Paula Morris interview

At long last! Pour a cup of tea, grab a blanket, and cuddle up to the warm glow of your screen. The incomparable, the illustrious, the mischievous, the droll, the sparkling Paula Morris -- New Zealand/Orleans novelist, ex-record company maven, English professor, intermittent radio personality who keeps the censor's finger near the red button, widely bookmarked blogger, wearer-of-track-suit-bottoms, intrepid international woman of intrigue, and now short-story-collection-haver (Forbidden Cities, Penguin NZ, which **UPDATE** has been shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers' Prize) -- sat down at a slightly seedy rest stop bench along the information superhighwebs for a chat:

The stories take place all over the world: New Orleans, Shanghai, London, New Zealand, Hungary, New York. You've obviously been a lot of places and have in fact lived in a lot of places. How has travel shaped your writing? Do you decide locale first and then research, or do you sort of soak up the vibe and let the stories come out of the places?

I’m restless, as you know, and find myself tremendously energized by visiting or moving to new places – especially cities. I used to harbor naïve ideas about moving somewhere serene and semi-pastoral to write in peace. Two years in Iowa City helped me come to my senses.

Going to Shanghai for the first time was thrilling. I loved the overwhelming, exhausting confusion of it. The first time I was there to do research for Hibiscus Coast; on the second visit, at the Shanghai Literary Festival, a woman in the audience told me I should look into the other side of things – that is, the ‘wronged wife’ side. I started thinking about it then, and took lots of pictures in the Temple of the City God, because I thought that might be a useful setting. Two years later I wrote the story.

Place is often a starting point for me in fiction, as you deduce. But aside from that first trip to Shanghai, I’m usually traveling on business or for a vacation, not with a specific research-a-story goal. There are a number of places I’ve been that I’ve never written about, apart from on my blog – like Paris, say. And considering I lived in England for eight years, very little of my work is set there. That will change very soon: the novel I’m working on now is largely set there, albeit in the nineteenth-century, and recently I’ve developed an urge to go back to Manchester – where I lived in the summer of 1989 – and revisit some ideas I had back then for a story.

You know, I’ve also set things in places I’ve never been at all. Some of the Shanghai sections in Hibiscus Coast were written before I went there, and they didn’t change. Recently I ghostwrote a novel set in a particular European town, using lots of real-life locations. I haven’t been to this place, and relied largely on my two close friends, the Internet, and the Imagination.

Another aspect of setting, time, also interests me a great deal. I need to know exactly when a story is taking place, even if that’s not really an issue for the reader. So, for example, “Like a Mexican” is set largely in 2003, because it’s about the end of things – including a certain era in the record business, as well as certain relationships. Also, El Teddy’s, one of the story’s key settings, closed early in 2004. “The Party” needed to take place exactly a year after Katrina; “Mon Desir” needed to take place in early 1976 because, for the purposes of the story, Jaws had to be a relatively new paperback. Messing around with all this explains why it took ten years to get a collection together.

My research is never diligent, I’m afraid. It’s very fragmentary and impressionistic, and I lean a lot on photographs and random scribblings.

The title Forbidden Cities comes from the last story, "Chain Bridge," in which Anna, a New Yorker, visits a friend in Budapest. She recalls cities she had visited with her former married lover and thinks of them as "forbidden," as in she doesn't ever want to go back there. How does this idea of places becoming saturated by people work in the book as a whole?

It’s all point of view, innit … in life, as in fiction. We have good and bad memories of places based on what happened to us there, who we were with, the time in our lives, the people we were. This is why I’m more ambivalent about New York than London, say, or why I’m fond of Frankfurt but have no desire to go back to Munich any time soon. Traveling around Laura Ingalls Wilder-related sites in Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota, and Minnesota with my friend Julia (ten years ago) instilled an incredible affection for the Midwest, much to the mystification of my friends in New York.

In a lot of the stories, characters are somewhere new, or somewhere far from home, and/or somewhere they shouldn’t be. Often the reason for this is another person. One of my friends back in the Manchester days told me a story about a guy he knew, also from Lancashire, who met “a bit of a girl” who was Polish. She didn’t speak much English, and he spoke no Polish at all, of course. She went home, and he decided to go after her. But he didn’t have much money, so he was off to catch the bus. (Many buses, I suspect.) He was going to catch the bus from England to Poland. A month earlier, before he met this girl, he wouldn’t have dreamed of doing any such thing.

I don’t know what happened to him – whether he got to Poland, whether things worked out for him and the bit of a girl. He’s probably around forty now. Maybe he’s still in Poland. But even if he’s back in Lancashire, or somewhere else altogether, Poland will mean something to him – love, foolishness, disappointment, adventure, promise, escape, confusion – forever.

Sometimes I also wonder if this guy is still known by his nickname, which is too strange and distinctive to mention here.

This is your fourth book of fiction but your first story collection. How was this one different in terms of writing and publishing?

The stories span more than a decade. The oldest one, “Many Mansions,” precedes my first novel. The first draft of that story was written in 1997, when I was going to classes at the West Side Y in New York. The most recent stories, like “Testing” and “The City God,” were written early last year, pretty much at the eleventh hour. My novels take a while, but not ten years – not yet, anyway. Though the process is similar, perhaps, in a certain way. With Hibiscus Coast, for example, I obsessed over the first ten thousand words for over a year, and wrote the rest at blazing speed.

Playwrights often have opportunities to revise their work, and I like the way stories, pre-collection, offer a similar freedom. Many of the stories have had different versions, different lives. The original version of “The Party” was set in the Hamptons, but I changed the setting to New Zealand for a magazine there. For the collection, I restored it to its original setting, but moved the timeframe to a year after Hurricane Katrina: the main character, Olivia, now has ties to New Orleans and Pass Christian, Mississippi. “Many Mansions” was another story re-written to give it a New Zealand setting and then restored to its original English location. “Bright” was broadcast on Iowa Public Radio as an American story and on Radio New Zealand with a South Pacific setting: that, too, I restored, though I was irritated to see I’d missed a crucial word change in the revision. Alert American readers will notice it, I suspect.

All of the stories were revised and re-written in some way for the collection. Assembling it, and seeing how the stories worked together, was both satisfying and nerve-wracking. In terms of publishing, I was surprised that Penguin was interested in bringing the book out at all. I mentioned it in passing – probably trying to buy myself some time between novels – to Geoff Walker, the editorial director at Penguin New Zealand, and he was keen.

They spent a long time working on the right cover. I knew I wanted a black-and-white photo for this, but it was hard to get one that didn’t read too ‘travel book’ (or too ‘article in Marie Claire about relationships’) The designer is based in Switzerland; I’m in New Orleans; the publisher is in Auckland, New Zealand; the cover photo is of London.

You get pretty deep inside your characters. Where do you get your ideas for characters, and what types of people fascinate you most?

Right now I’m in Chicago, trying to flee the AWP conference, so I could reel off a list of the people who DO NOT fascinate me at all, starting with men who wear corduroy shirts.

I’m nosy and an eavesdropper; I make notes, and make things up; I remember and forget. Last year I read a very annoying interview in the newspaper, and I gave a character in one of the stories that person’s name and nationality.

You are part Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. A lot of "ethnic" writers get pigeon-holed into writing exclusively about their particular group and its struggles. But you seem to have managed to straddle the worlds -- you write about Western cultures and locales as much as or more than you do about the Maori. Is that hard? Is it different when you write about one or the other?

After a workshop (at Iowa) of “Red Christmas,” one classmate earnestly asked: “Where do Maoris live?” He was thinking in terms of “ghetto” or “project” or “reservation,” I guess. It flustered me at the time, though later I realized the answer was “In Iowa City.” That is, Maori live everywhere. We live in poor neighborhoods and wealthy neighborhoods, and places in between (like the suburb where I grew up, in West Auckland). We live in New Zealand and in other countries all over the world. A large number of us live in Australia, to the irritation of some Australians. Often people don’t realize we’re Maori, because they have certain preconceptions. We’re too pale, perhaps, or we have an English last name. (A note on this: Maori didn’t have last names. My grandmother’s last name, Brown, was selected by her uncle, allegedly because it was the name of an admirable local family. This name was sometimes rendered as Paraone, its invented Maori equivalent.)

I grew up in Auckland. Some of my Maori relatives were farmers, north of the city; some were teachers and lawyers. Two cousins of my father’s generation work for a government department. Two cousins of my generation are doctors. Some Maori people are unemployed; some are in gangs, or in prison. Some are politicians, or accountants, or professors, or dancers. Some are very wealthy rugby players or opera singers. There is no single indigenous experience. In Hibiscus Coast, Emma – who is Maori and Chinese – grew up in relative affluence, and is able to pursue her art studies in London and Shanghai. Her cousin, Ani, comes from a poor and unstable home, and her brothers have been taken into care, though, with help from an aunt, she’s still able to attend university. Derek, her employer, owns a successful café in downtown Auckland. Tai, the guy Ani’s in love with, vandalizes Emma’s apartment and steals a painting by Gauguin. All these characters are Maori.

When Hibiscus Coast came out, someone at my publishing company told me it was not “as Maori” as my first novel [Queen of Beauty]. Maybe because the names weren’t Maori enough, or the characters didn’t speak like the people in Once Were Warriors! In New Zealand, as elsewhere, some people assume Maori can’t be middle-class – or intelligent, or sophisticated, or complex. Or art students, perhaps.

Sticking with the pigeon-holing for a moment: You come from New Zealand, but you recently achieved American citizenship. Do you consider yourself a Kiwi writer, or an American writer, or a "global" writer? Does coming from New Zealand make it hard to find American publishers?

I’m a New Zealand writer. Though if anyone wants to give me the Pulitzer, then I’m American. (I’m as American as Zsa Zsa Gabor, at least.) And yes, US publishers are not lining up to publish books with New Zealand settings. I think they regard New Zealand as unknown and uneventful. It’s not exotic, troubled, dangerous, and/or in the Northern hemisphere. The New Zealand books people tend to know were first encountered as movies, like Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, and Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider. Or there’s a Booker Prize connection, like Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which won in 1985, or Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, which was a finalist in 2007.

Several of the stories deal with troubled relationships – flawed ones that end painfully. Yet you are married to perhaps the most noble and pleasant gentleman many of us have ever had the pleasure to encounter. How can this be?

I was talking to a book club in Alexandria, LA, about Hibiscus Coast, and they asked me a similar question. “We’ve heard your family is so nice,” they said. “Why is this family so mean?” I like making things up, and flaws are interesting. By the way, I read this question aloud to Tom Moody, and he asked me to repeat the “noble and pleasant gentleman” bit. He nodded, in a sort of indignant and vindicated way. “That’s right,” he said, as though it was about time someone pointed these things out to me.

Your prose style strikes me as coolly spare, and sharply, wonderfully to the point, with a wicked vein of humor running under it all. It creates honest scenes and people with little ornamentation and zero sentimentality. Where did your style come from? Who are some of the writers you admire?

William Trevor I love, maybe a little too much. Colin Thubron and Bruce Chatwin. Ian McEwan. Evelyn Waugh. I really like Peter Ho Davies, too. The book I could happily re-read every year is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.

In the collection, I think some of my influences are pretty transparent: depending on the story, you can see that I’ve been reading Alice Munro, Ellen Gilchrist, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, Katherine Mansfield. You probably can’t see, at all, the influence of other people I like to read, like Salman Rushdie and Junot Diaz. And there are some brilliant stories I absolutely love, but can only hope to emulate in the smallest way – I’m thinking of “Heavy Water” by Martin Amis, and Daniel Mason’s “A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth.”

You also teach at Tulane. How do you like teaching there, in post-Katrina New Orleans? There must be stories everywhere you look, but also a lot of sorrow and lingering resentment? How has New Orleans changed in the past few years?

New Orleans is almost 300 years old, and has survived numerous floods, fires, and pestilences. It’s a shape-shifter, accustomed to re-forming and re-inventing itself – after the huge influx from Haiti in the early nineteenth century, say, or in the years around the Civil War, when modern-day Mardi Gras was devised. There’s a strong will to recover from the beating we took after Katrina – and here I must give a shout-out to the US Army Corps of Engineers, whose negligence made the great flood an inevitability.

The older parts of the city which didn’t flood (the French Quarter, the Garden District, etc.) look fine, and tourists can come to town and never realize that much of the city is still very messed up. But progress is slow: too many people in officialdom are corrupt or ineffective, not dynamic and visionary enough to oversee the social change we need.

Tulane is a great place, and very resilient. Community service is now required of all incoming students. Next year the Katrina class will graduate, and then there’ll be no undergraduates with a memory of the storm – odd. We received an amazing gift for creative writing after Katrina, and we’ve used it to bring major writers to campus: Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Louise Gluck, and (this year) Joan Didion and Billy Collins. These events are all free and open to the public, and we do a lot of school outreach as well, taking books and information to public high school students and trying to lure them onto campus for readings, lectures, and symposia. I now teach a class on Literary Event Management, which draws on my background in PR and marketing, to make sure we’re promoting all our events and activities throughout the city.

I’ve only written two stories that refer to Katrina. There’s a kind of story profusion here that’s almost too much. Sometimes we need to write things, but not always to publish. Everyone seems to want a publishing deal, to make their claim to survivor status. Some of them, I think, just want to be first, sensing that the publishing moment will soon pass.

People get competitive about how much damage they sustained. (It’s hard not to get drawn into this. When someone makes some breezy “you-were-fine” comment, I can’t help playing the “we had five-and-a-half feet of water!” card. I’m sure everyone was like this after the bombing of Dresden, too.) The YA novel I’ve written (see below) is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, but the mystery driving the story is from 1853, during one of the yellow fever epidemics.

Could you tell us about The Scudder Road Circus and Literary Journal?

Tom Moody’s family live in St Louis. On one of my first trips there, I noticed a highway exit sign for "Natural Bridge" and realized where that literary journal got its name. Immediately I grew envious and conniving, wanting my own literary journal named after a highway sign in St Louis. When I saw "Scudder Road," it seemed the obvious candidate.

But there are too many literary journals, as you know, so I thought a good point of difference would be to run it as a circus as well. TM was appointed animal trainer and commissioned with finding suitable circus acts. He soon lost interest, and has totally neglected this duty. Also, he was demoted to adjunct animal trainer when I remembered he only has a BA.

As a circus and literary journal, Scudder Road is yet to find either content or audience, or indeed publish any work or mount any performances. But I’m sure this is only a temporary state of affairs. It recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, which is quite a landmark for literary journals (and circuses) in these difficult times.

Favorite memories/stories about your time at the Workshop in Iowa City? You also did another writing program, an MA at Victoria University’s the Institute of International Letters in Wellington. How were the programs different?

When I was a student in Victoria in 2001, there were only ten students in the program, and we all met as a group – poets, fiction writers, a playwright – twice a week. Now it’s much larger, with separate classes for poetry, fiction, and screenplays/plays. Still, there’s more of an intimate feeling, perhaps, than at a big program like Iowa. To me, it felt less competitive, as well, perhaps because differences in financial aid/funding are not an issue. Peer criticism was more muted, too, because of the convivial atmosphere of the program, and because of something in the national character, which leans more towards self-deprecating than assertive/outgoing. This has its pros and cons, of course.

I made good friends at Victoria and at Iowa, and I’m really, really glad that I was able to study in both places. At Victoria I wrote Queen of Beauty, my first novel; at Iowa I wrote large parts of Hibiscus Coast and Trendy But Casual, plus a number of the stories that appear in Forbidden Cities.

One of my favorite memories of the Workshop is of Frank and the Only Eight Pages incident. Many of my other memories involve being summoned into Connie’s office, after which a variation on the following would happen:

Connie: Just sit there for a minute – I have to take this call/speak to this person/run out of the office for a while/get Frank to sign something.
Me (hoping I’m not in trouble for anything): OK.
Connie (returning some time later, and looking startled to see me sitting there): So, what do you want?
Me: You said you wanted to see me.
Connie: Well, there’s no time for that now. You’ll have to come back another day.

You worked at Virgin, Polygram, and BMG, and RCA. What was it like working in the record industry?

If I were to write about my record business experiences in London and New York now, it would be an historic novel filled with perplexing archaic references. I left 11 years ago, when people still bought CDs – in record stores. Virgin was taken over by EMI; BMG merged with Sony. When I worked at Polygram (now Universal) Classics, there were three labels: DG, Decca and Philips. Philips is gone; Decca is about to close up shop in London and merge its international office with DG in Hamburg. Things aren’t looking any better in NYC.

It was an incredibly chaotic, pressured, hysterical, interesting, and absurd time in my life. I made good friends at all the places I worked; I went to the Grammys three times, and got to travel a lot. I still love records, though my enthusiasm for attending live events received a near-fatal bashing. (It will never recover, I suspect.)

What's next for Paula Morris?

Too much, as ever. Last year was a big travel year, and there’s more in the near-future – to the UK over spring break, and home to NZ in May for the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival. My nephew is back in Mexico this semester, so we’re planning to go somewhere with him over Easter.

I’ve just finished guest-editing an issue of Landfall, New Zealand’s oldest literary journal, which comes out in May. Later this year another major editing project, The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories, will be published. The reading involved in both these projects was overwhelming – months of work. And then I managed to turn writing the anthology intro into a multi-week nightmare.

In late summer, Scholastic here in the US is bringing out my YA novel, Ruined, a mystery/ghost story set in New Orleans. I hope to have finished the novel based on my short story, “Rangatira,” by then. It’s set in New Zealand and England, hence the research-related trips early this year. This is the nineteenth-century novel I’ve been working on for some time.

In the past four years, I’ve ghostwritten six novels [!!!!??? -- Ed.] and done fixing jobs on two others. I’m trying to cut back on this work so I have more time for sanity. I have a few other irons in the fire, but sometimes the fire feels as though it’s too wild and ferocious, and may overwhelm me at any moment.


Brando said...

I once heard that their are actual hobbits in New Zealand. I wonder if Ms. Morris could comment on this.

Adi said...

Hello, This is my first time visiting here. Your blog is a nice :)

Greets from Adi,

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