David Lawrence Morse's Short Story Collection, "The Book of Disbelieving," Challenges Distinctions Between Fantasy and Reality
The worlds of Morse’s short stories are not our worlds, though they are not too different. In The Book of Disbelieving, he changes an element or two of life, which becomes the premise of the story. As one character reflects, “The mind can imagine anything, but that doesn’t make it so.” The stories also read like fables with a moral, even though there are no animals who speak.
The first story, “The Great Fish,” contains a civilization that lives on the back of a large fish and only allows pairs of people to stay together if they successfully procreate. When Osa and the narrator, who are partners, disagree about their future, Osa focuses on her own plans. Her significant other reflects on their circumstances: “ ‘What’s wrong with floating,’ I asked. ‘That’s the way the world works.’ ” Osa does not want to float through existence anymore, though. They do not agree because her mate wants to keep “the precarious life it was my responsibility to preserve.” As they forge their own paths, the surprising thing is what they miss.
These stories gravitate to the topic of death. One story covers a person with the role of “oarsman” to row away the deceased. Another story called “The Serial Endpointing of Daniel Wheal” follows a desperate character trapped in a society that has a special unit to remove those who have “endpointed.” Passing on carries a great deal of mystery and abruptness, as Daniel reflects on his life:
That was memory. That was past. And Charlotte was past and the past is past. As much as he wanted to relish the experience, he couldn’t hold on to the moment, the moments slipped free too quickly, before he could appreciate them the moments ghosted into memory. Time is an endpoint that renders pleasure into grasping after nostalgia.
No one, including Daniel, is immune. Morse’s stories embrace “how it could all change in an instant. How you told yourself one thing but believed something else. But the thing you actually believed wasn’t the thing you wanted to believe.”
Morse earned a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) at the University of Michigan and now directs the writing program at the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale University. I interviewed him about his new book.
Q: You collected many experiences, including studying in Russia and teaching in Japan, before turning to writing and publishing a short story collection. How did you decide to pursue an MFA at the University of Michigan?
A: My studies in St. Petersburg introduced me to a culture where the creation and appreciation of art were considered almost sacred. The majority of the parks and monuments there are dedicated to artists and intellectuals. Compare [that] to the equivalent planned city in the U.S., Washington D.C., where the monuments are dedicated to war heroes and political leaders. That was wondrous to me. In Japan, where I taught English after I graduated from college, I spent the majority of my free time trying to train myself to become a writer—to develop the focus and the habit and the confidence and the discipline. It was painful. It took years. I can’t read what I wrote from that time because it was so self-important and earnest and dreadful.
Over several years, I managed to begin to produce work that I thought might not be entirely awful. But really I had no idea. That’s when I began to consider an MFA. I’d worked long enough on my own to become convinced that writing was something that I felt compelled to do. I was largely self-taught, and I wanted guidance. Being accepted at U-M was a vote of confidence that I badly needed.
Q: Tell us about your work as director of the writing program at the Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale. How does your work there inform your own writing?
A: My teaching at the Jackson School informs my writing in all kinds of ways. In my policy writing classes, we hold up student memos and essays for collective scrutiny—every word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph must justify its existence on the page. That’s good practice for me. Like a musician going every day through their scales, I need to keep editing and analyzing the written word with students to keep my mind trained to do the same thing with my own work.
I like to argue in my classes that writing is slow thinking. The writing process is a tool that we can use to explore and discover what we think—why we believe what we believe. I’m trying to help students become comfortable with that process—to learn to make the process of writing a daily habit that adds meaning and psychic value to their lives.
Finally, I see a certain reciprocity between the work of literature and policy. Literature’s job is to raise the questions that our society finds difficult or even impossible to answer. And policy’s job is to seek evidence-based answers to some of those questions. They may be only partial or provisional answers—but exploring that dialectic between question and answer is something that I’ve enjoyed throughout my years of teaching in policy schools first at U-M and now at Yale.
Q: As The Book of Disbelieving is a short story collection, what draws you to this form?
A: There are so many reasons that I love writing short stories. The short story is the perfect container for the imagination. The form invites creative play but within limits. With a novel, your imagination is given free rein to keep creating new characters, situations, backstories, and conflicts, and that can be fun until you make it about two hundred pages in, when you have to start trying to steer that chaos of scenarios toward some form of resolution. That’s what I mean by the limits of the story—the fact that you have only about 10,000 words forces you to focus on a tight set of characters and circumstances. Sure, when I’m drafting a story, I take wrong turns every now and then, but it’s easier with a story than with a novel to figure out where you went astray.
And here’s another thing: You can’t really start to craft a work of fiction until you arrive at the end. That’s when you’ve finally figured out what the fiction is about—its themes and meaning. Once you’ve discovered the themes, then you can go back and shape that raw, inchoate material into something coherent—make sure all the arrows are pointing in (more or less) the same direction. That process is very satisfying. With a novel, it takes longer to arrive at the ending, which means you have to keep writing for much longer, all the while feeling as if you’re stumbling in the dark.
Q: A common question for authors is where they get their inspiration. For you, I have a guess, which is daily life. Do you look at the world and consider what aspect to change in your story, or do you take another approach?
A: I find inspiration in many places. Several stories in the collection were inspired by books or articles. “Spring Leapers” was inspired by a vignette in the memoirs of the Russian writer Nadezhda Mandelshtam, who, describing her exile with her husband Osip during the Stalinist Purges, encountered a village where they leapt off their rooftops to try to reach heaven. Others were inspired by art or customs that I came across. At a museum in St. Petersburg, I encountered a wooden sculpture of a fish with a village existing on top of it, which inspired “The Great Fish.” And then, yes, daily life is also the source of inspiration. When I found myself, for several months, waking during the middle of the night at about the same time, I wrote a story about it, with a twist (“The Watch”).
Q: Your stories have a fable-like quality, minus talking animals, and the book’s description calls them fables. Why do you think of them as fables? Did you read fables while writing this book?
A: The words “fable” and “myth” are similar—both can refer to a fantastical or supernatural story, and both are often used in common parlance to mean a falsehood or lie. Each of the stories in the collection explores the tensions inherent in those two meanings of the word “fable.” There’s something curious about the human psyche: we’re inclined to believe fantastical stories. And the more fantastical the story (stolen presidential election, virgin birth), the more we may be inclined to believe it, though others may call our beliefs into question and claim that the stories that inspire our faith are nothing but lies. And so, each story in the collection is meant to be a dream reality—with each one, the line between fantasy and reality is blurred—not just for the reader, but for the characters, too, who don’t know what to believe—or disbelieve.
While writing the book, I wasn’t reading fables in the traditional sense—I stayed away from Aesop. But I was teaching a course at the University of Michigan on the ethics and politics of lying, in which my students and I were exploring many of these themes. And I was reading authors of speculative fiction whose stories share some of these same concerns. Borges, Gogol, Calvino, Shirley Jackson. And more recently, Kelly Link and Karen Russell.
Q: The stories also feel like cautionary tales, and they are almost plausible in our world. In “The Market” where eligible brides are auctioned to the highest bidder, Leah recognizes that, “It wasn’t romantic but life wasn’t a romance so might as well get on with it.” She has a realistic outlook. Are you glad that we do not live in the worlds of these stories? Why or why not?
A: Yes, you’re right—some of these stories are meant to be cautionary tales, not that far removed from our current reality. While we don’t generally in the West allow market forces to determine our love choices, we do allow the wisdom of the “invisible hand,” that is, unrestrained market forces, to determine far too much in our society, with tragic consequences. Several other stories interrogate the way that our culture conceptualizes death. So, I guess I don’t see a clear distinction between the world of these stories—no matter how fantastical—and our own world. We already do live in the worlds of these stories, in one way or another.
Q: Time is a theme in this collection, such as the wristwatch that stops in the early morning hours and a pregnancy that goes way longer than people expect. How does bending time, mechanics, and physical constraints change these stories?
A: Time is the final arbiter. It’s the ironclad paradigm that none of us can escape. It’s the ultimate downer reality. And so, it’s natural, or maybe better to say inevitable, that, in a book of stories that seeks to challenge distinctions between reality and fantasy, time itself would be called into question. Do we know what time is? Do we understand how it works?
Q: What have you been reading and recommending this summer?
A: I’ve spent the summer preparing for a new course that I’ll teach in spring 2024 on narrative storytelling in the policy context. I’ve been reading books—such as the work of Peter Brooks—on the ethics and implications of narrative. Also books on the potential impact of narratives on policy and politics. Of course, that impact could be positive or negative: Narrative storytelling is a powerful yet dangerous tool that can be used to manipulate audiences to advance or destroy the social good.
Q: The Book of Disbelieving is your first book. What is next?
A: I’m working on another book of short stories, as well as a biography (with a dash of family memoir) of an idiosyncratic Texan who founded an unconventional Christian sect in Dallas.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.