Nothing Stands Still: A Conversation with Novelist Eleanor Morse

Eleanor Morse is the author of White Dog Fell from the Sky, a novel set in southern Africa in the 1970s. Other novels include Chopin's Garden and An Unexpected Forest, which won the 2008 Independent Book Publishers Award (IPPY) for best regional fiction (Northeast region) and the 2008 Maine Literary Award from the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance for best published fiction. Morse is a graduate of Swarthmore College, with a Master of Arts in Teaching from Yale University and  a Master of Fine Arts from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has taught in adult education programs, in prisons, and at the university level both in Maine and in southern Africa. She currently serves on the faculty at Spalding University's low-residency M.F.A. in Writing program.


Where did your journey as a writer begin?

I began writing stories as early as I could hold a pencil and fashion a sentence. I cut up pieces of construction paper, poked holes in the edges, and bound the scraps into rough books with bits of string. My mother had a deep love of words and a mind that was naturally imagistic and drawn to beauty. My father was an impassioned and sometimes angry soul who spoke his mind without hesitation. I learned from each of them, in very different ways, that words mattered and were not to be treated casually.

Just after turning five, I started first grade in a one-room schoolhouse in upstate New York. Our teacher had charge of a coal-burning pot belly stove, an outhouse, and thirty-five children spread over six grades. We read many books in her classroom; almost all of her students became avid readers. It was reading that really carried me into writing—loving the immersion in a story, wanting to move others in the way I’d been moved.

When I was eight years old, my father, who was working for General Electric, learned that his whole division would be re-located to Shelbyville, Indiana. It was not a place anyone in my family wanted to go, but there was no question that we’d follow his job and move. With that uprooting, we lost a small, close community and afterwards moved four more times in six years. No sooner did my brothers and I make friends than we moved again. I learned to pay close attention to what people did and said, trying to make sense of the places I landed. Many writers, I think, have had similar reasons, through early life experiences or through natural shyness, to develop their abilities as observers.

My large, extended family has more than its share of oddballs, which has meant a certain familiarity and comfort with life at the margins. Although there were no full-time writers or visual artists among them, many of them disdained conventional thinking and respected eccentricity. Among them were scientists and mathematicians who loved to sink their teeth into inexplicable phenomena. Like other members of my family, I’m drawn to things I don’t fully understand.


How has that approach to life served your writing?

The engine that’s driven every story and book I’ve written has been the desire to understand what I don’t understand. I was talking with a friend the other day who asked, “What would you have to lose in order for you not to want to be in the world anymore?” Curiosity was the first thing that came to mind. I wouldn’t want to be here without that part of me intact. I have little interest in writing what I already know. If I knew how a book would end, I wouldn’t start it.    Kirk Varnedoe, the art critic, said a wonderful thing in the Mellon lecture he gave just before he died: that to produce art takes a certain kind of faith. Not a religious faith, not a faith in absolutes, but a faith in not knowing, a faith that out of our ignorance (or what he called being confounded or dumbfounded) will emerge a fertility, a fresh understanding of the world and the culture and times we live in. I very much believe in that kind of unknown. And faith in that unknown has kept me writing.


What role did school play in your journey toward becoming a writer?

Well, I’d have to say that the vast majority of my school experience impeded my journey toward a writing life. Such a weighty emphasis was placed on the left brain. From junior high school through my first graduate degree, I had only one high school English teacher, Mr. De Jovine, who encouraged creative writing of any sort. I still think of him as a saint. In school I learned to write critically and analytically, but much of that writing was a torment. It wasn’t until I was free of my first graduate degree that I turned back toward fiction writing.


Was there a point in your life where you felt like you'd come into your own as a writer? What was that experience like?

As I said, I had an instinct to write from an early age, but I got off to a very late start as a fully engaged writer. I didn't really begin moving writing to the center of my life until my early 40’s. By that time, there was this fierce urgency in me. I was working full-time, married, and had two kids. At the same time, there was a tidal wave at my back that had to be reckoned with.

Stanley Kunitz in his book, The Wild Braid says, “…we should never think of the life as being the enemy of whatever we aspire to create.” But for me, day to day life began to feel like the enemy. I wasn’t anywhere close to trusting that I could make a writing life for myself, and the reality was making me wild and impatient and resentful and full of despair. I didn’t really want or need another degree, but I thought that an MFA was the best way to get serious about writing, fast. I applied to the Vermont College of Fine Arts and got in. Now when I look back at those years of nearly full-time work and kids and marriage and school, I have no idea how I kept the balls in the air. I didn’t, really. I felt half crazy most of the time. On the surface it was a completely nutty thing to do, but it was also one of the best things I ever did in my life.

I do remember a particularly low point when I first started the MFA program. My daughter got head lice, along with all her best friends. Every night after work, I’d comb through her hair looking for nits. If I didn’t find them, she’d be sent home from school the next day. Every weekend, my husband and I washed everything in the house. This went on for weeks. My friends stopped coming by, all but the ones battling lice. Finally, a school nurse told me we were using the wrong shampoo. We switched, and the lice stopped.

So, was there a point in my life where I felt like I’d come into my own as a writer? I can’t point to a particular time. It happened over many years. Holding my first book in my hands was certainly a watershed moment. Teaching at Spalding University’s brief residency MFA program has been enormously helpful to that sense of myself as a productive, working writer. In the process of teaching, I learn constantly from my students—both how to write and how not to write. And to maintain my own integrity as a teacher, I feel the need to put that learning into practice on my own pages. That keeps up a certain pressure and also validates the things that have taken me years to learn.


How would you describe the seasons within your writing life?

There was the period of casual, intermittent jottings; a period of urgent, desperate, blind necessity; and finally, a fully engaged writing life. These seasons, it seems to me, tend to line up differently for men and women, especially if a woman has any thought of being actively involved in the raising of her children. As a young woman, I thought I could fit it all in—husband, kids, job, a full writing life. I was adamant early on that I didn't have to choose. I didn't want to choose. It all felt necessary and important. As time went on, however, my kids and husband claimed their rightful space, and I worked nearly full-time to bring in an income. My writing life was close to non-existent.

Some male writers I know seem to have had a far clearer sense of entitlement about their writing life from the get go. Although my desire was strong, I didn’t have the internal wherewithal to draw a line in the sand and insist that I would write, come hell or high water. It felt as though my children’s lives took precedence over my own. That was hard-wired in me, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

In one place we lived, I had a small writing table in the corner of the living room. I remember one day, my son laid something down on it, and I went ballistic. My writing life was barely breathing in those days, and it mattered that much to keep one tiny place inviolate.

For many years, I felt I’d wasted the writing years between twenty and forty. But I know now that those years were lived fully, with kids and work and friends and all the messiness of the world. That living has enriched and deepened what I write now. The book that came out in early 2013, White Dog Fell from the Sky, was set in Botswana, where I lived for four years in my twenties. I could never have written this book if I hadn't given myself fully to that life. I wasn’t writing then, but there was a writer in me, noticing, paying attention, wondering about things.

Although I wish I’d been able to write more in those years, I believe with all my heart that nothing stands still as long as you’re alive. I don’t know that I had all that much to say at the age of twenty. By thirty, I had more to say, and ten years after that, more still. That’s as true for painters and musicians and dancers as it is for writers. Things deepen, our reactions become more finely tuned to complexity and tone and color.

It feels now as though I have what I need in order to write, and I only hope that my corporeal self can hold out long enough for me to get a decent body of work out into the world. I’m aware of a certain diminishment—in word retrieval and pure physical energy—that at some point will overtake me. It hasn’t yet, and I hope I can count on my gene pool for seeing me through.


How did you know it was time to start writing White Dog Fell from the Sky? What was it like becoming acquainted with your characters and listening for their stories?

This book grabbed me and said, Write. The three novels I’ve written all started in different ways. In the case of White Dog, the setting of southern Africa propelled me strongly. Even though I hadn’t lived in Botswana for many years, the images of heat and dust, of large skies, of generous people, stayed with me. I’d written short fiction set there, and when Isaac came to me (one of the three main characters) there was no turning back.

I was on a panel of writers once, and a member of the audience asked the two of us who were fiction writers whether our characters stayed with us after we finished a book. My fellow fiction writer said she slammed the door on them the minute she wrote the last page. Her response made me laugh. The characters from all of my books are still alive in my head. I don’t know whether that’s healthy or not, but they’re there, and I still care about what happens to them.

I’m beginning work on a new novel. I’ve found this one slow to lift off, but I’ve come to accept that I need to listen to my characters at the outset until their stories reveal themselves. Many writers work the other way around. Story comes first, and characters fit into the story, but I’d feel like a puppeteer if I worked like that. For me, it’s an odd sort of partnership with characters. If I’m patient, I believe these people in my head will pick up the baton and begin running. Or another character will elbow them out of the way. I like that element of surprise. Characters are the lifeblood of a story. Without them, without caring deeply about them, stories feel hollow. I feel that as a reader, and I feel it even more strongly as a writer.


What do you suggest to students who are themselves in the process of validating the writing life?

Carve out as much writing time as you can, and protect it. No one will do this for you. Put nine-tenths of your energy into writing and one-tenth into publishing. Revise, and don’t stop until you’re satisfied. If you feel your writing is ready to be out in the world and you can’t get it out through conventional means, get it out there however you can.

Keep the long view in mind. A writing apprenticeship is longer than you think.

Read widely, and when you don’t have time to read or write, pay attention to what’s around you. Everything is grist for the mill: your dream life, music, birds, the timbre of your neighbor’s voice, the way a wisp of hair falls on an almost-bald head, the changing quality of light, the rumble of a city bus.


To which writers' work do you turn for encouragement or enjoyment?

You could ask me the same question tomorrow and different people would spring to mind. I was lucky to grow up reading the great nineteenth century English and Russian novelists. What vast worlds they created. And there are so many others I love now: Anton Chekhov, Arundhati Roy, William Maxwell, Kenzaburo Oe, Virginia Woolf, Philip Levine, Eudora Welty, David Grossman, Edward P. Jones, Jane Austen, John Berger, James Agee, Lars Gustaffson, Tony Morrison. Do you have all day? I feel such a tremendous gratitude to so many writers, both those who are no longer in the world and those who are.

I admit to having little patience for novelists or poets or non-fiction writers who are bored with life, who are snarky, self-conscious, overly ironic, or self-protective. I want to read books that matter, that risk something.


Could you talk about the connection between living fully and writing from a deep, real place within you?

To the extent that I manage to face things squarely, to care about the people around me, and to feel what needs to be felt, my writing benefits, but it’s not always easy to live with open arms. I live on a small island in Maine which is home to a year-round community of about 900 people. Some days, I don’t want to see anyone. Other days, it feels as though everything, all of life, is here, with its constantly changing weather and light and sky and birds, the wildness of the ocean, and the full range of what humans are capable of in the way of love and desire and suffering.

Just in the process of being alive, making mistakes—a certain humility has followed. I’d like to think that in the process of living, of trying to learn from my blunders, from the inevitable disappointments and calamities, that my writing has become a larger vessel for honesty and complexity.

A century and a half ago, novelists were expected to hold out a moral standard for the world. That’s changed. A novel’s purpose now has more to do with asking the hard human questions, in admitting we don’t have the answers. You can see a similar trend away from certainty when you look at contemporary art or listen to contemporary music.


What do you think the role is of the unconscious in writing fiction?

The only kind of journal I’ve ever kept regularly has been a dream journal. Over the years, I’ve developed enormous respect for the unconscious—a kind of wonder, really—seeing how the unconscious ‘knows’ things that often take our conscious selves so much longer to understand. I trust the wisdom of the unconscious, its wild horses.


What has time taught you about your own needs as a writer?

Like most writers, I need long stretches of unmapped time. I can’t write in coffee shops. I need to do something physical in the morning before starting to write—some discharge of energy, whether it’s shoveling snow, feeding the birds, doing sit-ups. Without that start to the day, I’m jumping up every five minutes. If I’m having trouble with a scene, playing the piano helps. It’s wordless, it moves through time differently than words do.


How has your approach to writing changed or developed over the years?

I wouldn’t say it’s changed that much. What’s changed is my acceptance of the way I write. I don’t use outlines, or block out scenes or chapters. The only way I feel I can write, the only way I’ve ever written, is to let a story unspool the way life does. This is very inefficient. I used to tell myself that there had to be a better way. When I complained about this to one of my first writing mentors, she said, “You’ll keep writing until you find something even more exasperating to take its place,” and I never have.

I threw out about 400 pages of my first novel because I didn’t know what it was about and didn’t know how to tell a story. It took many years of working at it to get it right. With each book, I’ve learned something and get there faster than I used to.


Can you talk about your most recent novel, White Dog Fell from the Sky?

This was an intense book to write. I was swallowed by it and gave it everything I had. The story takes place during the time when Botswana was a newly independent, democratic country. Across the border was South Africa, suffering in the grip of apartheid. The contrast between the two countries was painful and stark. When I lived in southern Africa, I was in my twenties, but I wrote the book years later, with those early images still alive in my head but filtered through later life experiences.

It took three and a half years to write White Dog and another year of final edits after it was sold to Penguin/Viking in this country, and Penguin/FigTree in the U.K. An audio book version was recorded last year (a finalist for the 2014 Audie Award for Literary Fiction).

Isaac is a refugee from South Africa, Alice an anthropologist from the U.S., and Ian, a British man who’s studying the cosmology of Bushman paintings in the Tsodilo Hills in the remote northwestern part of Botswana. Although the story is not my own and the characters were not drawn from people I knew, I made every attempt to make this book true to the historical and political realities of the mid 1970s. It was interesting to me how much came back when I evoked that time and place. Images and memories came back the way a dream can be recovered: if you catch a tiny glimpse, more follows.

After thirty-nine years away, I was invited this past spring to speak at Freedom Park in Pretoria. I had purposely not returned to South Africa and Botswana during the writing of White Dog Fell from the Sky, knowing how much the two countries had changed. I didn’t want the present day to blur into the time when the book was set. The trip was deeply moving: seeing black and white South Africans working together, once again walking the dusty footpaths in Botswana, smelling familiar smells, seeing the wide sky and the people I loved.


People often ask fiction writers, “So how much of this is your life?”

In a literal sense, almost none of what happens in my fiction comes directly from my life—neither the people who inhabit my books nor their stories. I’m not drawn to write my own story as thinly disguised fiction, and it’s never seemed fair to make friends and acquaintances into fictional characters. But as in the dream world, every character in my books, one way or another, comes out of my memory, imagination or psyche. In that sense, what isnt my life?

In each of us there’s a correspondence to nearly every other human and creature on earth, if we can only see the connection. Each of our lives functions as complex, multi-faceted metaphors. To write Moby Dick, Melville had to imagine his way into a whale, to understand what it meant to be pursued relentlessly—and in the case of Ahab, to be that pursuer. This is true of every wonderful piece of fiction ever written. We have to use ourselves, all that we know, all that we imagine, to travel to other realms.

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Kristin Brace

About Kristin Brace

Kristin Brace's poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as The Chariton Review, Meridian, and The Louisville Review and on the Colorado Review blog. A graduate of Spalding University's MFA in Writing program, she works to improve literacy in West Michigan.