We Don’t Know What We’re Doing

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Editor of The Stinging Fly, one of Ireland’s top literary magazines, Thomas Morris is no stranger to reading and writing short fiction. In the final countdown to the deadline for our short story competition we spoke to the writer and editor about his debut collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, heritage, habits and the art of disguise.

Many interviewers have made much of your identity as a Welsh writer living in Ireland – do you think this is problematic? How do you identify yourself? How should we identify ourselves? If we should at all…

There aren’t many Welsh people living in Ireland – and a lot of people here in Dublin wouldn’t be able to name a contemporary Welsh writer – so I guess I’m something of a novelty in that respect. In some ways, it does feel as if I’ve gotten slightly caught between two poles, but it’s not really problematic; it just makes for a lot of parentheses in the opening paragraph of reviews (‘Welsh born, but living in Dublin for 10 years…’)

At the moment, the book seems to be better known in Ireland than in Wales. But I think that’s inevitable: there are so few Welsh outlets for cultural criticism, Wales is a lot much smaller in terms of media infrastructure, and there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of conversation around books. As for further afield, I sometimes wonder in what ways things would be different were I Irish: there’s a worldwide appetite for all-things-Ireland that doesn’t quite exist for all-things-Wales. A current example: Gareth Thomas, the former Welsh international rugby player and first openly gay international player at that. Micky Rourke was signed up to play Thomas in a film based on his life – they developed the script together for a long time – but in the end the studio said they’d prefer a fictional account instead, one where Gareth Thomas was actually an Irishman named Mick ‘The Blade’ Collins. ‘It’ll do better in the States’, was apparently the reasoning. And if that was the case, it’s hard to fault the logic: a film about an Irishman will likely do better than a film about a Welshman. (Not to mention the fact that fiction can probably provide a more satisfying narrative arc etc etc.)

But anyway, how do I identify myself? I’m Welsh first; I live in Ireland second; and I grudgingly accept that I’m British. But I’m embarrassed by the British thing. I’m embarrassed by the government, the monarchy, the class system, the empire, the arrogance, the cultural and historical amnesia, the fact that so many cities are now essentially just indoor shopping centres. But I love the BBC, the idea of the NHS, and anything made by Armando Iannucci.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to do with all the embarrassment. It seems a bit rich to just identify with all the good parts, while neglecting the fact that I had the privilege of growing up in a UK that gained its wealth and status by being so fucking awful to millions of people – home and abroad. This all sounds ranty and naively liberal in a way that I would have taken the piss out of if I’d read it a few years back, but every time I see George Osborne’s smug little privileged face I am drawn to the idea of violence.

Do you go back to Wales often?

My idea of a year is still shaped by school years: I come back to Wales for the half-term holidays and always for a few weeks in the summer. I’ve just taken a month off The Stinging Fly to come back to Wales to decompress a bit. I turn 30 very soon, so I’m entering a period of Sober Reflection. God help us all.

But still, it’s important that I come back as much as I can. I still have family and friends here, who I miss a lot, and there are certain parts of myself that don’t get the same kind of outing in Dublin.

You’ve said before that you think you had very ‘romantic’ notions of Ireland – did Irish writers have a part in that?

No, the romantic notions were shaped entirely by a few Sunday episodes of Ballykissangel. When I moved to Dublin, I knew nothing about Irish writers or its literary heritage. I’d read a few stories from Dubliners, but I didn’t really understand them. Once I got to university, though, the legacy of Irish writing became apparent to me, but still I wasn’t sure if it was just a propaganda mission by the Irish universities – in the same way that Sky TV keeps saying the Premier League is the best football league in the world. But no, it turns out that Irish writers are pretty important after all. From a purely selfish point of view, living in Dublin really gave me the kick to write. Had I had been living in Wales in my twenties, I don’t think I’d have thought that writing was something I could conceivably do.

I’ve heard you love Dylan Thomas’s short stories despite the fact they’re rarely talked about – which ones?

His story collection Portrait of the Artist as A Young Dog is really wonderful. The stories seem to me quite autobiographical, and there’s something of Frank O’Connor in a lot of them: the gentle humour and the grave sadness side-by-side. I find Dylan Thomas’s poetry difficult – almost too obscure, perhaps too poetic at times – whereas his stories are more direct but imbued with the kind of beautiful observations that only a poet could conjure. The opening of a ‘Visit to Grandpa’s’, for example:

It was the first time I had stayed in grandpa’s house. The floorboards had squeaked like mice as I climbed into bed, and the mice between the walls had creaked like wood as though another visitor was walking on them. 

When I’m writing a story, I often turn to other books to solve the problems in my own work. When I began writing ‘all the boys’, a story about a Welsh stag weekend in Dublin, I struggled with the pacing and the handling of so many characters. Then I re-read Dylan Thomas’s ‘Extraordinary Little Cough’, a story about a group of boys hanging out on the beach, and everything clicked. I love the breathlessness of the prose in Dylan’s story, the ways the sentences are almost panting as they try to keep up with the action.

But yes, amid all the celebrations for Dylan’s 100th birthday last year, his stories did seem a little overlooked. But Wales has a habit of not shouting loud enough about its prose writers. Leslie Norris wrote beautiful short stories; Caradoc Evans was a serious hellraiser, but they’re writers who are rarely talked about except for anniversaries. I’m not sure how to go about it, but I’d love to set up a short story competition in Leslie Norris’s name, like the way there’s a Rhys Davies Award. Again, the Irish excel at this kind of thing – The Frank O’Connor Award, the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen Award, The Sean O’Faolain Award, and most recently The Colm Toibin Award etc.

You’ve said the key to a good short story is intensity – what kind of intensity do you strive for in your own work?

Emotional honesty; I don’t want to fudge things.

You switch wonderfully between writing as a man and writing as a woman, which perspective do you enjoy writing from more? Do you find the experience very different for each or do you even think about it?

It’s very nice for you to say that, but to be honest, I don’t really think differently when writing male or female characters.

I’ve always been confused by the expression ‘strong female characters’ – like, do you want these women to be weightlifters? Or do people mean ’emotionally strong’? Or just well-rendered and well rounded? I think the temptation for many men is to write women who are emotionally strong, or rather, in the end, women who are just ‘long-suffering of men’ – and this all as a strategy of pre-empting and avoiding criticism for writing ‘weak’ female characters. But that kind of mentality can lead to two-dimensional characters, passive women who just shake their head and say with an exasperated sigh and knowing wink, ‘Men, eh?’

When I’m drafting a story, a character can go from being a man to being a woman in a matter of minutes. I don’t really do physical description of people – I’m terrible at it – so I try and compensate with psychological detail or a lot of behaviour. This seems to have worked so far, and I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from that: are readers lying to me? Or are men and women really not all that different? Or is that I’ve yet to write about the key differences?

On a technical level, I wonder what difference it makes when you’re writing in first or third person, for example. I’ve read stories by women where they’re writing first person male, and stories by men where they’re writing first person female, and it seems as if the writer is insecure or worries the reader will be confused, and the writing gets sticky with stupid exposition and self-declarative statements: ‘I’m an honest man…’ ‘I wasn’t like other women’.

If you could get any aspiring writers to read a single short story what would you pick? Why?

‘Good Country People’ by Flannery O’Connor: it’s brilliant.

Do you have any writing ‘ticks’ – specific words or sentence structures – that you find yourself using again and again?

Absolutely, but I’m not ready to admit them in public.

Do you think habit is a friend or foe for a writer?

I think routine is important, I’m less sure about habit. Do you mean habits in the writing itself?

If someone is struggling to find a good writing routine or are concerned about the nature of their own process, I would really recommend reading Daily Routines. So many writers were lunatics in the way they settled down to work, but the routine was everything.

Writing the book, my own routines were fairly terrible. I wrote late into the night, gorging on sweet tea and Pringles and M&Ms to keep awake. But staying up into the early seemed to be the only way I could key into the kind of emotional intensity I was hoping to reach. You only need to walk the city at 2am to see that the id is often freer at night.

You’re very good and picking up on the minute details of relationships and human interactions – does a lot of this come from observation? Do you find you source a lot from life – do you see a person and create a character around them – or are they more firmly abstract?

There’s a lot of observation, yes. But perhaps the word ‘observation’ is misleading, a little too deliberate-sounding. In my early twenties I did go round with a notebook, writing things down on trains and buses – but I reckon the best bits are the things you don’t need to write down, the things that just survive. If I remember something – a snatch of speech, an image, an anecdote – months after hearing it, then it’s hopefully a strong enough to linger in a reader’s memory. But when I’m writing a story – and I’m fully invested in it – the right things seem to rise to the surface. The exception is stuff from childhood. My memory is getting worse each year, so I’m grateful for a phase I went through ten years ago when I wrote out pages and pages of childhood memories. Reading those pages now acts as a sharp prompt. I likewise won’t let my mother throw out any of my old toys or clothes: they’re some of the few remaining threads that allow me to vividly connect with my childhood. That probably sounds awfully sentimental.

As for sourcing material, I have a disclaimer at the start of the book: ‘These stories are works of fiction. Any resemblance to life is purely inevitable’. It’s half-joking, but I think it’s half serious, too. Where the hell are you meant to find things that are true if not from life itself? When I was at university I published stories in the college magazine under the pseudonym Harry Block. I stole the name from the lead character in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. His character is a bit of a callous bastard, stealing everything from everyone’s lives for his fiction and then not even remembering which bits he made up and which bits are real. (‘Me and Janet’ he says longingly about an ex at one point, only to be corrected: ‘Jane. Janet is the character in the book.’) I don’t identify with the callous thievery, but there’s certainly an autobiographical impulse in my stories. (He says loftily, having only published only one book.) As George Saunders often says: fiction is lying when everything knows you’re lying. It sometimes takes a bit of truth to convince people of the broader deceit.

Drafting is a crucial part of the writing process for any writer – what does the role of re-writing mean for you?

It’s about solidifying intention. It can take me three or four drafts to work out what the story is about. But once I find out what it is about (and it’s often different to what I set out with) then it’s a matter of sharpening everything in service of that intention. I love rewriting: it’s the only time I feel like I’m doing anything good. I think of each draft as an experiment. I’ll literally re-save the document to something like ‘Goat story – taken on as experiment 3’. Having the previous draft there, on the computer, gives me license to fuck about on the next one. I know I can always go back.

In a past interview you mentioned how you wanted each tale to have a rare emotional core of sorts – so each story has a drop of reality, or came from a place of real emotion in your life. Do you find blurring the lines an easy process or one that takes work? (Are there times you’re self conscious of ‘true’ content and have to work hard to disguise it or do you like to tease those details out?)

That’s a good question. In the opening story, ‘Bolt’, the narrator escapes to the bathroom to take some time out, then he goes to take a piss and remembers he doesn’t actually need a piss: he’s just there to have some peace. A friend of mine said he liked that moment, though he felt it was clearly taken directly from real life. It made me pause for a bit. I wondered if a detail could be ‘too real’. And it is something I think about a lot: is this or that detail too idiosyncratic? I have a few friends to whom I show early drafts, and a big part of the drafting process is wheedling out the bits that take the reader out of the reading experience. So I use statistical analysis: if one friend things something isn’t quite working, it’s worth considering but it might stay in; if three people point their finger to the same thing, I know it needs tinkering or removing. Most often, though, people point out the things you always suspected yourself. Once you think that something is get-away-with-able, it never actually is.

But the ‘disguising’ you mention is a big part of the fun. I like to take a detail from life, then try to shape a story around it. This is especially true when it comes to stories driven by the details of strong emotional impulses. The story ‘Fugue’ came from the horror of being away from home for a long time and then returning and feeling distinctly alien.

Have you had much input into the production of the book as a finished product? What did you make of the cover art? Was it what you were expecting or envisioning for the book – did you even have an expectations or visions for it at all?

I love the cover. Luke Bird at Faber did such a wonderful job: it was his idea from premise to execution. I did chip in with the occasional suggestion (I really wanted the horse on there, just for the fun of it) but the cover is very much a response to Luke and Faber’s feeling that the book is all about people. It sounds funny to say now, but I hadn’t really thought about the collection this way. Writing the stories, I was driven by emotional truth and formal concerns and certain images I wanted to follow.

As for my expectations – I just wanted something with a bit of life in it, something which told the reader, ‘Don’t worry, this isn’t another bloody collection of quiet, respectable literary fiction’. But at the same time, I really didn’t want a cover that looked as if was designed to be sold solely in Urban Outfitters or HMV. In my humble opinion, Faber got the balance perfectly right.

Where next? You’ve spoken about a novella you once wrote before – do you think that might resurface any time soon? Are you interested in exploring longer forms?

I haven’t written in a while, partly intentional, partly not, but I’m excited and daunted to get back to it. I’m going to write a novel. Or rather: I’m going to write something that we can hopefully call a novel. But there’s so much in novels that I can’t stand: so much fat and so much stuff that has to be there because it’s a novel. I can’t be doing with that, so I’m going to try and find a way around the problem. I loved Jenny Offil’s approach in The Dept. Of Speculation, and reading that book really made me reconsider what you need and what you really don’t need in a work of fiction.

I also have an idea for another anthology I’d like to edit, but it could take a few years to get going.

But yes, the novella in question is dead and gone. I stole the best bits for the collection.

Do any of us know what we’re doing?

I’ve got no idea.

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing by Thomas Morris published by Faber & Faber is out now. 

By Thea Hawlin