is open for her to leave. If you’ve ever made a poor decision in real life, you probably went into it with eyes wide open (or so you thought). You probably had a moment where you thought, “You know, I probably shouldn’t do this” or “This probably isn’t a good idea.” Give your character a subtle version of that moment.
  4. Make the character want to make a bad choice. This happens all the time in stories about marital affairs. We instinctually understand bad decisions about sex—or alcohol or drugs or money. We also understand on a instinctual level the lure of curiosity, the possibility of adventure. It’s why we buy lottery tickets. So, in other words, readers are primed to accept the implausible as long as you don’t make them think about it too hard. So, sneak the implausible decision past them. Morris does this by suggesting that his character would be disappointed not to stay in the hotel. She hasn’t actually decided anything yet, but her pump has been primed. You can use a version of Morris’ line: When the character considers the door out of the situation, let them respond with “That would be disappointing.”
  5. Describe the situation again in evocative terms. Now that you’ve made your character curious, feed the curiosity. Give details that are intriguing, that deserve to be studied.

The goal is handle implausibility not by dwelling on it but by skipping as quickly over it as possible

Good luck.

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