Book review: We Don’t Know What We’re Doing

Publisher turned author Thomas Morris talks to Tony Clayton-Lea about the joy and challenges of becoming a writer — and sibling rivalry as a wonderful motivating force.

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing

Thomas Morris

Faber & Faber, £12.99

IT’S true — surgically weld a pair of hairy, out-sized feet onto the end of Tom Morris’s legs and you’d have a Hobbit in the making. 

This somewhat spurious (but chillingly accurate) comparison aside, while the face may be right out of the Shire, you’d be hard pressed to find writing as good in the diaries of either Bilbo or Frodo.

Morris — 29 years of age, but looking less than that — might be a new name to casual readers, but those who like to keep their finger on the pulse of what happens on the Irish literary scene will know him from his editorship, if not stewardship, of Ireland’s premier literary periodical, The Stinging Fly. 

Although published only a few times a year, since its founding in 1998, the publication has made the public very much aware of the writing talents of the likes of Kevin Barry, Paul Murray, Mary Costello, and more recently, Colin Barrett, each of whom subsequently signed deals with UK publishing houses.

Previous to working at The Stinging Fly, Morris interned at two of Ireland’s most notable independent publishers: Liberties Press and Lilliput Press. 

Between the two, he learned about all aspects of publishing, from the nuts and bolts of micro-budgeting to the rather more disciplined areas of proofing and copy-editing, and then to perhaps the most risky element of the business: dealing with the writers themselves, their egos, their insecurities, and – worst of all, possibly - their predilections for improper, if not rampant use of the semi colon. 

Added to this was his editing of last year’s Dubliners 100 book (published by Dublin-based Tramp Press), a collection of 15 new works based on the original short stories by James Joyce.

Morris’s position as someone who is very much aware of all of the aforementioned puts him in a place that most newly published authors wouldn’t ever find themselves. In other words, some of the excitement of the process has been undermined.

“It is different,” he allows. 

“Dubliners 100 was a good starter test - from being on the other side with that, talking to authors, having conversations with the publishers, and all the concerns about how it was going to be marketed. 

"As a publisher, I’d been through that, waiting for the reviews to come in, but I was also once removed – protected, if you like - because the comments weren’t about my stories. But it was a good primer.”

Because he works in the industry, he reckons that the publisher (Faber & Faber, one of the UK’s most prestigious) of his recent debut short story collection, We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, allowed him as an author to do more than a publisher would probably allow a writer to do.

“I had quite a lot of input to things such as the cover, and it was good to have that. I suppose the concern of someone as young as myself is that the publisher doesn’t attempt to make you look too hip. Faber & Faber didn’t, and through conversations we had they understood where I was coming from in that regard.”

Morris was born in Caerphilly, Wales, and left there for Dublin about ten years ago to study English and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin. 

Tellingly, his older sister had completed a Creative Writing Masters, and his brother a Creative Writing degree. 

(“I was a very competitive as a child!”) Therein lay the seeds for a life driven by words – the gathering, collating and putting together of.

“I had my own room,” remembers Morris of his TCD days, “I had a laptop, and I found myself at night writing things. I’m not sure what they were, but from the first year onwards I was jotting down bits of memories, stories. 

"I was, I suppose, just playing with writing, not really sure what I was doing. The first summer I went home, and I entered a local short story competition. 

"I brought bits and pieces together of what I’d been writing. I came third in the contest, but I got positive feedback, and that was the start, really.” The start and by no means the end. 

“I wrote a story when I was in TCD, submitted it to the college literary magazine, and it got published. When I went to the launch of that issue of the magazine, I was quite shy and nervous, and was told that no one wanted to run the Literary Society, and then asked would I be interested. I said that I didn’t want to, but that I’d help make posters.

“Of course, after a year or so, I actually did want to run the Lit Soc, and so in my first year as editor I invited writers such as Colm Toibin, Roddy Doyle, Patrick McCabe and Iain Banks to do something for the magazine. 

"To my astonishment they all said yes. That was important to me, because I then realised that writers weren’t really that much different to human beings! 

"After that, it didn’t seem such a ridiculous idea to try to want to write, but I don’t think I’d have felt that way if I had stayed in Wales.”

Fast forward several years to 2012, and Morris – after interning at Liberties and Lilliput but prior to settling in at Stinging Fly – completed the renowned Creative Writing Masters at the University of East Anglia (he was very competitive as a child, if you recall). 

He says he finished a novel that a few agents were interested in, but he knew it wasn’t what he wanted to write, let alone have published.

“I’m not sure where I got it from,” he ponders, “but I had thought in order to be a novelist you had to write a quiet, respectful work. I discarded that idea, however, and started to write stories. 

"That year, I wrote eight stories, all based in Caerphilly. Setting them in Caerphilly meant that there were places for the characters to go. And limits for them.” 

Morris knows what’s coming next, and he skewers the notion that his journey from interning to being published was a very deliberate and cunning one. 

“It wasn’t like that at all,” he says, shaking his head with a disarming smile on his face. We believe him – absolutely, totally.

For starters, instead of a debut novel he had a debut batch of short stories – stories that didn’t necessarily adhere to conventional structures. 

“For me a big part of the writing process is going wrong, going down an avenue that doesn’t really work, and coming back and solving the problems.”

What happens often, remarks Morris, is that some elements of writing are akin to “doing community service, or having to eat your vegetables! It’s something you are told you have to do.” Such ideas are now redundant and useless, he believes. 

“What’s so exciting is how outside influences work – they give you permission to do things. You read, for example, a writer such as Kevin Barry, and afterwards you feel you can write something very different because of it.”


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