There isn’t an ounce of writer’s ego in Michael Morris. In fact, if you were to meet him casually and ask what he does, he’d likely tell you he was in pharmaceutical sales. This from a gifted wordsmith who is the author of four novels, among them “Live Like You Were Dying, ” based on the Tim McGraw hit song and nominated as a finalist for the Southern Book Critics Circle Award. From an author whose books have been adopted for county-wide reads in Florida and as required texts in South Carolina schools. A writer Pat Conroy names as one of his favorites and the Washington Post has said conjures Harper Lee and Flannery O’Connor.
His natural modesty aside, Morris admits during a recent telephone interview from his Birmingham home that he’s “pretty much a full-time writer.” He’s currently hard at work on a new manuscript, “The King of Florabama, ” which will, for sure, pique the curiosity of Gulf Coast residents. But despite all this, he laughs, “I don’t feel like I have the license to say I’m a writer.” That’s because Morris, who is a fifth-generation Floridian – Old Panhandle, if you will – grew up in a blue-collar family, and nobody around him knew any writers. “Writers lived in places like New York and Paris, ” he explains, certainly not in Perry, Fla.
Happily for Morris, who was a thoughtful and bookish youth, the Appalachian author Lee Smith became an early influence. Shortly after Morris graduated from Auburn University, as he tells on his blog (michaelmorrisbooks.com), he was driving around Tallahassee and heard an interview with Smith on the radio. Intrigued by her “honey-dipped” accent, he sought out her stories, and in them, “my world began to unfold around me. The stories about common, everyday people who work at Wal-Mart and Fabric World nourished the idea that I had stories to tell as well. As such, I began to realize that through telling my stories I could capture my own unique culture of north Florida.”
Morris’ first two novels, “A Place Called Wiregrass” and “Slow Way Home, ” garnered immediate critical respect for their sensitive treatment of small town Southerners grappling with daunting difficulties. While some writers worry that the label “regional writer” will limit their appeal, Morris embraces it. The South, after all, is imbued with an oral culture, and Morris has fond memories of his elders’ front porch tale-tellin’. Southerners “still speak differently, ” he says. “We talk more. We bear more.” And despite the tremendous changes in the South and in the country, he insists, “People still love Southern stories.”
As any author knows, good outlets are a key to literary success, and Morris has been fortunate that the South’s independent bookshops, like Fairhope’s Page & Palette, have been enthusiastic advocates. “Those stores have given me an audience, ” he says gratefully. He and his wife, Melanie, lived in Fairhope for a while about a decade ago. He still enjoys a strong local fan base, and he occasionally does book signings in the area.
A typical writing day for Morris begins early, while the house is still quiet. Working from bits of scrap paper containing jotted conversations and observations he has collected, he often sketches characters and scenes to build the story. He types on a computer and works fast to “get the story out.” “I see the story as moving in my head, ” he elaborates, “and the keyboard allows me to keep up.” He saves the editing for last, when he has an overall narrative. At night, when he’s done, a stack of Southern authors awaits on his bedside table for yet more inspiration – Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Walker Percy “always.”
At the conclusion of our conversation, I ask Morris about his upcoming book. Anyone who knows Morris and is also familiar with the famous beach bar would agree that he doesn’t strike one as a Flora-Bama type of guy. “I’ve been there once, ” he laughs. As it turns out, in Morris’ new project, Florabama is the name of a county on the Florida-Alabama line. The story concerns Alabama’s longest-serving sheriff attempting “to come to terms with a 40-year-old murder that has divided his family.” The coastal setting will allow Morris to continue exploring a familiar landscape that he finds “haunting and beautiful.” If the results are as good as in his previous books, readers are certainly in for a treat.
John S. Sledge is the author of the forthcoming book, “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”
text by John S. Sledge • photo by Natalie Brasinton