Florence Gordon, Brian Morton’s fifth novel, engages with the terrain of the other — New York Jewish intellectuals. The heroine is a professor who is embarking on writing her memoirs, after writing a number of seminal books of essays. Her time is limited and she does not suffer fools gladly — whether blood relatives or not — and lets them know her opinions.
Beth Kissileff: You write of a person as the “center of a world” in this novel. Is that why you wrote a novel about an eponymous character?
Brian Morton: I’d say it’s why most of my novels try to explore different characters’ points of view. The idea that each person is the center of his or her own world is always on my mind when I’m working on a novel. Emily [Florence’s granddaughter] is really the secret heroine of the book, and the moral center of the book, because she’s living that idea, by trying to understand other people on their own terms. There’s a moment late in the book where Florence greets Emily with even more coldness than usual, and at first Emily thinks Florence is mad at her, but then intuits that what Florence is going through has nothing to do with her at all. That moment, when Emily transcends herself by entering into Florence’s point of view, is meant to be a sort of quiet moment of climax in the novel.
Iris Murdoch, in an essay called “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” said that we judge novelists “by the quality of their awareness of others.” I think this could be a motto for fiction writers to put next to the keyboard.
BK: One of the many things you do well as a writer are the titles of your characters’ books and essays, both Florence’s and those of Leonard Schiller, the main character in Starting out in the Evening. Can you say something about that and whether she is a female version of Schiller?
BM: Thank you. I like to give the reader just a hint of what the characters have written, and I try to do that partly by mentioning the titles of their work. Often there’s no context at all — so that when someone in the book thinks of an old essay that Florence wrote called “Notes on What Just Happened,” we don’t know if the essay referred to the election of Ronald Reagan or to 9/11 or to the Rodney King video or to none of the above. We have no idea what it referred to. I want the reader to do some of the work of imagining her career through scattered bits of evidence, including the titles of her work. (The title of one of her essays, “Opportunities for Heroism in Everyday Life,” was the working title of the novel for a while, until I settled on Florence Gordon.)
I don’t think of Florence as a female counterpart of Schiller. They’re both writers of a certain age, but she’s much more energetic and more engaged with the life around her. His novels were a sort of monument to private life; she wants her books to change the world.
BK: There have been recent studies about reading fiction increasing empathy. What’s your take?
BM: I hope it does, but I’m skeptical. Don’t we all know people who are both very well read and awful? I feel like it’s not uncommon to meet people who’ve read a ton but who are as vain about it as other people are about their possessions.
BK: In all of your other books, you have a character from a previous book reappear. Why didn’t you do that this time?
BM: I thought about doing it. Florence’s son and his family are subletting an apartment in the book, and for a while I thought of saying it was Leonard Schiller’s old apartment — the writer from Starting Out in the Evening—which his daughter had held onto after his death. But finally I thought it would be better to have one book that doesn’t explicitly refer to any of the others. I guess I just decided to give it a rest.
Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.
Beth Kissileff is in the process of fundraising and writing grants to develop a program to assist rabbis of all denominations with writing and publishing books. Kissileff is a rabbinic spouse and author of the novel Questioning Return as well as editor of the anthology Reading Genesis: Beginings.