Monday, April 6, 2015

Mary Morris talks about her shimmering masterpiece, The Jazz Palace, jazz, a love letter to Chicago and so much more

I first met Mary Morris through her novels, starting with The Waiting Room, a book I loved so much that  I spent months trying to track her down, (okay, I was sort of a stalker), and I finally found her through her husband, Larry  O'Connor, when Larry and I were reading together. File this under "sometimes you can get what you want"--we became great friends, talking about everything from personal shoppers, grown-up children,  food, letting go--and of course writing.  I can't imagine a day going by without getting an email from Mary. I've loved all of Mary's work, but this one--The Jazz Palace, is a masterwork.

As haunting as a jazz riff, The Jazz Palace is about art and relationships, and jazz in Chicago, and I guarantee it's unlike anything you've read before.

Mary's the author of Vanishing Animals, The Bus of Dreams, and The Lifeguard Stories,  Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, Wall to Wall: from Beijing to Berlin by Rail, and Angels & Aliens: A Journey West. Her five novels include The Waiting Room, The Night Sky (formerly published as A Mother’s Love) and House Arrest.Her many novels and story collections have been translated into Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Swedish and Japanese. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College.  Mary will be reading at the Community Bookstore in NYC on April 16th (and lots of other places, too.)  I'm not missing it, and you shouldn't either. I'm so honored and happy to host Mary here!  Thank you, Mary!

To me, the novel was like jazz itself, moving in and out of themes, inventive, free form, and deeply soulful. How difficult was that to plan--and to get so absolutely right?

First, thank you for this.  And it wasn’t planned at all.  I spent years trying to understand jazz.  Every time I got close it eluded me.  But at a certain point it occurred to me that, even though I couldn’t articulate what jazz was, the book itself was taking the shape of a jazz composition.  It happened intuitively. So I am thrilled that you saw it that way.  In many ways The Jazz Palace was more rendered than written.  It went through literally hundreds of drafts and versions and like a good stew I kept boiling it down to its essential elements.  I kept reducing it to its essential elements until it became what it is.

It began as a sprawling 800 pages multi-generational family saga that began in 1915 and ended in 1968.  Now it is 250 p. novel that covers a much shorter, and more focused, time period.   And of course during that whole time I listened to a lot of jazz – pretty much all the time.  I mean how many times can you listen to “Cherokee” or “Waltz for Debbie?”  Ten thousand?  Well, I listened more.  And at a certain moment I realized that the novel with its various threads, its “solos” and ensemble moments, and, as you say, free form was basically what I’d been listening to.  It was organic and, dare I say, improvised, but at a certain point the novel just became the thing that it was about. 

You’ve said that it took you seventeen years to write this novel. Were you consistently writing? What stopped you? What surprised you in the writing? How is this final book different from its beginnings?

Well, in the initial book the character of Anna had twenty-two children and Benny had a half-sister with whom he meets as a young man and has an incestuous affair.  (I probably shouldn’t tell you this.)  Also, as I said above, the early version went until 1968 and the story of Benny’s daughter, Harriet, more or less takes over.  Essentially the book you have now is pretty much half of what I wrote.  I told about this more below. I think I was floundering around for the story and obviously none of this is in the current version.  I wasn’t consistently writing it.  When it got rejected the first (when it was 800 pages long), I sat down a wrote a short novel, called Revenge.  Then I went back to the jazz book and it got rejected on its second round.   It was at about this time that I wrote The River Queen.  Then came the dark years when I published nothing and was fairly certain that this book would never see the light of day. 

Two things surprised me in the writing.  The first was that no matter how much the plot shifted, the characters remained more or less the same.  And the other was that the book could take so many forms and yet somehow, again, be the same.  It was an odd experience.  I felt as if I was doing battle with a multi-headed hydra.   In the end the book you have is very different from the one I began with.  And yet strangely in many ways it is the same. 

The history, from Shoeless Joe Jackson to the start of Jazz, to Al Capone were real and fascinating. What was the research like?

I loved doing the research.  I can honestly say I devoured it.   Once I’m inside a project, and I was inside this one, I’m, well, “in.”  It’s very odd.  I might be totally into, say, meteorites because I’m writing something that has meteorites in them.  I’ll read everything I can.  But then somehow when the book is over, meteorites become just like any other object that I have some passing interest in.  I suppose it’s a lot like love (and god knows I’ve been obsessive about love).  I can completely take you over.   But then when you’re out of love, that person become just another person.  And you wonder what the big deal was.  Anyway I loved all the research.  Perhaps the most compelling, and difficult part, was trying to learn to play jazz piano which I wasn’t very good at, but it did give me more a feel for what a jazz musician must do. 

In a sense this novel is also a love letter to Chicago of a certain place and time. There’s a lot in here about jazz, race relationships, and the way music transforms people. Could you talk about that?

I have always, always loved music and I’ve always loved Chicago.  Why I left is complicated.   It was the right thing at the time.  It was what I had to do.  I’ve lived in New York for decades.  It’s my home but Chicago has my heart.   Growing up for me was a lot about music.  It was, after all, the 60s and I can’t think of an era that was more about the music except for, perhaps, the 1920s.  My dad, who married late, (I was born when he was in his late 40s) was a pretty good piano player.  He used to hang out in the black and tans in the 1920s and he played for his friends, at rent parties, bar mitzvahs, etc.  And he had lots of stories about Chicago.  So I guess music and Chicago were a natural to come together. 

The whole matter of race came from a different impetus.  As a girl, involved in the Civil Rights Movement I always wondered why Chicago divided itself right at S. 12th Street between North and South, rich and poor, white and black.  I just didn’t get it though now I do.  There’s a wonderful book that talks about this called Black Metropolis.  Initially the book didn’t have a black character.  Napoleon was born when I was riding in a cab on my way to the airport.  We were driving by some projects in Brooklyn near where I live and I saw, painted on a building, graffiti that read, “Napoleon Hill, R.I.P.”  By the time I got to the airport Napoleon was born.

Again as a child of the 1960s we used to go down to the South Side of Chicago to the Regal Theater where the best acts of Motown played.   I have a friend named David Lauderstein and he led the charge.  He was a musician (and still is) and he knew that what was happening was happening on the South Side.  Another friend, jazz critic and writer, Krin Gabbard, says that jazz is as much about race and sexuality as it is about anything else. 

Anyway music brings us all together the way that nothing else can.  Well maybe a great meal.  But music has that power.

Benny’s teacher tells him that music, all things return to where they begin. And in a sense, the book flies off with innovations, and then it does have its own sort of return, which I won’t give away.  But you had told me that you lobbed off the last 100 pages of the book, and I’m curious how you knew those pages had to go.

It’s not easy to answer this question without giving away the ending but I’ll do the best I can.  Initially, and for years really, the book spanned from 1915 until the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 and it ended with Benny’s daughter’s story.  In other words it was a multi-generational family saga.  For years I tried to sell it that way but I kept getting feedback that after a certain point the story grew flaccid (no other word to use here, really).  In the summer of 2012 I was rereading Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow and I was struck by what a time constraint of time he used within which to tell his story.  I literally woke up one morning and knew exactly where the book had to end and perhaps where it had needed to end all along.  I went downstairs, and lobbed off the last 175 pages and that is the novel you have. 

The language of the book is incredibly beautiful. From the gem sisters to certain thrilling lines (“Everybody wanted to save someone”), the book is as haunting as anything by Miles Davis. What came first for you, the story of the language?

Well, let’s return to the jazz metaphor.  I think it’s impossible to separate the story from the language any more than you can separate the melody from the tune.  I will say that certain phrases in the book such as the one you mentioned above and others such as “The gem sister slept in the order in which they were born”  or “Pearl found the absence of sound” were always in the book.  They didn’t change.  Those sentences are in a sense anchors for the story.  They ring and rang very true to me.  I can’t separate the story from the sentences in those instances, can you?  It’s a hard thing to say but I think that sometimes we do something that is just very honest and very true and when we do that it feels right.  It is right.  That’s how the language came to me.

I read a essay once about George Bush’s weird language bloopers and the writer said that Bush only fumbled his words when he was telling a lie (which was pretty often).  He never stumbled when he was telling the truth.  It’s true for all of us, isn’t it?

I will say that I worked on every single sentence of this book until I thought I’d squeezed the life out of them.  I read them out loud.  I woke up in the middle of the night with changes stuck in my head.   To say that this is as “haunting as anything by Miles Davis” pretty much blows me away.  I definitely lived inside of it, and lived inside of these sentences for a long time.

Why did you stick with it?

Ha, I suppose the answer here could be why did it stick with me?   I’m only half kidding.  I put this book away many times.  I also dragged it around the world with me for years.  I rewrote it in Prague, in Italy, in Spain, and wherever else I went.  And then I’d put it away.  But it wouldn’t exactly go away.  I’d wake up anxious in the middle of the night.  It was as if my child had gone away and I had to find the way to bring her home.  I’m sure I would have gone on like this if I hadn’t woken up one morning about three years ago now and realized what was wrong with the book.  It was a eureka moment.  One I still see vividly.   I went to my desk, took out the manuscript, and went right to the page where I knew it had to end.  I threw away the rest (about 175 pages at that point) and I began again.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

I’m hoping this isn’t another seventeen year odyssey but I’m writing about crypto-Jews who escaped Spain in 1492 and wound up in the hills of New Mexico.  The novel begins in 1992, then moves around in time a lot.   So I’m reading the diaries of Columbus and the history of Jews in Mexico and New Mexico and a lot of the journeys of spices and caravans which is fascinating.  Also a lot about astronomy because I have a contemporary character who is an amateur astronomer.  Oh and celestial navigation.  Who knows what the final book will be?  I’m always rendering these things down.   But it will be done in a few years.  No more.  I’ve promised myself that.

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