Sep 17, 2023

In Conversation With: Thomas Morris

"I felt I had reached a ceiling in my ability and I didn't know where to go next"

Sarah BrowneLiterature Editor
Photo by David O'Carroll

Thomas Morris is at the pinnacle of the Irish literary scene. Beyond his award-winning writing, he is the Editor-at-Large of The Stinging Fly, a mentor renowned for his generosity to developing writers and an English and Philosophy graduate of Trinity. In conversation, we discussed his time at Trinity and his latest collection of stories, Open Up, a creative feat proving, yet again, that Morris knows intimately what moves the heart. With a diverse cast of characters, he journeys through threshold moments in their lives producing a remarkable exploration of interiority.

I have to ask, of all the esteemed positions you’ve held throughout your career, is Chair of the Literary Society at Trinity still your most cherished?

[Laughs] By far. By far. I feel like it was where it all began and, in many ways, it still kind of remains the high point just because we had so much freedom. It was so exciting for me to have a reason to email writers or agents and to understand how some of that worked. You might have asked this question as a joke but it really does mean a lot to me. We had people like Colm Tóibín come in, Roddy Doyle and Pat McCabe. Meeting writers face-to-face like that and seeing that they were no different to us – I always thought, ‘well we’ve got the same size hands,’ you know, there was kindness extended to us and encouragement and it just made it all seem possible.


You seem to have always had a relationship with writing and literature, when did that connection really germinate?

I kind of really began writing in earnest when I started in Trinity. I bought a laptop the first summer and it was my own. Suddenly, there was a privacy to that. I was lying in bed in Cunningham House in Trinity Hall with it on my lap and it felt almost like a physical connection. Working towards that first story began with me just writing out memories from childhood trying to understand where I’d come from – the distance from Wales to Ireland – and also, in some way, trying to emulate some of the writers I was reading at that time like Carver, Blake and Morrison. I was writing my way through all of that and then by third year, I’d studied some short story courses. The Irish Short Story course I had managed to do twice with Paul Delaney. I don’t know how he didn’t notice that I had snuck on one year after another. [Laughs] After reading Frank O’Connor there, I spent a long time just writing imitations of his work and then publishing them under a pseudonym in Icarus.

After those initial experiences in college, how did you start working with Faber for the publication of your first collection, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing?

In 2012, I decided to apply for a creative writing masters in East Anglia. It was during that year that I really wrote most of the stories that are in that first collection. Being in that hotbed environment of workshops and every month having to turn up a story with people around you improving, there was that sense of shit, I really need to up my game here. I was very fortunate that during that year, the Scottish writer, Ali Smith, was a Writer-in-Residence and I showed her some of my work; she was an admirer of it and, a couple of months later, I received an email from her agent – she had tipped her off. That doesn’t happen all that often so I really want to acknowledge that bit of fortune. Then from there, it was a matter of just listening to the stories as they started speaking to one another and other stories that I had been working on over the years fell away because I realised that they didn’t belong. So my agent, Tracy Bohan, submitted the stories which got rejected by more publishers than I could shake a stick at.

The unifying element of Open Up, for me, was the psychology behind each character’s confrontation with their fragmented sense of self. You’ve mentioned previously that a part of your writing process involves accessing a form of ‘hypothetical empathy’ with your characters. Is it ever the case that having to articulate these darker emotions and complex states of mind negatively affects you? Does a sad character ever result in a sad writer rather than what readers usually presume is the reverse?

That’s a lovely question. While writing one of the pieces that isn’t in this collection, I reached deep inside myself and pulled out feelings; many of them were my own feelings and I did not know what to do with them. I was crying when I was writing the prose. I got very stuck in a lot of aspects of my life and it’s hard to know which came first but it was as if, while I was writing, I was accessing these feelings for the first time. I said before, sometimes it’s easier for me to empathise with a character outside of myself than it is for myself so there is a drop of real blood in each of these stories. They’re not me, but bits of them are me. So the sad character is a bit of a sad author, but it’s a bit of me which I haven’t necessarily given space to before. 

In terms of that invisible thread running through the stories, I felt quite a connection between certain characters – particularly Gareth in Wales and Geraint in Passenger insofar as Geraint’s state of mind and hypersensitivity to the world around him seem a consequence of his conscious childhood. Do you think Geraint has indirectly inherited some of Gareth’s childhood, as is possibly the case for other characters too, or that his adult personality is one possible response to it?

I think of this book as a suite of stories and Wales as the prelude. It introduces themes and sounds and moods which are then picked up later. There is some of Gareth’s magical thinking in that first story, Wales, becoming thinner in Passenger – morphing into something more intrusive. For me, it’s magical thinking in response to intolerable circumstances. The mind has to create another cover story in order for the individual to survive. For Gareth, there’s that sense of emotional caretaking which he’s taking on at a very young age. I think that’s prevalent in a lot of children but perhaps acutely, specifically for children of divorce and separation where suddenly you’re very mindful and you’re perhaps having to take on more than you can bear. You become, as you said, highly sensitive to how people are feeling. A form of parentification can take place and a child goes into a position that they’re not prepared for. I suspect Geraint had a not dissimilar childhood being a child of divorce. There’s the same kind of financial precarity there and he spends his whole life perhaps not wanting to express a need in case it’s too much. 

In my experience, the people who are very quick to offer support aren’t necessarily those who are able to receive support. They don’t want to be seen as vulnerable and that can come from this sense of ‘maybe I was too much’ as a child taking on that feeling of blame for something beyond your control. I’m conscious of it now, after the fact, that there’s this sense of characters coming to a moment in their life where they can no longer go on with this false self or this constructed self that was formed in childhood or adolescence or in order to survive. They can’t go on being this person and there’s a desire to pull off the shroud and to become the authentic self and that might be a fantasy in some cases; it might be a real strong possibility in others but I have a feeling that a lot of these characters are on the cusp of something.

To finish up, is there a specific goal that you would like to achieve – a particular story that you would like to write?

Just the next one. It feels like a miracle each time a story lands. So just the next one would be lovely.

Open Up was published by Faber (€16.95) on August 17, 2023. Thomas Morris will be speaking at Book Upstairs on October 5th – an evening not to be missed.

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