From Caerphilly to Dublin, Rebekah Rennick chats to editor turned author Thomas Morris about his first tentative literary steps, Ireland’s ever-growing writing community and the characters shaping his debut collection of short stories.
Nestled surreptitiously in the centre of Dublin’s bustling city is the office of Ireland’s leading, and most creatively diverse literary magazine. Atop a creaking staircase and comically situated by a neighboring beauty spa, The Stinging Fly headquarters is a quiet hub of intrigue. Its walls, decorated floor to ceiling with newly published books, scribbled notes and similar literary debris, comprise the work space which, since 1998, has been promoting and publishing the work of both Irish and international writers alike. As the windows darken and the heaving bookshelves seem to lean inwards, OTwo sits across from its current editor Thomas Morris. Sandwich perched on lap, he scans the office as he apologises unnecessarily for the surrounding disarray.
At the tender writing age of twenty-nine, it’s difficult not to be pleasantly surprised by Thomas Morris. Following the debut of his short story collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, this lad from South Wales has slowly but surely asserted himself in the swelling contemporary Irish literary scene. Yet, while his stories today act as unflinching snapshots into the lives of various idling characters, his earlier writing endeavours were somewhat more simplistic. “The first thing I ever wrote was with my father when I was three years old, it was called Owl Man,” he laughs. “He was a super hero and an owl. He rode on a skateboard and his arch-rival was a bear. I would narrate the story to my father and he would put it into some kind of shape. So that was the first encouragement into it.”
“We always had books in the house,” he continues. “When I came to Dublin, for the first time in my life I had a laptop rather than a family computer so I’d be up at night just writing little memories, little things that when I stuck them together, they shaped into stories.”
“The distance and the gap between what people are thinking and what they’re saying is particularly interesting and that’s an interesting challenge when you’re writing.”
At nineteen, Morris arrived at Trinity College and like many keen writers sought out the platform of student publications to allow his voice to be heard. Yet, while he admits an inebriated decision at a launch party saw him delve into the societal world, and allowed him to see writing as “being something to take seriously”, he confides that he “was really suspicious of all societies. I thought they were kind of power hungry, ego-maniacs. I didn’t go near them. Then I just realised, actually no, people just have a passion for things. I wish I had been less cynical earlier on.”
Following university, Morris’ career path dipped and swerved into various avenues. From an internship at publishing house Lilliput Press, to sifting through Paul McGuinness’ personal photograph collection (“I arrived at the office where there were boxes of photos. They thought it would take me a week, but once I discovered I was getting paid by the day I was there for five months!”), it wasn’t until he got chatting to then editor of The Stinging Fly, Declan Meade, in the cosy underbelly of Grogan’s pub that his current pathway emerged. “I had met Declan once before, and I said ‘You don’t suppose I could do any work for you?’ We made up that I could do four, eight hours a week. I really learnt a lot just reading submissions.”
“When you read great work it’s really inspirational but you don’t essentially understand how the story works when it works. When you read stuff when it doesn’t work you can quite clearly see why it’s not working. I think that a lot of writers would say that they’re not actually particularly good writers, but they’re good editors and you kind of have to be.”
Set in his sleepy hometown of Caerphilly, Morris’ debut collection of short stories is the doorway into the idiosyncratic lives of a selection of diverse characters. His narrative lets us connect with the mind behind the character’s voice, a bridging Morris has deeply considered. “The distance and the gap between what people are thinking and what they’re saying is particularly interesting and that’s an interesting challenge when you’re writing.”
Amongst the individuals he describes is the impassioned pensioner who frets over the drying of his clothes prior to a date with the lovely Mrs. Morgan; the teenage girl, travelling home for the first time in a year to visit family and memories of her youth. Then there’s the quintessential Welsh lads visiting Dublin for a stag weekend; their false gaiety and bravado shadowing deeper emotional issues.
“I think that a lot of writers would say that they’re not actually particularly good writers, but they’re good editors and you kind of have to be.”
“I did a Creative Writing Masters in East-Anglia and there was a group of ten of us, a very interesting group because there were people from all over. They seemed to have an interest in the town I was from. It never occurred to me that it would ever be of any interest to anyone except people from the town,” he admits. “I wanted to write about people that you actually encounter in real life. The first ever story I wrote was just in a room, so it could have been anywhere. The second one I wrote was set in Caerphilly. I went away and wrote stories but they were set in rooms again. I set another one in the town and before I knew it they started to stick together, with characters walking into one story and out of another.”
The ten stories comprising the collection are a net-curtain peep into the world of ordinary individuals. As each story finishes, the characters’ presence lingers on the page; their loneliness and small town idealism captured beautifully in transparent yet touching language. Morris transforms his voice into various forms, basing the characters on his own gimlet-eyed observations. Yet, OTwo had to wonder, how close to home do these stories ring true?
“Well, there’s a warning at the start of the book,” he says, grabbing a nearby copy. “‘These stories are works of fiction. Any resemblance to real life is purely inevitable.’ It’s funny because people see themselves in characters when they’re not there. My mother thought one or two of the stories was a little bit too close to home for her liking,” he laughs.
The Irish contemporary literary scene is a bubbling cauldron of both upcoming and distinguished talent. Sitting alongside Morris are those such as Colin Barrett, Sara Baume and Kevin Barry, and this lively community with which they support one another is undeniably tangible. “The community is very exciting, so encouraging and supportive. I’ve really got the sense now that if someone is coming through, if they’re any good they’re not going to fall through the cracks.”
“I‘ve been spending a lot of time in the UK over the past few months and you realise there’s nothing like this there, there’s not the sense of importance given to new writing. There’s not this nurturing aspect to it, which to me, is really exciting here. The flip side of that is there might be the equivalent of a property boom to it, it might crash at some point!”
Highly unlikely, but if so, Morris’ unbounded conviviality and ten story delight would undoubtedly see us through until the next literary movement.