Behind the Words: Kelly Morris

Posted by on Aug 2, 2013 in Uncategorized | 2 comments

Kelly Morris is a recent transplant to Los Angeles. She is also a current MFA candidate at Spalding University. Her novel Since God Was A Boy was a finalist in the Writers’ League of Texas 2013 manuscript contest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spry and Sundog Lit. When she’s not writing, Kelly can be found hanging out with her kids, who remain unconvinced that being a writer is actually a very cool job.

Kelly’s short story “You, the Ex, and the Neighbor,” was featured in Issue #2 of Spry. Samantha Eliot Stier, Spry’s contributing writer, had the opportunity to talk to Kelly about this story and what inspires her to write.

 

Sam: I absolutely loved “You, The Ex, and the Neighbor.” Writing a good story in the second person is a challenge for most. Yet you do it in such a way that it’s not even distracting; as one commenter pointed out (and I agree), it adds a certain level of intimacy. What brought about the decision to write in second person?

Kelly: Thank you so much for your kind words about the story.  I love the second person POV.  When used sparingly, it does lend an immediate rapport and intimacy with the reader.  I tried to write a version of “You, the Ex, and the Neighbor” a few years ago in third person, and it was called something ridiculous like “Ca Va!” and it was about this woman who finds her long-time boyfriend in bed with the college-aged neighbor.  And it was just really sad and not funny at all.  Several of the professors at Spalding University where I’m currently getting my MFA wrote some really great second person stories–Kenny Cook has one in his collection Love Songs for the Quarantined called “What They Didn’t Tell You About the Vasectomy” and Rachel Harper has one called “How to Lose Your Children.”  I was so inspired by how raw the stories were, how the second person adds that cringe factor.  And so I went back and re-wrote this story, and it came together in such an unexpected way.  So always save your old drafts!  Like my writer friend Rick Brown once said about revising, “The mainstay task of archaeology involves sifting through ancient garbage pits. One can find great and important things there…along with old, gnawed bison bones and other crap.”  Even if 99% of an old draft is garbage, you might find that one detail that works in something else.

 

The structure of your sentences is stark and raw. I imagine the rhythm would make this a great piece to read aloud. I’m curious whether you’ve experimented with other forms of writing, such as poetry. If not, what draws you to write primarily fiction?

I always read my work aloud–that is a very tedious part of my revision process.  I’ve only experimented with poetry when forced to, which is say once in grad school.  But like Raymond Carver said, short stories and poems have a lot in common because of their economy of language.  I have recently started to embrace the “less is more” approach to sentences, like you see in the work of Amy Hempel and Miranda July. I don’t know what draws me to write fiction.  It’s what I like to read, and it’s what I’ve always felt compelled to write.  I’ve experimented with flash fiction recently, and that’s been very fun to write too.

 

The narrator’s voice strikes a great balance between self-deprecating humor and tragic poeticism. The character (“you”) feels very real, and her observations are sharp and poignant. I think most fiction writers operate on a sliding scale of fiction and nonfiction. My own stories vary in how much “real stuff” I include. Do you tend to base characters on elements of yourself or people you know, or are they entirely drawn from your imagination?

That’s a good question.  In my earlier work the sliding scale was almost non-existent; all my characters were based on people I knew.  As I’ve matured as a writer, though, I think I write less and less about myself and my friends and family and more about people I see out in the world.  That’s not to say I won’t shamelessly take a story that someone tells me and re-tell it in a fictional way.  I’m a character-driven writer, so I almost always think of a character first and then have to find a plot for them.  In “You, the Ex, and the Neighbor”, the narrator is not me, because I don’t have an ex-fiancé and I have no idea how I’d react in her situation.   But I also think that, in much the same way she does, I would process the event by (eventually) seeing the perverse humor in the situation.

 

Weaving humor into a story is such an art form. One of my favorite lines: “Her legs are much thicker now, if you want to be technical about these things.” This observation comes at a tense, emotionally-wrought moment as she encounters her ex and the neighbor, and yet it seems a completely natural thought for her to have. It’s a wonderfully dark and funny motif. Is humor something that comes naturally to you, or something you work at? I know many writers struggle with it.

What a nice thing for you to say–thank you.  I’ve always found in my own writing that if I try too hard to be funny or poignant, I miss the mark completely.  I tend to have a dark sense of humor, which I think explains much of the subject matter I write about.  I live a pretty ordinary, drama-free life.  But it sure is fun to live vicariously through my characters.  But I don’t think I’m the kind of person you’d meet and say, “Wow!  She’s hilarious!”  And I cannot tell a joke for the life of me.

 

The story of the woman finding her man in bed with another woman has been told many times, and yet when I read your story, it seemed fresh and new. The first sentence hooked me instantly: “Not many people have an ex-fiancé.” The details make it odd and different, as does the narrator’s voice. I love that the fiancé is watching Oprah while in bed with the neighbor, and later they start wearing crosses around their necks. Is the story you wrote the same one you set out to tell? Did you have an idea that you would be including those details before you wrote them, or did they happen organically?

This was definitely not the story I set out to tell.  I bet most writers would tell you that that happens, details emerge and plots take shape in unexpected ways. This story is actually part of a trilogy, the other two stories being told from the neighbor’s POV and also from the ex’s POV, and it was fun to re-tell the grocery story scene with the cross necklaces in different ways.  I had the Oprah scene in the original story, too.  I love unexpected details in stories, I love when characters behave in weird ways.  One of my mentors once described a character in one of my stories as “an odd duck,” and I was so thrilled at that description.

 

I’m interested in hearing about your creative process. Every writer approaches the craft so differently, and I’ve learned a lot from hearing writers discuss their individual processes. Do you write a certain number of hours each day, or set yourself a particular page/word count to meet? Or do you tend to write only when inspiration hits?

Well, I’m a mom too, so I am a very dedicated writer from mid-August to the end of May.  When my kids are in school, I’m in front of my computer from 9-2.  Summer is trickier, of course.  When they are home, I have to find a balance between working and spending time with them.  But I would never wait for inspiration to strike before sitting down to write.  I’ve definitely had those days where I stare blankly at my computer and wonder why I didn’t choose to be an accountant instead.  And luckily those are balanced by the days when the sentences obediently fall into place.  I try not to set goals for myself in terms of page or word count.  That would stress me out, I think.

 

Feeling inspired to sit down and write comes more easily to some, and less to others. What inspires you? In what environment do you feel the most productive?

I have lots of writer friends who write in coffee shops or bookstores and are inspired by other people, but I like to write at home in my office.  I have some silly routines I follow, like drinking green tea out of a certain mug every time I sit down to write.  But as for inspiration, I actually feel inspired when I travel.  I think I could write an entire novel in an airport, just based on all the things you see and overhear.  I am overly fond of writing airplane scenes, and it turns out there are only so many times you can have your characters travel on an airplane before it gets tiresome. Being around my writer friends always energizes and inspires me.  I actually didn’t want to get my MFA–I was worried everyone would be pretentious and would want to sit around and talk about how much they loved Moby Dick or some other novel I never read.  And of course it’s been nothing like that, and one of the most unexpected and wonderful things has been finding friends who read my work and who share their work with me.  I never submit a story until I’ve had one of my trusted writer buddies read it first.

 

Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading now?

I love Alice Munro.  If you know me, I have probably forced you to read Runaway at some point.  I also like Anne Tyler, Ann Packer, Ann Patchett and Anita Brookner.  (There seems to be an “A” theme here, doesn’t there?)  I’m currently reading James Salter’s collection of short stories called Last Night, and it’s incredible.

 

I’d love to hear about what you’re working on now, or what you plan to work on in the future.

Currently I’m working on my thesis, which is going to be from a novel I wrote during the MFA program called Unsung Lullabies.  I’m also working on a collection of linked short stories tentatively called Him and Her and Me and You.  I’m going to be blogging with three of my writer friends, David Dominé, Julia Forman, and Rick Brown. Our blog is going to be called Literary Labors and Occasional Cheese Dips, which is taken from A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. (“When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”) The blog can be found here.

Samantha Eliot Stier’s short stories have appeared online at The Faircloth Review, Infective Ink Magazine, Extract(s), and Gemini Magazine. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in sunny Venice Beach, California. Check out her website here.

2 Comments

  1. Fantastic questions, Sam– and even better answers, Kelly! I love this story, and hearing about the process behind it makes it all that more fascinating to read from a strictly craft-perspective. Once again, bravo, Kelly, on a great story– and thanks Sam, for parsing out the “story-behind-the-story.”

    Obligatory Oprah joke now: “And YOU get a story, and YOU get a story…..EVERYBODY gets a STORY!!!!”

  2. I agree with Allie (and great comment, Allie). I loved reading the process and how Kelly created (and continues to use) these characters.

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