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Desert Bloom 

Bradford Morrow's Literary Flowering

 

T. S. Eliot’s “cruelest month” has been kind to Bradford Morrow. This April, the novelist, editor, and Bard College professor received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Two weeks later, he learned that he’d won the PEN/Nora Magid Award for his excellence in the editing of the literary journal Conjunctions.

How is he planning to celebrate? By working of course.

Morrow plans to spend his “Guggenheim year” concentrating on his novel-in-progress, The Prague Sonatas. “I’ve had it in my head for a decade at least; I have mountains of notes. I’ll finally have time to pull together everything I’ve been thinking about,” he exults. “I adore it as you would an unborn child—it’s not here yet, but I know I’m going to love it.”

Morrow has already fathered five novels—Come Sunday, The Almanac Branch (a PEN/Faulkner finalist), Trinity Fields (winner of an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters), Giovanni’s Gift, and Ariel’s Crossing; he’s just finished a new novel with the working title The Diviner’s Tale. He’s also published five collections of poetry, and just released his first children’s book, DIDN’T Didn’t Do It, a deft feat of linguistic gymnastics with illustrations by Gahan Wilson.

Morrow writes like an architect, using intricate mathematical structures to create three-dimensional worlds full of beauty and light. Jonathan Safran Foer (a former student and guest editor of a 2000 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction devoted to Morrow’s work) wrote, “His narratives careen from the American West, to Central America, to the Northeastern United States, connecting these blazing sites like a sign of the zodiac that had never been noticed.” Foer paints Morrow as a “writer of the Americas,” but he could have added a couple of continents. Giovanni’s Gift leapfrogs from rural New Mexico to the churches of Rome; Trinity Fields traces a path from Los Alamos to the killing fields of Southeast Asia.

Morrow’s writing, editing, and teaching career forms its own trinity. It’s hard to say which voice sings lead in the trio: He seems to be going full-throttle in all three directions at once. No wonder the bed in his preternaturally tidy Greenwich Village apartment looks as if no one has slept in it. The walls are lined with books, their library-bound spines in perfect alignment. One of Morrow’s two cats licks her paw on a kilim rug.

 

After ordering a “red-eye” (black coffee with a shot of espresso) at a neighborhood eatery, Morrow proposes a stroll to Washington Square Park. The Village is in full flower—wisteria cascades over brownstones, tulips erupt from windowboxes—and more than once he stops to appreciate an especially beautiful redbud or Japanese cherry. Selecting a bench in the dappled shade, he notes that he once saw a peregrine falcon here.

Morrow has lived in the Village since 1980, the same year he founded Conjunctions. He also maintains a house in the Catskills, and commutes upstate weekly to teach at Bard. He spends most of his editing time in the city, but retreats upstate for long stretches of composition. He writes in intense bursts, especially when starting a project, but “once I’m embarked, I can work anywhere, anytime.”

Morrow’s voice has the flattened vowels and lilt of his native Colorado, and, in spite of his polished black shoes and the round dark-framed glasses he takes on and off, he retains an air of the Western outdoors. His complexion is ruddy, and his hay-colored hair seems more in tune with the wind than the comb. He’s proud of his “pioneer stock”: His paternal grandfather founded a miners’ hospital in Steamboat Springs, Colorado; his maternal ancestors homesteaded in Willa Cather’s Nebraska.

His mother was “a great storyteller” who spun “tales of the old days, narrated with great passion and intensity. I can still hear her stories in my head: The snake that got into the chicken coop, hiding from tornadoes, the lean times after my grandfather lost his farm.”

Morrow’s father recruited scientific talent for aerospace programs and secretive projects his son later came to connect with high-tech weaponry. Both parents were outdoor enthusiasts, driving their children all over the Four Corners states. “Those landscapes are just seared into my memory,” says Morrow.

Trinity Fields opens with a trio of boys joyriding toward Santuario Chimayo, an adobe church built on a site sacred to ancient indigenous peoples. “That one little valley, so near where the atom bomb was,” he says, “politics, secularism, and high physics represented by the one place [Los Alamos] and the pure spirituality and sense of the divinity of the Earth itself, the ancient practice of spiritual questing that’s inherent to Chimayo. It’s really the yin-yang of everything. The political and the spiritual are two poles I work with a lot in my writing,” he asserts.

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