- Mary Morris (writer)
Mary Morris, an American author, was born in Chicago in 1947. Morris published her first book, a collection of short stories, entitled Vanishing Animals & Other Stories, in 1979 at the age of thirty-two and was awarded the Rome Prize in Literature by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She has gone on to publish numerous collections of short stories, novels, and travel memoirs. She has also edited with her husband, the author Larry O'Connor, an anthology of women's travel literature, entitled Maiden Voyages, subsequently published as The Virago Book of Women Travellers.
Morris was born to Sol Morris (a businessman who was a partner in his brother's architectural and engineering firm) and Rosalie Morris (a homemaker, but with a degree in fashion from the Art Institute of Chicago). They married quite late and were often mistaken for Mary's grandparents. She was raised on the North Shore of Lake Michigan in the suburb of Highland Park in Chicago, Illinois. At the time she was growing up, Highland Park was woodland and, as a child, she roamed its ravines and wandered its waterfront. Her earliest short stories are derived from these memories. She often rode horses through cornfields not far from her house. When she was sixteen, she rode a horse across Adlai Stevenson's front yard and he came out and waved. After a fairly rural childhood, she went east to attend Tufts College. Her junior year abroad in Paris in 1968 was also very informative for her writing. After college she worked at the Beacon Press for a few years, began graduate school at Harvard, but soon transferred to Columbia University in New York City where she did the bulk of her graduate work and began writing stories.
Though Morris never returned to the Midwest for very long, she often writes about the region and its tug. Many of her short stories and her early novels have been set in an imaginary town called Winona along the banks of Lake Michigan. While Morris is known for her numerous travel articles and memoirs set in far-off places, her roots remain in the Midwest. Morris likes the fact that there is more magnetism around the shores of Lake Michigan than the North Pole. She feels drawn there and has an affinity for Midwestern writers such as Willa Cather and Mark Twain who wrote their stories of the Middle West from afar. She now lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and daughter and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College.
In her first collection of short stories, Vanishing Animals & Other Stories, Morris writes about childhood and adolescent memories. The Chicago Tribune called Morris "a marvelous storyteller-a budding Isaac Bashevis Singer, a young Doris Lessing, a talent to be watched and read".
Morris's stories often deal with the tension between home and away. Travel is an important theme in many of the stories in her collections that include The Bus of Dreams and The Lifeguard: Stories. It is also a recurrent theme in her travel memoirs, including the acclaimed Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, Wall to Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by Rail, Angels & Aliens: A Journey West and The River Queen. In her novels, including The Waiting Room, The Night Sky (formerly published as A Mother's Love) and House Arrest, Morris writes of family, its difficulties and disappointments, its iron grip and necessity, and ultimately the comfort family can bring.
Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, Morris sees herself as a storyteller, weaving tales. A Japanese critic once, referring to her non-fiction, told Morris that she is not really a travel writer; rather she writes stories that take place during journeys. Morris also keeps a blog called The Writer and the Wanderer where she writes about travel and literature. The blog also contains her evocative photos and watercolors. Her books have been translated into Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Swedish and Japanese. Morris is an American P.E.N. member and Fellow of the American Academy in Rome. Morris is not related to the writer Mary McGarry Morris, though she is related to the legendary publisher of the Grove Press, Barney Rosset. They are cousins.
In 1980 after Vanishing Animals was published, Morris received the George W. Perkins fellowship from the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. After her year as a fellow, she taught in the creative writing program until 1993 where she was colleagues with such writers as Joyce Carol Oates (a long time mentor and friend), Russell Banks, Paul Auster, and Haruki Murakami (who mentions Morris briefly in his memoir about running). Morris also taught a number of students who went on to illustrious careers, including Jodi Picoult (who attributes her success to Morris' mentorship), Jonathan Ames, and Elissa Schappell. She went on to teach at New York University and University of California at Irvine before becoming a tenured member of the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College.
Short Story Collections
The Lifeguard: Stories, 1997
The Bus of Dreams, 1985
Vanishing Animals & Other Stories, 1979
The River Queen, 2007
Angels & Aliens: A Journey West, 1999
Wall to Wall: From Beijing to Berlin by Rail, 1991
Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, 1987
Acts of God, 2001
House Arrest, 1996
The Night Sky (formerly published as A Mother's Love), 1993
The Waiting Room, 1989
“Standards”, Narrative Magazine
“The Climax Forest”, Narrative Magazine
“The Cross Word”, The Atlantic Monthly
“On the Brink”, Conjunctions
“The Neighborhood Watch”, Boulevard Magazine
“Possum”, Post Road Magazine
“Stray”, Ontario Review Press
“The Interpreter”, The Antioch Review
The Marilyn Simpson Fund from Sarah Lawrence College, 1995 and 1996
Friends of American Writers- A Distinguished Award in Literature (For a Midwestern Writer), 1986
The New York Foundation for the Arts- Artists Fellowship Program, 1985
American Council for the Arts First Prize in Literature, 1983
Princeton University George W. Perkins Junior Fellowship of the Council of the Humanities, 1982
The Guggenheim Fellowship, 1981
The Creative Artists Public Service Award, 1980
The Rome Prize for Literature by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1980
National Endowment for the Arts, 1978
Columbia University President’s Fellowship, 1973–1977
Reviews, Quotations, and Blurbs
In The New York Times Book Review, Susan Isaacs said Morris has “talent for depicting ordinary Americans living through difficult times.”
Also from The New York Times Book Review, Molly Peacock called Nothing to Declare “a union of a travel book and a journey into the self. The vibrancy of this union is on every page of her memoir-cum-travelogue, which tells with generous clarity the story of a woman who locates parts of her nature, which have been denied by her familiar surrounds, in the unfamiliar, deprived, dangerous and beautiful locales…. A true story and an artfully told one, combining the narrative ease of fiction with unexpected, unwhole, awkwardly coincidental real experience.”
In response to Morris’ travel memoir, Wall to Wall, Sofka Zinovieff from The Times Literary Supplement said Morris had “elegant descriptions of the people and places she encounters are both poignant and amusing.”
When commenting on her own writing, Mary Morris said, “My concerns as a writer have evolved from examining family, childhood, memory, and the Midwest into a broader spectrum, encompassing a larger look at the world…. Travel seems to shape my writing and writing seems to inform my travels…. I do not really know why journeys and writing have gone hand in hand for me, but somehow they feed one another and I don’t seem able to do without one or the other.”
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