James Morrow:
A Shower and Teller of Tomorrow

Interview by Lila Naydan

James Morrow is a Science Fiction and Fantasy writer who lives in State College, Pennsylvania. He has earned the World Fantasy Award twice, for his novels Towing Jehovah and Only Begotten Daughter, along with the Nebula Award twice, for Bible Stories for Adults, a collection of short stories, and for his novella, City of Truth.

I pulled my car into the driveway of James Morrow's College Heights home. His house is right near one of those locally controversial traffic diverters, just as he had specified when I had spoken with him on the phone the day before. I was greeted by his wife Kathy and his two very animated dogs. Only Begotten Daughter

"Jim will be right back," Kathy Morrow said to me, as we walked in her front door. As she took my coat, I noticed a silver bust sitting to the right of the door. Reading the inscription at the base of the bust, I discovered that it was the World Fantasy Award, presented to James Morrow for his novel Only Begotten Daughter. Kathy remarked to me that they often put a hat on the head of the statue. She said with a hat, the sculpted figure looks just like Jacques Cousteau.

Just then, James Morrow came into view, making his way down the snowy driveway with his son at his side. We went into his office, and over tea and coffee, I had the opportunity to talk with one of the truly finest science fiction writers of our time.

LN: Hi, Mr. Morrow. Before we begin, I'd like to thank you for agreeing to thisinterview.

JM: You're welcome. I am pleased to do so.

LN: My first question is, when did you begin writing science fiction?

JM: There's a sense in which I began when I was seven years old. I always made up stories in my head -- I think maybe from the day I was born -- and one day I began dictating to my mother a kind of novella. It was divided into chapters like a novella, was only about seven pages long. It was called "The Story of the Dog Family," and it was about talking dogs and their life in the suburbs -- in a fictional dog community. It was fantasy certainly, and it had a little bit of satire about it, too, as I recall.

I then kept on with just wanting to write stories for their own sake. I couldn't type, but my mother had an old battered typewriter. I would pace around, dubiously dictating these stories, and she would type them up. They involved a lot of science fiction themes. One was about digging through the earth and trying to get to China, and there was at least one involving a trip in a spaceship.

I later turned to comic books and comic strips for several years. Then I made films.

When I was in ninth grade a friend of mine got an 8MM movie camera, and we got the idea of making our own horror film. We loved watching horror movies on television. We made about six or seven films through junior high school and high school, and one of them was definitely science fiction. It was called The Futurium, and it was about an invasion in the year 2000. I guess this was around 1963, and the year 2000 was the most remote thing you could imagine [laugh].

So these criminals had mastered time travel, and to escape justice, they came to our time period, and for some reason, they decided to destroy our civilization while they were in the process of escaping the law enforcement agencies. It was very much inspired by the movie version of The War of the Worlds and some of the Japanese science fiction extravaganzas.

So there had been these three different media in my life -- comics, short fiction, and movie making. I didn't really think I could become a full-time science fiction writer, so for years, I taught instead, not only English, but media production, because I knew quite a bit about filmmaking. But while I was teaching in Massachusetts, I just became obsessed with this idea for a science fiction novel. So I decided to sit down and write it, and managed to do so in a couple years. It took a while to sell it. I had to spend about six months finding a literary agent.

So I guess I got started writing science fiction right away, but I was just kind of lucky to realize that I had an idea -- that seemed to me such a good idea for a science fiction novel -- that I had no choice but to write it. I haven't been able to quit since then.

LN: What kind of effect, if any, did your education have on your science fiction writing? Where did you go to school and what did you study?

JM: I went to the University of Pennsylvania for my undergraduate degree. I actually did specialize in creative writing. They had a creative writing specialty in the English Department. I really didn't come out of that formal education experience knowing how to craft fiction, though. I certainly didn't get a sense of what it might take to make a career for myself.

I really can't say that I got back into writing fiction BECAUSE of my college education. My college education served me best as just a source of general knowledge about the world. Things you learn in psychology classes or history classes can be extremely useful.

I think it is important, though, to get together in the workshop format, and universities are one of the best places to do that. It's probably just as well for me that I didn't sit at the feet of some really famous writer, because I've seen that some of the teaching of writing becomes almost a sort of discipleship, where the students start to imitate the professor, and the professor has really strong ideas about what is and is not acceptable fiction. That phenomenon could do a young writer more harm than good. If a writer is just trying to find a voice that mimics the teacherís, the student is doing him- or herself a disservice. So I guess my advice for young writers is: don't succumb to the cult of personality.

Page  1  2  

Back to Interview Index