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Brian Morton Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Brian Morton
Photo: David Kumin

Brian Morton

An interview with Brian Morton

Brian Morton discusses Florence Gordon, his 2014 novel about a woman who has lived life on her own terms for seventy-five defiant and determined years, only to find herself suddenly thrust to the center of her family's various catastrophes.

How did the idea for Florence Gordon originate?

Florence came first, before I had a picture of any of the other characters, before I had even a vague idea of the story. I really don't know why I started writing about her. She just showed up. The other characters took more time to come into focus. One of the most enjoyable surprises that occurred during the writing of it was the gradual deepening of the relationship between Florence and her granddaughter, Emily. I really hadn't anticipated that at all.

The title character is a feminist firebrand who made a name for herself as a women's rights activist and theorist in the 1970s. Was she modeled on a famous female in history?

No, she wasn't. I had a clear picture of Florence's contemporaries: I knew who she'd hung out with; I knew who her friends and rivals were. I'm thinking of people like Ellen Willis, Vivian Gornick, Alix Kates Shulman. But she wasn't modeled on anyone—and she'd be offended by the suggestion that she was!

What do you think of the preconception that male writers can't accurately write the female voice?

I'm not really sure that there is such a preconception—or at any rate, I don't think there should be. After all, has anyone written better woman characters than Henry James? And has anyone written better male characters than George Eliot? One of the things you're trying to do, when you write fiction, is to imagine what it feels like to be inside other people's skin. In Florence Gordon, Emily, after reading Middlemarch, thinks about Eliot's idea that each person is the "center of a world." Part of the fiction writer's job, it seems to me, is to try to do justice to that idea.

How has your position as director of the writing program at Sarah Lawrence influenced your writing?

The experience of teaching has influenced my writing in a number of ways. Seeing students take risks with their writing is invigorating. You see a student writing a good story one week, then an interesting failure, than a really wonderful story that she couldn't have written if she hadn't written the interesting failure—it encourages you to experiment; it keeps you loose.

It's also made me more appreciative of the importance of story, of what Henry James called "the magic of suspense." When I'm reading student work, I find I turn the pages much more eagerly when the writer has made me care about the simple question of what happens next. It's a lesson I try to keep in mind when I'm writing my own stuff.
But that said, when I sit down to write, I forget that I'm the director of a writing program. Being the director of a writing program seems to imply that you know what you're doing. When I'm writing, I'm just sort of stumbling around.

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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