Sometimes You Sing an Aria

C. E. Morgan & Lisa Lucas
In Conversation

C. E. Morgan and Lisa Lucas

C. E. Morgan’s “tremendous” new novel, The Sport of Kings, is a multi-generational saga set on the bluegrass fields and racing tracks of Kentucky. This June, Morgan, a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 recipient, sat down with Lisa Lucas, the Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, for a rare interview at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn to discuss the false stigma of regionalism, internalized literary sexism, the power of empathy, and the politics of storytelling.


The Sport of Kings
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Lisa Lucas: When I read The Sport of Kings, I couldn’t possibly have been more moved. It was a big, warm, thoughtful, beautifully written, engaging, huge novel. And so congratulations on writing it and being brilliant. Tonight, we are not going to actually go through, blow by blow, what happened in the book, because that’s something that you tend not to do and that’s out of respect for the reader, I understand. So I’d like to start there: What is your desired relationship between the reader and the book that you’ve written, or the books that you have written in general?

C. E. Morgan: Generally speaking, I don’t go into the text and explain the why, or the how, of things, because I truly do believe that once you’ve published a book it belongs to the reader, that one really ought not to publish until one feels it is complete. There is an extraordinary freedom to make your own intellectual choices that’s part of the reading process. Generally writers are given too much power in the public sphere in terms of framing the interpretation of their work and I think for the most part that should really be left on the page. Then the reader is able to do that critical thinking work for themselves without the intrusive voice of the writer informing them what kind of readers they should be. I learned to be a writer by reading, rereading and constantly asking the most important question that a reader can ask, which is “Why?” When encountering something in a text that’s unusual, that doesn’t immediately make sense or is even repellent, one’s first impulse, I hope, is to delve into it and try to understand why it was done that way, because insofar as words are chosen, they point to the meaning of a book. Those words are going to take you there, and the book’s chosen structure and aesthetics are going to take you there. That is how writers become writers—by taking a book like As I Lay Dying and reading and rereading it and always asking “why?” In his Paris Review interview, the interviewer asked Faulkner, what would you say to someone who had read one of your books two or three times and doesn’t understand the book, and he said, “Read it four times.” That discernment process, the great freedom of discerning for oneself: that is the work of building writers.

LL: Some of the reviews of The Sport of Kings have said that because you can do anything, you do everything, and to me this really speaks to how far-ranging the book is, because you’re moving between place and time and myth and life and voice. But it does feel like some writers have somehow earned the right with the critics to do high kicks and backflips, and some writers haven’t. What you might get nailed for, someone else might not.

CEM: I think that it’s often a gendered critique. And it can come from internalized sexism, because we see it on both sides of the aisle. We often see—and the condescension is clear in reviews—women’s work being questioned, the largesse, the expansive quality being questioned, instead of unpacked. When a man’s big book of ideas is analyzed, there’s the assumption that there’s something there to be parsed, that if we just think hard enough, if we just investigate it long enough, we’ll understand the necessity of the form. We accept the authority. When women produce those kinds of books, there’s often a different reaction: “She can’t quite control the form, can she? This is where she’s uncontrolled, and she’s losing her way a bit, because there’s too much happening, it’s become larger.” And generally speaking, women are not supposed to take up space. That’s changing, culturally. Yet the criticism survives.

LL: I just finished reading your first novel, and then revisited The Sport of Kings, and it’s interesting to watch how All the Living is tight, and small, and intimate, and tells a story of two people. And then, with The Sport of Kings, you just expand out. How do you cover the distance between writing something that is so tight, and that is such a small story that you can really examine every little moment, into something that’s so epic? How do you cover that distance as a writer?

CEM: Well, sometimes you sing a country song, and sometimes you sing an aria. If you’re a trained singer, and you’ve been training a long time in your vocation, you can switch from mode to mode. What I’ve always said is you obey the book. I feel that books come with an inborn temperament just like a child comes into the world with an inborn personality. And you’re going to work really hard to nurture the child and guide it through life, but you’re never going to turn your little extrovert into an introvert. That is never going to happen. The work of the writer is like the parent’s: Let me discover what I’ve been given here, and then let me parent it into its maturity without violating its fundamental nature. Some books are expansive, sprawling, and some are tight and lean. Again, there’s a relationship between the primary themes of a book and the form that it takes, from the music of its language to the lean or capacious nature of it.

LL: Absolutely. I think the particular form of The Sport of Kings lends itself to so many different comparisons. One reviewer said that you’d written Faulkner’s great American novel. How do you feel about this criticism? Why do you think people might draw those comparisons, and what do you think that means about how you feel about your own writing? Do you feel influenced by these writers? Do you feel a part of that community of writers? Is there a reason why those comparisons are being drawn?

CEM: I don’t know who all I’m being compared to, so I’m not really sure I can answer that without reading the reviews. But I do know that with All the Living, it tended to be this Southern and female slant. It was very, very clear that people made the associations to a region and writers who are often considered regionalists, and to women specifically, whereas my interests and my reading are in no way limited—

LL: I made the mistake of actually being like, “Well, as a Southern writer, you—”

CEM: I don’t think of myself as a Southern writer at all. I write about Kentucky and Ohio, and I think of it as a pocket. That’s what I’ve always called it, the pocket, and I’m always in the damn pocket. I probably always will be, regardless of where I live. I’ll be writing about it the rest of my life. But I absolutely, in no way, shape, or form, feel beholden to a region, and I actually think it’s dangerous to allow oneself to be named as a regionalist. I think of it as a slur. I think of “regional” as a slur. It has been kind of used that way to ghettoize certain literatures in the country, and it’s about power. It’s about the power of naming, and the naming comes from New York, it emanates from the East Coast. It’s interesting, when you actually look up regionalism, you’ll see: “Well, the regionalists from the Southeast, of course, and the regionalists in Florida, and the regionalists in Nebraska, and the regionalists in the Deep South.” I mean, it’s practically everybody who’s not on the coast. I think there’s a very real relationship between literatures being dismissed and marginalized, and the social conditions and concerns of entire regions being dismissed and marginalized. Just for one example: In the year 2000, there was a huge slurry spill in Martin County, Kentucky. A holding container of slurry—coal slush—busted, and the slurry flowed into the mines, and then it came out of all the mine openings, and it just wrecked the creeks and the land. And this disaster is one of our biggest natural disasters. It was thirty times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill, but it took months for The New York Times to comment. The same thing happened with Detroit’s water problem, although that’s further complicated by racial issues. And so it probably shouldn’t be surprising when you see great writers from certain regions not even reviewed. Wallace Stegner, who lived in the Pacific Northwest, could not get his Pulitzer Prize–winning and National Book Award–winning books reviewed properly by the Times. There’s a relationship between our willingness to honor texts with regard to where they come from and who they come from, and our willingness to take their social concerns very seriously at a political level.

LL: Despite the fact that you’re writing about Ohio and Kentucky, this feels like an American book. It talks about class and race and landscape in a way that is particularly American and that really has something to do with all of the different parts of this country.

CEM: That is the definition of regionalism: work that is pertinent to a place because of its peculiar nature or particular nature, and not, perhaps, pertinent to the rest of the country. They called it “local color” back in the day. After the Civil War they called it “local color” literature, and then it kind of became regionalism. But that is essentially what they’re saying: When they call a writer a regional writer, they’re saying, “That’s very interesting for people who live in Kentucky, and it really doesn’t have anything to do with us.” But if you read a book like The Sport of Kings and think that it’s really just about the South, then you haven’t read the book.

LL: It seems absolutely like it has everything to do with where we live today. One of the reasons that I was so particularly moved by the book was that I came to it as a reader of color. Often you read work by people who are white and you see representations of yourself in those books, and they’re not necessarily empathetic. They’re not necessarily thoughtful. They’re not necessarily nuanced or complicated. This book felt, for me, like one of the most nuanced, complicated, honest explorations of race in America. Also, the absolute attention to detail in terms of capturing voice—whether it was across class lines, or across race—it felt like you really nailed it. I would love for you to talk about how you managed to inhabit all these different voices. Being able to tell black stories, being able to tell stories about race, being able to really look at the full spectrum of what America looks like within a work of fiction is really challenging. I’m curious as to how you managed to actually accomplish that. How did you manage to really take a look at so many different groups of people and to represent them so accurately and thoughtfully?

CEM: I think that writers are born with certain faculties that they can’t take credit for, a certain empathy or sensitivity to other human beings and an ear. They just listen to people. Imagination is the foundational talent of a fiction writer. So I don’t think you can take any kind of credit for that. You can take credit for working hard and sitting with difficult material. When we talk about fiction, this exists on a spectrum from pop all the way to Tolstoy or Shakespeare, and what you’re finding on that end of the spectrum is a portrayal of the full complexity of human beings. And a portrait that’s fully complex is one that does not reject anything. It’s looking at the full human, incorporating the parts of ourselves that we try to hide from other people, like feelings of shame or profound anxiety or self-pity or rage. A writer’s only able to look into others as deeply as that writer is willing to look into their own self. You have to own all of that in your core. And by own, I don’t mean think about it, I mean engage in the full somatic experience of feeling feelings, which is a pretty difficult thing to do, especially if you like to create narratives. Thinking about an emotion is not feeling an emotion. I believe one of the greatest things that a writer can do is establish a meditation practice. Meditation is sitting with everything that arises, rejecting nothing, and not making a whole lot of it, just becoming acquainted with the full self. And that’s the job that writers do with a character and other humans. The less afraid you are of yourself, the less afraid you are of anyone you encounter.

LL: I think the end result of the work that you’ve done, in terms of representing these characters and really letting them be, lets us see women, and people of color, and people without resources, in a way that we don’t often see in literature. I’m curious why you thought that was important. Why is it important for a reader to hear these voices, to see these whole people? Do you feel like they see them often? I don’t.

CEM: Unfortunately, the publishing world’s probably not as full of working-class writers and people from working-class and poor origins as it could be. So our stories and political concerns are lost. When I was growing up, I always heard this idea that you can’t write a really political novel, that somehow you’d sacrifice your artistry to politics, and I never believed it. I just never believed it. You have to prioritize the art, but the politics can be right there in the shadow of it. You can engage and elaborate a burning desire for justice in the world through your work. Now, I don’t think anybody actually sits down and says, “Well, I’m going to write a novel about justice.” But I do believe in the power of literature to change lives, to change political systems. I really do.

LL: And this is a really political book. Both books were very political in their way. They’re different, but this is an extremely political book. Is there work that you hope this book does politically? What is that? I think that fiction and literature does change the way that we live. I’m curious as to what your hopes are for something like this.

CEM: I would hope very sincerely that readers would think about the class system in this country, and the color system in this country, and how people are not as mobile as we would like to imagine. To think about how determined lives are, really, once you get below a certain economic point. Some people are deeply offended by the idea that lives are so predetermined, but if you are drastically ill in this country, and you do not have health insurance, and you die, where on the spectrum of determinism and free will would you locate yourself? I really hope that an issue like the horribly inadequate health care system in this country becomes a living reality for the reader rather than just an idea in their head. Conversely, a couple of people have said that they cried over particular characters and scenes. I would hope that there’s something that comes after the crying. I was just thinking about this issue today: I’d like readers to come away questioning whether many suicides are not in fact murders. But there are lots of things…

LL: There’s a lot in your writing that is about community or isolation from communities. You see people who are failing to connect, and they’re doing all the things that they do as humans that are flawed and messy, and you’re examining the ways that they pull apart.

CEM: I think that isolation, well, kills. Loneliness kills. We know that now. It’s worse for us than smoking. And isolation allows us to believe a lot of American myths. It’s really not limited to America. It allows us to believe a lot of things about other human beings that are simply myths. Individuality and isolation, the sense that we’re not a family is one of the biggest myths.

LL: It’s funny how you play with myth on a really practical level, but then also straight-up mythology. Have you always been interested in myths?

CEM: I’ve really no interest in myth, it’s just always there. Because that’s what myth does: It works at such a visceral level—it gets in you, with archetypal images and deep symbolism. It’s like kids who grow up being forced to read the Bible, and they say, “Oh, I hate the Bible.” Yeah, but those myths are doing their work.

LL: Is that why you went to divinity school?

CEM: I had a couple of different reasons for going to divinity school. I was interested in ethics—secular ethics—and I needed health insurance. I needed medical care.

LL: You were talking a little bit earlier about being a reader and being a rereader, and it does feel when you read The Sport of Kings and All the Living that these are books written by a person who is reading and rereading and thinking about other texts as they’re constructing their own. What influenced you as you were writing these books? I’m curious about how your life as a reader informs your life as a writer.

CEM: Oh, gosh, it’s really organic. I think of myself as a glass that always has to be filled up and filled up. Language comes from language. Ideas come from ideas. No one’s really giving birth to new books. You’re just activated.

LL: Do you read as you write?

CEM: Oh, yeah.

LL: Do you feel like it influences your writing?

CEM: I feel like the metal of the mind is shaped when you’re very young. So I locate influence at a pretty young age. I was influenced by a lot of things that I was reading at age twelve, for example. And then after a certain point, once you reach maturity in terms of technical facility and your themes, then I think of it more as grabbing and going.

LL: You’re saying when you were young you had all these influences, but when did you feel like you were a writer? When did you feel like you understood your talent, and understood how to use it, how to wield it?

CEM: I thought of myself as a writer the instant I learned how to read. I remember the moment, and I remember the “This is how I’m gonna do it.” I remember that moment and I’ll never forget it. I was seven years old. I was a late start, apparently. Kids out there read at three. With all that extra time, I’d be a much better writer by now [laughs]. I remember this very early sense of instantaneously understanding my vocation, but the sense of maturity came when I was twenty-nine and I wrote All the Living. One day I wrote the first twenty pages of that book and I knew immediately what it was, that the technical facility and aesthetic control had come together with my themes in a mature way, and that this was the moment I had been waiting for since I was a very little kid. The apprenticeship takes, for some people, a very long time, though I remember hearing, “Oh, you’re pretty young, you’re twenty-nine.” Well, it took me about twenty-two years to get there.

LL: Do you feel like you have a lot of developing to do? Do you feel comfortable and powerful in your voice?

CEM: I do feel powerful. But my husband and I were just talking about growing in wisdom, and maintaining within the power of knowing that you’ve reached a certain kind of artistic maturity, the humility required to continue to grow in wisdom. The wonderful thing about writing is that we have so many opportunities to dive deeper, to grow spiritually, and to broaden, and to become less a self and more a basket for everything else.

LL: It seems like you’re protective of your writing talent and protective of your time. This reading and conversation is actually a really rare event. Can you talk a little bit about protecting that talent, protecting that space to actually do that work?

CEM: I read somewhere on the Internet—I thought this was great advice—that you should list the five things you think are most important in life, and only do them. Of course, you can’t really do that. We have responsibilities. But when you look at maintaining your relationship, maintaining your vocation, keeping your spiritual life paramount, and taking care of your family and your friends, any one of those is a lifelong, encompassing task. I think we live in a world with many opportunities for false intimacy, and you have to be a warrior for real intimacy, and a lot of that is about protecting time. Your most valuable resource as a writer, a lover, a married person, a family person, is time. You’re not going to get more than you’ve got, and you’ve got to use it really, really wisely. I don’t want to get caught up in anything. I want to live simply. I do think that folks should protect what’s most precious in a world that wants everything.

The Sport of Kings

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C. E. Morgan lives with her husband Will Guild in Berea, Kentucky. She is the author of The Sport of Kings and All the Living.

Lisa Lucas is the Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, she served as the Publisher of Guernica, a non-profit online magazine focusing on writing that explores the intersection of art and politics with an international and diverse focus. Prior to that she served as Director of Education at the Tribeca Film Institute, on the development team at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and as a consultant for the Sundance Institute, San Francisco Film Society, the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and ReelWorks Teen Filmmaking.

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