The Rumpus Interview with Keith Lee Morris
Keith Lee Morris is the author of three novels and two collections of short stories. His most recent novel, Travelers Rest, is his first with Little, Brown, and also possibly his most disquieting work to date.
The book follows a family’s unplanned stay in an eerie Idaho hotel where space and time refuse to play by conventional rules. Readers follow each member of the family as they drift through the labyrinthine hotel and town, with the line between what is real and imagined growing less distinguishable with each page. The effect is a chapel perilous that will likely leave one questioning their own reality.
A native of the Idaho panhandle, Morris lives in South Carolina and teaches creative writing at Clemson University. With me in Chicago and Morris juggling teaching and a book tour, we carved out phone time to chat about dreams, House of Leaves, David Lynch, and the book’s inescapable comparison to The Shining.
The Rumpus: The book has epigraphs from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. How did those find their way into the novel?
Keith Lee Morris: Well, if you’ve ever tried to read Remembrance of Things Past it’s not only, I guess, supposedly the longest novel in history, but also really, really dense and very slow going. You have to pay extremely close attention to everything. For years I was reading Remembrance and it was kind of running parallel to my experience to writing the book. I think it just kind of inevitably started leaking in.
A lot of the thematic concerns in Remembrance became thematic concerns in this book. Memory. Time. Dreams. Identity. Family. So that was there with me the whole time.
Rumpus: Many people have called Travelers Rest genre fiction or even horror as apposed to your past work which is more literary. How would you characterize the book?
Keith Lee Morris: It’s funny because I really didn’t think of it the whole time I was writing. I never thought about it being genre fiction at all and since the reviews have started coming around a lot of them are reviewing it as a horror book or suspense or whatever.
I’ve been writing books and stories based on dreams for a long time, about twenty years. All those stories had been published in regular literary journals. And so to me I was just kind of doing the same thing. It never occurred to me to think of it as a cross-genre novel. I was just writing it based on an original kind of conception that came from a dream and then trying to work these characters through this world that operates according to some sort of dream logic.
Rumpus: Did the idea for the book start from a dream you had?
Morris: Yeah, although what happens is usually I start with some little piece of a dream and then I just let it go wherever it seems to want to go. In this case I actually started with the dream that I had about this beach house that we go to on St. Simons Island, which actually appears as a setting in the book at a certain point.
But it really had to do only with walking outside of my house. On the outside of the house there was a window that I knew was not on the inside of the house and then there were two people standing there talking in the window and wearing old-fashioned clothes. They eventually became Tiffany and Rose Blanchard in the book. But that was really all. That was where it started. I just started letting things spin out from there.
Rumpus: So how did it turn into a hotel in Idaho?
Morris: I was in Idaho and we went to visit this buddy of mine who had started a microbrewery. It was the day the first kegs were being sold at the local bars and I just happened to be in the area. Me and some of my friends went up there and, in the course of this crazy evening at this brewery, this guy had these keys to this old hotel that was being refurbished. He took us over there in the middle of the night to this hotel, which was totally abandoned, and we were wandering around there with just a flash light. And one of my friends managed to get himself locked in a room.
He went into the room and closed the door and there was no door handle. And that was where the idea came to switch it from the beach house to the hotel. The hotel was such a great setting.
Rumpus: There are a lot of towns called “Travelers Rests” in the US, including in South Carolina where you currently reside. Any connection there?
Morris: Right, well I definitely stole the name. It’s a stopover point for travelers before going over the mountains or after having come over the mountains, and I always just liked the name.
But the book is set in a fictional town in a certain area of Idaho that’s called the Silver Valley. The last exit before you get to the Montana border is exit 69, so I set the book at exit 70. It would literally be the last place before you cross over.
And it’s funny. My editor, Ben George, at Little, Brown sent me an email at one point with no subject heading or anything, and I opened it up and all it had was an attachment. The attachment was a map of the Lewis and Clarke expedition and I thought, “what in the hell is that?” There was no explanation for it or anything so I sent him an email with a question mark and he replied saying, “just look at it,” and I went back and looked at the map and literally right on the other side in Montana there’s a little place where Lewis and Clarke made camp and called it Travelers Rest.
So there actually is a Travelers Rest that was maybe an hour from where I set the book but it was completely by accident. I had no idea.
Rumpus: Setting the story in a hotel in the Pacific Northwest like that obviously elicits some weighty comparisons. Let’s start with The Shining. Was the movie or book an influencer?
Morris: I’ve seen the movie of course and loved it but never read the book. I was conscious of that as I was writing. I knew just from a superficial standpoint of plot that there were a lot of similarities. The Shining in a way was like a backboard. I had to keep making sure I wasn’t getting too close to any of the things that I knew went on in the film at least.
You have a father who starts going crazy and kills everyone in The Shining. And I knew nothing like that was going to happen in my book. I thought fairly quickly with this one the idea was that the characters are all going to be separated and they’re all going to be off in their own space. It was going to be much more psychological and the danger was going to be much more represented by the nature of this place than it was anything else. But sure, I knew people were bound to make that comparison.
Rumpus: I also see some Twin Peaks in the book, particularly with the gumball machine that is a model of the town and the TV in the hotel that only shows shadowy figures and snow. To me those scream David Lynch.
Morris: It’s funny that you bring that up. I just found out maybe last week that David Lynch actually lived in my hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho when he was really little. I had no idea and I’ve never heard anybody in my hometown talk about it either.
Also, my wife and I spent our honeymoon at the hotel that was used for filming Twin Peaks. So, there are a couple of David Lynch connections there but I wasn’t thinking of his films when I was writing. I can definitely see how that has the same sort of feel to it. But it wasn’t something that I thought of overtly.
Rumpus: Were there any other books you were reading or that crept in while writing?
Morris: I know I was thinking of Edith Wharton. I’m a big Edith Wharton fan. When I was writing the section that took place in the late 1800s I kind of had The House of Mirth running through my brain.
There’s a short story by this writer Conrad Aiken back in the ’20s—he was a friend of T.S. Eliot’s—called “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” which is about a kid about Dewey’s age whose slowly slipping into a state of catatonic schizophrenia and that’s a really spooky, strange story that I had in mind for sure.
There’s also House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.
Rumpus: That’s probably my favorite book. I can definitely see a few similarities between the house and your hotel.
Morris: I think especially the first hundred pages or so before it gets really wild and you got those massive caverns that extend through thousands of miles and stuff. But the first part of it, where it’s really concentrating on the house, I love that. My favorite part of that book is just where they go outside and measure the exterior and interior of the house and the interior is an inch wider than the exterior. So yeah, the first maybe eighty to one hundred pages of that book were definitely an influence.
Rumpus: Your book isn’t as crazy on the page as House of Leaves but is still an equally as expansive concept. What roadblocks did you hit in writing something with so many moving parts?
Morris: Oh god yeah. I mean, I was stuck for a long time. I think that I got a certain distance into the book—around sixty or eighty pages—just fueled by the premise itself. The further I got into it the more I started understanding that I didn’t really know what the challenges were for each particular character and how those conflicts were going to play out.
I really had to go back and examine the characters, spend a lot of time writing character sections and outlines, and do some thinking about these people. I had to really look at what kind of journey each of them was on independently of actually writing and working on the manuscript.
I think it’s interesting, to me at least. If I’m getting stuck or if I’m having trouble with “writers block” it’s usually because I don’t know the characters well enough.
Rumpus: Character-wise, who did you enjoy writing the most? Any that just flowed right onto the page?
Morris: Dewey was fun. Once I really kind of got locked into the way language works for him, and the way he perceives things, those sections really kind of flew along.
And, I mean, the novel is in third person, but it’s such a close third that it almost feels like first person. I think voice really comes into play. The narrator is sort of picking up the language and the rhythm of each of the characters’ thoughts so that each section has almost a different narrative voice.
I also really liked writing the conversations between Tiffany and Tonio, the father and the hotel owner. They would get off on this kind of metaphysical bent that Tiffany liked and Tonio would kind of get dragged into grudgingly. Their dialogue was fun to write.
Robbie was fun too. To me he’s just this guy out to have kind of a good time in a cynical way. And he typically gets what he wants regardless of the trail of destruction he leaves in his wake. I’ve known a lot of Robbies. I grew up in north Idaho, I bummed around a lot during my twenties, and moved all over the place. I’ve probably been Robbie myself a time or two. He is similar to characters I’ve written about in other stories and novels. Robbie was the one character in this novel who I think could have just jumped out of the pages of one of my other stories or books I’ve written. The other characters just felt really new. But Robbie’s the kind of character I’m used to dealing with and so there was something kind of comforting about coming onto those scenes, when I knew I was getting ready to write a Robbie section.
Rumpus: Were there any characters that you struggled with?
Morris: Julia was really hard because she’s just alone in a room for three-quarters of the novel, you know. And so I knew that was going to be a real challenge. I think with her too, she’s kind of slipping between almost two identities as the book moves along further. So I think as it gets towards the end she’s not really in one particular time. She’s kind of straddling these two time periods.
Rumpus: The middle section of the novel is where we really dig into everyone’s mind. Was it tough to maintain the momentum?
Morris: You’ve got your four main characters who are barely interacting with one another through the entire book, which was part of the challenge. I knew from the beginning I’d have to bringing in secondary characters, and there had to be some kind of action. There had to be something going on.
You can’t just have each character muddling along silently through quarters of the hotel, you know. So then it was trying to figure out what was the relationship between each of them to the reality or non-reality of the situation that they’re in. All of that was sort of difficult.
Rumpus: But you figured it out.
Morris: I knew something had happened in the past. I knew there was some kind of component that had something to do with the history of the hotel and the founding of the hotel. And all of a sudden I figured out I was actually going to write those sections, and that it was actually going to be part of the book and take place in 1886. When I figured that out that really unlocked the rest of the thing for me.
I started to see these two different strains, these two different time periods, and where they were coming together. It gave me something to aim at and move toward. And that really helped get things rolling.
Rumpus: Editing is usually the last stage for the writer. So we can make it the last question. What was the editing process for you?
Morris: I was really eager with Ben George as my editor because he has a reputation for being really meticulous and being an editor that pays really close attention to the text itself. I knew I needed that with this book because it’s so complicated. You know, at a certain part you need another set of eyes. It all looks clear to you, makes sense in my head. As a writer it makes sense to you, but you have a hard time getting into a reader’s perspective at a certain point. I knew I really wanted that kind of editor. And he really worked me.
We spent a lot of time going over how things actually work in the hotel. Why does this effect Robbie this way when he goes in? How is it possible that Julia and Tonio are sort of in the same space and yet they never see one another, or aren’t aware of one another? We spent a lot of time asking those questions and trying to figure out some way to handle those elements of the story consistently. It was rough process. But I think the book is much better because of his involvement with it.
Author photograph © Craig Mahaffey.