Can you name a contemporary Welsh writer? I couldn’t. I could muster Roald Dahl, Bertrand Russell and poet Dylan Thomas, but they certainly aren’t contemporary. Last week I met with Thomas Morris, who has lived in Ireland for ten years now, yet you’d think he was fresh off the Holyhead ferry by his guttural Welsh inflections, an accent uncorrupted by brogue.
Throughout our interview he oscillates from humour to genuine lucidity on his passion – the short story – and tells of his recent adventures in longer fictional forms, a “novel-shaped thing,” as he describes it.
New Irish fiction has been very successful recently. This latest generation of authors – Lisa McInerney, Sara Baume, Colin Barrett, Rob Doyle, and, through a form of literary adoption, Thomas Morris – are at the forefront of our culture.
They are part of a continuous conversation this country is adept at having with its writers through journals, the media and literary prizes such as the Hennessy Award, which publishes new short fiction and poetry on a monthly basis.
Thomas Morris’s first collection of short stories We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, published by Faber & Faber last August, sees his hometown of Caerphilly becoming the stage for a cast of lost souls. Inertia is rife in the ten stories as the characters fumble around the South of Wales in a listless embrace of their lives.
Morris balances the poignant against his innate humour, (“I tried to get a joke in on every page”) but besides the light relief, what he’s done is imbue his characters with a colourful duality of life that allows the reader to slip into the stories and tempers the low-grade sadness that permeates the collection.
“Writing the stories, I hadn’t properly considered the issue of hope. In shaping the collection, one of the things my editor said to me was to give people a bit of relief a little sooner.” So now the story with a “happy ending” appears earlier in the collection, which keeps the reader alert; they don’t know what to expect, especially as the story follows one where a characters tears their face off in a macabre finale.
Ireland manifested itself curiously in this Welsh lad: an inexplicable teenage whim, a few trips over and a twee TV soap, “This is one of those things where I’ve been glib in the past and I’ve looked like an arsehole… but I had this idea that I wanted an Irish wife. When asked before, I say it’s from watching too many episodes of Ballykissangel.”
However, his Dad took this seriously and booked them a cottage in Athlone – “The dead centre of Ireland, he said” – so they could visit towns around Ireland as a reconnaissance mission for college, “It was ridiculous. We would get in the car and drive for two hours. We’d get out, ‘Right, this is Galway.’ We’d have a wee, eat a bag of chips and then get back in and drive to the next place.” Asleep half the time in the car, the other half he was trying to read Joyce’s Dubliners.
Having decided on Trinity College, he spent a gap year saving up the money in order to study and moved into halls as a 19-year-old. After getting a few laughs he discovered that his Welsh personality travelled, “I was writing late at night and putting things together.” Unintentionally he was trying to write stories, “Being away there was a sense of me trying to solidify memories. I also wrote some really bad Welsh language poetry about my “distance from Wales”.”
Years after that road-trip around Ireland, Joyce’s book of short stories were central in announcing Morris to an Irish reading public. 2014 was the centenary of the publication of Dubliners. Tramp Press, run by Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff, commissioned Dubliners 100, in which “cover versions” of Joyce’s original stories were done by 15 Irish writers; it was Morris’s original idea and he edited the project.
What began half-jokingly became one of Tramp Press’s first major successes,
“By the Summer of 2013 Tramp Press was set up and we spoke about it seriously. With anyone else it wouldn’t have got over the line. But Tramp are doers… They just get things done. And that rubbed off on me. It became a fun game: let’s send emails to writers and see what they say…”
The pitch they sent out to the writers was, “Sing Joyce in your own voice.” John Boyne had already said if the project came about he’d do a version of Araby. Morris bumped into Paul Murray in Stoneybatter, mentioned the idea and he said, “ ‘Oh you won’t believe this, but I’ve already done it… A Painful Case, I loved the story so much I spent 15 years trying to write a version of it.’ He sent it to me (he’d published it under a different title, but it was clearly A Painful Case). I asked could we take it and he said yeah.” The whole thing was fast becoming a Joyce pyramid scheme, a bizarre premise that wouldn’t seem out of place in a George Saunders’ story.
As each writer picked a story there’d be another email sent out letting everyone know what was left from the dwindling collection – this created an urgency. Was the idea that he had to edit these established writers daunting?
“It was daunting, but no matter what level they’re at, writers want to hear if it’s working. So I just send my notes and sometimes they’d be lengthy and sometimes they’d be less so. Each one responded well to it actually, much better than I presumed they’d respond to a twenty-eight-year-old Welsh boy telling them how to edit their cover of a Dubliners story… Looking back, it was all quite absurd.”
After finishing his degree in 2009, Morris decided to stay in Ireland. He moved into Portobello with friend and fellow writer Sam Coll (who has a much anticipated book due from Lilliput Press in 2016 called The Abode of Fancy). During these years he interned at Liberties Press before moving onto Lilliput and then becoming editor with The Stinging Fly Magazine where he amicably succeeded Declan Meade, enabling Meade to focus his attention on book publishing.
There were also various odd jobs while doing the apprenticeships in publishing and editing. The oddest of these was sorting out a private photo collection for Paul McGuinness, the U2 manager:
“He was just looking for someone to organise the photos. They covered thirty or forty years of the band; four or five thousand photos. It was fascinating, but it would have been far more fascinating for someone who actually liked U2… What was incredible was to see the journey of the band. As boys playing to empty places… Then they got themselves a little bus… Then they’re looking a little older, there’s more swagger and they get a slightly bigger bus. Suddenly some models are hanging out with the band… They’re on a plane going abroad for the first time… Then they own a plane and are playing to stadiums… There was a lot of life in there.”
This is interesting but Morris was looking to be a writer not the curator of a photo gallery. Thankfully, although busy, he was writing too. A nightly routine from about 11pm – 3am was cultivated, one he mostly sticks to today.
By this stage he had definite ideas about fiction. Himself and housemate Sam found themselves writing parodies lampooning styles they didn’t like, “In one of our novels there was a writer character who wrote a novel called The Silence of Dust.” They were taking the piss out of self-important fiction where everything is about what’s not being said:
“We were annoyed about all the turgidly boring stuff being passed off as profound. But then I found myself writing a novel that wasn’t too dissimilar in tone to all that we’d dismissed. I thought I was doing something different but actually I was just afraid to commit.” The novel was set over one weekend in Caerphilly, and he describes it as the slowest thing you have ever read.
After three years of writing it he sent the novel out to friends. They too were slow getting back. The best feedback he received was from a friend of a friend who didn’t know him, “She just said that it was boring. She said it felt like a short story that had been stretched out. That it was pretentious.” That was honest in a way no friend could be.
When Sam finally got back to him, he had confirmation, “It was New Year’s Eve. When we met he mentioned that he’d finished my novel, and all he said was, ‘It’s good but I missed your humour.’ And he was right.”
Morris was imitating the stripped back style of great writers like Raymond Carver but didn’t know why he was doing it, “I thought it was really profound because I’d slowed everything down… I thought I made the air pregnant with meaning. Really, I was afraid of having things happen because I thought having things happen was a convention of cheap literature. To have the reader interested in plot was cheating, I thought.”
This meant there was no colour or life in the writing. The people he knew from back home didn’t live in this painfully slow and serious manner, far from it. He knew the novel failed because the prose style didn’t reflect the exuberances or minutiae of the life.
One of the things he learned was to leave space for the reader within the story. This makes the prose feel immediate, “There are just some words where it feels like you are trying too hard to persuade the reader of something. Words like ‘even’, ‘ever’, ‘never’, and ‘always’ – ‘oh that always happens.’ Does it always happen? Or, are you trying to persuade us that it does? It is language you don’t think of as cliché, but it is cliché and it sneaks in. If you take that word out, it’s not always happening, it’s happening now – what does the reader make of that?”
A lot of the editing and drafting is identifying these hidden clichés and quirks. By doing this Morris is encoding an emotional honesty and intensity of feeling into his writing. In an age of irony it is authenticity that readers crave.
I’m curious if there was a particular breakthrough with his writing? He tells of drafting the opening story Bolt from We Don’t Know What We’re Doing. He had it at 4,000 words but it was too neat; he’d reached an impasse. Then he read an interview with George Saunders about storytelling where he took the example of “Little Red Riding Hood”,
“All along the way you have decisions writing that story. Does Little Red Riding Hood go through the woods? Yes, the woods is more interesting than Riding Hood just arriving at her Gran’s house. Is she going to meet someone along the way? Yes, meeting someone would indeed be interesting… Saunders was saying that if you train yourself as a writer to look at these junctures and realise that they are junctures, then you can move towards the most interesting possibilities – ‘where the heat is,’ – and you will learn something about your characters, and you’ll actually realise that you have something to say about the situation.” This encouraged Morris to go back to Bolt and drive the narrative onwards in this way, “Then it came alive, there was a bit more excitement to it because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Embracing the complications of the plots opened the narratives up to richer and more real discoveries about his characters and himself. What also helped was the idea that every character should believe and behave like they are the main characters in the story. This then creates the conflict needed to elevate the fiction and ensnare the reader by producing a captivating story.
Short stories are clearly Morris’s terrain; they have been for quite some time, “Short stories are something I’ve adored for a long time. I think often a novel can be carried by a single voice; there can be lots of problems in other areas but the voice can sustain it. Whereas a short story has to hit every point to really work.”
For a while he avoided reading novels, considering them, because of their length, “necessarily a little clunky, a little compromised” : “I got pretty flighty about the importance of short stories. Then I realised that, for all the theories, all we really mean by “short story” is that it’s short. And the real question is: what can you do in that amount of space?
“Can you show that a character has changed, and then show how that affects the lives of the surrounding characters? And then can you show how these other characters change in response? By the time I reached the tenth story in the collection, I was trying to look at these things, and I realised that I was probably entering into more novel territory. That’s not to say one approach is superior to the other; they’re just different.”
This brings us back to when they were divvying out the stories for Dubliners 100. If nobody was willing to take The Dead, he joked that he’d give it a go and start the story from the morning after, “I was curious as to what happens after you’ve had that sort of a breakthrough?” The Dead deals with Gabriel’s epiphany about his wife Greta and her dead lover Michael Furey, “The epiphany can be aesthetically pleasing in a story story but, in terms of how life is lived, people change and then there are repercussions. The novel I’m trying to write begins at a moment of change.”
Within the framework of a novel there is room for him to explore the changes in his characters and immerse himself in the consequences of their actions, “Being in Ireland has been an astonishing place to work with the short story. It’s my first love, but you don’t necessarily marry your first love.”
The day after our interview is his first deadline for drafts of his novel and he has to submit a few thousand words to his editor in Faber.
Thomas Morris is embarking on longer-form late-night affairs with the blank page and we look forward to reading him.