Katherine Faw Morris’s debut novel Young God will be published in May in the US and June in the UK. An extract appears in Granta 126: do you remember. Here she talks to Yuka Igarashi about the book and about drugs, Appalachia, teenage girls and minimalism.
YI: Just to get the burning question out of the way: did you once do or deal a lot of drugs? I’m asking this seriously, though it might not sound like it. You write about drugs and drug use and drug dealing so commandingly in ‘A Killing’ and Young God that an immediate reaction is to think the material must be based on experience. I think readers can’t help wondering: where did this story come from? (Which is the larger question I’m actually asking.)
KFM: I used to love cocaine. I hung out with a lot of older guys who also loved coke, some of whom were dealers. One of the best things about being a teenage girl is that people will give you drugs for free. I was the consumer. I never sold anything. Though I think I’d be pretty good at it. As far as where this story came from, I think almost every fiction writer answers that question the same way. This book is emotionally, psychologically true, even if all the events are not. For example, my father never tried to fake sell me into child prostitution. So I thank him for that. Also, like most writers, I have a really fucking good imagination.
Young God is set in rural North Carolina, where you grew up. The book, I think, counters a preconception that it’s this nowhere part of the country where nothing happens. Your North Carolina is desolate and impoverished, but it’s more than that – if not glamorous then charged and charismatic both in its landscape and the people who inhabit it. Is this how you see where you came from and how deliberate is your rewriting of this place into readers’ minds?
Actually, I think people tend to fetishize the rural South, and especially Appalachia, which is where I grew up. It’s either the mountain man, who knows the name of every plant and tree, and gathers wild roots in the woods, and goes home to his shack to do a little banjo-pickin’. Or it’s the raising-hell redneck with a couple of blood feuds. Or it’s the inbred Deliverance hillbilly, just lurking out there, looking for some ass to rape. I didn’t set out to rewrite all that. I just wrote my take on where I grew up, which is, of course, highly specific. That said, I do think it’s a charismatic place. It’s where I had all my formative experiences. It’s still seductive to me. A Wilkes County accent, especially on a man, it’s one of my favourite sounds. You know, the taste of Kools and beer on somebody. But I have a love-hate relationship with the place. I always have. There’s the narrowness in thinking, that’s the biggest problem. And my father’s family has lived there since the 1700s. There are roads with our name on them. There are people who look like us everywhere. It was all kind of suffocating. I left the second I could.
In a similar vein, your main character, Nikki, rewrites – really destroys – our expectations about what a young girl protagonist will be like. In many stories, a thirteen-year-old who runs away from a group home to live with her ex-convict father would be portrayed as lost, vulnerable, a victim. Nikki is not. Also, she’s not ‘good’. It puts readers in this troubling position, rooting for her while terrible things happen around her and while she does terrible things. I wonder, again, how conscious this is for you, this disrupting of expectations, especially of what’s expected of young girl protagonists in novels.
This is deliberate. I set out to write a novel about a teenage girl in Appalachia who is not a victim. At the end, I didn’t want her to be sad and disenfranchised, but running shit. I wanted her to be a pit bull. I wanted her to be completely hardcore because she would have to be. At the same time, in the reality of the book, she is totally vulnerable. She is a skinny little girl surrounded by a bunch of full-grown, predatory men. Which is also a lot like being a teenage girl in general, I guess.
This is your debut novel. You’ve worked on it for a long time, and I know it went through radical changes as you were writing it. Can you describe what the process was like for you? What stayed the same from the beginning, and what changed?
At one point it was over 100,000 words and now it is really not. I hated it when it was that long. It had the total wrong feeling. I’m definitely a gut, instinctual writer, and I found that when I started cutting, it started feeling better. Then I started chopping and it felt great. There is no sentence I won’t knife. I’m heartless when it comes to that. When I got down to the bone, I thought now this is something I can really fuck with, and then I cut some more. Once I started on this killing spree, after almost five years in, it took me six months to finish the book. But what always stayed the same from the beginning was the through-line of the story, especially Nikki’s relationship with her father, Coy Hawkins.
One of the most remarkable things about the book is how richly you’re able to build characters and show them evolving under the surface of taut, spare language. The language at first seems tied to how young Nikki is – she’s inarticulate, absorbing the world. Then it works to show her numbness, coldness. When it’s about Coy Hawkins, her father, the terse language comes off as shrewd, then threatening. I wonder how you conceive of your characters, and do you think of characters – and people – as always the same at the core or ever-changing?
I don’t conceive characters in a super conscious way. They kind of just show up when I start writing. They are all amalgamations of people I’ve known but no character is a 1:1. This is why you should never be friends with a writer, by the way. They steal everything that isn’t bolted down. I don’t know if, at the core, I think characters and people stay the same. Like a man who cheats will always cheat, a dog will be a dog. In my experience, that is pretty true. But every single person is incredibly complicated, and therefore characters should be as well. People are the weirdest, craziest balls of neuroses, walking around in skin we didn’t pick for ourselves. Am I the same person I was ten years ago? No, thank God. I like to think getting older is getting less stupid.
Did you ever feel constrained by your style? What was the hardest thing for you to achieve within it?
I don’t feel constrained by it. I think it’s pretty flexible. Whatever I ask it to do, it does. It just does so with the least amount of words. Which I guess is really weird for a writer. I love language. I love beautiful metaphors. I just don’t feel the need to use them all the time. Minimalism is really attractive to me. Maximalism is not. It’s overeager. It’s like a lover who is too nice to you.
I can think of writers who stylistically do similar things but who turn it towards different subject matter, as well as writers who might write similar stories but with different language. Who for you are the forebears of this book? Who influences your writing?
I’m drawn toward both. I love precision writers like Joan Didion and Lydia Davis and Raymond Carver. I will read almost any drug book that you put in front of me. I think Denis Johnson, or at least Jesus’ Son, is an example of the two coming together. My favourite writer is probably Joy Williams. There is this moment in one of her stories, ‘Woods’, when this housewife finds these two strange men in her trailer. She had been talking to them in the yard before and we’re told she locked the door behind her. But then she comes out of the bathroom and they’re just standing there in the living room. It’s told just like that. It’s like a tiny jump cut, like just a little slicing. I remember thinking, Oh yeah, you can do that. It really opened up something in my brain. But I also want to say that I really love Sebald, too, especially The Emigrants, just to back up the fact that people are totally contradictory.
What else has influenced your work besides other writers?
I went to film school before I went to writing school. Nikki’s Kool-Aid hair is a nod to Christiane F., this German movie from the eighties about a teenage junkie prostitute in the Bahnhof Zoo train station. Young God is from a Swans song. I remember first hearing this Lou Reed song in high school, ‘Some Kinda Love’, the part about putting Vaseline on your lover’s shoulder, and just being blown away by what was possible in a pop song. I started making my own T-shirts. Like a little boys’ Fruit of the Loom with the sleeves cut off, written all over in black Sharpie. One of them was just the lyrics to Richard Hell’s daughter-fucking song, ‘The Plan’. I was really into the whole seventies New York punk scene. It’s basically why I came to New York, which is nothing like that at all now.