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Finding a Balance in Life Through Writing

An Interview with Michael Morris

 

By Joyce Dixon

 
 
 
A fifth-generation native of rural northern Florida, Michael Morris uses the southern culture of
his heritage as the foundation and inspiration in his writing.  Wiregrass refers to a rough type
of grass that grows in northern Florida and the southern parts of Alabama and Georgia.  There
is an old Indian trail that runs through the area called the Wiregrass Trail.  The southern
Alabama region near Dothan and Enterprise is called Wiregrass.  Michael Morris recalled his
grandfather talking about Wiregrass.  To the youngster's mind, he pictured barbed wire mixed
in grass.  Michael Morris said it is "that image stayed with me and I thought it was the perfect
place for Erma Lee to go through a bad time in her life and then also the place where she
rebuilds her life."

 

A PLACE CALLED WIREGRASS was published by RiverOak Publishing, which publishes
books for Christian readers; yet the book is attracting a mainstream audience.  Do you
feel that the Christian element was more representative of the element of religion in
southern culture, then a goal to write Christian fiction?

 

I like to delve into characters who are going through a "hurricane of life" and fighting to come
out on the other side.  As a result, faith seems to naturally enter the writing mix. As I recently
 told a friend, how could I write about the South and not put faith into the story? It's almost
an extension of who we are as a people.

 

Prior to writing A Place Called Wiregrass I had never read anything in the Christian fiction
genre.  It certainly was not my intent to write for that category.  I just wanted to write a
solid novel that looked at a character's positive and negative experiences with faith and
organized religion.  For me, the novel was always meant for a broad audience and that's why
I'm so pleased that it is doing well in both markets.

 

Erma Lee is the main character in WIREGRASS, and she is one of three female
characters who survive domestic abuse in the novel.  What were your reasons for
 telling the story from a female point of view instead of a male point of view? 

 

Originally I was fearful that I could not tell the story in Erma Lee's voice. I told myself I would
write the first chapter in her voice and then transition back and forth between characters. 
But her voice was the one that resonated in my mind so I decided I would keep going until it
didn't work any longer.  Fortunately, the voice took me to the last sentence.

 

Growing up in a rural area, Erma Lee is a combination of many women I knew.  Smart and
strong women who for financial or social reasons had not always had the same opportunities
that others were afforded.  I also think that having strong women in my own life helped to
capture not only Erma Lee's voice but also the relationship she develops with Miss Claudia.

 

Cher, Erma Lee’s granddaughter, is given a journal to record her thoughts after she is
abused.  How is writing a tool of healing?

 

For me writing provides balance in life.  It helps me address questions about experiences and
people I have faced.  For example, my mom and I were in a situation of domestic violence
with my biological father.  When my mom made the courageous decision to leave, we were
fortunate to have the support of my grandparents.  We even lived next door to them.  She
then went on to marry a terrific man whom I consider to be my "dad."  But through the years
I have often wondered how things might have turned out differently if we had not had a
family support system.  Three years ago I put that thought to paper and soon the character
of Erma Lee began to come to life.  However, A Place Called Wiregrass is not
autobiographical.  We were fortunate that we did not have a situation as bad as Erma Lee or
for as long of a duration.

 

The comparison of the two churches is strong.  The prominent church of Wiregrass
seems blind to those in need around them, yet talk of their Christian duty.  Gerald’s
country church seems friendlier and more willing to come to the aid of those in need.
What message do you want readers to get from the hypocrisy of Miss Claudia’s church?
 
I don't think we can be involved in any religion and not identify with the characters in both
churches.  We have all known the Prune Face character who looks down at Erma Lee and
visits the sick just so she can check off the visitation box on the offering envelope.  But
hopefully we have also encountered characters like Gerald, Miss Claudia and Missoura who live
out their faith in no-nonsense ways.  Their faith is an active faith that is bigger than a dressed
up sanctuary.  Developing a friendship with Erma Lee requires Miss Claudia to come to terms
with her church, a place that seems more like a country club.  Have all of these characters
come across my path in my own faith?  Yes, and like Erma Lee I try to spend my time with the
Miss Claudias of the world and try to ignore the Prune Faces.

 

Richard, Miss Claudia’s son, was an interesting character.  He had had a panic attack
or a nervous breakdown in the courtroom during his law practice, yet seemed to be
capable of more than allowed.  Did he experience a form of emotional domestic abuse
by the loving care of his family, which crippled him emotionally? 

 

That's an interesting way of looking at their relationship.  I had never thought of Miss Claudia's
smothering of Richard in those terms before.  She certainly crippled him by keeping him locked
in an emotional cocoon of illness. Given the circumstance surrounding her first daughter's
death, she was terrified of losing another child.  But without her even realizing it, in the end it
was Miss Claudia's illness that helped Richard to stand on his own again.

 

A PLACE CALLED WIREGRASS was instrumental in raising $1,400 for a new domestic
abuse shelter in your hometown of Perry, Florida.  How does it feel to see Miss
Claudia’s and Erma Lee’s project inspire readers to create shelters?

 

While I was writing A Place Called Wiregrass, the shelter in my hometown was being
established.  I feel a connection with the shelter and had a dream of being able to somehow
use the book to help the home.  As I told my publisher, getting involved in causes to raise
money and awareness for domestic violence prevention really are the bigger issues for me.  I
think the theme of the novel shows how family is more than blood kin, it's the people who
help us along the way.  The people who volunteer at these shelters are proving that is true.

 

You were a student of the late Tim McLaurin.  What did you learn from him?  How did
he inspire you?

 

I met Tim at a booksigning when all I had was an idea for the novel and character sketches.  I
was working for the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline and was not able to take any day
classes.  He invited me to participate in one of his evening classes and if it had not been for
his encouragement I don't think I would have finished the novel.  The night after he read the
first few chapters and told me I was a good writer, I think I could have flown back to my
house based on the excitement alone.

 

I found Tim to be a great listener, but above all, he was real to the core. In addition to his
great talent, I admired his faithfulness to his people -- his roots.  Woodrow's Trumpet
remains one of my favorite novels.  It perfectly depicts the old south colliding with the new. 
At his memorial service I was not surprised to learn that where ever he went, he always
carried around a pocket-sized bag of dirt from his family's eastern North Carolina farm.

 

You attended the 1999 Maui Writers Conference in Hawaii.  How important was this
conference to making the right connections?

 

The Maui Writer's Conference was a big turning point for me.  After attending Tim's class and
various workshops in North Carolina, I cashed in frequent flyer points and headed off to Maui.
The conference was a great opportunity to network not only with agents but with also with
fellow writers.  At the Maui conference I met Marsha Marks, a woman who was about to sign
a deal for her first book.  Marsha connected me with her attorney and then we even ended up
with the same publisher. The conference is probably most beneficial when a writer has a
completed manuscript – the marketing opportunities are endless.  I found everyone to be
extremely friendly and willing to help.

 

How did your degree in Marketing prepare you for your book promotion? 
What suggestions would you give an author with his first published book?

 

While having a degree in marketing and a background in sales helped me to promote the book,
I think talking with other authors about their own experiences was the best education. 
Through them I learned that the book tour can be an emotional rollercoaster -- one day you
might have one person show up for a signing and the next day one hundred might be on hand
for the event.

 

As I pitched the book to stores and sometimes even the media, I recall thinking how that part
of the process was very similar to my days as a pharmaceutical sales rep.  I have discovered
that it is important to have a quick story pitch that draws people in.  I wrote out several
versions until I finally settled on a "one minute" description that I could use.  The promotional
side of the business requires us to wear a different hat – and sometimes it's easy to lose sight
 but it really is a business.  For the publisher it's all about sales.

 

You took a leap of faith with the release of WIREGRASS to become a full-time author. 
How has your life changed since making that decision?

 

I left GlaxoSmithKline on a Friday and flew to New Orleans that same night.  The next day I
began the book tour.  It was such a whirlwind that I did not have time to make a smooth
mental transition.  When the tour was over in June, I found it difficult in knowing how to
allocate my time.

 

While working full time, I had to write early in the morning or late at night.  After floundering
for a few weeks, I finally fell back into that routine and finished the second novel.  Meeting
people on the job helped to stimulate my creativity.  The new life has definitely been an
adjustment.

What stands out in your memory from your 35 cities book tour?

The events at Quail Ridge Books (Raleigh, NC) and at McIntyre's Fine Books (Pittsboro, NC)
stand out as most memorable.  Having gone to readings at both stores, I would sit out in the
audience and hope that maybe one day I would be up there reading from my own novel. 
When I finally got that chance, it was both exciting and nerve racking.  We had large turn
outs at both events.  The stores have been unbelievably supportive.  Robert Segedy at
McIntyre's was one of the first people to read A Place Called Wiregrass and of course, at
Quail Ridge is where I first met Tim McLaurin.

Can you tell us about your next novel? 

The second novel is set in North Carolina and chronicles a custody battle between
grandparents and a mother over the main character, an eight year old named Brandon Willard. 
When the grandparents lose the case, the hard-working farm owners flee with Brandon rather
than turning him over to the daughter they claim is an un-fit mother.  I just finished it and
now I'm in the process of reading over the first draft.

 


Visit the official web site for Michael Morris at: http://www.aplacecalledwiregrass.com

 

A Place Called Wiregrass
By Michael Morris
RiverOak Publishing, 2002
softcover, $14.99 (359pp)
ISBN: 1-58919-966-9

          Southern Scribe Review

       

 

 

 

 

© 2002, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved