by Beth Gilstrap
On a gray March evening, I spoke with Ted Morrissey, author of the novel Men of Winter (Punkin House, 2010) and the forthcoming novella and story collection Weeping with an Ancient God. We talked about the publishing industry—and the joys and terrors of writing.
The Fourth River: How did you come to write Men of Winter, a novel inspired by The Odyssey?
Ted Morrissey: I’ve always found Calypso the most sympathetic character in the poem, as her love for Odysseus is totally disregarded by the council of gods and goddesses who decide that the hero should be allowed to go home. I guess it was my thinking about brokenhearted Calypso that started me moving in [that] direction.
FR: What were some of the high points and low points of writing either Men of Winter or Weeping with an Ancient God?
TM: I actually write longhand. I enjoy the physicality and the puzzle of writing that you have to work your way through. The high points, besides the process, have of course been finding people who like them and who want to publish them (especially Amy Ferrell, the CEO of Punkin House, who has championed them).
My lowest points were of course the innumerable rejections I received from publishers. The biggest disappointment came when I’d been contacted by a literary agent because she’d read one of my stories in Glimmer Train Stories, and she wanted to know if I had a book-length manuscript. I said yes, I had the novella manuscript [of Weeping], and she didn’t even want to see it.
In anticipation of Weeping with an Ancient God being published by Punkin House, I sent the first chapter out as a stand-alone piece titled “Melvill in the Marquesas,” and it was picked up very quickly by The Final Draft. To be honest, I thought it was so quirky it might take me quite a while to find a journal to take it. But editors have responded very enthusiastically to it, which has been, frankly, both surprising and vindicating.
FR: What made you decide Weeping with an Ancient God would be a novella? How is writing/crafting a novella its own beast?
TM: I never set out to write a novella, per se, but writing a novella is about limiting the number of characters and plot conflict. Publishing has changed so much since I first started looking for a publisher for the novella; now, it seems to be something the industry’s willing to do. Maybe it’s the popularity of Nooks and Kindles and the demand for shorter stories.
FR: What inspired you to write about Herman Melville’s encounter with cannibals in the Marquesas Islands?
TM: I always admired that he abandoned the style of writing that would have made him a wealthy man (the sort of writing he did in Typee and Omoo) and experimented with other forms (especially Moby-Dick) that led the reading public to abandon him. His last several works were self-published, in fact. In particular, though, A&E had a Great Books Festival. One of the episodes was about Melville and his writing of Moby-Dick, and it painted him as a tragic figure, consumed by financial troubles and self-doubt and all kinds of personal and family problems. I started researching Melville’s biography, and I read Typee, his own fictionalized account of his cannibal adventure—and I soon realized it could make a great story in itself.
But I didn’t want it to be a biography of Melville, per se, so I did a few things to distance my story from being a biography: I’d discovered that his family name was originally spelled “Melvill” without the “e,” so I thought it’d be an interesting twist to use his original name that was not as well known, in fact barely known at all. Also, I decided to write about Melville in a very spare and modern style, in contrast to his own richly florid and poetic prose, thus firmly transplanting his nineteenth-century story into the twenty-first century.
FR: How did you get interested in “revisionist fiction”? What are the beauties
and complications of working in this genre?
TM: I read several examples of it that I enjoyed and admired. Coming to mind are: J. M. Coetzee’s Foe, Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius.
I’m not a musician, but I suppose it’s a bit like doing a cover of a song that you love – changing it up and making it yours, but because you love and respect the original so much, not because you think the original failed in some way and you want to do a better version. I enjoy playing with the nuances of the original, isolating certain aspects of the tone or imagery, for example, and amplifying it or recoloring it or recasting it somehow; or emphasizing an aspect of characterization that is only hinted at in the original.
FR: What kind of research did you do in preparation for this type of writing?
TM: For Weeping with an Ancient God, I read a lot of Melville and about Melville. I read with special care his novel Typee, which was his own thinly veiled fictional account of his time in the Marquesas Islands. It’s important to say, though, that while I used his biography and Typee for inspiration, and for period details, I wasn’t interested in being faithful to what really happened.
Men of Winter was a bit different, in terms of research. Even though it’s strongly implied to be set in early-twentieth-century Russia (Siberia, in fact), I deliberately avoided pinning it down to a specific time and place. I wanted the narrative to have one foot in the “real” world, and one foot in some other sort of world.
I’ve had a few readers compliment me on my thorough research, which implies to me that they think all of the geographical and period details are genuine, when in fact there are very few details that I included straight from my research. So I do take such comments as a compliment, but not to my thorough research so much as to my ability to write made-up stuff that sounds real. In essence, they’re complimenting me for being an accomplished liar. To which I nod demurely and say “Thank you.”
Beth Gilstrap is an MFA candidate at Chatham University’s Creative Writing Program. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. The photos of Ted Morrissey on the cover page and this page are by Kristen Shaffer.