The Tom Morrisey File:
by Kevin Lucia
Tom Morrisey Interview
"You need to write out of passion, and passion is only possible if you are creating art that you yourself, can appreciate." -- Tom Morrisey
Tom Morrisey is the author of four novels and short stories, a world-renowned adventure-travel writer whose work has appeared in Outside, Sport Diver (where he serves as Executive Editor) and other leading magazines. He holds an MA in English Language and Literature from the University of Toledo and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bowling Green State University. He lives in Orlando, Florida.
Kevin: Please share with our readers a little about your writing background.
Tom: Writing is something I decided I wanted as a career very early on—when I was twelve, in fact. And it’s one of those cases where, if you keep yourself aimed at the same thing long enough, you’re going to have some success in it (maybe I should have aimed at being a real-estate tycoon instead!). I’ve really made my living with words for better than 30 years. I’ve launched or edited a couple dozen magazines and I’ve been editorial director two different magazine publishing companies, and I am the editor of the world’s largest dive magazine right now, and write at least a couple of pieces for each issue. As I came to Christ late in life, I was already well along with my writing. So it eventually became a very natural way to be in ministry for me. I write every day. I might skip meals, but I never skip writing.
This is probably just because I’m not as well read in CBA books as I should be, but it seems that very few fiction writers in the CBA have approached “novelization” (if I can have the freedom to make up such a word) through what some would call the traditional route: writing short stories, articles, studying the craft in college. Why do you think this is, or would you propose there really is no “traditional” route to publication?
I believe that there are many, many doors to the land of good novels. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was educated as a chemist, was he not? Hemingway pretty much educated himself after he got out of high school. And some of the best fiction in CBA today is coming from people such as Athol Dickson (educated, I believe, as an architect). The common thread, really, is to read good writing. And not reading good writing is the prescription for failure. That’s why there are so many truly awful poets in the world today; I would venture to say that 90% of the people who call themselves poets do not make it their business to regularly read good poetry. The same is true of fiction; anytime I think I’m doing just fine with my art, there are whole libraries full of short stories and novels that I can look at to see just how far I still have to go. Reading good writing encourages you to stretch in your art.
In your bio you mentioned you “spent a year searching for my spiritual gifts before realizing that writing probably qualified”. Do you think latching unto writing as a career is hard for some to allow themselves to do? Especially with the seeming required wry response with lifted eyebrow, “Oh, you’re a writer.”
I didn’t have that hurdle of overcoming skepticism, simply because I’ve worked as a writer, and taught writing, and been in publishing for so long. But when I talk about finding one’s spiritual gifts, my Bible study had shown me that they are often less than obvious. Look at Moses. Look at David. So to me, writing was so obvious that I instantly dismissed it. I figured God had some straight-out-of-left-field way that he wanted to use me, like sending me as a missionary to Borneo or something. But it has emerged that writing is obviously the central way in which I’m supposed to minister. I imagine the people of Borneo are greatly relieved.
You’ve got quite an active lifestyle, so it’s easy to see where your inspiration for In High Places and some of your other novels comes from. Take a minute and share some of your non-writing activities.
Let’s see. As I write this I am in a hotel room in North Florida, about three hours from home, because I’m getting trained to dive a closed circuit rebreather, an amazing machine that lets you make three-hour-long scuba dives, but can kill you deader than a doornail if you don’t know what you’re doing with it 100% of the time. I’m big-time into diving: I am a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer (two steps above open-water instructor) and I edit the world’s largest dive magazine as my day job. I have a second-degree black-belt in karate, although I really need to find a dojo in Florida before I forget everything I’ve learned, and I used to climb quite a bit, although the dad thing has sort of kept me home from the crags in recent years. I dabble in flying (I’m probably the world’s longest-running student pilot), and I live in the wrong state for the only sort of fishing I enjoy (which is fly-fishing for trout). Weekends, my wife and I are usually out on our Harleys, looking for the next great place to stop for barbeque; we each have our own bike, and we each run up about 25,000 miles a year on ‘em. Oh, and I like to target-shoot with pistols, and I’m trying to do that more regularly with a friend, Mark Mynheir, the crime novelist; we don’t live all that far from one another. If it’s scary, goes fast or makes loud noises, I’m probably interested.
You mentioned in your “Craft” section that you “write fiction that (you) like to read”. How important do you think this is for a writer to do?
It’s crucial. And yes, that includes even things like children’s literature. The reader can tell whether you’re doing something out of passion or just because the marketing department is aiming you that way. For the best writers, income from one’s writing is more of a surprising byproduct than a central aim. And anytime I’ve written solely for a paycheck, I’ve been less than satisfied with the result. You need to write out of passion, and passion is only possible if you are creating art that you, yourself, can appreciate.
How was valuable was your experience studying Creative Writing at Bowling Green? Would you say it had a significant impact on your craft?
James Baldwin was at Bowling Green when I was there, and while he was in the American Studies program and I was working on an MFA in fiction, he was very generous with his time with the writers, and we had lots of lunches together, talking about craft. You can’t put a value on something like that. And the entire atmosphere in a good writing program is on not being satisfied with “good enough.” You learn to think about your work as art. I still stay in touch with people from the MFA world because there is that whole iron-sharpens-iron thing going on. And if my work is truly being done to glorify God, then I’m obliged to produce the very best writing that I can.
Let’s look at some of your tastes and preferences. You’re in the line at Barnes & Noble; what are you buying today?
Wow. How much room do I have on the credit card? Let’s see… There’s a writer who is head of the writing program at The University of Michigan—a man named Peter Ho Davies—whose short stories continually blow me away; his first novel is coming out this spring, and I can’t wait to read that. Brandilyn Collins’ and Jim Bell’s novels always teach me a lot about characterization. And I’ll read anything by Athol Dickson and Lisa Samson, although they are so good that I’ll go into a funk about my own writing for days afterward.
What CDs would we find in your collection at home?
At home? None. I have a 16-year-old daughter, and that pretty much ensures that the stereo is permanently occupied with music that is not mine. But at the moment in my truck (which I drive primarily when I have to haul stuff, like dive gear—my usual commuting vehicle is a Harley-Davidson), I have the Common Thread album of country stars covering the Eagles, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms and Audio Adrenaline’s Some Kind of Zombie. Yeah, I know—that’s all old music. But I don’t buy many CDs these days. Most often, when I’m working out or puttering around, I’m listening to an audiobook on an MP3 player. I love to hear good writing; we too often forget that that’s all good writing really is—it’s recorded sound. That’s also why I never have the stereo on when I work: I’m listening to my words in my head.
If you had the chance to have lunch and coffee with any of the classic writers, which one would it be?
Moses. Or Paul. Or both. That would be (and will be) very cool.
Out of all your mountain climbs, which one was the hardest, and which one was the most picturesque?
Hardest would be Devils Tower, Wyoming, only because I decided to free-solo (climb alone and ropeless) on the last pitch, and I picked the wrong crack and wound up having to do this very thin traverse. And then it began to rain while I was in the middle of the traverse. I was 800 feet above the scree field and on the edge of slipping the whole time. I think I aged ten years in five minutes. Most picturesque would probably be Longs Peak in Colorado or Gannet Peak in Wyoming; I remember standing atop Long’s and seeing this old propeller-driven aircraft laboring up to cross the ridge… below me.
This is a hot-button issue among Christians – one of those ones that shouldn’t be, in my opinion – but what’s your stances on environmental issues?
We are appointed stewards. Yes, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, but until then, we’re in charge of what we have, and that’s Biblical. Right now, in my day job, I edit a scuba magazine, and I’m campaigning to stop this horrible annual event they have in Japan where fishing villages corral dolphins in small bays, injure them so the pods will stay close together (dolphins are social mammals and will cluster around a wounded family member), and then lift them, screaming, from the water and slaughter them while they are still alive. It’s insanely cruel, and it has to stop. Yes, I know that in the Sudan and elsewhere people are treated with similar brutality, and that has to stop as well. But that doesn’t mean that we give people license to run rampant over nature while we attend to the human element. Wherever our Creator’s work is being misused and maltreated, we have a responsibility to object. But we also need to distinguish science from politics. The global warming issue, for instance; I have explored caves in Mexico that are completely water-filled now, but have stalagmites and stalactites (which only form in air-filled caves), and I have seen cypress stumps taken from dive sites in Bermuda that are currently 120 feet underwater. This tells me that global warming (and the resulting rise in sea level) has been going on for literally thousands of years—long before the Industrial Revolution. I do believe we are pumping too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and this is accelerating things, but it is not the sole cause—cycles of warming and cooling are natural to the earth, and going all Chicken Little over a half-baked theory (and presenting it as fact) is just not helpful.
What other projects are you working on/thinking about right now?
I’m working on two novels at the same time, although one (about a young man taking an elderly friend for one last fishing trip into the Wind River range) is getting most of my attention. And I am journaling the elements that are shaping this novel (including stuff happening in my life and that of my friends and family), and thinking of publishing that as a nonfiction book—to let people see the process (or lack thereof) that goes into making a novel.
Finally – Hollywood has come knocking, optioning the movie rights to In High Places – of course narrated in a voice-over by Daniel Stern…gotta love Wonder Years….which actors would you pick for the principal cast?
Because my books tend to be both visual and action-oriented, people bring that up a lot; they can see the movie in their heads. I’ve had at least one well-known actress mention this to me, and there have been discussions about optioning at least two of my books for films, and I’m very open to that. But as far as taking an active part in the process, or thinking about the parts? First of all, I think that’s an exercise in futility because writers are not casting directors, so writers shouldn’t be (and rarely are) consulted on casting. And second, from my perspective, my books are just that—my books. They are a means of allowing to reader to reach across time and distance and hear the sounds in my head and see the pictures that I’m visualizing. That’s what I do. In my mind, Patrick and Kevin and Rachel and Preacher are those characters, and not actors playing those characters, so I am profoundly ill-equipped to make that leap and pour some other person into that literary flesh. When and if this book is ever made into a film, someone else will make such decisions, and that is probably as it should be.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Tom.
Lucia Kevin Lucia writes for The Press & Sun
Bulletin and The
Journal. His short fiction has appeared in Coach’s
Midnight Diner, The Relief Journal, All Hallows, Darkened
Horizons Vol. 3 & 4,
NexGen Pulp Magazine Issues 1 & 4, From the Shadows, Morpheus
Bohemian-Alien, Shroud Publishing’s horror anthology, Abominations,
Tyndale House’s inspirational anthology Life Savors. He’s
writing a novella for Shroud Publishing’s upcoming novella series, The
Hiram Grange Chronicles. He resides in Castle Creek, New York, with his
wife Abby, daughter Madison and son Zackary. He teaches high school English at
Catholic Central High School
in Binghamton, New York; and is finishing his Masters of Arts in Creative Writing
at Binghamton University. Visit him at his website and