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February 1, 2011 | Interview

An Interview With Bradford Morrow

Andrew Ervin

An Interview With Bradford Morrow photo

 

Memory is its Medium: 
A Conversation with Bradford Morrow

Bradford Morrow's latest novel, The Diviner's Tale, uses some tropes of the traditional murder mystery and elements of the supernatural thriller to form a literary novel of ideas that makes us rethink why we insist on labeling books according to these arbitrary and artificial genres in the first place. It's a hugely entertaining read, one that will keep you up late at night—okay, it kept me up late at night—eager to find out what comes next. The story is about a small medium at large named Cassie; she has powers of divination (also called dowsing), which allow her to find hidden sources of water and, here, the makings of a terrible crime. Morrow's fiction has gained him all kinds of accolades, including a Guggenheim. He's a professor at Bard College, where as the founder and editor of Conjunctions he can be counted among the nation's foremost champions of innovative literature. He was kind enough to answer my questions in great detail via email.

 

What unique challenges did the topic of diving present in terms of staying within—or straying from—the traditional conventions of realist fiction?

Since divining is a practice that some people firmly believe in and others just as firmly don't, it struck me as imperative to portray this ancient craft in the light of that disagreement. The best way to do that, I thought, was not to try to stay within the conventions of traditional realist fiction—something I've often done in earlier novels, anyway—but rather to follow my instincts, which led me to draw on any number of genres in order to voice Cassandra Brooks's story. The mystery of divining is naturally reflected in literary mystery, as well as fantasy, fabulism, and even through the lens of the gothic, since some consider it to be a chthonic art. Certainly, Cass's mother does.

Genre, or post-genre, is a subject that's really of interest to me right now. Because I wound up employing a variety of elements from different literary traditions in writing The Diviner's Tale, I found myself naturally, even at some point willfully, breaking all sorts of genre rules in the process. Just for instance, in a recent book by P.D. James, Talking About Detective Fiction, she discusses a list of rules that Ronald Knox, an authority in the field back in the 1920s, put together. It's kind of an Aristotelean unities argument, but about how properly to write mysteries. One of Knox's cardinal rules is to avoid introducing any supernatural elements to the story as a means of detection—so, well, I'm guilty as charged on that count right from the outset. It was very important that I somehow manage to make those so-called supernatural or extrasensory moments in the book feel the opposite of unusual, indeed feel quite natural, so that was a significant challenge. I think that if I hadn't myself gone to the American Society of Dowsers annual convention in Vermont a few years ago, where I took at beginner's dowsing course and actually experienced the nearly ineffable feeling of what it's like to hold an active Y-rod in my hands, I might have had a far harder time believing in the gentle art of divining personally, and so would have been forced to stretch, maybe overwrite, those scenes in which divining plays a key role. As it happened, some of those scenes were the easiest, or at least most natural, for me to compose, odd as that may sound.

 

To believe or not believe is of course a major theme here. Without giving too much away, are you using the process of divining as a metaphor?

To believe or not to believe, that is the question that lies right at the heart of The Diviner's Tale. Should Cassandra really trust her "forevisions"—one of which, right at the beginning of the novel, proved to be dead accurate—or dismiss them as coincidental, flukes? Certainly when she comes upon the hanged girl in the woods, a crucial and deeply upsetting encounter that sets her story in motion, only to discover on returning to the scene with the authorities who find nothing there—no hanged girl nor any rope or other evidence proving what she'd seen—she is forced to doubt herself. And even when they discover the next day a living, breathing, mute girl, as well as a length of rope, what is she supposed to think of her original vision, and therefore of her very sanity? In much the same way, Cass has doubted her gifts as a diviner from the very beginning. Before she heads out to dowse someone's land, she does what any self-regarding dowser would never stoop to doing: she studies maps of the area, tries to get a sense of what the aquifer beneath the surface might be like. She does this simply because she doesn't trust herself. As a part-time teacher, it's a pretty humiliating secret, one she rightly equates with cheating on an exam. Over the course of Cass's narrative, though, she slowly comes to believe. Without getting into specifics, I think it's safe to say that her life spirals into so much danger, her twin boys and the young girl Laura whom she had envisioned in those woods also being in mortal danger, that Cass hasto believe in her gifts, or else lose everything. Belief in self, in God, in others—every sort of belief system comes into play in The Diviner's Tale.

As for divining as a metaphor, what I've hoped to do is use the craft in a very literal way, such that dowsers in the book actually dowse, sometimes finding what they were searching for, other times not. But as a metaphor, divining is irresistible, as well. The very word metaphor comes from the Greek forcarrying overbearing across—Salman Rushdie writes movingly about the meanings of the word in an introduction to a collection of essays by Günter Grass, On Writing and Politics, using it as a way of discussing migration—and what is divining but a kind of crossing frontiers? Moving from the known to the unknown, the seen to the unseen? It is a perfect metaphor for human intuition, really, for our imagination stretching out toward something that rational, logical thought simply falls short of reaching. But again, this metaphoric element only goes so far in the book, because indeed if dowsing is viewed as a viable craft, with inexplicable but also very provable results, then it comes to mean more than mere metaphor, at least in a literary sense. It's a bit of a cat's cradle, even trying to discuss it, as you can see!

 

The story moves between Cassie's in-the-present efforts to solve a mystery using divination and a series of flashbacks to formative episodes from her past. The parallel narratives work beautifully together, I think, because her remembering is a little bit like another (not literal, of course) kind of dowsing. I don't necessarily mean to make a madeleine-as-divining-rod argument, but I'm wondering if you would explain a little bit about your formal decisions (with regard to time) and how they serve this story in particular? 

We live in memory. We live quite often thinking about what comes next, but there's only a single and momentary instant which is factually now. And basically, once that now has come and gone, our imagination takes over and begins to measure, interpret, and color what just happened. As a writer, I'm very comfortable collapsing time, braiding the present and the past around the narrative thread. I think you're right to see this as a kind of dowsing for the meaning buried just beneath the surface of everyday experience. Cass, like all of us, is attempting to divine what is happening to her through the subjective agency of memory. Her tendency to examine key crossroad moments in her personal history, in the hopes of mapping out her possible future, is essential both to who she is and to her very survival.

As for whether I made any objective, formal decisions about this, I can't honestly say that I did. The book unfolded for me very organically, with Cass's present naturally prompting important episodes from her past, and vice versa. The master of this technique remains for me Virgina Woolf, whose novels totally obsessed me in my twenties, when I was first beginning to write fiction seriously. Even in my short stories I tend to develop narratives that operate on parallel tracks, morphing from present to past and back again. I think it must be a model of my own consciousness, since I don't think in a linear way at all.

 

Past tense assumes a Now in which the events of Then are told. In The Diviner's Tale, as we've discussed, there are several different Thens. In a book that relies so much on memory, how did you decide upon or account for the focal distances between the telling and the things told? 

I like your use of the term "focal distances" in discussing time—seeing into the past is one of the most dangerously subjective operations of the human mind. I think all my novels operate in several different Thens, and even the way I punctuate dialogue in most of my books—certainly all of the novels sinceTrinity Fields—is a formal recognition of that fact. Deep past, for instance, when dialogue can only be reconstructed approximately by a narrating character, is represented by em-dashes before the spoken words, whereas recent past dialogue, for which a narrator can reasonably be expected to replicate fairly precisely, is set off by traditional quote marks. It's a quiet way for me, as author, to give these different terrains of time their own formal frames. The way I see it, The Diviner's Tale moves closer and closer toward Cassandra's Now as it reaches its final pages, indeed maybe its final paragraphs, when she meets a woman at a funeral service who approaches her, asking for her help as a diviner. I can even imagine that Cass's true Now exists on the blank page that follows the final paragraph. But as she narrates her way through the book, she tells her story in such a way that the reader will be able to experience her journey, her thoughts and doubts, her setbacks and realizations, her moments of terror and of illumination, with an immediacy that's close to what she felt when "living" through the events of the book.

So, if I'm getting your question, I guess that the Now from which the telling takes place is not really present in the novel at all—it's after the novel, from a vantage not described in the book itself, that our narrator tells her story, stitching back and forth through different eras in her personal time, and once in a while even stretching back into history itself, such as when she describes the life and times of Martine de Berthereau, the Baroness de Beausoleil, who was one of the earliest known female dowsers in recorded history, and someone Cass very understandably relates to. Since I don't ever describe the place and time in which Cassandra Brooks is writing down her story, I think I necessarily leave that open to the readers' imaginations—Indeed, invite readers to participate with me in that creative act.

 

What's the one book you reread most often? What the one book you still desperately need to get around to?

There are a few books I find myself rereading, savoring again, studying anew, learning from each and every time. They are Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, John Fowles's The Magus, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, and Angela Carter's Burning Your Boats. As for the one book I haven't made my way through yet, I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't ever finished Don Quixote, wise and hilarious and wonderful as it is. I've tried to make the trek in a couple of different translations, one by Tobias Smollett, an eighteenth-century novelist I have an inexplicable fondness for, and another by Samuel Putnam. I'm going to give it another try, though, with Edith Grossman's translation, which everyone tells me is really great.

 

Tell me about your writing habits. Do you write every day? How does teaching affect your writing?

I write as often as possible, and do my best work when I'm at my kitchen table in rural upstate New York. But really, when I'm deep into a project, I can pretty much write anywhere—I love writing on trains, by the way!—and do so at every moment that's available to me. When I'm fully engaged in composing a narrative, I find myself irked at anything that draws my focus away from what I'm doing. That said, I enjoy my teaching when I'm in the classroom with students who are engaged with what we're reading. Teaching books gives me an opportunity to read deeply, analytically, and through that kind of specific, high-energy reading as well as discussing literature in my seminars, I find that I'm able to reach a sharper understanding of the craft and vision of other fiction writers. This in turn naturally challenges, inspires, and helps me with my own work.

 

What's next for you? What are you working on now?

This will be quite a busy year of publications for me. My backlist of novels—Come Sunday, The Almanac Branch, Trinity Fields, Giovanni's Gift, and Ariel's Crossing—are all being published as e-books by Open Road Media on February 15. And on February 21, Norton will be bringing out an anthology on death that I co-edited with my friend David Shields, The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death. Toward the end of November, my first collection of short stories, The Uninnocent, will come out with Pegasus Books, and I have some other stories scheduled to appear in anthologies, including one I just finished writing a few weeks ago, "The Enigma of Grover's Mill," which will be included in New Jersey NoirConjunctions is of course always rolling along, and this spring we're doing an issue entitled Terra Incognita, which is centered on journeying, voyaging, mind trips and sailing ships.

I'm about 500 pages along in my next novel, The Prague Sonata, which I hope to finish by the summer. This book has taken me from Prague, Czech Republic, to Prague, Nebraska, and back again, with a multitude of research stops between. Just in thumbnail, it's a quest narrative about a young musicologist named Meta Taverner who is trying to piece together an eighteenth-century sonata manuscript that was broken up into three parts by its owner when the Nazis invaded Prague in 1939, in the hopes of rendering the manuscript—which may or may not be written by the teenaged Beethoven—valueless to the occupiers, who were incomparable culture-thieves. I had the idea for this book almost a decade and a half ago, and have been working on it seriously and steadily for a few years now. One of the many things I love about this project is that it gives me a chance to write about music, one of my first and foremost loves. And not just Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and the rest of the big late-eighteenth century to early nineteenth-century bravura masters, but some late twentieth-century folks who were so important to the Czechs who lived through the Velvet Revolution, like Plastic People of the Universe and Frank Zappa. Jazz, ragtime, blues, you name it, all come into play, as it were. It's a book awash in music.

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