Ten Questions with Keith Lee Morris

I haven’t done a “Ten Questions” with an author in a while, but when I read the creative and interesting The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris seemed like a great candidate.  Luckily for me, he graciously agreed to answer some questions via email.  

Here is a brief bio:

Keith Lee Morris is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Clemson University. His short stories have been published in A Public Space, Southern Review, Ninth Letter,StoryQuarterly, New England Review, The Sun, and the Georgia Review, among other publications. The University of Nevada published his first two books: The Greyhound Gods (2003) and The Best Seats in the House (2004). He lives in Clemson, South Carolina.

Questions and answers below:

1) What was it about darts and a small town dart league “king” that sparked a story like this?  Or how did the title and that part of the plot come to be?

The book started out as a short story called “Russell’s Thursday Night,” which was about Russell Harmon’s attempt to win the dart league championship while being chased by an angry drug dealer and a woman who wanted to make him take a paternity test.  As I was writing it, I started getting more and more interested in the secondary characters, and the possibilities for a novel began to take shape.  The characters morphed some, new characters came in, new elements of the plot surfaced, and then I saw how I could bring all the stories together in one moment late in the evening.  The small town setting, the bar, the bar games, etc., are all part of my experience, more or less the same material I draw from all the time in my work.  I grew up in a small town in Idaho and saw this kind of drama played out over and over again.  It’s not even exaggerated all that much, really.  And the “dart” element was inspired by the fact that I founded a dart league in my home town at one time.

2) Were you worried about creating just another trapped in a small town type story?

No.  Almost all of my fiction contains some element of that kind of story.  I think it’s just a fact about most people from small towns–there’s an internal tug of war going on that has to do with a desire to get out, make something more of yourself, etc., and I desire to stay there close to people you care about, places you know intimately, a way of life that’s comfortable.  I don’t think there’s any end to its possibilities as fiction, just as I don’t think there’s any end to the story of the outsider or immigrant who comes to the big city and feels lost, displaced, what have you.  It’s a familiar story type because there’s an strong element of truth to it, and the interest in the story runs as deep as the interest in the individual characters–it’s up to the author to make their stories important.

3) What prompted you to tell the story using alternating chapters and perspectives?

I knew I didn’t want to go to first person. There was something in the tone of the 3rd person account of Russell’s evening that I liked. But I also wanted a distinctive style for each character, a third person “voice” of sorts, and I didn’t think I could capture that with a free-floating POV. So that’s where the separate sections came into play. Then I started thinking about the narrative structure of As I Lay Dying, and that gave me the idea for some of the overlapping in the time frames, the incidents witnessed from multiple perspectives.

4) What was the challenge in presenting a voice and a character like Vince Thompson (avoid caricature and vulgarity for its own sake for example)?

To be honest, it wasn’t a challenge at all, since I never thought much about the problems you mention—although they’re very real potential problems, I admit.  When you’ve spent as much time in small town dive bars as I have, you’ve met hundreds of Vince Thompsons, and it was easy for me to latch onto his mode of expression and his level of frustration and his crazy fantasies about himself and everything else.  Seriously, I’ve known so many of these guys—they’re really scary on the surface, but when you get to know them a little, it turns out they have a heart just like everyone else.  It was a pleasure to get Vince down on paper.  I think it was the easiest part of writing the book.

5) Despite their myriad faults you seem sympathetic to your characters.  Do you think that is important/necessary for an author?

For me it is.  It’s a lot like method acting—I suppose I’d call myself a method writer.  I have to get inside a character and dig around, and when you do that you can’t help but get attached a little bit.  I’ve thought the thoughts they’re thinking—you have to have thought them while you were inside the character’s head, or the thoughts couldn’t have come into being, meaning that all the characters’ thoughts in one sense belong to the author, which means that, as many authors have pointed out before me, all fiction is autobiographical, all the characters contain a little piece of the author’s self.  I once read an interview with Annie Proulx in which she said she found the idea of falling in love with one’s characters “repugnant,” and if that’s true, I’m a particularly disgusting author.  It probably also has something to do with my general attitude toward people—I tend to like people better the more I get to know them.

6) Tristan Mackay seems like the one character that might “make something of himself.”  And yet he seems borderline psychotic.  Is this nihilism?  Amorality? Cowardice?

I suppose you could say all three.  Ultimately, he’s selfish.  Most of us are, when pressured, and he’s certainly under a good deal of pressure as the plot unfolds.  That’s not to say that I think the majority of people would react the way he does—only that it’s difficult to tell until you’ve been pushed beyond your own familiar limits.  And I would argue that one measure of whether a person is capable of “making something of him/herself” has to do with how far that person can go before reaching his/her limits and what he/she will do once pushed beyond them.  Judged on that criteria, I’d say all the other characters are more likely to make something of themselves than Tristan.  In fact I have high hopes for the other characters.  The novel deals in a clichéd theme, no doubt—appearances can deceive.

7) What is it like being the second most famous writer from your hometown?

I don’t even know that I’m the second most famous author from my hometown.  But I assume #1 on your list is Marilynne Robinson.  I love Marilynne Robinson.  She writes beautifully and takes human beings seriously.  She refuses to treat life (or literature) as if it’s some sort of game.  She writes thoughtful novels for thoughtful people.  I admire her tremendously.

8 ) What does a publisher like Tin House bring to the process compared to one of the larger conglomerates?  Have you been involved in the publicity aspect of the process?

The big thing to me is that Tin House didn’t hesitate to say they wanted the book.  There were editors at other houses who wanted to buy it, but in each case it became a protracted struggle, and the editors in question, through no fault of their own, weren’t able to push the book through.  I think the people at Tin House just went with their gut feeling and didn’t question themselves overmuch, and I suspect the bigger houses have a harder time doing that.  Yes, I’ve been involved in every aspect of the book’s publication all along.  

9) Are you familiar with literary blogs?  How do you think they are impacting publishing and the discussion of literature?

I keep up with some blogs.  By and large I think they’re great.  They generate discussion about books—what more can you ask?  I don’t really even care who’s having the discussion or what the discussion is about.  Granted, some blogs are better than others just like some books are better than others, and I think the democratization of literary criticism is good in some ways and not so good in others.  But overall, gosh, how can you not like a forum in which people share ideas about books?  The only real quibble I have is that a lot of people seem to read the blogs constantly without actually reading any of the works being discussed.

10)  If you were given control of the local (meaning most prominent paper in your area) newspaper’s book coverage what are three things you would change or implement?

 I’d suggest the same things everyone would suggest – more – and longer book reviews about better and lesser known works.  Sorry to be boring and brief on that one.


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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