Shortly after the release of David Z. Morris’ debut novella, in night we coax things out of hidden shapes, Waking Writer’s editor sat down with him to discuss their writing journeys and the experience of publishing their first books.
Berneta: What have you written so far?
David: I’ve made my living as a writer, in one form or another, for a long time, so I’m not going to give the full catalog. But even if we’re just talking about fiction (which I’ve made exactly $17.88 on, ever, up to this point) things get embarrassing fast.
Over the last nineteen years, in addition to in night, I’ve accumulated: about three false starts of novels; a dozen short stories of 3,000 words or more; one-third of a novel-length serial; a dozen or more good flash fictions; a nearly-complete novel that will be complete soon; and another novella, which is currently under review and will hopefully have a home soon.
Oh, and two poetry chapbooks, with a third on the way.
A lot of this is unpublished – to say nothing of stacks and stacks of notebooks. I know that a lot of other writers have a lot of junk lying around, but I’ve also been very lax about the business side of fiction writing. I’m just starting to get caught up.
Berneta: Any particular interest or experience that made you want to sit down and write this story?
David: So, the crazy thing about this novella is that while I finally self-published it last year, it was actually written when I was 22 or 23 – an embarrassingly long while ago. At the time I was still really into hip hop, as both a fan and a scholar, and I was struggling with what that meant as a white person. I felt like a transformed fictional world was a decent way to work out some of those issues of cultural appropriation and privilege.
I’m pretty sure it’s the best piece of fiction I wrote, I’m just gonna go ahead and say, for that entire decade, and I think that’s because it was deeply personal. At the risk of spoilers, the novella has a deep skepticism of the appropriation of marginalized culture by those in power. But it tells it in the frame of a good story, garnished with a lot of freaky surreal mysticism and monsters.
We’re going backward, maybe, and in that respect in night is not as relevant as an allegory as it once was.
The problem, of course, is that the context has changed. In the Clinton years and for a bit after, it felt like our biggest problem when it came to race had become how to respectfully cross those barriers of cultural attraction. The last few years have been a big wake-up call on that – there’s still a lot more pure hatred and fear out there than I think at least progressive whites were aware of fifteen years ago. We’re going backward, maybe, and in that respect in night is not as relevant as an allegory as it once was.
(Side note: I’m still a big hip hop fan, but I’ve started to notice that once you reach a certain age, the bonds of shared age begin to soften some of the anxiety about the politics of appropriation. You just want someone to argue Tupac vs. Biggie with, for whom that debate is still meaningful and entertaining).
Berneta: Okay, so why a novella instead of a full novel? They’re not as common anymore, nowadays. Or are they?
David: Bluntly – I wrote a novella by accident. I think my idea of a “short story” was shaped by reading a lot of 19th century Russians and early 20th century Americans, who were very verbose. And I’m very verbose, both in person and on the page. But in 21st century America, a “short story” is really short – like, 3,000 words short. That’s 12 pages. I’m still learning how to tell a story in 12 pages.
And you’re right, novellas have been in decline because, for a good half-century, they haven’t been very marketable. They’re hard to put in collections, and they’re hard to justify printing on their own. The internet, I think, is changing that, both through ebooks and online journals, which don’t have the same practical limits.
If I’d gone to an MFA program, someone would have told me a lot of this. I’m pretty sure this story should have, by all professional indicators, been a full-length novel, with a lot of rumination and maybe a subplot. The same is even more true of the novella I’m currently finishing – it has the bones of a novel.
But what’s great about a novella is that there’s enough space for that grand sweep, but it goes really fast. I think if anything the novella could have a big comeback on the way because it hits a certain sweet spot between depth and digestibility. (Lucius Shepard, by the way, is my gold standard for the speculative fiction novella).
That said, I’d do it differently if I had it to do over. I tried to get this published off and on for twelve years, most of that time without realizing it was just too long for a magazine to work with, before I gave up and put it out myself. The market-unfriendly length was a serious error. Because I’m not into false modesty, and my shit is really, really good. By rights in night should have been published a decade ago. For money.
Berneta: It makes me wonder if my first book should’ve been a novella, just to sort of get my feet wet.
David: Well, I’ll say that what you’ve done with your ensemble of characters may be best at novel length. Novellas can have a plot or they can have characters, but squeezing in both is tough.
That said, I’m curious how you got to writing in general. Neither one of us followed the career-writer model (e.g. we didn’t get MFAs), but we’ve carved out the time from our other careers to do this crazy thing. Why is that worth it, for you?
Berneta: To be honest, as a person from a working class background, I never really had the privilege of thinking I could really have a writing career full-time. I was thirteen or so when I realized that and decided I had to have a “real job” and keep writing on the side. When I was in college, I had professors who tried to convince me to go the MFA route rather than the Ph.D. in English route, but I didn’t listen to them because I felt that although they were well-meaning they didn’t understand that I lacked the kind of financial resources they had grown up having. It probably wasn’t smart for me to think that way, but I guess I was just a product of my class status. Personally, I think the route I’ve taken has been worth it. I don’t know that I’d enjoy having to depend on my writing in order to eat and have a roof over my head. It would take the fun out of it a bit, I think.
David: So, we know each other pretty well, and from the outside, there’s a lot of you in your central character. Is this something you were conscious of and planned, or did you become conscious of it in the writing, or maybe even not until after you were done?
Berneta: I really tried to avoid that! But the subconscious is what it is, and will do what it wants. Ultimately, I knew it would be damn near impossible to not layer Landrien with aspects of me. Knowing that, I did my best to tell the story of Landrien Moriset and not my story, and I think I succeeded pretty well in that. But, yeah, she’s a little like me: she sort of shuns people, holds grudges, likes to spend a lot of time alone in her thoughts, enjoys visual art, and likes to think that she does meaningful work that helps people. But she’s different than me in other ways. For instance, Landrien is a bit of a player. I can’t say that I have a player inkling in me, and honestly, I’d be pretty bad at it. I can’t stand hurting people’s feelings if they haven’t done anything to deserve it.
David: Hopefully it’s not too boring, but I’m also curious about your process. Did you outline before you started writing? How did the story come to you? Because for me, that’s what makes the novel such an impossible task – I lose track of myself pretty easily.
Berneta: I agree – if I don’t outline, it’s all too chaotic for me. When a story idea comes to me, it always comes in the form of a character I want to know more about. A character I want to explore. So my outlines tend to just revolve around details about the character. I sketch out details about their family history, about their occupation, their greatest desire, their approach to life, you name it. I rarely outline my plot because plots have a way of evolving and getting away from the writer. But I have to outline my characters. It’s my way of introducing myself to them and getting to know them. In the case of Landrien Moriset, the character just came to me one day. I’m not sure why, but it was just as I was finishing up some revisions on another novel that I never published. That novel also explored a tense mother-daughter relationship. (For the record, my mom and I are totally cool, and we totally don’t hate each other, contrary to what my novels would have you believe.) I immediately drafted out some details of Landrien and slowly got to know who she was. I did all that months before I ever sat down to start writing the story.
David: And once you were done, how did you go about getting the book out there? Because that’s a huge part of the work.
Berneta: I was sort of scattered about it at first, thinking I wanted to go the traditional route. But then I realized that I didn’t want to wait. Once I sent it to my editor, I spent months researching all of my options and determined I would go the untraditional route. I immediately researched distributors, decided on Draft2Digital, Amazon Kindle, and Smashwords for the widest exposure. I formatted the document for ebook and for print, spent weeks figuring out the cover art, and finally just put it all together. I did an author interview to publicize it and then just blasted it all around social media. I bought bookmarks and left some at coffeehouses and handed them out. I interviewed other writers and offered to do book review exchanges. It was all an interesting and eye-opening experience. Marketing is difficult! One thing I wish I’d done better besides marketing: the cover art. But thankfully my new edition has very professional cover at.
Berneta: What about you – how did you go about getting your book out, and what were your marketing strategies?
David: I had a lot of fun putting the book itself together. I really enjoy collaborating with people, which you don’t get to do much of as a writer, but I did get to have a hand in the cover illustration and layout of my book, which was great. I was lucky enough to meet Brandon Geurts in Florida, and his ink drawings were practically drawings of the story I’d written a decade before. Then I found a cover designer on Fiverr who did a great job for $50.
(I honestly feel bad about using the ‘gig economy’ to get this stuff done, because I know it’s probably underpricing people’s skills. But that’s a whole other conversation.)
Marketing is not my strength (if my inability to sell this thing in the first place didn’t already clue you in). The bulk of the work I put in on that front was sending out review copies to friends and acquaintances and asking them to write Amazon reviews when it came out. Having some positive notes on that page is gratifying personally, but hasn’t really translated into much in the way of sales.
But really, I never set out to sell books per se: I live in Brooklyn now, and my main motivation in getting the thing printed up at all was so I would have something to give to people at readings and put at some of the amazing independent bookstores around here. You can buy the book for a cool five bucks at Molasses, Human Relations, Topos, and a few other places in my neighborhood, and that’s awesome for me. The hope is that it will eventually, by magic, make its way into the hands of a fringe publisher who might want to work with me on a future project. That’s my real agenda.
Berneta: What would you do differently?
David: Lots of things, but mostly I think success in self-publishing today is about establishing an audience over time, so the real question is what are you going to do next. Maybe the next thing I self-publish, I’ll add one or two wrinkles to the marketing mix. Or, god willing, I’ll have an extra grand or two to throw at an independent marketer who can help, because I’m just not that good at that part of the process.
But mostly, releasing something new will build an audience for the older work, because that’s how Amazon etc. work. That’s the main assumption I’m operating with.
Berneta: So what’s next for you? New books in the works?
David: Well, I’m in the enviable but still complicated position of essentially managing two writing careers. By day/for money, I write about technology, and on that front, I’m working on a proposal for an actual book about transportation networking (Uber and the like) which I’m hoping to maybe sell to a publisher.
Meanwhile, as I mentioned, I’m about 4/5ths of the way done with a draft of a novel that shares a lot of themes and images with in night. It’s set in an alternate-world Civil War, and uses elements of horror and weird fiction to pursue an idea that is still shockingly rare in American culture – that the antebellum South was a gigantic and totally irredeemable machine of spiritual corruption, a low point of human existence that deserves to be excoriated, repudiated, lampooned, and made horrific on every level. The ambition is to write Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad with the nihilism of H.P. Lovecraft and the voices of William Burroughs and Ishmael Reed – a kind of comic grotesque with elements of cosmic horror.
Of course, I’m falling wildly short of that ambition, after six years of working on it. But I’m getting closer. Right now, I just want to get a draft done in the next couple of months so I can send the imperfect thing out to some agents. I’d like to find a traditional publisher, but we’ll see.
What really matters, of course, is how much I’ve learned working on it. And let me tell you, my next book is going to be badass. Whatever it turns out to be.
Berneta: Okay, so random – if there was one living writer you could be like, who would it be? Or, let me rephrase that – what living writer is basically living your writer’s dream?
David: There are very few writers anymore of the kind I’d really like to be. I love writing serious scholarship, I love doing magazine writing, and I love writing fiction – but almost no one is able to cross those boundaries anymore. Ta-Nehisi Coates is one – who else has turned a book-length essay on race into a gig writing comic books? Because that’s my dream. David Simon is another – he’s a former police reporter who went on to create The Wire. I’d love to write a serious TV show or a film someday.
David: Your note about your mom is interesting to me. Do you have family or friends who read your work? And how do you avoid them reading some sort of confession into it? I mean, you’re . . . I’m thinking some variation on engaged? And the relationships in Landrien Moriset are troubled, to say the least.
Berneta: So my partner/husband has read Landrien Moriset, and his first reaction was, “The boyfriend is really…like…too nice.” Landrien’s partner and colleague, Jordan, is a rather forgiving guy, and I didn’t base him on anyone I actually know. I guess he might have been sort of my version of the ideal (perhaps overly understanding) partner. Other than his skepticism of the boyfriend character, my husband likes the story and thinks the Arkansas section of the book is the best part. A close aunt of mine (on whom I suppose I base the aunt character in the story) has read it, and because she’s the type of person who loves books and giving editorial advice, she had nothing to say beyond editorial suggestions. You’re probably wondering, “All right, all right. But what does your mom think of the book?” Well, I wish I could tell you that, and I will whenever I can get my mom to sit down and read the book. She’s not a big fiction-lover, but she has a copy that she tells me she plans to read.
I think one of the reasons I write a lot about mother-daughter relationships is because there were a lot of things I felt were missing from my own – warmth, emotional availability – and because I think it’s the most important relationship a woman has in her life. The way a mom and a daughter interact sets the groundwork for how a girl learns to engage her emotions and vulnerability, I think. I have always thought, for example, that if I had a mom who didn’t mind crying in front of me and talking about her feelings, I’d also be the kind of woman who doesn’t mind crying in front of others and talking about my feelings. Because my mom was not that sort of mom – because she is a woman who didn’t believe a mom should ever cry or talk too much about her emotions in front of the children – I’m very similar. Like Landrien, I just don’t do vulnerability in front of others. And, for me, crying and talking too much about my feelings equates to vulnerability. Lucky for me, I married a social worker, who’s all about understanding the benefits of showing such vulnerability.
All this is to say, I like to explore mother-daughter relationships because they really influence the way a girl develops into her womanhood. Understanding womanhood is central in all of my stories. I realized this very recently due to reader feedback from Landrien Moriset.
Connected to that theme, sexuality occupies a central space in all of my stories. I think moms, more than any other figures, teach girls how to view their sexuality. Moms often tell girls, “If you do this, boys and other people may think you’re ‘fast’ or ‘loose’,” or “If you wear that, folks might think you’re ‘fast’ or ‘loose’, and you don’t want to draw attention from grown men.” We watch our moms navigate marriages or relationships and, in doing so, implicitly learn about what our sexuality and gender is supposed to look like, about what men expect of us. As you can tell, to me the chore of a woman’s sense of self and self-worth stems from the nature of her relationship with her mom.
So, yeah, all of that and I still don’t even know what my mom thinks of the book.
David: We have an obvious shared thread in using the supernatural or otherworldly to tell a very real-world story. What pushed or pulled you in that direction?
Berneta: I’ve always loved supernatural, fantasy stories. My favorite book as a kid (and coincidentally the first “chapter book” I ever read) was Matilda. I still love that book, to this day. But I’ve always felt the fantasy and supernatural novels were too white. White folks got to occupy these interesting fantastical spaces, while black folks got relegated to “struggle narratives” and “life on the streets,” slave narratives, and religious stuff where our entire being centers on our blackness.
White folks got to occupy these interesting fantastical spaces, while black folks got relegated to “struggle narratives” and “life on the streets,” slave narratives, and religious stuff where our entire being centers on our blackness.
With Landrien, I wanted to create a world where supernatural things happen to allow folks to work through their emotional turmoil, and I wanted to center black or nonwhite people in that story, but I didn’t want their entire being to revolve around their blackness. After all, my entire sense of self and being doesn’t revolve around my blackness. There are many other things that impact and inform my sense of self: being a woman, middle class but from a working class background, being a former lawyer, being a southerner from Arkansas, living in Atlanta, being married, being queer, being American, being a person raised by a single mom, being the oldest sibling, being atheist, etc. All of those things matter and factor into my sense of self. I wanted to capture that with the black characters in my stories, and I hope I achieved that in Landrien Moriset.
Beyond Landrien, I’m currently working on a science fiction fantasy series (called After Human) that centers black women characters.
David: And finally same question – living writers you’d like to emulate?
Berneta: Hmm, I’d like to have a writing life similar to Stephen King’s: hanging out in some sleepy, scenic location where I can just write and pump out novel after novel. I wish I could be as prolific as that man is, seriously. Maybe one day I’ll retire from the rat race and just find a nice little nook somewhere in the mountains, and write to my heart’s content while watching trashy tv shows like he does. (I honestly find it hilarious and fascinating how much Stephen King tweets about Empire.)
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
David Z. Morris is a journalist, writer, and researcher. By day, he writes about technology for publications including Fortune, The Atlantic, and Pacific Standard. By night, he writes weird fiction, and blogs about strange books and movies at blownhorizonz.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Berneta L. Haynes is an author, recovering attorney, policy expert and founding editor of Waking Writer. Her writing credits include Bonfire Literary Magazine, The Bangalore Review, Out on the Town Magazine, Inside Higher Ed, and the Iowa Press-Citizen. Her debut novel, Landrien Moriset, is now widely available at Amazon and other well-known book retailers. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.