Berea author's debut novel rewards the careful reader

BEREA — Never once in C.E. Morgan's novel, All the Living, does she tell you that it's Kentucky where her characters are struggling for breath amidst grief. But you know it is Kentucky because we are so conversant with it.

But maybe that's just us. To those outside the Bluegrass, the bottomland might seem ubiquitous and the mountains anyone's problem.

That is, unless you are a careful reader and have heeded the signposts she has placed to guide you where she wants to go, to arrive where she has taken you.

"I think it's clear but the only other place it could possibly be confused with is Virginia," Morgan says. "But there are certain places in the book where you can tell you're facing east with the sun facing into the mountains so you know you're on this side of the mountains. You can determine from the text where it is."

The text. The text is everything.

Morgan, 32, had wanted to be a writer since she was 7 and learned to read. Of course, text is everything.

In All the Living (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23), her debut novel, she has managed to get the attention of all the right people — the press, the independent bookstores and some adoring fans.

But unlike what you're supposed to do when you get all that sought-after attention, she is not anxious to tell you everything. She will tell you about that light that shone over her head at 7, when "that clear and direct sense of vocation" made itself known.

She'll tell you she has drunk no Coca-Cola since she was in third grade, but she can remember its taste. That the first thing she bought with her book advance was $50 worth of Pepsi.

And she will tell you that she loves Los Angeles for its transcendent beauty and "because it pulls all those dreamers."

But that about sums up the private stuff you're getting.

"My history is my private garden," she explains, apologizing without apologizing for her status as a difficult interview, "and I have the key. I feel like I give my life's energy away through my work. At the end of the day, the one story I do get to keep is the story of my own life. Each soul has to establish its own perimeters."

And these are within hers: She will talk about writing.

Disappointing, you think at first. No chance to learn whether she is her heroine, Aloma. Or if loneliness, grief, want and aching lack are stories from her life that she has made into her moving parable of resolution.

All the Living is all that. It is the story of Aloma, a woman who leaves the only life she's known, at a mission school in the mountains, to move away from the hills to be with her boyfriend, Orren, who has just suffered an irreparable family loss. Together, they must work to recover a tobacco crop, the vestiges of his boyhood farm and whatever they can salvage of a relationship that neither of them quite understood to begin with. And she must decide whether she will stay or go even farther away when the long, dry season of trying to help him is nearly done.

The richness of the story, the nearness of it to this place, pleads for parallels, for the better story Morgan could tell about her own experience, that from which you are sure she drew something of this.

It is not forthcoming. The clear-eyed beauty is emphatic. She is not Aloma. She is not talking about her life. But she is generous to overflowing in talking about writing. And to listen to her explain the process is akin to communion, with words as wine.

The book 'seized me'

What C.E. Morgan will say is that All the Living is not autobiographical, but when asked if she knows the story, she says she does.

"I am its creator so I do know the story. I've always hated prescriptive statements about writing, like when people say, 'Write what you know.' We are discretely embodied. We have no idea what each writer needs to accomplish their tasks."

What she needed was a two-week, mid-term break while at Harvard Divinity School, where she was pursuing her master's degree in theological studies. Click here for Page 2.

"The book came. It seized me. I wrote the draft in 14 days. It was like the universe opened my head and poured it in. I stepped out once to put a bill in the mail."

The first 20 pages simply poured out, she says, much as they appear today in the book. After those pages, she abandoned herself to whatever came. She worked all day, sleeping little, eating boiled eggs, drinking coffee, letting the scenes come in whatever sequence they came.

"I don't know what to call it. I was just a conduit. The characters came fully fleshed. It just came. As soon as I'd get an idea for something, I'd start a new page. Later, it all slotted together."

She was busy with school, so the editing process took the next two semesters.

This is where most writers become aware not just of story, but of the exactitude as well as the limits of words.

Editing is a "going-over and meditating on every sentence, every single word choice for maximum resonance. I want every single word to sound not just like a pitch but like a series of overtones, so there's an intertextuality at work: multiple texts, multiple meanings, allusions to other things, as much as you can. And to make sure each sentence reads out loud properly, to think about derivations of words and percussiveness."

Critics writing about All the Living have referred to Morgan's language as "effortless," "stunning," "lyrical" "earthbound and hymnlike."

"You use words with extreme intention," she says. "They are always arrows shooting for a target."

Finally, her own place

The thunder booms outside Morgan's second-floor window, which looks out on a wide-open pasture with a view of the hills beyond. It's late on the afternoon that tornadoes will come through Madison County. Morgan's cat, The Hankster, has already crawled into the kitchen cupboards to hide.

This is the first apartment she has ever had. Before the two-book deal from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, she had neither fork nor spoon to her name, she says. She had her books and a computer that was given to her when she went to Berea College, where she studied English and voice. She slept on friends' sofas. She drove, and still drives, a 20-year-old Ford Ranger with 250,000 miles on it.

Her apartment has five rooms, pots of oxalis, a new soft, oversize chair, and two oft-used hitchhiking signs.

"Five rooms is difficult to adjust to," she says, laughing. "This is a radical change. It's not a shift in personal understanding, only a shift in my physical safety in the world. The real change is that I have health insurance now. I can put gas in my truck. I still mentally calculate the cost of every meal I eat."

Hers is not a life that has been preoccupied with making a living. Trained operatically, she has sung to pay the bills. Her life is full of literature, music and thought. Her choice to go to Harvard, she says, was borne of "a preoccupation with what moral beauty looks like, what a secular ethic looks like, what a religious ethic looks like, post-20th century.

"I can't imagine that we all aren't waking up every day wondering what moral beauty looks like. We live in a world consumed by issues of physical beauty, yet we stand at the tail end of the most horrific century that humankind has ever known. How do we wake up every morning and not ask how to live in the world without harming others? What does harm look like? What does it mean to live with others rightly?"

She worries about that.

The rain comes. She gets up and closes the front windows to keep her new things dry. Outside the windows, it is darker, but the colors are more vivid.

She needs to talk about the readers. She is not going to tell them how to think about her novel.

"I don't want to say too much. I want very much not to interpret the work in public. I do that first, as a show of respect for the integrity and the completeness of the text itself. But also as a show of respect for the hermeneutical liberty of the reader.

"I see the relationship between reader and writer as equals. We're linguistic and intellectual peers."

That is, she insists, what she envisions when she sits down to write. She will tell her story, and readers can bring to it what they do. She will not goad them into what they should think.

"Life has a way of stripping us of our freedoms, and we ought to not just throw them away. It can seem like small potatoes to have the freedom to interpret a piece of art, but that's related to our intellectual freedom, and that's an enormously important component of our lives. The readers' freedoms are sacrosanct."

Not a bad job

Morgan has no set routine for writing the book she now owes her New York publisher. As long as she has "forward motion" on it, she says, she's happy. It, too, will take place in Kentucky, and she has a lot of research to do before she can start to write.

This is the first time that her job is what the 7-year-old Morgan might have imagined it was like to be a writer. She has had bad jobs, she says, and this isn't one of them. It is not as if she has to wait, she says, for her "nine-minute break" to create. She gets to do it anytime she wants.

So she lives among her dearest friends, thinks about planting tomatoes when the ground is no longer soaked, and works when she decides to.

Almost all surfaces in her apartment are stacked with books: favorites, graphic novels, new things yet unread. On the dining table are large promotional materials of her own book cover. Pictured: a stark scene, a white tobacco barn and an almost subliminal tornado in the dark clouds behind it.

Morgan worked with a Berea College librarian to pick the two photographs that were PhotoShopped to create the cover of All the Living.

It is raining really hard now. The wind rushes through the few windows left open in the back of her home.

You do not need to know her story to know that C.E. Morgan knows from whence she writes. And how it feels to sense the storm coming.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader