An Interview with C.E. Morgan

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Morgan

Alumna C. E. Morgan gathered wide praise for her first novel, All the Living, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux (FSG) in 2009. Last year, Morgan built on that success with the publication of The Sport of Kings (FSG), which won the 2016 Windham-Campbell prize for fiction.  Previous winners of the Windham-Campbell Prize include Teju Cole (fiction), John Jeremiah Sullivan (nonfiction), and Naomi Wallace (drama).

Reviews of the novel praised its powerful narrative and language. Kathryn Schulz, in The New Yorker, said The Sport of Kings “is a novel about racing and race” and “the way that African-Americans have been forced off the track, literally and figuratively to the psychological, political, and material advantage of whites.” A review in The New York Times called it “ravishing and ambitious … a mud-flecked epic, replete with fertile symbolism, that hurtles through generations of Kentucky history.”

You had great success and wide acclaim with All the Living. Now, The Sport of Kings seems poised for similar if not greater success. Did you expect lightning to strike twice?

Because of the length, breadth, and political nature of this book, FSG expected The Sport of Kings to reach a wider audience, and it has. I’m grateful for that, but I’m most grateful to be with a publishing house that always takes the long view, that values art over marketability, and the artist over quick production.

Please tell us about your reaction to all the attention your new book is getting.

I think of that kind of attention as a potential poison, both personally and spiritually, so I don’t read my reviews or run in literary circles. Remaining true to your art is an immense psychic task, one only made harder by paying attention to critical opinions of your work. So, I live a very quiet and private life with my husband, trying to experience each day deeply. A vital part of spiritual practice is to remember daily what matters and what doesn’t. Though outside opinion can and will elicit an emotional response, it doesn’t actually matter in any fundamental way. You do your work for years when it garners no attention, and you continue to do it once it does. No difference.

How do you decide what stories to write and what characters to portray?

In my experience, there is very little choice involved. It’s like falling in love; it happens to you. The choices are located elsewhere: are you willing to work hard; are you willing to sit with suffering; can you discover the endurance required; are you willing to dive deeply enough? Art, as opposed to making a quick buck from the page, is never easy and requires a kind of rigor that can only be the result of recommitting daily to the task.

For such a young writer, how have you managed to develop such a range of pathos and depth in your books’ characters?

I’m forty, so I don’t think of myself as young. I believe that if you’ve survived your childhood and lived to be twenty, then you’ve had adequate time—assuming your eyes are wide open—to take in the depth of life. But you must be awake and alert, and our culture encourages numbness through myriad distractions: easy religion; incessant entertainment; endless choice and high-speed everything. Ours is a culture thick with intoxicants. You have to be a warrior for your own spiritual sobriety.

When you aren’t writing, what interests occupy your attention?

My marriage, my friendships, my spiritual life, remaining politically educated, being with my dogs, taking care of my home, quilting.

Naturally, Berea College is proud of all of its graduates, but some, such as you, garner a degree of success that attracts a higher level of the public’s attention. I get the impression that you’re someone who values her privacy, so how do you deal with all the acclaim your work brings?

Well, again, you don’t have to court it or allow it to occupy a privileged spot in your inner life. It’s important to remember that all vocations, as opposed to jobs—whether conducted in the public or private spheres—are about serving the human family, rather than serving the self. That’s a fairly good inoculant against foolishness.

The Windham-Campbell Prize is a high honor. That prize (cash component notwithstanding) puts you in a select league of authors and elevates the stature of your work. What was your reaction when you heard you were a winner?

I wasn’t familiar with the prize. When I learned what it was, my response was immense relief and joy. The life of an artist, unless the artist comes from means (and it’s worth noting that many artists do), is one of radical instability; it can mean poverty, no health care, homelessness, a lack of decent food. If you feel you were born to do a certain kind of work, and then you pursue your vocation at any cost, the cost can be very high. A cash prize like the Windham-Campbell is life altering.

Anything else to share?

Berea was and is tremendously important to me. It was a gift in my life—the education, the presence of the faculty, the opportunities to go abroad, the community with other students who came from similar circumstances. Berea College truly stands for something, and I am profoundly grateful for that.

An earlier interview with Morgan that appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of the Berea College Magazine can be found in the archive at www.berea.edu/magazine/issue-archives.

8 Comments on “An Interview with C.E. Morgan”

  1. I just finished reading The Sport of Kings. In one way or another I have been a writer for 30 years or so – actually feeding, clothing and sheltering my small family from mainly advertising , screenplays and magazine work. I mention this because I am almost as impressed by the person as I am by the writer, C. E. Morgan. Her description and perspective on the writer’s pursuit of and deliema regarding “art and career” and “art versus career” is so thoughtful and elegantly measured without the anger and resentment that usually comes with it, that I felt I should comment on it even though I doubt anyone will ever read this. Kind of like body copy in a print ad. It read as a question answered not a point made. I am so impressed by the person, what little I know, after finishing her novel that literally thrilled me to goose pimples a few times. So straightforward, without any seminar baggage about post modern this and that, from someone who doesn’t edit her musical way with our language one iota. Yeah I had to go to the dictionary a few times but I couldn’t wait to return. What an uplifting experience.

  2. I read “All the Living” three times and taught it twice to people with very little first-hand knowledge of life in coal-mining territory. The language is so beautiful, especially Morgan’s metaphors that are so fresh and trenchant. Aloma and Orren are so precisely drawn as to make them seem like people next door, though I live in a big city. What I appreciate most is Morgan’s commitment to portraying people from mountain country with dignity and respect for just how hard and spare their lives can be. And, thank goodness, Morgan lets music save Aloma who, in turn, helps save Orren. (I plan to read her second book over the winter.)

  3. I was thrilled when she and her small band performed at the annual celebration of writing at Hindman, Ky., a few years back. That year, both James Still and Jim Wayne Miller (my late husband) were being honored–as is the custom there.

    Mary Ellen Yates Miller (Berea class of ’57)
    Jim Wayne Miller was also a Berea graduate (class of ’58)

    What joy! So sorry he could not see/hear it. Publish my email if you like.

  4. Pingback: Alumna C. E. Morgan Named 2017 Pulitzer Prize Finalist - Berea College

  5. Please tell me who C.E.Morgan’s influences are. I’m hearing Kent Haruf and Donna Tartt, two of my favorites.

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