Zibby Owens: Mary Morris is most recently the author of travel memoir All the Way to the Tigers. She is such an accomplished author and has written three story collections, four travel memoirs including a memoir called Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. She’s also written five novels including The Night Sky, The Waiting Room, House Arrest, Gateway to the Moon, and The Jazz Palace. She won the Rome Prize in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence.

Thank you, Mary. Thanks for coming on. This is such a pleasure.

Mary Morris: Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: You’ve said in your book, “People think that being a writer is a lonely job, but I am rarely lonely when I’m writing. It is only in the morning when I first wake up and once the sun goes down that my demon revive.” Can you talk to me a little about the demons?

Mary: You know what? I’m not sure I really understand them exactly. I have struggled with depression over my whole life. Also, it’s an interesting thing about being left-handed. There’s a much higher percentage of depression in left-handed people. I think that work has always gotten my adrenaline going. I always feel fulfilled when I’m working. I, in some ways, don’t know what to do with myself so much once the sun goes down. I don’t really like Sundays. I don’t really like the night very much. The mornings, I don’t know. I don’t really know what the demons are, to be honest with you. I suppose it’s about being lonely and feeling alone. I don’t think there’s much hidden in this particular book. I grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family. I found, for me, getting out, getting away, getting up and moving was the best antidote to the feelings I had in my own family home. One of the things I love, I’ve almost always had a dog. I love to take a morning walk. That’s what really gets me going every day.

Zibby: That’s a good habit to get into.

Mary: Yeah, it is.

Zibby: You wrote this great line about your mom. I feel like this describes an entire personality with this one scene when you were at your father’s memorial service and your mother complained, first, that the service you had planned was taking too long. Then you wrote, “Over lunch, she turned to me and asked, what’s wrong, Mary? You look tired.”

Mary: You asked me earlier, is there anything that I haven’t been able to write about. This is a book where I’ve really been able to be the most honest about my parents. My mom, she just didn’t really have the empathy thing. She didn’t get it. She never grieved. The only person she ever grieved for was JFK. When JFK was assassinated, she cried and cried and cried. I think it’s in the book, when our family dog was dying, she called a cab and she sent it to the vet in a cab alone. She didn’t get it. I suppose it was her narcissism. She just couldn’t understand that what I was feeling and why I looked tired at my father’s funeral was I was grieving. That’s a demon, I suppose.

Zibby: We’ll just keep racking them up through this interview. We’ll have you all sorted out by the end.

Mary: Right.

Zibby: I’ll come back to this book, but you’ve written five novels and four travel memoirs and three story collections. I feel like is a dream for so many aspiring authors, to be able to keep producing content like this throughout your life and to keep reinventing what you want to say and who you want to be and all of that. How do you do that? How do you keep finding new, exciting challenges in life and then also to write about?

Mary: Despite what we said about demons, I have always felt incredibly excited about life and very optimistic about the world. Although at the present moment, it’s hard. Everything is a curiosity to me. I have very much a child’s mind. I’m interested in everything. There’s always stories out there. There are always things that grab my interest. Of course, there are lulls. There are things like that. I keep copious journals. I’ve kept journals since I was thirteen. My ideas are always in the journals. Many of the books I’ve written and the travel book — the first one I wrote, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone, I took the trip in 1978, but I didn’t write the book until 1986. Everything was in the journals. A lot of what I do in my process is I just write things down as they’re happening around me. Then I’ll go back and look at them. Again, that’s the kind of listen and . I’ll go back and see what I said five years or even ten years ago and find the gems in there that I want to keep. It’s just always been part of my process. One of the things I always say to young writers is, to me, a writer is someone who writes. It’s pretty straightforward. If you have a passion for it and you want to do it, you do it. I love it. I love it when I’m writing. I’m never happier than when I’m actually writing. I also paint. I love to paint. I love doing those activities. I’m not so good in front of a football game, if you know what I mean. I don’t know. I’ve never had a shortage of ideas, never.

Zibby: I feel like after reading All the Way to the Tigers, though, I would like to introduce you to my travel agent because I think that you could find some better accommodations when you’re taking these trips. When you were freezing cold and there was no heat and no hot water and you’re in the middle of India, this is really roughing it.

Mary: Yes and no. I mean, India is India. In fact, where I was staying, particularly in Pench, it was a lovely resort area. The hot water and the cold water were switched. I was incredibly sick. For days, I didn’t take a shower because I thought I only had cold water. The cold was just freezing cold. I think the worst moment for me was the train ride back to Mumbai because there, I was really sick and it was really cold. I had asked my travel agent for a train ride. I wanted that. She said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Yeah, yeah. Just get me a sleeping compartment.” It was a nightmare. Part of it is me just not — I’m also not a very good planner. A lot of what I’ll do is I’ll say, I’m going to go do this, but I don’t have an itinerary, really. I did for this trip. I had a driver. I had a bit of itinerary. There’s just a lot of stuff you can’t control. One of the things I actually like to do more than anything in terms of traveling, and I’m fortunate to be married to someone who likes to share this with me, is we’ve done a lot of house exchanges. We’ve swapped our house in Brooklyn for places all over. I like to go and plunk myself down somewhere and go to the markets and get to know the people, I speak several languages, and just immerse myself in a place. I feel more like a traveler than a tourist. I’m not very good tourist, but I probably could have had better accommodations. You’re right about that.

Zibby: I was kind of joking about it.

Mary: I know. Of course.

Zibby: I could sense your frustration in the book when your tour guide wouldn’t let you out of the car to go wander around. You kept asking to go for a walk. They were like, “No, we have to take you further away.” I felt like you were just about to explode in frustration at that time. I could really feel it through your words.

Mary: When we were in the actual tiger reserve, I understood that they didn’t want me to take a walk. Actually, I look back fondly at the moment where I said, “Can I take a walk?” because it was a moment in the reserve where there were creatures everywhere, water buffalo and all kinds of birds. There was this wild boar. It was a beautiful, bucolic setting. Obviously if all these animals are out, there wasn’t a tiger nearby. I knew that. I learned that on my trip. I thought maybe they’d let me take a walk. Of course, they wouldn’t. The real frustration was when I wanted to visit some of the villages. We weren’t in the tiger reserve anymore. I was like, I just want to walk. That was frustrating to me. I felt cooped up. I’m not a good person to coop up. I don’t like to be confined. I always have to have an aisle seat. I didn’t like the feeling that I couldn’t get out and walk. I haven’t been on safari in Africa, but people tell me that it’s one of the constraints that people feel in Africa. They really don’t let you get out and walk.

Zibby: Speaking of walking, the big part of the book was your ankle injury and how you recovered from it and how after a freak ice skating accident happened you ended up having to have a massive surgery and having a second opinion, someone said you were going to need ankle reconstruction, and your coming to terms with your limited mobility. How did not being able to function the way that you used to be able to affect you and your mood and all the rest? How did it inspire you to want to go chase the tigers?

Mary: It’s such a good question. Again, it’s a little bit like the demons because I must say that part of me doesn’t entirely understand it. I just do better in motion. I like to be in motion. I like to joke that the subway is my StairMaster. I like to be going somewhere. Having this accident — it’s in the book where my doctor says to me, when I said to him — after three months, he said, “Your bone’s healed, so you’re good to go.” I’d actually brought walking shoes with me that day. I couldn’t take two steps because the pain was absolutely excruciating. Two weeks later, I went back to him. I said, “When am I going to be normal?” He said, “What do you mean by normal?” I just started weeping because I realized that I might never be normal again. That was when he told me that a racehorse is put down for a lesser injury than the one I had. My bone was shattered. He said it was the worst ankle injury that he had ever had to deal with, and he is a trauma surgeon. It was very, very difficult. It was very psychologically difficult. There was just that moment when I was reading Death in Venice, which wasn’t going to cheer me up, when I got to the sentence about he would go on a journey not far, not all the way to the tigers. I was laid up. It was Easter Sunday. I was stuck at home. Larry works on Sundays, so I was all alone. Our daughter was on her junior year abroad. I just read that sentence over and over again. I thought, when I walk, and I will walk again, I’m going to go to the tigers. I’m just going to go. I’m going to figure it out. I’m pretty determined, I guess. I’m pretty determined, yeah. Unstoppable.

Zibby: How has this whole quarantine, then, affected you as someone who needs to be in constant motion? Now it’s a glorified being trapped in a moving car at home, essentially. How has that been?

Mary: I think my injury was kind of my learning experience for this moment. First of all, I do walk every morning. We’re in a remote place right now. I see nobody, and so walking here is very easy. We live in Brooklyn. When I’m in the city, I walk the dog at about six in the morning. I do get out like that. One of the things I learned from my last time I was housebound was you have to be productive. You have to find ways that are productive that are meaningful not only to yourself, but also to other people. For example, I do things for myself every day, self-care and all that and my writing. I also make a little list every day of, who do I want to reach out to? Who might want to hear from me? Who could I check in on? and just try to give back also and be aware of other people and what other people are going through. I’ve found I’m actually extremely busy and productive at this time. I think if I knew some of the lessons that I’ve learned in the first being housebound with my accident — I wish I had known some of it now. I wish I had been able to be more productive.

I remember when I was laid up and I was really feeling sorry for myself. A friend came over and she said, “Be grateful you didn’t break your wrist.” That really stayed with me because I thought, I wouldn’t be able to write if I had broken my wrist. We have to be grateful for what we have. We have to assume that this isn’t going to go on forever. One of the things they say about depression is it’s a hole you fall into and you think it’s never going to end and that’s what makes it so terrible for people, like a child who thinks they’ve been left alone in a room and the mother’s never going to come back. First of all, I’m excited about this book. I have a lot of work to do. We’re expecting our first grandchild. That’s quite exciting. In fact, this remote cabin where we are is just down the road from our daughter, which is why we rented it. I don’t know, Zibby. I feel very busy and very enlivened. I’m not really minding it that much. I miss my friends. I miss seeing people. I do Zooms with them and things like that. It’s okay.

Zibby: That’s great. I think staying busy in service to others, I agree, is sort of the key to the whole thing. PS, my wrist has been killing me for the last two days. I’m sure your ankle injury was horrific, but this is no fun. I’m like, what am I going to do if I can’t respond to my hundreds of emails every day, let alone write anything? Anyway, whatever. I’ll be totally fine.

Mary: Right, it’s very scary if it’s a part of your body that you really need. It was hard to be laid up, but I did learn some lessons from that. They’ve been very helpful to me in this period. Being productive, I think, is really important for people, whatever form that takes.

Zibby: Are you working on a new book now?

Mary: Yes, I am. I published a novel a couple years ago called Gateway to the Moon. It’s kind of a sequel to it. Gateway to the Moon is about the secret Jews of New Mexico. These are Jews who fled to New Mexico during the time of the Spanish inquisition. We lived in New Mexico a number of years ago. We had a babysitter who, he believed he was descended from these people. I got interested in him and in his world. I wrote Gateway to the Moon kind of based on his story. After I finished Gateway to the Moon, through a story that’s way too complicated to go into, I found myself in contact with Jamaican Jews who also fled during the inquisition. Their story is also fascinating. I’ve never considered myself to be a Jewish writer, per se, but I’m quite interested in buried histories and hidden histories and people who don’t really know what their history is. I’ve really gotten interested in that whole world. Just as an aside, the cabin we’ve rented is actually owned by a descendant of Jewish pirates.

Zibby: Wow. Who knew?

Mary: Right, who knew? There’s a book called Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean that I highly recommend. The new novel is kind of based on it. It’ll be published in, I think, 2022 by Knopf.

Zibby: That’s exciting. Do you have any final advice to aspiring authors?

Mary: I was thinking about that, that you would ask me that. The first piece of advice I have is if you want to write, you write. You just keep writing. Don’t quit your day job. If you feel passionately about it, you should write. I think it’s really helpful to find like-minded people. I have maybe about five friends that I will share my work with relatively often, not in a workshop way, but I can always call certain friends and say, hey, would you take a look at this? What do you think? I think it’s important to listen to the stories inside of you and write them. Then when the time is right, share them with people. Just keep doing it. I think that’s my biggest piece of advice. Just keep at it. There’s no guarantees. Don’t think about what’s going to happen to the work. Think about if you’re taking pleasure and enjoying the process of doing it. Are you enjoying it? If you’re enjoying it, just do it.

Zibby: Love it. That’s great advice.

Mary: Yep, that’s it.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you, Mary. Thanks for coming on.

Mary: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Zibby: This is such a pleasure.

Mary: Take care.

Zibby: Sorry for our technical snafus, but I’m glad it all worked out.

Mary: Sorry on my end also. I’m glad it worked out. It was lovely talking to you. Thank you.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Mary: You take care. Bye-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.