Mary Morris, author of The Jazz Palace, teaches writing in addition to being an accomplished and critically acclaimed writer herself. One of her students was Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling of Leaving Time and many, many other beloved bestsellers. The following Q&A is a treasure trove of illumination for readers and inspiration for writers. Enjoy!
Tell us something about how you met, and what you remember most about your time together as writing student and teacher.
JP: I was a sophomore at Princeton who’d been studying in the creative writing program – the poetry side. I decided I wanted to try my hand at fiction, and got placed in Mary’s class. Mind you, like most kids who get into Princeton, I was used to being pretty good at things…so on the first day of workshop when Mary was discussing my short story with the class, you can imagine how shocked I was when she gave me a glue stick, scissors, and construction paper and told me to sit on the floor in the center of student chairs, and to just do whatever was suggested. Then she asked the class: “Where does Jodi’s story REALLY start?” Some poor soul suggested page three. “Yes!” Mary said, and she ripped off pages one and two and tossed them aside. For the rest of the time my story was being workshopped, I cut and pasted and seethed. I left in tears, and gathered all my courage to go to Mary’s office hours the next day. I asked, “Why did you do that?” She said, “Because you needed it…and because you can take it.” Well, I was mad. I was so mad I edited that story and edited it and edited it until Mary suggested I send it somewhere. I was shocked – I mean, I was writing this for a class – but she told me to send it to SEVENTEEN. I did, and three months later, an editor called me. It was my first published piece.
What really amazed me about Mary was that every time she offered me a suggestion, it was brilliant and perfect for my writing style. There are not many excellent novelists who are also excellent teachers; the default is to “teach” your own style to a student. Believe me, I know – I switched out of a very high profile novelist’s writing class so that I could happily slink back to Mary’s section instead. Mary somehow managed to be both a phenomenal writer AND a remarkable, gifted teacher.
MM: I’d been teaching at Princeton for about six years when Jodi came into my class. I liked her right away. Who wouldn’t? She was (and is) a warm, vivacious, and clearly very smart person. And I saw her talent. I liked her writing and her style from the start, but I thought it needed work. Her stories took too long getting going. I wanted her to start more in scene. I’ve always believed that writing is a lot like gardening – you can cut things back, you can move them around. So I got the idea of coming to class with a scissor, glue, and stapler. I believe we all got on the floor and I started cutting and pasting Jodi’s story. I honestly thought she’d be flattered. But apparently she wasn’t. A day or so later she showed up at my office, practically in tears (or maybe in tears). I think she told me that she was valedictorian of her high school and then I told her that so was everyone else at Princeton. Then she told me that no one had ever touched her writing before. And I replied that we’d made it better. A few months later I suggested she send the story to one of the magazines that caters to younger readers, and when she sold that story to Seventeen, well, it gave her some perspective that she needed – the perspective that’s made it possible for her to be the writer she is today.
We forged a bond. She worked with me again and I directed her thesis. I was pregnant at the time and Jodi would come to my office with hot chocolate because the chocolate made Kate, my daughter, kick and that amused Jodi to no end. I know when her thesis came up for review Paul Auster had issues with it. He was her second reader. I told Paul that he was only seeing the work from his own perspective as a novelist. I told him it was good, and that she was a very good writer. Years later when Jodi was hugely successful, I reminded him of that thesis and I recall that he humbly shook his head.
What is the longest period of time you’ve ever taken to write a novel?
JP: I don’t know why but my novels are like childbirth – it takes me 9 months from start of an idea to the end of the first draft.
MM: Well, The Jazz Palace. Eighteen years!
Is there a novel that almost never got published? Who encouraged you to finish?
JP: I have a couple of novels that were never published. One was a romance written with the pseudonym of a male author. It was when Robert James Waller was racing up the charts with Bridges of Madison County and I was so angry that a male author who wrote a romance would get critical attention while so many female authors who were more fluid writers were pigeonholed into a bodice-ripper paperback genre. I decided I was going to pretend to be a male author, write a romance, and then blow the industry wide open on Oprah, LOL. However, my agent couldn’t sell the book. She was told by several editors it was “too well written” for the male romance genre. Go figure… The second book I didn’t publish was a good book. But it wasn’t a GREAT book and I think I knew it. The whole time I was writing it I had another voice in my head, telling me her story. She got so annoying I sat down one day and wrote 40 pages in her voice. I realized that was the novel I was supposed to be writing instead…and it became Vanishing Acts.
MM: Yes, once again The Jazz Palace! I wrote dozens of versions of this novel and my agent, Ellen Levine, to whom I am devoted, and who loved this novel, and sent it out three separate times – in 2002, 2005, and 2009. And it was rejected over and over again. Ellen told me that it was the worst thing that had happened in her agenting career. In 2009 I decided that that was it. I was finished with the novel and put it in a box in the basement where all my archived manuscripts go. Like an elephant burial ground (which I understand from Jodi’s newest novel, Leaving Time, don’t really exist. ) Then in about 2012 I sat down and reread Ragtime – a novel that influenced me a lot when I initially was writing The Jazz Palace. I don’t know if I can say that E.L. Doctorow encouraged me with a book, but I finished Ragtime one night and, when I woke up the next morning and I knew exactly what was wrong with the novel. I went downstairs, found the manuscript in the box, brought it upstairs on my desk. I knew exactly where the book ended and I knew what I had to do to rewrite it. When I called Ellen to tell her that I’d gone back to the novel and asked her quite sheepishly if she’d consider showing it around again, Ellen replied, “I’ve always loved that book.” And so here we are.
Are you able to read novels while you’re writing a novel?
JP: Yes, but I try to read something that is markedly different from what I’m writing, or else I find myself unwittingly writing like that particular author.
MM: Oh yes I read all the time. But when I’m working on a book such as The Jazz Palace or the one I’m working on now (that covers a time period from 1492 to the present) I’m doing a lot of research so I’m often reading books related to the period or what obsessing me at the moment. (Astronomy at this moment). But if a good book comes out, yes I can happily read. I read physical books and I read a lot on my Kindle. Actually I’m probably reading too much all the time. I should be planning meals or entertaining my parrot, but I tend to read instead.
Jodi’s book, Second Glance, takes place in part in Vermont in the 1920s; The Jazz Palace takes place in Chicago in the 1920s. Talk a bit about the actual research process itself and how you go about weaving historical research seamlessly into a story line.
JP: Research is one of the best perks of writing. In a way, it’s getting to be an academic many times over for each book. When I wrote Second Glance, I wanted to introduce people to a period in American history that stunned me – namely, when we were in the business of racial hygiene prior to Hitler. I was pretty sure that most of my readers didn’t know that in his writings, Hitler thanks Vermont, Virginia, Illinois, California and all the other fine US states who did his homework for him. In Vermont, the targeted group were Abenaki Indians and Catholic French Canadians, who were seen as an economic and social drain on the community. Some pretty famous folks were eugenicists who believed this – Calvin Coolidge, Margaret Sanger, lots of UVM professors. Genealogy charts were made of “degenerate families” – who were not necessarily related – by going to prisons, poorhouses, mental institutions. Then the Vermont legislature passed a law to sterilize these people. Sterilization was voluntary, which at the time meant that if two doctors felt you needed it, it happened. Hundreds of Abenaki and Catholic French Canadians were sterilized – the number is actually much higher but there’s great shame associated with it, and many of those affected went unreported. To do my research I began with a doctoral student at UVM who brought me all these amazing documents, like the one from Harry Perkins, a UVM professor who wrote to say that he was going to be discussing with the local Boy Scouts how to breed a better human. She showed me the genealogy charts, and the legislative records of which reps voted for sterilization (every female representative did). Then I networked to find Abenaki who had relatives that were sterilized, and who told me about Army MASH units rolling up to the banks of the Winooski river in the middle of the night, sterilizing a community and getting out before dawn. Or how sometimes a Native American settlement would be abandoned with fires burning and pots still on the stove – those were the people who’d gotten word that the army was coming, and so they escaped across the border to Canada. The problem with doing historical research is that you so badly want to put everything you’ve learned into your book, but you have to find a way to make it integral and organic. For me, often, that involves using a first person point-of-view so you literally see through the eyes of the character experiencing the horror. You can often weave in real life figures and incidents through the eyes of your narrator.
MM: Well, for me the research requires two things. I have to become passionate about the subject or I won’t do it, and the research has to feed organically into the fiction. In the writing of The Jazz Palace I devoured everything I could on Chicago, on jazz, on African-American migrations. I have a bin filled with books that I used as research. When I’m doing it I love it. But then you learn a little detail such as Al Capone was a good dancer, and all of a sudden you can see him dancing with your most wild, crazy character who also is a good dancer and so a scene evolves. It’s not something you can plan for but it is very, very satisfying when it happens.
Who is the best author writing today who is not quite getting his or her due?
JP: SO MANY! I can’t pick just one. Chris Bohjalian, John Searles, Alice Hoffman, Amanda Eyre Ward, and Aimee Bender should all be on your bookshelves. Oh, and Mary Morris – who is still one of my gold standards for writing!
MM: I’m a huge fan of Jenny Offal and her wonderful novel, The Department of Speculation. Even though it was named in the top 10 New York Times year-end round-up not that many people have heard of it or of her for that matter. I think Jenny definitely deserves a larger audience. She’s a slow but incredibly careful writer. I look forward to her next one. There are other writers too whose work I love such as Valerie Martin and Joan Silber who are very respected but in my mind aren’t quite getting their due.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?
JP: It came from Mary and I’m quite sure she doesn’t remember saying it – basically, she told us in class you cannot write about the dinosaurs until they become oil. In other words, if you experience something personally that rips you wide open and is a source for your fiction, you have to let it settle to the point where it is no longer raw before you can address it fictionally with objectivity. That, and the fact that every character needs his/her own story, or they need to be cut and sent off to literary limbo.
MM: John Gardner once told me that if someone gives you a piece of criticism and a light bulb goes off inside your head, then that person is probably right. For example years ago I asked Ron Hansen to read a manuscript of mine. He read it and gave me some good notes, then told me that the book started on page 33. But of course it didn’t start on p. 33 I argued. It began where I began it. Then I moved to Italy for a year and I kept hearing what Ron said and I fought again it and then one day walking around Rome I said to myself, “Ron is right.” I knew he was. That was why I fought it for so long. In some ways I think we know what’s wrong with our work but it’s so hard for us to give up anything we’ve written as if it’s sacred. In rewriting The Jazz Palace I had to get rid of so many pages and so many characters. But somehow deep down we know what we have to do to make our work better and when we heard a piece of advice and that light bulb goes on, it’s just someone confirming what we already knew.
Can you talk about the longevity of your friendship? How it has evolved from teacher/mentor to its present form? Or has it?
JP: Mary went into labor reading my thesis, which seems so incredibly fitting, since we were both sort of giving birth. She was and always will be my a champion for me in the literary world. I am pretty sure she twisted Paul Auster’s arm into giving me a decent grade on my thesis, when he was the second reader, and he wasn’t quite sure whether I’d actually make it as a writer. It has been humbling and strange to have Mary turn to ME with a draft of her writing and to ask me for advice. I love her style; I love her stories – so anytime she asks me to read anything it’s a treat for me. But the thought that she believes I’ve taken her wisdom to heart well enough to actually provide critical feedback for a writer of her caliber – well, I can’t quite wrap my head around it and probably will never be able to. I’m just very, very grateful that she has been in my life, and I mean it with 100% honesty when I say that if she hadn’t been my mentor, I would not be writing today.
MM: Oh it’s evolved a lot. And yet in some ways it’s stayed exactly the same. First of all Jodi is hugely successful. She’s probably one of the most successful novelists on the planet today. I tease her from time to time that I should have gotten in on the ground floor, but in fact our friendship has always been a give and take. She claims that I have made her the writer she is today (seminal is the word she often uses) and I am endlessly grateful at her generosity for saying that. And continuing to say that. I think that Jodi was always going to be the writer she is today but perhaps I enabled her to look at her work in a different way than she would have. I think one of the secrets of our friendship is that we still always have fun. We joke a lot. And yet we both have a lot of respect for one another. Jodi has given back to me as much as she thinks I have given to her. But perhaps that’s just the definition of friendship anyway.
QUESTIONS FOR JODI
What is your favorite scene in The Jazz Palace, and why?
The one where Napoleon suffers a truly horrific injury that threatens his creative career – and how, from that moment – he illuminates the institutional racism that isn’t always visible in the performing world where he’s been living. Not only is it beautifully written, and shocking, and like nothing I’d ever read before, but it touched upon some of the deepest roots of racial injustice that still divide Chicago today.
Many of your novels are told using five different narrative voices. What do you think about the recent surge in popularity of different narrators in such books as Gone Girl and Girl on the Train?
Dare I say they copied me, LOL? I have no idea what makes others writers choose a first person narrative, but from my standpoint, when I’m writing about a very controversial topic having multiple first person points of view allows me to let a character passionately plead his case to the reader…and then to have another character just as passionately plead the opposing argument. You may not agree with both of those points of view, as a reader, but you cannot fault the intensity with which each character believes what he is saying. I find that by letting my characters speak, instead of an omniscient narrator, it feels a little less as if I am trying to tell my readers what to think and to believe. This way, they make up their own minds about a difficult issue.
What was it like to write book with your daughter? Do you write together or separately and then “compare notes”?
My daughter Sammy and I co-wrote two young adult novels, Between the Lines and Off the Page. They sprang from an idea she had when she was only thirteen: what if characters in books had personalities totally different from the roles they played when the book was closed? What if a character only wanted to be on the OUTSIDE of the book? What if he found a reader who could help him make that happen? As a reader, I know it’s easy to fall for a character – but what if a character fell for a reader? When Sammy and I wrote our first book, we worked around her high school schedule, putting in eight hour days all summer long for many summers, writing, editing and touring. We actually spoke the book out loud – I’d say a sentence and then she’d piggyback onto it, and we’d toss the narrative back and forth that way. We took turns typing. We argued a lot – but I think that only made for a tighter, better book. I really had to learn that even if Sammy hadn’t been published yet, her instincts as a writer are so spot on that I had to trust them – and when I did, the story was much better. The sequel was written last year, when Sammy realized that we’d left too many loose ends to feel comfortable. We spent one summer writing and one fall editing. It was a brutal pace and it was harder because Sammy is older and more sure of herself, and fought much harder for her vision. We truly challenged each other every step of the way, and I think the final outcome really reflects this. We LOVE the sequel and can’t wait for people to read it. It’s so much fun working with my daughter. She’s smart, creative, funny, and has a flawless sense of character and conflict. Sure, there were days we wanted to kill each other…but I’d say overall we wound up much closer as a result of working together, and I’d be delighted to do it again.
Is it true that one of your books is being adapted as a musical?
In my spare time, I run a teen theater group in NH. We perform original musicals that raise money for charity. To date, we’ve raised over $100,000.00 by performing musicals that were co-written by myself and my sons Jake & Kyle, with music composed by my incredibly talented best friend, music educator and bluegrass musician Ellen Wilber. Several of our shows have been licensed for other theater groups to perform, all over the US and as far away as Zambia. I LOVE musical theater – because performing gives kids transferable skills they can take when they leave the stage – confidence, public speaking finesse, teamwork…to name a few. Because I have such an affinity for the form, I have long thought about adapting one of my novels. Between the Lines and Off the Page are currently being developed as a musical, hopefully headed to Broadway. We are tied to a Tony-winning producer, and we are working with an exciting composing team and a veteran writer who is adapting the books into script form. It’s a wild experience – Sammy and I have to take apart the building blocks of our story and package them together in a new way that will translate onstage, and we are very intimately involved in everything from dialogue to structure to how the songs sound. Plus, I get to learn a whole new business!
QUESTIONS FOR MARY
What is your favorite novel of Jodi’s and why?
That’s a tough question because I like so many of them for different reasons. I loved her first novel, The Song of the Humpback Whales, because of the many voices and I love her latest, Leaving Time which I found utterly surprising. In between I think my favorite must be My Sister’s Keeper. I love the writing. It’s beautiful. And I love the concept. Jodi always manages to bring social issues into the lives of her characters. She’s just so good at it and I feel that in this novel it is masterfully portrayed. I also really really like Nineteen Minutes – again beautifully written, harrowing subject.
Over the course of your career you have shifted between writing works of fiction and nonfiction, specifically travel memoirs. What are the things you like best about each format and what are the things you find particularly challenging?
Whether I’m writing novels or travel memoirs, I’m always telling a story. That’s the thing for me. It’s all about the story. Apparently in the world of travel literature scholarship there’s something called the “Mary Morris problem.” I bring too much of myself, they say, into my travel writing. But the whole point of the journey for me is the deeper understanding of self. I believe that’s why we do everything. In fiction I just love the freedom of imagination it gives. I love the fact that, as I mentioned about, I can make Al Capone dance. Obviously you can’t do that in nonfiction. I find the constraint of truth difficult. I’m also not so great with the facts. I once got a letter complaining that it doesn’t take twelve hours to get from San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque and I replied, “well, it felt like twelve hours.” I have trouble sticking to the facts. The new nonfiction book I’m working on I think will be a series of meditations, fragments, about tigers.
You are also currently collaborating with your daughter. Are you enjoying the process?
My daughter and I have been writing a screenplay for the past year. We got the idea when she was living in a bungalow colony in Los Angeles and some strange things were happening. To be honest in part I began working on it with her in order to help bridge the gap between Los Angeles and New York and it was very helpful. We created a living Google document and we’d both work on it sometimes simultaneously and sometimes separately. What surprised us both was how good we were at this together. We saw plot and characters in similar ways. We watch the same crime shows (I know what she watches because she’s hacked my Netflix account) and we see stories unfolding in similar ways. Recently we spent four days in a two room cabin in the Catskills with three dogs and a laptop. We were pretty snowed in, but we both had great ideas and I think we’ve got a pretty good script. It’s brought us closer together as mother and daughter and also we’ve got the makings of a pretty good script. We’ve given our “company’”a name and are hoping that this is just the beginning of many.
You have also written short stories. What is the secret to crafting a really good short story?
Well, I like to joke that if a novel is a marriage, a story is a fling. A novel is a long commitment – at least it is for me. I don’t know how Jodi manages to do one in nine months – the time it takes to birth a child. Mine are closer to elephants in their gestation. And then some. And I’m partially joking about a story being a fling. Stories take a long time. They have to render like good soup. And I think that is the secret of writing a good short story. Everything – every word, every detail (milk and sugar in his coffee or black?) – has to mean something. A story is closer to a poem than it is to a novel. In novels we digress but a story, well, I feel like a tightrope walker and there can be no slack in the narrative thread.
But, as a left-handed person (I think Jodi is left-handed as well), I’m not a very linear thinker. Perhaps this is what enabled me to move the pieces around in Jodi’s early story. All my writing is a kind of patchwork of bits and pieces that I stitch together over a long period of time.