Author to Author: Lisa Moore Interviews Donna Morrissey

Jaysus, Lisa, your questions read like poems … my who? Painter-twin?? Ahem, of course, oh yes, absolutely, William Turner! (Quickly googling here) … Ah! Yes, yes, The Painter of Light … light is everything, everywhere, even in our brightest hour we are grovelling for the light…

Moore Morrissey: Lisa Moore’s discussion with Donna Morrissey on mysteries deeper than murder

In the first installment of our new Author to Author feature, Lisa Moore (Caught, February) interrogates the tragic terrain of Donna Morrissey’s latest novel, The Fortunate Brother.

Lisa Moore: The Fortunate Brother has been described as a murder mystery. It’s true there is a mystery and the mystery is occasioned by a murder. But this novel feels so deeply embedded in place, circumstance and character, as well as mood, that it seems to me all kinds of mysteries abound. The mystery of grief, the mystery of alcoholism and its hold, and the mystery of love, and its opposite: controlling cruelty. Can you talk about the mystery of the murder here? What did this murder let you explore that might be different from the things you explore in your previous novels?

Donna Morrissey: The thing about murder/mystery is the incredible attention to the slightest detail, as with time – was it 5:30 or 5:35? Who opened the door; did you open the door? Did your father open the door? Were you wearing gloves; was your father; was Kate…?

It was fun and yet terrifying, knowing that every single detail had to be accounted for or the entire thing would collapse. Most surprising is the incredulity of watching inanimate objects take on their own life, following a certain pathway as though they too are characters following an arc of development.  

Lisa Moore: Between the mother and father in this novel, Addie and Sylvanus Now, there is an abiding love, but it is a love that is vulnerable to the threat of Sylvanus’s drinking. These characters have a deep knowledge and understanding of each other. I found it very moving that you have captured the complexity of a love that is at once enduring and also threatens to burst asunder. How did you do that?

Donna Morrissey: This novel is very closely related to my family. Our parents were deeply in love, we watched them kissing and hugging all during our growing up years. Then, with our brother’s death, my mother watched in dismay as she lost her husband too, to the bottle. She fought bitterly for him. And it broke him to hurt her so. But, his pain was too deep … or, he too weak … to break the addiction. But, despite the fighting/ suffering, they still slept with their arms around each other. I always remember that, how they slept holding each other. Please God they’ve found peace now.

Lisa Moore: The physical setting of the community in your novel is very concrete. If somebody blindfolded me and helicoptered me in, I could find my way around. This is a testament to your powers of description. But even more than the clarity of the physical space where the novel unfolds, there are the more intangible elements of the novel: fog and other kinds of inclement weather, darkness, rain, the navigation of moods and the ways in which people can hide in a small community, even while they are out in the open. How do you, as a writer, make all of these things so concrete and present for the reader?

Donna Morrissey: Mm, tough question, Lisa Moore. I think growing up in small places creates an intimacy between us and it. We learn its every mood, every crevice. We can smell the air for the kind of day it’s going to be. Outdoors is where us kids reigned, searching out nooks, crawling under rocks, lying on our backs, facing whatever the wind, sea and sky was heaving at us. I can’t really get a scene right until I can feel it, and to do that I’ve got to get the weather right and the exact spot where the scene is happening. I never have to think hard; it’s all right there. Just – right there!

Lisa Moore: The Fortunate Brother is taut with suspense. Were you conscious of creating that suspense while you were writing, or did the story simply unfold in front of your writer’s eye, with the suspense more or less built-in? Another way of asking the same question: Was the suspense tweaked in the editing, the way one tunes a guitar? By tightening each strand of the story, very carefully, so as not to break the string, until it rings out music?

Donna Morrissey: Nicely put, the guitar analogy. I think of tension as a string that has to be continuously taut. Actually, I can’t move forward if the string loses its tension. That’s how I always know I’m going wrong or the writing is not deep enough, when I lose the tension. So, yes, I am very conscious of it, it is the energy that drives the writing.

Lisa Moore: Your writing is painterly. If I were to pick your painter-twin, I would say William Turner: stumbling colour, light breaking through veils of mist or fog or smoke, atmospheric conditions that can become suddenly luminous. The reader/ viewer understands what she’s experiencing first with her senses, and then logic or reason. If you had to choose a painting or a piece of music that mirrors some of your stylistic concerns in this novel, what would it be?

Donna Morrissey: Jaysus, Lisa, your questions read like poems … my who? Painter-twin?? Ahem, of course, oh yes, absolutely, William Turner! (Quickly googling here) … Ah! Yes, yes, The Painter of Light … light is everything, everywhere, even in our brightest hour we are grovelling for the light…

Lisa Moore: You have mapped out a parcel of territory in your novels as surely as       Faulkner’s “postage stamp.” He has famously said: “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.” Do you feel that way about Newfoundland?

Donna Morrissey: Yes. Yes, I do. And now I have this great quote to validate my feelings. All of our greats – George Eliot, Hardy, Steinbeck – they all wrote about their native soil! And our Newfoundland – what hearts do pound and bleed and boast within its rugged crust! No! I shall never leave here.

Lisa Moore: What’s next for Donna Morrissey? Are you one of those writers who is already drawn arse over kettle into the next book when the previous one is just hitting the shelves? Or are you willing to sit back with a flute of champagne, your breath in your fist, enjoying your rich and textured accomplishment, this beautiful novel, The Fortunate Brother?

Donna Morrissey: Aww, gawd, you’ve a way with words. And yup, arse over kettle into the next one. And it’s taking place in old old Newfoundland on the ice fields and my agent bemoans it can never be popular, too bleak, too bleak … and I say, I can’t help it, my maidy, it’s what’s coming. Thank you, Lisa. Thank you very very much! An interview where the questions are more intriguing than the answers (-:

Written By

Lisa Moore is the author of two short story collections and four novels, most recently Flannery. She lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

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