Ten Questions: James Morrow

One of the first things we did when we “woke up” from our nap was track down award winning novelist James Morrow, and bother him AGAIN for an interview, as if his humoring of us the first time wasn’t enough. We are happy to report he graces our pages once again…

drunkenmermaid.com: It’s been about five years since we last caught up with you. What’s been the highlight of that time?

The highlight was that I kept getting mistaken for a serious mainstream writer. This is generally okay with me. (Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.) But I hope I shall never forswear my science-fiction roots.

In April of 2010, I appeared on a panel at the New York Public Library moderated by Adam Gopnik. Our discussion was a follow-up to a cyberspace project that found various scholars and writers, myself included, providing a kind of digital-age Talmudic commentary to Candide, a translation of which had been mounted on the NYPL website in honor of the novella’s 250th anniversary (you can find it here – the Eds.).

And then in September of that same year, I spent two weeks in Russia, having been invited to speak at the International Tolstoy Conference in Yasnaya Polyana. Wife Kathy came, too. Our friend Larisa Mihaylova (a literary scholar we got to know way back in 2000 at Utopiales SF Festival in Nantes) was our guide and translator, taking us to museums in the amazing, fissured, sorrowful, mammoth city of Moscow.

The conference itself was weird. The scholars displayed very little interest in Leo Tolstoy as a literary artist. Though perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, since he ultimately turned his back on his own novels. Most of the papers seemed aimed at rehabilitating the Tolstoy in the eyes of the Eastern Orthodox Church—not an easy task, given his unequivocal heresy.

drunkenmermaid.com: Anything you’d change if you could?

Last year Kathy and I bought a scruffy houseboat on Raystown Lake, about an hour from our home in State College PA. You’ve probably heard this truism: the happiest day of your life is when you get a boat … and the second happiest day is when you get rid of it.

Voyages figure throughout my oeuvre: the submarine journey in This Is the Way the World Ends, God getting hauled to his tomb via supertanker in Towing Jehovah, Martin Candle navigating the divine cranium in Blameless in Abaddon, Nora Burkhart crossing the Gulf of Mexico in The Eternal Footman. So it’s only fitting that I should have a boat of some sort.

But Kathy and I may live to regret our purchase. Boats, I’m told, have a way of eating into your time and bank account. So if I had to make the choice again … hmmmm.

drunkenmermaid.com: What’s your next project, and what sent you in that direction?

I’m putting the finishing touches on a satiric epic about the coming of the Darwinian worldview—a kind of thematic sequel to The Last Witchfinder, which celebrated the birth of the Enlightenment.

Most of the action takes place between 1848 and 1852, long before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. My heroine, Chloe Bathurst, works on the Darwin estate in Kent, tending to the live tortoises and iguanas her employer transplanted from the Galapagos archipelago. (That’s a bit of a stretch, but the fine print on my artistic license allowed me to imagine a zoo at Down House.)

Interacting with Darwin and his fellow sages, Chloe becomes fairly fluent in the emergent science of biological descent. So when she hears about the Percy Bysshe Shelley Prize—£10,00 to the first person who can prove or disprove the existence of God—she sets sail for Galapagos, seeking to round up the sorts of reptiles and birds that vividly illustrate the blasphemous theory of natural selection.

Mostly the novel is a wild, rollicking, Candide-like odyssey. But, as usual, James Morrow has an agenda.

Despite the claims of contemporary feel-good theologians, it seems to me that Darwin profoundly—and forever—problematized the theistic worldview. Throughout the composition process, I was energized by my annoyance at those who insist that science and religion are as easily harmonized today as they were before Darwin brought back the bad news from Galapagos. It just ain’t so. The Gifford Lectures are a rigged game.

drunkenmermaid.com: Which one of your novels are you most fond of? Tell us why.

Beyond what Daniel Dennett calls “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,” the other grand rejoinder to theism is the Problem of Evil. Christianity tells a complex, compelling, and beautiful story—but it is not the story of the universe in which we happen to live, and a truckload of clever theodicies cannot change the manifest fact of unmerited pain.

I’m most fond of Blameless in Abaddon, because I think I managed to dramatize—and deconstruct—all the major theodicies in an entertaining manner. The book is idea-driven, but I like to think it gave readers sympathetic characters and an engaging plot. Blameless in Abaddon never found the relative large readership that Towing Jehovah has enjoyed, perhaps because it’s too dense with argumentation. But it’s still my fave.

drunkenmermaid.com: What haven’t you done yet that you’d like to?

I haven’t yet attracted any serious notice in Hollywood (merely a few scattered options from independent filmmakers).

drunkenmermaid.com: How do you make that happen?

Darned if I know. I guess I’ll wait for big budget blasphemy to become as popular in Hollywood as CGI adaptations of comic books.

drunkenmermaid.com: If you could be any other writer, who would it be, and why?

When it comes to combining philosophy, humor, audacity, and drama, nobody did it better than Herman Melville. I would rather have written Moby Dick than spend eternity with Jesus.

Melville’s remark to Hawthorne is always worth quoting: “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.”

drunkenmermaid.com: Think of one of your favorite novels by someone else.  What is it? How does its first sentence read if you wrote it?

Your question makes me think of Jorge Luis Borges’s wonderful story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” By plunging deeply into his own psyche and experience, a 20th century French novelist has managed to replicate—per his explicit intention—portions of Don Quixote line for line and word for word (in the original Spanish). The narrator deliciously and perversely insists that the parallel passages, though “verbally identical,” are phenomenologically different, and that the Menard version is “infinitely richer.”

A favorite novel of mine is Kafka’s The Trial. In James Morrow’s infinitely richer version, the first line reads, “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.”

drunkenmermaid.com: Attitudes toward religion have dramatically changed in the US in the last ten years. Have you seen any backlash toward your Godhead Trilogy?

The heartening change, from my secular-humanist perspective, has been the arrival on the cultural scene of a full-blown atheist discourse, as embodied not only by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens but also by less celebrated—though in many ways more compelling—figures such as Jonathan Miller (writer and producer of the robust BBC series Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief), Julia Sweeney (creator of the marvelous solo performance “Letting Go of God”), and Rebecca Goldstein (author of the paradoxically titled novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God).

Before 9/11, if you wanted to encounter atheism as a source of seriously intended comedy or drama, you had to search out eccentric efforts such as James Morrow’s Only Begotten Daughter and his Godhead Trilogy. But after the Twin Towers went down, thousands of people doubtless thought to themselves, “Hmmm, despite the extreme deference accorded to religion in our culture, it would appear that theism doesn’t necessarily lead to desirable moral consequences. Indeed, something like the opposite may be the case.” So when a series of books by public intellectuals appeared that explicitly addressed this conundrum, large readerships were waiting to devour them.

In other words, after 9/11, the cat was out of the bag: religion is a wholly human invention, and not an entirely felicitous one at that. (This realization may be one reason that Towing Jehovah is still in print after all these years.)

Of course, we’re now seeing a backlash, to use your word. Those uppity atheists, don’t they know their place? Alas, this attitude is not confined to the religious right: much of the progressive philosophical community has closed ranks against a certain kind of unembarrassed secular humanism. (I think especially of Terry Eagleton’s snarky manifesto, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.) I would say that Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens and my hero Jonathan Miller must be doing something right.

Even if the evangelical right knew about my Godhead Trilogy, they probably wouldn’t give me any particular grief about it. From the standpoint of Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich (despite his affection for a certain kind of technocracy), all discourse that puts a premium on science, reason, ambiguity, skepticism, and secularism is degenerate, not simply frankly blasphemous novels. Christian theocracy forever!

drunkenmermaid.com: Jim, Thanks for your time. Last question: where can your fans find you during March 2012? Any upcoming appearances?

I’m about to take off for Bard College, where The Philosopher’s Apprentice has found its way into novelist Bradford Morrow’s syllabus. On March 19 I’ll be visiting Brad’s classes and giving a public reading.

Then it’s off to Orlando for the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, March 21-25, where I’ll be reading from the Darwin novel—probably the scene where Chloe lands on the Galapagos island of Charles (now Floreana) and discovers that it’s been colonized by three Mormon Saints and their harems.

(You can also find James Morrow here and his latest story here – the Eds. again)

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