Keith L. Morris Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Keith L. Morris

Keith L. Morris

An interview with Keith L. Morris

Keith Lee Morris discusses his latest novel, The Dart League King, and how he goes about writing his books.

Both the The Dart League King and your previous novel, The Greyhound God, seem to draw heavily on place—the local dialects, habits and particularities of the people. Has this always been an important means in building your characters?
I don’t start with place, really, at least not intentionally.  I’m much more likely at the outset to be thinking character, plot, theme, language, structure.  I end up setting most of my fiction in Idaho because I realize that, when it comes time to start writing the scenes, that’s where I see them happening in my head, back in my old hometown.  And the characters tend to act and speak like people back in Idaho, etc.—it’s really more a function of how my imagination works than anything else.

Your writing tends to focus on the underdog, the little guy. Do you tend to gravitate toward characters like that?
I read somewhere that Richard Yates once said he felt that his whole career had been an ongoing attempt to defend the underdog, or words to that effect.  I feel the same way.  I didn’t grow up around people who had money and attended private schools.  Most of my friends were from blue-collar families, and, of my really close friends, only one ended up graduating from college.  Much of what I write is an attempt to convey my feelings about the town I lived in and the people I knew there—I try to make readers see that the lives of people in out-of-the-way towns in the middle of nowhere are every bit as important and interesting as the lives of people anywhere else.

There are elements of Faulkner—another Mississippi native—in your writing, and you’ve said that the structure of the The Dart League King was inspired by As I Lay Dying. Still this work is firmly grounded in the west, do you feel a particular kinship with the writers of either region? How do you see your experience in those two parts of the country affecting your work?
I’ve often had people try to call me a Southern writer, but I just don’t see how.  I was born in the South, all of my extended family is in the South, and I’ve lived in the South almost half my life, but I almost never write about the South and the subject of my books or stories is rarely anything that could be considered southern.  It’s not that the South doesn’t interest me—just that, from the time that I started to feel some distance from it at the age of 9 or 10, it’s never really seemed like my home, and the lifestyle and the politics of most of the South is pretty alien to me.  It’s also more interesting to write about Idaho because not many fiction writers have done it—aside from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, there hasn’t been a whole lot of fiction about Idaho that’s reached a wide audience.  Writing about Idaho seems like something worth trying to do—the South is adequately represented without my assistance.

What writers are important to you, and your development as a fiction writer?
You’ve mentioned Faulkner already.  Other fiction writers I’d add to the list would be Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, Knut Hamsun, Garcia Marquez, Cormac McCarthy, John Barth, Marilynne Robinson, Don Delillo, Kobo Abe, Thomas Hardy, Jean Giono, Fitzgerald, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Borges, Woolf, Barthelme, Naipaul, Dreiser, Camus—aaaggh!—I could go on jumping around like that forever.  I think when I hear sentence rhythms in my head I’m most influenced by two poets, actually—T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens.  It might be a purely internal thing, something only I can hear, but the rhythm of my prose often has some sort of grounding in their rhythms, seems to me.

Along with the two novels, you’ve published a collection of short fiction, The Best Seats in the House. When you sit down to write, how is the process different in crafting stories and novels? When do you know which form the writing will take, and how did you decide that The Dart League King would work as longer piece?
Honestly, a lot of times I don’t know whether I’m writing a story or a novel until something definitive happens with the pacing.  Sometimes I’ll have a suspicion that I’m writing a 20-page story and three pages into it I’ll realize I’m halfway done.  The Dart League King was just the opposite—I thought I could handle Russell’s story (it was originally supposed to be a short story called “Russell’s Thursday Night”) in about five or six thousand words, but what happened was that all these other characters and situations began to crowd in.  I found I couldn’t write just a few lines about Russell’s angry drug dealer or his ex-girlfriend or his opponent in the dart league championship—I kept being pulled back into their stories, and soon they became an equal or a nearly equal part of the whole and I had to discover a way to deal with them adequately.  The movement and the structure of As I Lay Dying offered some clues about how to put it all together, and before long I saw I was writing a novel.

Let’s talk specifically about the The Dart League King. There are five principle narrators with five very distinct voices. Were any of the voices more difficult to capture than others?
I’m glad that you’re referring to them as “voices,” because I intended the novel to read as if it incorporated multiple voices . . . but, since it’s 3rd person, there’s really only one narrator.  My intention was to try to capture the intimacy and idiosyncrasy of 1st person while maintaining the more observational quality of 3rd.  I wanted the reader to hear Vince Thompson speaking, for instance, even though it’s actually the narrator speaking for him, and to see him from the outside as well.  If you envisioned it as a movie, you’d see the character filmed from an external point-of-view but you’d be hearing his thoughts in a voice-over.  Not all that uncommon for film (think of a movie like Adaptation in which you hear Nicholas Cage’s voice constantly but at the same time are watching him sweat, squirm uncomfortably, etc.), but uncommon for fiction; in 1st person fiction, the perspective is always internal, while in 3rd person there can be both internal and external, but the internal is rendered in the voice of the narrator and not of the character.  I wanted the internal and the external happening simultaneously, so I had to resort to something a little unusual, which I suppose you could imagine as the narrator telling the story while imitating the voice and usage of the various characters.  I’ve found that a lot of my “test” readers (friends and writers with whom I share manuscripts), after having put the novel away for awhile, begin to remember it as being written in 1st person.  That makes me feel good—that’s what I was aiming for.  As far as which “voices” were most difficult to capture—I really had the most trouble with Tristan, maybe because the language in which he thinks is closer to my own.  That makes the character harder to invent.  Vince was the easiest—once I found the exact pattern of his profanity and the level of his anger, he started blazing across the page pretty quickly.  I had a lot of fun writing his sections.

Is there a character, or an attribute of a character, that you yourself identify with?
Well, I think you have to be able to identify with everything about the characters.  I don’t think it’s possible to imagine something without some level of identification, is it?  For me to imagine Vince Thompson wanting to stand up and shoot Russell Harmon in the 321 Club, I have to be able to identify that impulse—if not feel it myself then at least locate it and know where it might come from.  You don’t have to be a murderer in order to be a writer, but you have to do your best to understand what being a murderer would feel like, and if you’re not willing to go there then your writing isn’t going to be convincing or effective.  But in more direct response to your question . . . I probably identify with one element of Brice Habersham’s personality more than anything else in the novel—he wants things to work out logically and rationally and peacefully and cleanly, and they almost never do.  Life always turns out to be messier than he had anticipated, even though his internal calculations are very finely tuned.  He seems genuinely puzzled that things don’t always turn out like he planned, and I think I’m a bit like that myself.

I wouldn’t have expected to sympathize with several of the narrators—namely Vince, Tristan, and, to some extent, even Russell—but you slowly build compassion for them. Do you find it difficult to balance their obvious failings and shortcomings with a kind of likeability and humanity?
My belief is that almost all people are likeable if you get to know them well enough (Tristan notwithstanding).  So when I’m working up a character like Vince, who’s repugnant initially, I trust that all I have to do is stay true to who I know he is, and the things that make him likeable and sympathetic will surface as the novel moves along.  When you’re inside someone’s head, getting a chance to see them from the inside out, they always have a moment—Vince remembering the time he spent with an old girlfriend, Russell carefully considering the baby picture Kelly shows him, maybe even Tristan and his feelings of isolation and his brief moments of regret—in which the reader finds a connection.

There is an incredible amount of detail about the game of darts—you seem to know it well. Similarly, the vivid descriptions of the 321 Club suggest a real familiarity with that kind small town bar. Have you had your share of experience in front of the dartboard and on the barstool? How important to your fiction is being immersed in the subject matter?
Bars are my favorite places in the world.  You never know what’s going to happen in a bar, and a lot of whatever does happen changes peoples’ lives.  If I’d tried to set The Dart League King anywhere other than a small town bar, it wouldn’t have worked.  Another great thing about bars is that the real story behind what’s going on is completely hidden from outsiders—if you were to walk into the middle of this novel, you probably wouldn’t notice a damn thing going on until the fight breaks out in the end.  The fact that you’re a reader and it’s a novel grants you a privilege—you get an inside view of the insiders.  You’re even more in the know than the characters who are in the know.  I think that’s a good place for a novelist to try to reach, because readers are bound to feel that they’re being treated generously.  And yes, I’ve spent plenty of time in bars and I’ve spent plenty of time throwing darts, though I’m not very good.  I’m better at pool.  But I was, in fact, the founder of my hometown dart league once upon a time.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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