Morris, Mary 1947-
Morris, Mary 1947-
PERSONAL: Born May 14, 1947, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Sol Henry (in business) and Rosalie (a homemaker) Morris; married Larry O’Connor (a journalist and writer), August 20, 1989; children: Kate Lena. Education: Tufts University, B.A., 1969; Columbia University, M.A., 1973, M.Phil., 1977.
ADDRESSES: Home—Brooklyn, NY. Agent—Arlynn Greenbaum, Authors Unlimited, 31 E. 32nd St., Ste. 300, New York, NY 10016.
CAREER: Writer and educator. Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, lecturer in creative writing, 1981-87, 1991-93; New York University, New York, NY, lecturer in creative writing, 1989; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, professor, 1993—. Writer in residence at University of California—Irvine, 1987, and American University, 1988.
MEMBER: PEN (member of executive board of American Center, 1986—), Society of the Fellows of the American Academy in Rome.
AWARDS, HONORS: Grants from National Endowment for the Arts, 1978, Guggenheim Foundation, 1981, and New York Foundation for the Arts, 1985; Rome Prize in Literature, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1980, for Vanishing Animals and Other Stories; Friends of American Writers Award, 1986.
Vanishing Animals and Other Stories, illustrated by Abigail Rorer, David Godine (Boston, MA), 1979.
The Bus of Dreams and Other Stories, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1985.
Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1988, new edition, Picador, 1999.
Wall-to-Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by Rail (travel memoir), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
(Editor, with husband, Larry O’Connor, and author of introduction) Maiden Voyages: Writings of Women Travelers, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 1993, published in England as The Virago Book of Women Travellers, Virago Press (London, England), 1994, published as The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers, Virago Press (London, England), 2000.
The Lifeguard (short stories), Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 1997.
Angels and Aliens: A Journey West (memoir), Picador (New York, NY), 1999.
Crossroads, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1983.
The Waiting Room, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1989.
A Mother’s Love, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 1993.
House Arrest, Nan A. Talese (New York, NY), 1996.
The Night Sky, Picador (New York, NY), 1997.
Acts of God, St. Martin’s Press (New York, NY), 2000.
Revenge, St. Martin’s Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of columns, travel pieces, short stories, and reviews to periodicals, including the Chicago Tribune, New York Times, New Woman, New York Woman, Redbook, and Vogue. Guest contributor to “Hers” column, syndicated by the New York Times, 1987.
SIDELIGHTS: A self-described “wanderer of the planet,” Mary Morris is the author of novels, collections of short stories, and travel narratives. Despite the diversity of these forms, she weaves a common thread throughout most of her work: Morris’s central characters are defined by a journey, whether a formal adventure or an emotional wayfaring. As Morris once explained to CA: “As a writer my life has always been connected with journeys; I have been a kind of compulsive traveler since I can remember. My stories evolve out of those experiences.”
She added: “My writing always begins from a real place—something I have seen, experienced, or heard about. It can take off from there. There is always a point where the real experience gets left behind and imagination takes off, where I no longer know what really happened and what I am making up. In both fiction and nonfiction there is a point at which reality becomes a kind of metaphor for other kinds of experiences. The skills I use to write fiction I also use to write nonfiction. In fact, I don’t write them any differently, except of course, where research is involved, where I must pay attention to facts. But for me, all writing is a kind of journey, whether it evolves from the world outside or the world within.” This journey through worlds without and within in both her fiction and travel writing is evident in the visions, dreams, and memories Morris uses to express her acute observations of the minutiae of daily existence and the impact of people’s actions on each other. Morris’s understated, eloquent prose complements, noted reviewers, the introspective nature of her work.
Morris attracted critical notice with the publication of her first book, Vanishing Animals and Other Stories, a selection of journeys through a fictional childhood and adolescent reminiscences. The volume includes tales of modern love affairs, family frictions, the repercussions of a servant’s dismissal, and a fantastic quest, but the uncertainty of human relationships is the author’s primary focus throughout the book. Novelist Anne Tyler described the stories in the Washington Post Book World as taking “satisfaction in inconclusiveness, in the fact that the world today is neither black nor white but a particularly interesting (even beautiful) shade of gray.”The reviewer anticipated continued literary interest in Morris. Noting her “stunningly effective” voice and the “delicate click of the exactly right, coolly appropriate detail upon the page,” Tyler described Morris as “most definitely a writer to watch.”
Four years later Morris published her first novel, Crossroads. The plot centers on Deborah Mills, an urban planner confronting the disorienting pain of divorce. When she meets Sean Bryant, Deborah struggles to reconcile her hard-won independence with the traditional security a relationship with him could provide. As she warily progresses toward him, she embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery and learns to take responsibility for herself. Calling Crossroads “a journey that is thoroughly believable,” Susan Isaacs pointed out in the New York Times Book Review: “Mary Morris does a good job of showing… hearts under attack.” Isaacs went on to write: “She has a talent for depicting ordinary Americans living through difficult times. She is also a compassionate novelist. She respects her characters’ humanity.
The Bus of Dreams and Other Stories marked Morris’s return to short fiction. Pervaded by transience, many of the stories are inhabited by tourists; settings include Florida, New York, Illinois, Italy, Greece, Peru, Central America, and the Caribbean. Even Morris’s narration moves from first person to third, and from the present tense to the past, as her dreaming characters face the failure of their illusions. In one story a menial laborer at Cape Canaveral impresses his children with tales of his brilliant aerospace contributions. In another, a young woman who had been sure she would one day marry and have a home drifts from city to city unable to find the right man. Critical reaction to Morris’s third book was mixed. Although Jonathan Penner, writing in the Washington Post Book World, noted the sophistication, versatility, and balance of Morris’s storytelling, he expressed reservations about the author’s “utilitarian prose.” Michiko Kakutani commented similarly in the New York Times, saying that Morris “simply does not have a poet’s fluid way with language.” Kakutani acknowledged, however, that “Morris demonstrates a considerable gift for delineating the incalculable ways in which the lives of others impinge upon our own, and a talent, too, for showing the ongoing process of disillusion that makes up adult life. These stories work because Miss Morris allows her characters to reveal themselves gradually to the reader, gives them the freedom to be ambiguous.”
Morris chronicled her trip to Mexico and Central America in Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. Interviewed by Leigh Behrens in the Chicago Tribune, the author described how a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and dissatisfaction in her personal life inspired her to leave New York City for points south. “I wanted to see a way of living. I wanted to see a people. I wanted to see something I just had never seen before,” she elaborated. For a year Morris lived in a slum on the outskirts of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, from where she mounted expeditions to Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. The core of Nothing to Declare is Morris’s vibrant friendship with Lupe Martinez, an illiterate mother of six whose humor, resilience, and wisdom sustain Morris throughout her largely solitary sojourn. Lupe’s influence partly inspires the interior voyage that parallels Morris’s physical one. In Mexico the author discovers and nurtures parts of herself that had been obscured by the complacency of her life in New York. Morris told Behrens: “One of the things I really learned was the value of people, the simplicity of friendship. I reorganized my priorities down there. For the Mexicans, friendship, family, children: Those are the things that really matter.” Pointing to Morris’s expository skill, Molly Peacock stated in the New York Times Book Review: “Nothing to Declare is a true story and an artfully told one, combining the narrative ease of fiction with unexpected, un-whole, awkwardly coincidental real experience.” Peacock also noted in the same review: “What makes her memoir so compelling is the preparation the writing of [The Bus of Dreams and Crossroads] has given her; Nothing to Declare is impeccably, internally timed.”
Morris resumed her pursuit of fiction with The Waiting Room, her second novel. The story unfolds in layers of memories that illuminate three generations of women: Zoe, newly home from medical school; her mother, June; and her grandmother, Naomi. The 1972 institutionalization of Zoe’s deranged brother Badger, who avoided the Vietnam War by fleeing to Canada and eventually became incapacitated by drug use there, brings the women together as they wait for him to heal. They are also bound by their lifetimes of waiting. Zoe grew up in the shadow of her mother’s waiting for her husband—forever changed—to return from World War II. Zoe lives with the knowledge of Naomi’s flight as a girl from the anti-Semitic violence of Russia and decade-long wait for her husband, who would die on their wedding day. And she waits to escape this tragic family history and the guilt she feels for having denied it by moving away. Zoe is freed from the arid existence her waiting has created by spending time in the clinic waiting room, caring for Badger, and forging a bond with one of his doctors.
Citing the “strange beauty” of Morris’s language, New York Times Book Review contributor Bret Lott called The Waiting Room “an interesting fable in which the imagery and symbolism of magic realism is married to intensely minimalist prose.” Susan Brownmiller went further in Chicago’s Tribune Books, commenting: “Morris is a stylist of breathtaking originality who processes everyday material into a somnambulist’s dream, departing from reality whenever it suits her.” Brownmiller also noted in the same review: “Her elegant, fluid sentences twist and veer toward surprising conclusions. She upends cliches. Her perceptions are wry. Her humor is subtle and outrageous, arch and sneaky.” Some critics believed that Morris found fertile ground for her creative expression in the exploration of this interior landscape.
In her travel memoir, Wall-to-Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by Rail, Morris left the waiting room behind and boarded a train to travel from the Great Wall, designed to keep people out, to the Berlin Wall, designed to keep people in. The journey on the Trans-Siberian Express began as a quest to visit the Ukraine of her grandmother’s childhood. The Chernobyl disaster and the realization that she was pregnant, however, altered Morris’s plans. “The way she weaves her response to such dramatic unforeseen circumstances into the narrative of Wall-to-Wall makes the book all the more memorable,” commented Hans Ostrom in the San Francisco Review of Books. It is both memorable and enlightening, in the opinion of Sofka Zinovieff in the Times Literary Supplement. “Like all the best journeys, this one takes place at various levels,” observed the reviewer. “There is a constant sense of discovery, as Morris ventures into her own and her family’s past.”
Although Wall-to-Wall recounts a journey of self-discovery, Zinovieff found that “as an experienced traveller and writer, [Morris] is never self-indulgent.” After all, the book is a travel memoir, filled with the people and places that the author encountered along her way. In Zinovieff’s opinion, “The elegant descriptions of the people and places she encounters are both poignant and amusing.” The power of her portraits of the people around her comes from the “novelist’s gift for characterization,” John Maxell Hamilton commented in the New York Times Book Review. Hamilton also noted a journalist’s sensibility in Morris’s writing. The reviewer wrote that Morris’s patient and perceptive eye captures ordinary lives in extraordinary transition; and her journey comes to foreshadow the cataclysmic events of Tiananmen and the Berlin Wall.” Morris set out for the Ukraine but ended up in Berlin. Even so, wrote Zinovieff: “It has become apparent in this beautifully written book that the significance was quite clearly in the search and the journey not the destination.”
Shortly after completing her journey from China to Germany, Morris was to embark upon a new experience, motherhood. Drawing on this new role, the author created her novel A Mother’s Love, which Tribune Books contributor Susan Sussman called a “vibrant and complex ode to motherhood.” In this book about Ivy Slovak, who refuses to run away from motherhood the way her own mother did, “scenes move like electric probes, creating an emotionally charged portrait of a single parent,” commented Sussman. In New York City, Ivy has no family for support; her lover, the baby’s father, offers no support. Ivy struggles to make ends meet, juggling baby, job, and memories of her own flawed mother. “At once slyly humorous and deeply troubling,” observed Christopher Tilghman in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, “this short novel encompasses an extraordinary range of responses to children: from slavery to their needs to complete abandonment; from the release of a mother’s milk at a baby’s first cry to the exhausted sleep of a single parent driven to the end of her wits.”
A number of critics recognized that readers would have a great deal of sympathy for Ivy; even so, according to reviewers such as Roxana Robinson in the New York Times Book Review, Morris does not overlook the fact that Ivy carries much of the responsibility for her situation. In fact, commented Robinson, “Ivy’s trancelike and self-destructive inertia is responsible for her plight.” Though highlighting this responsibility, Morris maintains balance throughout her novel. As Robinson noted: “The risk is that we lose some sympathy for Ivy, which does happen. But the benefit is that Ms. Morris has a chance to tell a haunting tale, and this also happens.”
Morris followed A Mother’s Love with a book that again combined her roles as novelist and travel writer. This novel, House Arrest, follows Maggie Conover as she returns to an unnamed Caribbean island to update a travel guide. Two years earlier Maggie had helped a young woman escape the island’s repressive regime by letting the woman use her American passport. Upon Maggie’s return, she is detained because of the irregularities of her first visit. Under house arrest, she reflects on her confinement and remembers the intriguing young woman who escaped, who left behind her homeland and her father, the island’s dictator. “These ingredients should make for a fiery narrative,” James Saynor suggested in the New York Times Book Review, “but Ms. Morris never manages to get the events of the past and present to kindle properly.” According to Richard Stern in Chicago’s Tribune Books, “Maggie is an engaging, complicated, sympathetic narrator, but beyond her own story much of what she narrates reads like secondhand, standard exotica.” Still, Stern admitted, “The novel has enough craft and artistry to supply pleasures … complex mixtures of recollection and immediacy, rich shifts of movement from exposition to scene, a few brilliant bits of descriptive and psychological insight and, above all, the slow revelation of the narrator’s character.” In addition to the exposition of Maggie’s character, the novel also explores human relationships, especially how they are intensified among travelers. Saynor wrote of Morris, “Her writing is filled with a sense of how relationships are perpetually mismatched, of how the still zone of indecision is somehow at the heart of life, and of how travel can be at once numbing and revelatory.”
The Lifeguard, a collection of short stories, shows Morris’s continued interest in human relationships. These stories that include a lifeguard who looks on as someone else saves a choking victim, traveling families, and a man’s strange connection to the painting on his kitchen wall, are united because “they are concerned, above all, with personal relationships, especially relationships between family members and romantic partners,” observed Brooke Allen in the New York Times Book Review. In addition to its insights into relationships, the collection also focuses on how travel forces travelers to look inward. “For many of the middle-class vacationers in ‘The Lifeguard,’” Carolyn Alessio explained in Chicago’s Tribune Books, “the combination of an exotic setting and tranquility leads not to calm but harsh introspection. Dizzy with self-realization, these characters venture out beyond the beach and resorts to more compelling but often perilous territories.” While these personal journeys are sometimes marred by the author’s “heavy symbolism,” according to Alessio, the reviewer gave Morris credit for avoiding predictability, noting that “Morris veers away from expected morals and outcomes.”
In Angels and Aliens: A Journey West, Morris presents a memoir that focuses on a time in her life when she and her baby, Kate, relocate to California so Morris can be with the divorced law professor who fathered Kate but who does not want to commit to another relationship. The author recounts the difficult times as her lover fails to pay child support and her time exploring various spiritual communities and other groups, such as a support group for UFO abductees. “In this quietly introspective book, Morris views the New Age advocates she meets with a refreshing degree of nonjudgmental objectivity and a sense that their quest for certainty is similar to her own,” wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. “Throughout, her prose is as clear and well composed as her insights.”
Acts of God is the fictional story of Tess Winterstone, who returns to her thirtieth high school class reunion in a small Midwestern town to find herself facing a past she has long tried to forget. The novel provides alternating views of Tess during her childhood in a dysfunctional family and in her current life, which Tess realizes cannot move forward until she comes to terms with past issues. “This is another worthy effort from Morris …, who never writes the same book twice,” wrote Debbie Bogenschutz in the Library Journal. Margaret Flanagan, writing in Booklist, noted that the author “packs an emotional bang…. [with] her sympathetically drawn main character.
Morris’s 2004 novel, Revenge, focuses on an artist and teacher named Andrea who becomes obsessed with revenge against her stepmother, who she believes is somehow responsible for her father’s fatal car accident. She is ultimately helped in her plot by Loretta Partlow, an accomplished novelist and neighbor. Writing in the Library Journal, Kellie Gillespie noted the novel’s surprising climax of self-discovery and revelation.” Carol Haggas wrote in Booklist that the author “limns a rich psychological study of the obsessive nature of the creative spirit.”
Morris once again reflects on her own life in The River Queen: A Memoir. Also a travel book, The River Queen follows Morris, who is facing a midlife crises, as she travels the Mississippi River after her father’s death and her daughter’s move to college. As she travels with two men she did not previously know, Morris recalls her father as she looks for places that her father told her about in childhood stories about his life growing up in towns along the Mississippi. “She has an excellent capacity to be at once acerbic and impressed,” wrote Colleen Mondor in Booklist. Lisa N. Johnston, writing in the Library Journal, noted: “Never sentimental or maudlin, this is a realistic memoir of a strong woman.”
Taken as a whole, Morris’s writing explores how women find a place in the world. As the author once told CA: “I think my life and my work have been a kind of examination of how we go on journeys and how we wait for things in this world to come to us.” She added that this exploration has evolved: “In my new work I am interested in America and the American family—in illusion and the disintegration of the American ideal.”
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Morris, Mary, Angels and Aliens: A Journey West, Picador (New York, NY), 1999.
Morris, Mary, The River Queen: A Memoir, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 2007.
Morris, Mary, Wall-to-Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by Rail, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
AB Bookman’s Weekly, March 21, 1994, review of Maiden Voyages: Writings of Women Travelers, p. 1232.
Belles Lettres, fall, 1993, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 6; spring, 1994, review of Maiden Voyages, p. 54.
Booklist, March 15, 1993, Alice Joyce, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 1298; May 1, 1996, review of House Arrest, p. 1489; September 1, 2000, Margaret Flanagan, review of Acts of God, p. 66; September 1, 2004, Carol Haggas, review of Revenge, p. 63; January 1, 2007, Colleen Mondor, review of The River Queen: A Memoir, p. 31.
Books, April 29, 2007, Bird Sarah, review of The River Queen, p. 8.
Chicago Tribune, July 10, 1988, interview by Leigh Behrens.
Christian Science Monitor, January 4, 1985, James Kaufmann, review of Crossroads, p. B8.
Entertainment Weekly, May 27, 1994, Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, p. 78; February 4, 2000, review of Angels and Aliens, p. 65.
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 1993, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 88; March 1, 1996, review of House Arrest, p. 323; May 1, 1997, review of The Lifeguard, p. 671; August 1, 2004, review of Revenge, p. 708.
Library Journal, February 15, 1993, Stephanie Furtsch, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 193; October 1, 1993, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 152; January, 1994, review of Maiden Voyages, p. 146; April 1, 1996, review of House Arrest, p. 118; June 1, 1997, review of The Lifeguard, p. 154; November 1, 1998, Reba Leiding, review of Angels and Aliens, p. 97; September 1, 2000, Debbie Bogenschutz, review of Acts of God, p. 251; October 1, 2004, Kellie Gillespie, review of Revenge, p. 72; February 1, 2007, Lisa N. Johnston, review of The River Queen, p. 89.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 8, 1990, review of The Bus of Dreams and Other Stories, p. 10; July 7, 1991, review of Vanishing Animals and Other Stories, p. 10; June 20, 1993, Christopher Tilghman, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 7; January 16, 1994, review of Maiden Voyages, p. 6.
Ms. Magazine, May, 1998, review of Maiden Voyages, p. 83.
New Statesman and Society, February 2, 1996, review of The Virago Book of Women Travellers, p. 3.
New Yorker, August 12, 1996, review of House Arrest, p. 73; July 19, 1999, review of The Virago Book of Women Travellers, p. 22.
New York Times, May 18, 1985, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Bus of Dreams and Other Stories, p. 13; April 30, 1987.
New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1979, review of Vanishing Animals and Other Stories, p. 15; March 13, 1983, Susan Isaacs, review of Crossroads, September 21, 1986, p. 42; May 1, 1988, Molly Peacock, review of Nothing to Declare, p. 15; July 2, 1989, Bret Lott, review of The Waiting Room, p. 9; June 24, 1990, review of The Waiting Room, p. 32; June 9, 1991, John Maxwell Hamilton, review of Wall-to-Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by Rail, p. 11; April 25, 1993, Roxana Robinson, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 15; December 5, 1993, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 62; July 14, 1996, James Saynor, review of House Arrest, p. 18; June 22, 1997, Brooke Allen, review of The Lifeguard, p. 18; December 8, 2002, review of The Illustrated Virago Book of Women Travellers, p. 38; April 29, 2007, Jennifer Gilmore, “Drifter,” p. 20.
Observer, February 4, 1990, review of The Waiting Room, p. 60; January 12, 1992, review of Wall-to-Wall, p. 47; July 11, 1993, review of Wall-to-Wall, p. 63; November 20, 1994, review of The Virago Book of Women Travellers, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, March 15, 1993, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 65; May 2, 1994, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 304; March 4, 1996, review of House Arrest, p. 52; May 26, 1997, review of The Lifeguard, p. 66; November 23, 1998, review of Angels and Aliens, p. 30; July 10, 2000, review of Acts of God, p. 40; January 22, 2007, review of The River Queen, p. 177.
Punch, January 6, 1989, review of Nothing to Declare, p. 43.
Quill and Quire, April, 1991, review of Wall-to-Wall p. 30.
San Francisco Review of Books, Volume 16, number 3, 1991, Hans Ostrom, review of Wall-to-Wall, p. 26.
Sewannee Review, April, 1989, review of Nothing to Declare, p. 297.
Time, April 11, 1988, review of Nothing to Declare, p. 68; June 19, 1989, review of The Waiting Room, p. E8.
Times Educational Supplement, August 10, 1990, review of Nothing to Declare, p. 1.
Times Literary Supplement, April 27, 1990, review of The Waiting Room p. 456; March 6, 1992, Sofka Zinovieff, review of Wall-to-Wall, p. 26; July 28, 1995, Jane Robinson, review of The Virago Book of Women Travellers, p. 9.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), May 7, 1989, Susan Brownmiller, review of The Waiting Room, p. 7; April 25, 1993, Susan Sussman, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 7; May 29, 1994, review of A Mother’s Love, p. 8; May 5, 1996, Richard Stern, review of House Arrest, p. 3; June 8, 1997, Carolyn Alessio, review of The Lifeguard, p. 6; November 26, 2000, review of Acts of God, p. 4.
Village Voice, April 21, 1980, review of Vanishing Animals and Other Stories, p. 43; April 19, 1983, review of Crossroads, p. 44.
Wall Street Journal, November 19, 1993, Merle Rubin, review of Maiden Voyages, p. A14.
Washington Post Book World, December 23, 1979, Anne Tyler, review of Vanishing Animals and Other Stories; July 14, 1985, Jonathan Penner, review of The Bus of Dreams and Other Stories.
Wilson Library Bulletin, December, 1994, review of Maiden Voyages, p. 29.
Mary Morris Home Page,http://www.marymorris.net (April 30, 2004).
Mostly Fiction, http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (May 10, 2007), Guy Savage, review of The River Queen.*