Otto Penzler needs a golf mystery for a series of books about sports. Bradford Morrow writes one about miniature golf, with its “crazy little world of windmills and castles,” and a lonely boy who, as a teenager, goes to work at a miniature golf course.
There, hidden inside the golf course’s windmill, he spies on and photographs his brother’s beautiful girlfriend and, in the course of the story, quietly transforms into a psychopath.
Such was the genesis of “The Hoarder”—the opening story of Morrow’s sinister first collection, The Uninnocent (Pegasus). Morrow expresses fondness for the troubled people in his “darkly comic” tales: “I often feel like my characters are my children, sometimes depraved, but always with a spark of grace in their hearts.” United by the theme of obsession, the collection’s highlights include “Ellie’s Idea,” in which an abandoned wife seeks forgiveness for a lifetime of mistakes by apologizing to every person she’s wronged, and the raw, moving “Lush,” whose alcoholic, newly widowed narrator may be undone by drink despite finding new love.
Written over the past 10 years, The Uninnocent is just the latest development in Morrow’s long and varied career, which sees many milestones in 2011. This January, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published his sixth novel, The Diviner’s Tale, a murder mystery; his five previous novels (Ariel’s Crossing; Giovanni’s Gift; Trinity Fields; The Almanac Branch; and Come Sunday) were released in February as e-books by Open Road Media, which will also publish his novella, Fall of the Birds, as a Kindle Single. In addition, Morrow co-edited The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death (Norton, Feb.), with David Shields, and this year marks the 30th anniversary of Conjunctions, the literary journal that Morrow founded and still edits.
For Morrow—a literature professor at Bard College who divides his time between a Manhattan apartment and a farmhouse upstate—these diverse projects are part of a vision.
“I love creating narratives,” he says. “For a single issue of Conjunctions, an enormous living notebook, I work with some 30 poets, essayists, and fiction writers to create a collaborative experience based on a theme, like ‘voyages,’ which usually reflects my own interests. When I’m not writing, I’m editing or teaching, but it doesn’t feel frenzied. Books are my life.”
Whether the subject is the development of the atomic bomb, divination, or alcoholism, reading Morrow requires immersion in his gothic sensibilities. He pauses when asked about his interest in this aesthetic. Then he explains: “Trying to fathom why the gothic is in my blood is as impossible as trying to explain why my favorite color is dark green. It’s a predilection, something deeply rooted in personal experience. My fiction often deals with moments in which we encounter unpredictable and inescapable violence—the gothic on a personal level or on a larger cultural level. I feel compelled to investigate how darkness invades our fragile worlds of light, and how we respond to that darkness.”
In all Morrow’s fiction, landscape becomes a character as vital and troubling as any person, which may reflect his growing up in Colorado and his family background in farming. Morrow’s connection to the land comes up when he describes Thomas Hardy, one of his idols: “Hardy’s connection to nature, not as metaphor but as real, interactive character, is matchless. I love how he locates the inherent tragedy and joy in any given natural scene.”
Morrow is currently completing his seventh novel, The Prague Sonata, set in the Czech Republic and Prague, Neb. Describing the difference between his novels and short fiction in terms of music—another of his obsessions—Morrow says: “I figured that if you can write symphonies in words, it’s a good idea to be able to write sonatas as well.”