Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.
Recently, we interviewed J. S. Morrison, whose debut novel The Perfection of Fish is 2020 Maxy Awards Finalist – SciFi/Fantasy.
JS MORRISON has lived in the US, Europe, and the Middle East, and worked and played in Asia, Africa, South America, and Antarctica. He optioned two original screenplays before deciding to write a near-future novel about genetic engineering. It was supposed to have been a dire warning to humanity, but his funny bone and sense of satiric irony got in the way. When he is not writing, he dabbles in astrophysics as a member of a small-town scientific society.
BookView Review: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
J. S. Morrison: I won a state-wide essay contest in high school. That was when I discovered that some people wanted to read what I wrote.
BookView Review: How often do you base your characters on real people?
J. S. Morrison: Almost never. Characters have to serve the story—plot, theme, emotional arcs, and so on. At least for me, fictional characters don’t map directly into living or dead people. At best, they are composites. However, there are ideas I use to structure characters, based on generalizations about the human species.
My characters embody a conceit I call “mind bubbles.” I got this idea that everyone lives in their own bubble, which is a sort of lens for seeing and interpreting the world. Inside the bubble is a core set of beliefs. The bubble can let the reality wave through, thereby modifying a person’s core beliefs, or it can distort reality, thus protecting the beliefs. Examples of high reality distortion include flat-earthers, people who believe the moon landings were fake, and all the folks who wrote the government asking for a more concerted effort to “save Gilligan” after the old TV show, Gilligan’s Island went off the air.
The other concept I use with characters, is the idea that our species is wired to “connect the dots.” If the dots are real, this ability can lead to the discovery of new knowledge. If the dots are imaginary, the result can be delusional thinking and conspiracy theories. The fiction gene is integral to the human animal and grist for stories.
BookView Review: How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
J. S. Morrison: I have three—ranging from end-to-end draft to simply “high concept idea.” The one I’m putting the most effort into is in the detailed outline stage. The story takes place one hundred years in the future, in the South. That’s all I’m going to reveal for now.
BookView Review: What does literary success look like to you?
J. S. Morrison: Writing stories that I personally like and that resonate with other people is my metric for success. Not everyone will like my stories, populated with quirky characters embroiled in connected plots that skirt social issues. It’s enough for me that some people “get it.” The other success factor is whether the book sparks conversations about technologies, culture, or moral dilemmas.
BookView Review: What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
J. S. Morrison: My research tends to be ongoing throughout the entire writing process—from initial concept through multiple drafts. I organize the effort along the following lines:
• Basic plot elements – Before I start, I need to know at least four things: How does the story begin? What is the climax? What is the ending? What is the main theme?
• Character profiles – What do the characters look like, what makes each one “tick,” how do they relate to each other, and what are their idiosyncrasies?
• Land, area, and setting details—These have to be consistent with basic plot elements and the theme.
• Ethnicity – What do I need to know about ethnicity and culture to make the characters and settings appear authentic?
• Technology – For sci-fi, it’s important to look at this in detail. I’m an engineer with my name on seven patents, so I’m comfortable doing this kind of research.
• Trade and macroeconomics – You can bet that any future society will have its own unique spin on money and trade.
• Story and character arcs—The characters in my stories evolve. This may not always be true of villains, particularly if they have a tragic character flaw they cannot overcome, but it is mostly true of the main characters.
• Key scenes—I develop these in outline form, in tandem with other elements of the story and setting.
• Backstories and timelines – In order to keep the story and relationships consistent, I create a sheet with pre-story timelines and relevant events, going back to the birth of the character.
• Treatment—This is a short, visually-oriented, end-to-end view of the story.
• After the treatment, I go into a chapter outline.
• Finally, I lay in the “bricks and mortar” of the novel to get a first draft—The initial text of each chapter.
I conduct some research by reading books—mostly non-fiction; reviewing scientific or historical articles, mostly online; and by visiting locations where some of the main action takes place.
BookView Review:Do you find writing therapeutic?
J. S. Morrison: I find that doing the research is therapeutic but bringing all the pieces together, so they fit is stressful. It’s like trying to solve a giant n-dimensional crossword puzzle. The problem spills into my dreams.
BookView Review: What’s the most difficult thing about writing a novel?
J. S. Morrison: Two things are difficult: Knowing when you have a draft that’s worthy of sending to beta readers and knowing when it’s good enough to send to a publisher.
BookView Review: How many hours a day do you write?
J. S. Morrison: Three-to-four hours. Sometimes a lot more if I’m in a groove; sometimes a lot less if I’m taking a break or letting ideas perk.
BookView Review: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
J. S. Morrison: Doing research energizes me. Writing the end-to-end draft sometimes exhausts me—mainly because I’m writing to deadline—either my own self-imposed deadline or a deadline set by my publisher.
BookView Review: What are common traps for aspiring writers?
J. S. Morrison: My answer is based on experience reading and critiquing other people’s works of fiction. One trap is writing highly derivative works. Strive to be original! Another trap is having fatal logical flaws in the technology and/or backstory. Even magic needs definable rules, limits, and constraints. Another trap is failure to understand basic story structure. Stories need a strong beginning, definable climax, denouement, and ending. Some traps, like sloppy editing or formatting, can immediately kill any interest from agents or publishers.
BookView Review: Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
J. S. Morrison: My personal opinion is that it hurts. Big egos have to be massaged. Stroked. They often don’t want to hear criticism. This is a huge mistake.
BookView Review: How often do you read?
J. S. Morrison: At any one time, I’m reading 2-3 books. I keep a virtual notebook with an outline of the story or thesis, and points about the book that piqued my interest.
BookView Review: Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
J. S. Morrison: The question is stated as “either/or.” I try to be original and say something about human nature and the trajectory of society, and say it in a way that encourages people to think. This may not always be the kind of comfortable escapism people want to read.
BookView Review: Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
J. S. Morrison: Certainly! Novels with high emotional content represent only one form of writing. I like reading deeply analytical non-fiction that reveals something interesting about human nature or the trajectory of future society.
BookView Review: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
J. S. Morrison: Keep on plugging. Get good beta readers. Keep your eye on social divisions that drive dramatic tension.
BookView Review: How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
J. S. Morrison: I came to understand the entire beginning-to-end process, and many of the pitfalls to be avoided in the future. Getting a book out is not a one-person effort. It’s a collaborative process.
BookView Review: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
J. S. Morrison: Formal writing courses.
BookView Review: Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
J. S. Morrison: Margaret Atwood has done some interesting things with point of view. John Berendt’s book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, melded a riveting story with very quirky characters and settings that supported the book’s themes. A couple of novels by Christopher Moore showed what you can do if you have a fine ear for dialect and ingenious characters. Fargo (the movie and the TV series) demonstrated the power of individual characters—each with their own goals, flaws, and histories—interacting to produce dramatic tension. Another remarkable movie, Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, showed that dialog—if done well—can carry an entire story.
BookView Review: How do you select the names of your characters?
J. S. Morrison: First, I look at the background and ethnicity of the character; then I try to deconflict names, to minimize confusion in the minds of readers.
BookView Review: Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
J. S. Morrison: I’ve learned that the same story can produce rave reviews and abysmal reviews. That’s probably par for the course for stories that skate the edges of social divisions.
BookView Review: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
J. S. Morrison: Definitely. I’m not revealing them, because they are secrets. The book I’m working on right now is all about secrets.
BookView Review: Do you Google yourself?
J. S. Morrison: I Google my book as a way to discover what impact it has had on other groups. Sometimes I’m surprised.
BookView Review: What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
J. S. Morrison: I’d give up smoking and gambling. For the record, I don’t smoke or gamble.
BookView Review: What are your favorite books?
J. S. Morrison:
• Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle
• Joseph Heller’s Catch-22
• John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
• Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (entire series) and Dirk Gently (series)
• Christopher Moore’s Coyote Blue
• Lawrence Osborne’s Only to Sleep
• Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint
• Mike Tidwell’s Bayou Farewell
• Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens
• The National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends
BookView Review: What is your favorite childhood book?
J. S. Morrison:
• As a pre-teen I read all the Tom Swift books, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke
• As a teenager I read a lot of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut
BookView Review: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
J. S. Morrison: Knowing when I have something good enough to publish.
BookView Review: Does your family support your career as a writer?
J. S. Morrison: Yes. My wife enjoys a side benefit of my writing–traveling in pursuit of story realism and authenticity.
BookView Review: If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
J. S. Morrison: I’d take formal courses in writing.
BookView Review: How long on average does it take you to write a book?
J. S. Morrison: Since what I write usually involves a lot of research, it takes me about 18 months.
BookView Review: Is writer’s block real?
J. S. Morrison: I’m sure it is for some people. Whenever I get stuck, I find that my brain keeps working in the background. Usually when I am lying in bed, half-awake in the morning, the solution to a plot or character problem comes to me. I trust my unconscious to deliver.
Categories: Non Fiction