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Interview with Gerald Morris

28 JANUARY 2012
I had intended to visit Gerald Morris, swinging south into Wisconsin during a road trip I was planning across Canada in 2011, but unfortunately his publisher did not forward my request for an interview until after my return. He kindly agreed to answer my questions by email, but I cannot but regret I missed the opportunity to meet him. We share so many interests, particularly in the comic potential of medieval verse romances and in the figure of Gawain, whom we both discovered when we read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in university (and on whom I wrote my Ph.D. thesis and later co-edited Gawain: A Casebook). We would, I suspect, have enjoyed a lively conversation. I might even have persuaded him that the evil reputation which clings to Morgause in Arthurian fiction is a modern invention, dating to T.H. White: in medieval literature, if not innocent, she is certainly more sinned against than sinning. Wisconsin is a long way from Nova Scotia, but who knows? I may make it out there yet . . . .
RT: What first attracted you to the Arthurian legend as a source for your fiction?
GM: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I read in the Marie Boroff translation in college. I thought it the most perfectly told, perfectly symmetrical story I had ever read. I immediately chose that piece for my Survey of English Lit. research paper and read a great deal about the Celtic sources and the analogous stories involving Cuchulinn. A year or two later, I took a course in Arthurian literature that introduced me to Wolfram’s Parzival and for which I read Malory for the first time.
RT: As a child did you read Arthurian stories for younger readers?
GM: No. I tried once or twice, but I always ended up with a Howard Pyle-ish Boys Book of King Arthur or something, where all the knights were clean shaven, cleft-chinned paragons of pre-Raphaelite virtue, and all the women were ciphers. To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain (originally describing James Fenimore Cooper’s novels), I disliked the good characters, was indifferent to the bad characters, and wished they would all go get drowned together. So it was a surprise and delight to find GGK.
RT: You are obviously familiar with medieval Arthurian romances and tales, but how much had you read before you decided to write fiction yourself, and had you read later poems by Tennyson and others, and modern Arthurian fiction?
GM: That college class in Arthurian lit gave me a smattering of knowledge about the original sources, but when I began writing for myself, I really only meant to use three: GGK, Parzival, and Malory. According to the plan I began before I even graduated college, I was going to write a trilogy. I had read T.H. White and the Mary Stewart Arthurian tales, but I hadn’t read Tennyson or many of the other original medieval tales.
RT: Did you read additional Arthurian sources in preparation for writing your novels?
GM: Ten years after college, however (and about eight years after finishing the first novel), I had a considerable collection of rejection slips for several different novels. The first novel I placed was my first Arthurian tale – or rather, the first half of that. You see, I had no idea how long my ms would be, and I ended up writing a novel that was much, much too long. To get it accepted, I had to cut it in half. This was fine, inasmuch as the second half would soon become the second novel in the series, but at that point the trilogy was thrown off by at least one book. Besides, now that I had finally found a publisher, I wasn’t going to settle for a series of three. I went back to Malory and began looking for inspiration for more stories. This led me to further study and much interlibrary loan, as I sought to milk the Arthurian tradition for all it was worth until I could convince someone to publish something else I’ve written.
RT: How about history and archaeology?
GM: Not much. I read some literary criticism, and some stuff from the myth and ritual school. I checked a few books on the flora and fauna of the British Isles, hoping not to make some glaring mistake to cause smart-aleck readers to sneer at me, but I read no history. After all, if you want historical, you really don’t want the Arthurian world. Assuming that Arthur existed, he certainly did not dress in the 15th century armor that we have associated with him by way of Malory. I never intended to write historical fiction. Instead, I write retellings of historical literature, and the only sense in which my books are historical is that I tell stories set in a fictional world that historical writers also wrote stories about. It gives me the willies every time I get a letter from a teacher thanking me for making the real Middle Ages come alive for her students.
RT: Do you continue to do additional research once you have started writing a novel?
GM: Not really. As I say, I’m telling stories. At that point, what matters is the story.
RT: How conscious were you that you were working within a tradition that limited your freedom to invent whatever you wished?
GM: Oddly, I seem to do better that way. (At any rate, all the novels I’ve written without the support of a pre-existing story have been turned down.) It’s as if I have only so much creativity, and if I have to spend it on inventing my plot, I don’t have anything left for characterization and dialogue.
RT: You drew on many different sources for your material, some of which present conflicting views of the traditional characters and their actions. How did you go about maintaining consistency in your characters within the series?
RT: I assume you’re thinking of Gawain here, who is a great hero in the early English romance (and in Wolfram’s Parzival) and who becomes a surly, inadequate knight in later retellings. At one point, Malory even provides a helpful list of all the knights who defeated Gawain. But in some ways this has been great fun for me. Arthurian literature, face it, doesn’t deal with well-rounded characters. They’re all pretty much paper cut-outs. (Wolfram doesn’t count. Wolfram was a genius.) But putting together the different ways that characters are pictured in different eras one can end up with a multi-faceted personality.
Another good example of this is Kai. Again, a great hero in early legend and Welsh lore, but a mean-spirited bully in Malory, always picking on young knights. So I put those together and made him a fiercely loyal follower of Arthur, who defends the king at least partly by testing new knights.
RT: How much familiarity with the legends did you assume your readers had?
GM: Whatever I thought when I started, I’ve moderated my expectations. One in twenty kids is an Arthur geek and knows a lot; the rest have heard of Arthur and think he might be from England, and a few of those have also heard of Lancelot. That’s it.
RT: Since your books are written, or at least marketed, for younger readers, how did this influence your choice and treatment of your material?
GM: I chose the material because I liked it, not really for the sake of any target audience. Of course, writing for kids, I have moderated the language somewhat. They don’t swear. Much. This is fine, inasmuch as I really don’t want to swear. Much.
Moreover, after the first couple of books, I did very little gratuitous violence. Those two were written before I had kids myself, and I was fairly casual about beheadings and dripping gore and so on. By the time I wrote the third book, I had an eight-year-old, and from that point on I was more cautious about violence.
RT: Did your editors or agent help or hinder you in writing your books?
GM: My editor always made my books better in small but significant ways. I can’t think of any time when she tried to change major themes or story-lines. I didn’t have an agent when I started. I did have one for a while toward the end of the series, but she never contributed to these books at all.
RT: Were there any themes that you particularly wanted to develop in the books, or did these just emerge as you wrote?
GM: I suppose my themes arise partly from the stories themselves and partly from myself. I don’t ever start a book with a theme. Ick. That’s how children’s books end up being preachy.
RT: Some of the characters are already well established in tradition: did this restrict how you developed them?
GM: No. In fact, I love doing counter-characterizations, such as turning the oh-so-noble Tristram and Gareth into buffoons.
RT: Did any of the characters develop in directions you didn’t anticipate when you started?
GM: Well, my editor once referred to Sir Dinadan as my gay hero, and the more I thought about it, the more I suspect she’s right. It makes me angry, actually. He could have told me. He should have known I wouldn’t care.
RT: Someone, I suppose, has to be the villain of the story, but why did you choose Morgause?
GM: Well, she was.
RT: There is a lot of irony and humour in your books. Is this something that you felt to be inherent in your sources, or an approach that you enjoy?
GM: Good lord, no. My sources are about as humor-impaired as anything in literature. Malory is often funny, mind you, but he never intends to be. The humor is all from me, and much of it is in imitation of other authors who write funny dialogue, such as Georgette Heyer.
RT: When you write a series as opposed to a single novel, you may make decisions in the earlier books that create problems for you in later books, limiting your freedom, for example. Did you find this to be a problem?
GM: Occasionally. Usually this had to do with characters. In my first book, I had Gawain make disparaging remarks about his brother Gaheris. Ten years later, when Gaheris was my male lead in Savage Damsel I had to find a way to back-pedal. This happened several times actually. But I don’t remember any difficulties with plot. Although I didn’t outline the whole series—indeed didn’t know how many books would be in it until near the end—I always had a pretty good idea where I was going and had several specific scenes in the final book in mind from the very beginning. So I was always writing toward a goal.
RT: Did your conception of the series change as it progressed?
GM: Very much. As I said, I went from a trilogy to whatever you call a series of ten. Deca something, I suppose.
RT: Were you to decide to re-write any of the books, is there anything that you would like to change?
GM: Not really. I’d edit out some of those awkward remarks about characters who would later be heroes and correct at least one error (in my second book I talk about a “mace” but what I’m actually describing is a “flail”).
RT: What particular elements of the legend did you feel were most important to include in your novels when you were writing them?
GM: The ones that make for good stories. I don’t know how to explain it beyond that. I’d read an Arthurian romance and say either, “Hey, I can do something with that!” or else say, “Meh . . .” And the difference was always the story.
RT: Do you plan to write any more Arthurian fiction?
GM: Not for this age group. I’m doing some occasional Arthurian books for younger readers, but I’m done with this series.