An In-Depth Interview
James Morrow fills his work with a vast intelligence seldom found in popular
literature. He has a B.A. in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania
and an M.A. in teaching from Harvard Graduate School. He’s developed teaching
programs for schools. James Morrow started writing fulltime in 1978. His first
novel, The Wine of Violence, was published in 1981. This is the Way the World
Ends (1986) was nominated for a Nebula award. Only Begotten Daughter (1990)
got him another Nebula nomination and he won the World Fantasy Award for it.
He won the Nebula for City of Truth (1991), and his Towing Jehovah (1994) was
nominated for both Hugo and Nebula and won him his second World Fantasy
Award. Bible Stories for Adults (1996) was a World Fantasy Award nominee as
well. He just recently published The Philosopher’s Apprentice, and The Last
Witchfinder was his critically acclaimed masterpiece, a recent work.
Mr. Morrow is definitely not afraid to take on the “big
issues” in his work; no quarter is asked, nor is any
given. Everything from theology to the Age of
Reason and Salem Witch Trials fill his work, and he
pulls no punches, makes readers think while
entertaining them. He is known for fantasy, yet he
has delved into historical fiction with vicious cunning
displayed in his astute storytelling, using Sir Isaac
Newton and other historical greats to support fictional
characters that are so real they simply MUST exist.
Even the book that tells the story of The Last
Witchfinder is interwoven with such a vivid persona
and desire for its owner that one sympathizes with
the book as if it is, in fact, human.
|Without further ado, let me introduce you to the critically acclaimed award winning
Novelist James Morrow
1. You are a novelist and teacher of great repute, but how would you respond to
Who is James Morrow?
James Morrow is a bewildered pilgrim, that is, yet another perplexed human being
hurled onto Planet Earth for reasons he cannot fathom. I happen to be exhilarated
by this cryptic condition, and I suspect that — unless I find God, God forbid — I
probably always will be.
In my view, the more confused we are, the better off we are. The trouble starts
when people decide that, owing to some private revelation, they’ve been
vouchsafed answers to the mystery of it all. Clerics are particularly prone to this
foible, but so are self-styled mystics and perhaps even a few scientists — though as
a “scientific humanist” I would argue that science is not part of the problem, and
does a pretty good job of keeping us creatively perplexed.
2. You are not timid in addressing stories concerning clones created from aborted
fetuses. What is in your purpose when you write something like The Philosopher’s
All of my novels represent an effort to keep alive the great post-Enlightenment
conversation. Whatever one thinks of the Age of Reason — and that epoch has
been justly criticized for overestimating the utility of rational thought — it got
people arguing, in a salutary way, over questions that had once been thought
settled from On High.
When the Christian consensus prevailed, even our worst institutions, such as
chattel slavery and absolute monarchy, were necessarily seen as continuous with
the divine order. We were heirs to an optimal set of social arrangements decreed
by the Almighty. We lived, as Leibniz famously put it, in the best of all possible
worlds. (It’s worth remembering that slavery comes across in the Bible as simply
the way of the world, with absolutely no moral expectations for slave-owners
beyond the desirability of treating these possessions with a certain leniency.) But
today in the West, though we rarely admit it to each other, a tacit consensus has
emerged that we’re on our own when it comes to sorting out thorny issues like
abortion and cloning. God is no longer framing the world for us. In fact, he never
did. We’re improvising now, and we’ve always been improvising.
This secular understanding of the universe is a good thing, in my view. We must
never shut down the great post-Enlightenment conversation in favor of faith-based
certainties. The day we lose our taste for ambiguity and let the theocrats start
running things, we’d all better head for the hills.
3. What is the mystery of morality as described in The
Why do we behave nobly under certain circumstances
and abominably under others? Just as importantly,
why do we characterize certain actions as noble or
abominable? I think these are genuine mysteries, as
profound as Leibniz’s great question, Why is there
something rather than nothing?
Over the years, theologians have attempted to link
the mystery of morality to the alleged fact of God.
And yet we have a large and bloody body of evidence, called human history,
suggesting that the religious way of being in the world is no guarantee of decency.
Indeed, anyone who’s read my novels knows that for me something like the
opposite is the case. Too often religion distracts us — sometimes trivially, often
disastrously — from our most fundamental human obligations.
I should add that by religion I mean any system of thought grounded in some
presumed transcendent revelation. In my view, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia
were as theocratic as modern Iran.
4. Is the mystery of morality indirectly addressed in the critically acclaimed The
Last Witchfinder? The reason I ask is because you have witchfinders performing
extremely cruel acts in the name of God, and you have a humanist in the character
of Jennet Stearne. It seems morality is mystified in this setting.
It’s consoling to speak of the witch persecutions as an aberrant human activity. But
in fact the hunt for Satan’s disciples stained the pages of European history for
almost three hundred years. That’s not an aberration — that’s an institution. What
more vivid demonstration could there be that religion is not a reliable wellspring of
My quarrel with faith-based worldviews is not that they necessarily get people
doing cruel things. Indeed, as I write this sentence, thousands of charitable acts
are being performed by people who sense that they’re doing God’s will. The
problem is that, as I write this sentence, thousands of horrible acts are also being
performed by people who sense that they’re doing God’s will. And that’s why we
need to keep domesticating the beast of faith through the great post-
It just now occurs to me that our situation is not unlike that of a child being raised
by an alcoholic father or mother. As loving and well-meaning as the afflicted parent
might be, one simply can’t depend on him or her to behave decently. Religion, in
my view, is the ultimate alcoholic parent, and we would all do well to detach with
5. In The Last Witchfinder you bring out the historical figures of Benjamin Franklin,
Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, Cotton Mather and the famous lawyer Baron de
Montesquieu. How much research did you do for EACH of these historical
characters, and how does one make them come alive?
The Last Witchfinder was in production for almost nine years. I started the novel in
the mid-1990’s, before I had anything resembling a good search engine hooked up
to the Internet. So my portraits of the European Witch Courts, the Salem Trials,
the Royal Society, Colonial Philadelphia, and so on came largely from books.
During the final phrase of the project, however, I managed to visit most of the
English settings: Colchester Castle, Trinity College, particular London locales. It
was great being able to walk in Jennet’s footsteps, and I think this added to the
The intensity of my research varied with the significance, for Jennet, of each
historical figure. Your list happens to get the descending order exactly right,
beginning with Ben Franklin, who claimed most of my research attention. In Ben’s
case, I read his famous memoir, plus several biographies. At the last minute, I
became Internet savvy, and I read a couple of online articles about Montesquieu.
But this was icing on the cake.
How did I try to make the historical characters come alive? Well, there was always
a eureka moment when I found some very specific, quirky detail that seemed to
reveal the figure’s psychology. Franklin really did keep a journal cataloguing each
day’s mitzvahs and moral lapses. How very rational of him, how quintessentially
6. The storyteller in The Last Witchfinder is Isaac Newton’s very own Principia
Mathematica. Have you read the translation of the book in its entirety, and if so,
has it changed your life as it changed the life of your main character, Jennet
I would not recommend that anyone go running to the Principia Mathematica to
learn how Jennet’s mind works. That book is a bear. Better to read her nonexistent
tome, The Sufficiency of the World.
Like Jennet, I did have to come to terms with the Principia Mathematica. The
specific “fluxion” problems she worries about are taken from its pages. I had a
decent high school education in the calculus, so I more-or-less understood what
was going on in the Principia. Newton wrote his masterwork using conventional
geometric and trigonometric expressions, but the system he invented — these
amazing techniques for determining the rate of change of a rate of change — is
clearly burbling below the surface.
7. Do books have souls?
It’s funny, John. I’m a secular materialist at heart, and yet
I make my living through the “metaphysical” activity of
creating nonexistent worlds and trying to make them
credible. Go figure.
Do books have souls? They certainly do in the universe of
The Last Witchfinder. The living, breathing Principia
Mathematica is one of the conceits that critics most liked
about The Last Witchfinder.
8. Critics RAVED about The Last Witchfinder. Tossing modesty aside, why do you
think that is, and do you think it has anything to do with atheism?
It’s been fascinating to see atheism gain so much traction in our culture in recent
years. In his inauguration speech, Barak Obama even allowed that “nonbelievers”
might have a place in our national discourse. That was surely the first time a sitting
American President ever suggested that atheism is a legitimate philosophy — but I
hope not the last.
What’s going on when Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, Christopher Hitchens’s God Is
Not Great, and Richard Dawkins’s The God Illusion can all become bestsellers? I
suspect it has a lot to do with the 9/11 disaster. For the first time in recent
memory, we saw a graphic demonstration, no less vivid than the witch trials, of a
problem that we secularists have been fussing about for centuries — namely, the
manifest fact that belief in the supernatural guarantees nothing, absolutely
nothing, in the moral realm.
As far as I can tell, the judgmental, demanding, omnipotent God of the jihadists is
not ontologically different from the judgmental, demanding, omnipotent God of the
Republican Party. Osama bin Ladin and George W. Bush are flip sides of the same
terrible problem of unexamined religious certainty. I don’t know whose body count
is higher, and I don’t care.
So I think some critics responded positively to The Last Witchfinder for the same
reasons readers got behind The End of Faith, God Is Not Great, and The God
Illusion. Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins were saying things that needed saying,
points that most people are uncomfortable making to their friends, families, and
colleagues, given the astonishing deference that religion enjoys in our culture.
Even the critics who were repelled by Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins generally
confined their attacks to the occasionally harsh and strident tone of these books.
They didn’t go after the central argument. How could they? The 9/11 conspirators
were, by any meaningful use of the term, men of faith.
9. Joseph Campbell grew up Catholic but had
problems with what his culture and family
EXPECTED him to believe. He went on a vision
quest, so to speak, of higher learning, dropping
out of school and read for years in a cabin.
Somewhere along the way, while investigating
and studying other religions and mythologies, he
discovered insights from the Hindu Upanishads.
He is quoted as saying, “Already in the ninth
century B.C. the Hindus realized that all of the deities are projections of
psychological powers, and they are WITHIN YOU, not OUT THERE.” What do you
think about his “epiphany”?
I’ve recently finished a short story called “Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva,” all about a
secret tutorial relationship between the Abominable Snowman and a hypothetical
fifteenth Dalai Lama, to be published this spring in Conjunctions. My yeti
protagonist wants to learn something about Tibetan Buddhism, and at one point
His Holiness informs his student that Bardo visions and Bön deities are all products
of the mind.
So on one level, I suppose, “Bigfoot and the Bodhisattva” is a Joseph Campbell sort
of story, complete with a spiritual quest. And yet I must confess to having mixed
feelings about Campbell. I’m the only person I know who thinks The Hero With a
Thousand Faces is a bad book. And I wish I knew what to make of Campbell’s
alleged racism and anti-Semitism — but that’s another story, easily Googled.
Here’s the paradox. It seems to me that, even as he celebrated the phenomenon
of myth, Campbell expected everyone to agree that such stories spring from our
imaginations, not from some essential realm beyond ordinary perception. In my
view that’s simply not how religion works, except among the very well fed. Most
people need their deities to be factual.
I wonder if there isn’t something ultimately condescending in Campbell’s insistence
on the nonfactuality of myth. He seems to be telling the great mass of believers,
“Go ahead and practice your quaint rites, propagate your adorable legends, and
cultivate your lovely little sacred spaces, while I sit over here taking notes,
knowing all the while that your narratives have no genuine supernatural leverage.”
Perhaps I’m being terribly unfair to Campbell. He was obviously a learned man, far
more learned than I. I’d be interested in hearing from Liquid Imagination readers
who might show me where I’m wrong.
10. When you lost your beloved dog Pooka, it was devastating, as all pet owners
know and can sympathize. Regarding this, you said, “Wrenching though it is, such
grief is strangely affirming, and there are times when I deliberately seek it out. It’s
a sorrow to cherish and cultivate.” What do you mean by “strangely affirming” and
how do you seek it out?
I love the word “affirmation,” and I hope it doesn’t get taken over by the
purveyors of New Age folderol, who’ve made it impossible for me to hear the word
“spirituality” without cringing. You know, John, despite my relentless campaigning
for post-Enlightenment empiricism, I’m really a romantic at heart, not a scientist.
If I suddenly had the power to subtract either art or science from the world (God
help us) and was required to do so as the price of humankind’s continued existence
(God forbid), I would choose to jettison science (may Jacob Bronowski forgive me).
My philosophy group is currently reading Being and Having by the Christian
existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel. For Marcel, love is the ultimate mystery.
I think I understand what he’s getting at. Why did I love my dog so much? Why do
I love my wife, my son, my daughter, my grandchildren, my friends? I don’t know.
I suspect it has something to do with their extraordinary vulnerability. Unlike
Marcel, I see no evidence that God lies at the heart of the matter. Perhaps my
feelings merely reflect my coming of age in a manifestly sentimental culture, but I
don’t see much evidence for that either. The love is just there, and I cherish it.
11. Do you seek this out in your writing as well?
I’ve yet to write a novel in which the protagonist does
not deeply love at least one other person or creature. A
parent-child relationship is the driving force behind much
of the action in This Is the Way the World Ends, The
Eternal Footman, and City of Truth. As I said, I’m a
romantic at heart. A satiric romantic, to be sure, with a
vision that frequently turns dark, morbid, exasperated,
and angry. But still a romantic.
I am often bracketed with the late, great Kurt Vonnegut,
Jr., a comparison I wear proudly. And yet I think there’s
a fundamental distinction between Vonnegut’s sensibility
and mine. Vonnegut seemed to think that humankind is Nature’s supreme mistake.
The worst of us are so bad that we shall continually find ways to make life
miserable for the rest. You find this argument especially in Galapagos, and also in
his last novel, Timequake, perhaps the bitterest book I’ve ever read.
I simply can’t assent to that view. Vonnegut’s nihilism and mistrust of science are
well earned, reasonable, self-consistent, and fearsomely honest — but in lesser
hands, I feel, cynicism becomes its own sort of sentimentality, pessimism its own
kind of naivety, and nihilism a wearying species of self-pity. And so I remain a
humanist, as atheistic as Vonnegut but happy to sing the myth of scientific
12. You call yourself an atheist, yet you enjoy writing about concepts from
Judeo/Christian theology. What drives James Morrow, the writer, to do so?
It’s ironic, I suppose, that I find so little to admire in Judeo/Christian theology, and
yet without that heritage I’d be out of a job. Certainly my obsession with God’s
nonexistence goes beyond the bounds of ordinary atheism. It has become
something else — I’m not sure what. For all I know, I’m on an unacknowledged
quest to find my Creator, but I doubt it.
Going back as far as Only Begotten Daughter, I’ve sought to define God in ways
that even an atheist might sign up for. As you may recall, at the end of that novel
Julie Katz meets her divine mother, who turns out to be a sponge named Amanda.
God is not a noun, Amanda explains. God is a verb.
I’ll end this response with one of my favorite quotations, from the British
philosopher Galen Strawson: “It is tempting to conclude that if [God] exists, it is
the atheists and agnostics that he loves best, among those with any pretensions to
education. For they are the ones who have taken him most seriously."
13. Your daughter, Kathleen, collaborated with Reggie Lutz to write “The Lutz-
Morrow Affair.” Do you want your daughter to follow in your footsteps?
I can’t be objective, but I think my daughter and Reggie are both terrific poets.
I'm delighted that Kathleen has directed so much of her creative energy toward
expressing what she calls “the Morrow writing gene.” (I have several cousins who
also scribble incessantly, among them the storyteller Glenn Morrow and the Time
magazine journalist Lance Morrow.) But I’m probably glad that Kathy is not
following my path precisely. If she wanted write novels, I would have too damn
much advice to give her, some of it perhaps stultifying. Instead she’s pursuing
poetry, a medium for which I have no talent whatsoever, so I can only cheer her
on from the sidelines.
14. Many of our readers are aspiring writers. If you were a young, unpublished
author — with what you know today — what steps would you take to further your
I think the best way to become a valuable writer is to be a meticulous, thoughtful,
and omnivorous reader. Look at what your favorite novelists and poets are doing
at the sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word, comma-by-comma level. Above all,
be promiscuous in your tastes. If you want to write rarefied literary fiction, read a
popular novelist like Charles Dickens, appreciating the simple but indispensable
virtues of plot. If you want to write commercial genre fiction, read Vladimir
Nabokov or John Updike and note the magic of language. If you’re an atheist, read
Dante and Milton. If you’re a believer, read James Morrow.
15. You are extremely busy.
The Philosopher's Apprentice
just came out in paperback and
you recently published a
novella called Shambling
Towards Hiroshima. Besides
that arduous work, you’re
(unbelievably) working on a
new novel about Darwin. This
new novel about Darwin will
obviously be historical fiction.
While you can’t tell us the plot,
can you tell us what affect
Darwin will have on your
readers, and what Darwin
would want us to know?
I’m intrigued by the fact that
there has never been a first-
rate novel featuring Charles
Darwin. I could point to three or
four mediocre ones, but that
would be tasteless of me.
I believe I’ve found a unique entrée into Darwin’s life — through a fictional
governess, presently named Chloe Davenport. Chloe is charged not with minding
Darwin’s children but with tending the live specimens he brought back from the
Galapagos Islands, including birds, lizards, and tortoises. Upon internalizing
Darwin's theory, Chloe attempts to win a huge cash prize being floated by the
Percy Bysshe Shelley Society, a band of rakehells who want someone to step
forward and prove to them that God does or does not exist.
I think Darwin would want us to know that he took no pleasure in the scandalous
and atheistic implications of his theory. He was simply functioning as the most
honest sort of scientist he could be — even though his explorations led him to
contradict the received wisdom of many centuries.
I think Darwin would also want us to appreciate the raw courage of his enterprise.
The average Victorian scientist might have hesitated to apply a theory of natural
descent to the human species. But Darwin did not stop at the threshold of Paradise.
He marched through the gates of Eden and flushed out all the nonsense that lay
therein. He told us we are apes, and we’re all better off for knowing that wild and
hilarious and blessed fact.
16. Every writer has a purpose driving them. What purpose drives you to write
about Principia Mathematica, towing the body of God through the ocean, and how
the Age of Science ended the witch hunts? Is there a central theme or purpose
DRIVING you, or are there more than one? What are they?
Every novelist is probably a bit of an egomaniac. If you woke me up in the middle
of the night, I’d probably confess to a belief that — beyond entertaining the reader
with my characters’ crazy adventures — my books are good for you, damn it. I
look at my central themes — the sufficiency of the world, the mischievousness of
faith, the cruelty of revelation, the imperative to grow up — and say to myself, “If
people worried more about these things, our planet might become a better place.”
It would be a terrible idea to put me in charge of the universe, or even a small
nation, or even my Neighborhood Improvement Association. But I can get behind
the idea of a few thousand additional James Morrow readers spreading their
contrarian views throughout Western civilization.
17. What other projects are you working on now?
I’m in the middle of composing a story called “The Raft of the Titanic,” to be
published next year in The Mammoth Book of Alternate History Stories. As you
might infer from the title, Captain Smith realizes that he can save the entire
company of the foundering Ship of Dreams by dismantling his steamer and using
the salvage to construct an enormous life-buoy. All 2207 passengers and crew are
saved — but what awaits them over the horizon is entirely unexpected.