The first page of Ian Morris’s second novel, Simple Machines, contains a map. It depicts the island of St. Raphael where graduating senior Tomas Zimmerman has lived for most of his life with his father. After securing a scholarship to study History in college, Tom leaves behind his gruff father, their bicycle repair shop, and his childhood friends Callie and Grey for new (mis)adventures. In the pages that follow, Tomas charts a course of self-discovery navigating new relationships and confronting the tension of familiar ones. As Tom negotiates these new terrains of belonging, we are also given a vivid landscape of history and myth enriched by Ian Morris’s signature dark humor and keen eye for observation.
In August, we conducted our interview via email and discussed family dynamics in fiction, the northern Midwest, and intertextual modes of inspiration.
The Rumpus: What was your inspiration for Simple Machines?
Ian Morris: Simple machines are an actual class of objects—including the wheel, the lever, the wedge, and the inclined plane—I learned about in third grade that stuck with me for some reason. I came to think about the idea that the forces that influence us might be not so much divine as practical.
And when I conceived of the book, I happened to be reading a lot about people-powered flying machines. The most successful of the these was named Icarus. That got me thinking about that myth. I learned that Daedalus was the carpenter to the Gods until he betrayed King Minos and was exiled to the labyrinth of Crete. So, the idea of an exiled father and son forsaken on an island was cemented in my mind.
Rumpus: I think how you captured the underlying tensions within this close relationship of father and son is one of the strengths of this novel. How did you go about writing this sometimes-strained, sometimes-tense relationship?
Morris: A central source of tension in the story is that Tom and his father are stuck with each other. Ernst takes his disappointments out on his son but still somehow thinks he’s being strict for his son’s own good. When I was growing up, there were a lot of voices in my life that suggested the best way to avoid disappointment was not to set your hopes too high. I came from a modest working-class neighborhood on the edge of a university town, so the tension between accepting one’s lot in life and choosing to reach out for something more has always preoccupied me.
Rumpus: Would you say you injected Tomas’s character with some autobiographical elements?
Morris: My father ran a bike shop that I started working at when I was twelve or thirteen and that’s always going to be fraught, especially when you’re a rebellious teenager, so we had our tough moments. Unlike Ernst, my father was not a war refugee, but was a third-generation Irish from Brooklyn. He also drank, but was not abusive at all.
When I was growing up in Wisconsin, we viewed people from Illinois as interlopers, so I thought a lot about people who live on islands as emotionally and, literally, insular. It was interesting and a little dismaying to drive up from Chicago—where I live now—to northern Wisconsin and be judged for my Illinois license plates.
Rumpus: Simple Machines gave me a John-Steinbeck-from-the-Midwest vibe precisely because of this deep connection to an insular place. How did you go about constructing this landscape—were the descriptions from your memory?
Morris: I grew up with no sense of place because I thought Wisconsin represented the typical American existence. It wasn’t until I moved to Arkansas for graduate school that I realized just what a bunch of freaks we were in the northern Midwest. For the first time—maybe out of homesickness—I started to think about what it meant to live in a northern climate and culture. I knew I wanted to set the book on an island in the north. Lake Superior had fascinated me since I read Paddle-to-the Sea when I was a little kid, so that was an obvious setting.
When I settled upon a location, I bought maps and nautical charts of the region, because water plays such a big part of the story, and had them up on the wall where I was writing. I didn’t get up to the Apostle Islands, which the geography of the novel is based on, until I was well into the writing, but the region colored the description of the book a great deal after I did.
Rumpus: It sounds like you draw a lot of inspiration from a variety of different contexts, such as product design, myths, books and lessons from childhood. Do you have any creative influences?
Morris: I used to have a stable of writers I would point to, but there’s been such an explosion of creative intertextual work. My teenage daughter is a theater kid, and I am introduced to new things through her. I love everything about Hamilton. I came to the graphic memoir Fun Home through the musical that was made of it, and I thought both were great. Not long ago, when we were driving through Missouri, I heard a bluegrass version of the rock opera Tommy, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. It’s that kind of inventiveness that inspires me these days.
Rumpus: Something I found compelling and complicated was Tomas’s voice. On one hand he seems very immature because he calls girls “sluts” at times, but then on the other, he is very knowledgeable and thoughtful by demonstrating a nuanced understanding of Native American history by pointing out instances of colonial violence. How did you construct and then tap into this voice and how does it intersect with how white privilege operates in the book?
Morris: I think the most telling aspect of white privilege as manifested in the characters of Tom and his best friend Grey is that when they are confronted by others who are different from them—whether African-American or Native-American—these two teenagers who were raised in an isolated environment would feel qualified to judge the validity of another person’s grievance. In another vein, when Tom encounters the word “homophobic” for the first time, he basically decides the term doesn’t apply to him because he doesn’t know what it means.
This was the toughest thing about writing the book. When I decided to set the novel, which is a story of isolation, in a time before everyone was connected by cellphones and computers, I channeled my 1970s high-school self to try to recreate not just the vocabulary and diction but also the mindset. I’m sure my high school friends and I didn’t see ourselves as sexist or homophobic or racist, but we were in casual ways, and I imparted those flaws upon Tom and Grey.
Still, when I’m using the kind of language we were comfortable using then but I would never use today, in order to reveal a character or a mindset, I have come to realize that merely saying “It’s the character speaking, not me” might be true, but it also can be a cop-out, if you’re not willing to accept that readers may legitimately find some of it objectionable.
In my earliest drafts, I quickly realized that what I came up with was unreadable—so much profanity and so much rambling on to say the simplest things. So, the challenge was in creating the voice that captured the irreverence, insecurities, and false bravery, but to dial way back on the carelessness of teenage speech.
Rumpus: Can you describe your overall writing process? How did you strategize writing Tomas’s coming-of-age arc but then also also fit in this broader backdrop of his family history and the history of the island?
Morris: I am so glad you asked this question, so I can share how much I suffered. Because the book is set within the span of a year, I had to work a lot of the backstory into the flow of the narrative. That was very challenging and time-consuming and humbling.
It also didn’t occur to me until I was well into writing the novel that if your character lives on a small island, he is going to know everybody he encounters throughout the day, which means everyone has to be named, described, and assigned a personality.
Given my constant struggle to find writing time, I did find myself bypassing difficult passages and returning to them later, which seemed reasonable and necessary at the time, but was an approach I would not use again.
Rumpus: What were your favorite and least favorite parts of the book when you were writing?
Morris: That’s tough. My favorite parts might be those times when weather and geography intrude upon the characters’ sense of invincibility. In terms of least favorite? I hope I cut all those.
I will say that I found out a long time ago that there is almost zero correlation between my favorite scenes I’ve written and those that my readers like. I don’t know if other writers have had that experience, but it’s a good lesson.
Rumpus: Simple Machines is quite different from your first novel, When Bad Things Happen to Rich People. How does writing a second novel differ from writing a first novel?
Morris: Once you’ve done it, you have proof you can do it again. So, there’s a confidence that you’re not devoting more than a year of your life to some Quixotic folly.
Rumpus: You’ve also written a well-researched book of nonfiction, The Little Magazine in Contemporary America. If you conducted research for Simple Machines, can you describe that process and how that process differed for this book project compared to your other projects?
Morris: I enjoy research, except that it kills my recreational reading. But on some level, I did too much research for Simple Machines. Because the main character is a historian of the place where he grew up, I studied that history, too. And I didn’t mind that because I like reading history and, as a writer, whenever I find myself in a new place that seems to contain a lot of history, I wonder a lot about the people who lived there in the past. But I remember very well the day I said to myself, “I know everything I need to know to finish this book.” It was very liberating.
Rumpus: You also have twenty years of experience (and counting!) of editing and publishing. Does your professional life inform and interact with your creative process?
Morris: Throughout my entire writing life, I have had a demanding day job, as a college teacher or editor, so I had to come up with a writing strategy that would allow me to make progress when my time was not my own. What I learned—and I hope this might be useful to other writers—was that while I often didn’t feel up to composing, to make up something new, I could always revise, and so I was always confident I could improve what I had on the page.
I think having edited for literary publications for such a long time has been invaluable because I’m constantly interacting with really good writing by other people. It has also forced me, for my own sense of self-worth and sanity, to banish from my head all the bio notes I composed for all really famous writers we published.
Rumpus: In your Acknowledgements, you mentioned you wrote a significant portion of this book with the Ragdale Foundation. How was that experience?
Morris: Ragdale was great. That was a turning point. I was somewhat bogged down at the time. I went for two weeks, and I worried that being expected to work would be too much pressure, but I got a lot of writing done, and the reception I received at the reading I gave at the end of my time there convinced me I was on the right track. I sent the manuscript to an agent as soon as I got back and got a positive response just a week later. I would recommend Ragdale, or artists’ retreats in general, to anyone who can do them.
Rumpus: Is your next project about Woodstock and can you describe it a little?
Morris: Yes, the anniversary of the Woodstock festival is August 2019. From a distance of time, a lot of what has been thought and said about the event—both by people who thought it was a great cultural moment and those who thought it was a disaster—has not held up well. I’ve been writing a series of essays on the subject with the idea of turning them into a book, and I’m starting a blog on February 6, 2019, which was the first time the founders of the festival met, through August 19, the day after the festival, when they all met in a bank in Manhattan to dissolve the partnership.
The reality is that the Woodstock Ventures partners who staged the festival were the ultimate victims of their own success. The idea was to get people to come out to see a bunch of great bands in the boonies, and what they got was way too many people coming out to see too many great bands in way too remote a location. Just about everything that went wrong stemmed for those factors.
Rumpus: Do you have any rituals you have to do before you begin writing?
Morris: I wish I had some kind of writing ritual, but it’s mostly the opposite. I enjoy writing with pen on paper when I can—and doodling in the margins. I try to make the transition from doing anything else to sitting down to write as undramatic as possible.