Interview from Web Del Sol

Interview with
Bradford Morrow

By Jim Lewis

Brad Morrow is a good friend, and good company, but of his past I know next to nothing. He'll begin a sentence, "When I was a musician", or "When I was a rare book dealer", but I never have been able to figure out exactly what he was doing when. I do know that ten years ago he founded Conjunctions, and has edited it throughout its impressive history, somehow finding time along the way to write three extraordinary novels: Come Sunday, The Almanac Branch, and his latest, Trinity Fields, the story of two close friends, who grow up together as the children of scientists at Los Alamos, part ways during the years of the Viet Nam War, and then meet again to confront each other, their history, and their fate. It is a beautiful and admirable book.

Jim Lewis: The first thing I want to ask you about Trinity Fields, is what it is exactly that the judge says to Brice.

BM: If Brice doesn't know, I'm sure I don't. (laughter)

JL: You really didn't have anything in mind?

BM: You know it's such a strange passage, I wish I knew. The story is, I was having lunch in Los Angeles with a friend, and a very beautiful woman walked by, and he said, "Catch it and see what it eats." At least, I think that's what he said; I didn't really hear him, and I didn't ask him. But the phrase stayed with me; and it wound up in the book.

JL: With that out of the way, I want to ask you about going to Trinity itself.

BM: It was an astounding experience. Here, I brought something to show you.

JL: Am I going to get cancer from this?

BM: Well, plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years, so...

JL: And what is that exactly?

BM: It's trinitite, radioactive trinitite....

JL: Which you carry around in your pocket....

BM: Well I'm having a lead box made for it, and it'll go in that. The White Sands Missile Range public relations director will tell you that you can live at ground zero, but you're not supposed to remove trinotite from the site. Still, I figured that Ariel would in the novel, so I thought I should take just a little.

JL: Was this a backwards­looking trip, or are you working on something new?

BM: No, actually it was forwards­looking. I don't know how many novels will come out of Trinity Fields, but it will at least be a diptych. I want to continue with Arial's story. She's definitely at the beginning of a journey of her own.

JL: So going to Trinity was a part of finding what Ariel would find out.

BM: Yes. I think if I inhabit a character when I'm out and about, it's a way of seeing the world twice. Because I get to see it, and I get to see it through these fictive, narrational eyes at the same time. So I'll go to a place that already has a resonance for me, a timbre. That's how characters become manifest in me; it's partly through the language that appears when you're writing it ­­ a novel occurs under your fingertips ­­ but it also occurs in the field. This book was heavily researched. I put in months out in New Mexico working on it. A lot of time in Los Alamos, I'm a member of Los Alamos Historical Society. A lot of time in Chimayo, up and down those roads. The Laos Passage. I put in a lot of time with Colonel Roger Daisly, including flying with him. Went out and interviewed other surviving Ravens from our secret war in Laos. That was my form of research; it's not really sitting in the library and you know, reading books. (His glass falls from table.) Jesus, I'm having trouble with this side of the table. It's the plutonium.

JL: All of your books seem to be set in New York and someplace else. A character will start out in New York and end up going further and further away, and the book will end with him or her at the farthest distance from New York.

BM: Well, insofar as they're all autobiographical I suppose those are my trajectories. I come from elsewhere, and even though I've been in New York for fourteen years now, it still feels a bit like a way station. But then when I'm elsewhere I want to get back.

JL: That's the curse of New York.

BM: It's a beautiful curse in a way. It's bad for roots but good for branches.

JL: You grew up in Denver?

BM: In a suburb of Denver called Littleton.

JL: What were your folks doing there?

BM: Well this all goes back to my great grandmother's tuberculosis. The family started back East in the twenties, teens and twenties, and then migrated West because my grandfather Morrow wanted to put his mother in a tent city outside of Chicago. Then he got it in his head that it would be best to go to the high Rocky Mountains. So they wound up in a place called Oak Creek which is near Steamboat Springs. She died anyway, but he set up a practice there, and was mayor of this tiny mining town, high in the Rockies. When he retired he moved down to Denver; my parents met, and that's how I wound up in Denver. My mother's side of the family are all farmers from Nebraska, and they lost their farm in the Depression. My grandfather Hoffman worked for Union Pacific Railroad and somehow they migrated to Denver. But once I was fifteen and went to Nicaragua and Honduras I never went back home again. These past fourteen years in New York has been the longest stretch of time I've ever been in one place.

JL: So explain to me how Trinity Fields got started.

BM: Insomnia. I was staying at an adobe near Tesuque, New Mexico with friends, at the end of an exhausting, long reading tour for The Almanac Branch. And I noticed these amber, twinkling lights sort of in long strings up along the mesas near the Jemez Mountains, and they were entrancing. You have a desert that's all dark, and this vast spray of constellations and stars overhead, and then this peculiar man-made amber twinkling going on in the mountains. I asked my host about them the next morning, and he said, "Oh my God, that's Los Alamos. We never go to Los Alamos." So we wound up going to Chimayo instead that day, which is twenty five miles in the opposite direction. Chimayo is an extraordinary, mind bogglingly pure and inspiring place. Built, about 1818, by Hispanic Catholics, in a valley that's been sacred for thousands and thousands of years. The soil there is said to have magical properties, healing properties. And the Indians, the Tewa and their ancestors practiced geophagy for years there before the Catholics caught on to it. This little place is the sort of the Lourdes of America; but instead of drinking refreshing water...

JL: You eat dirt.

BM: You rub some dirt on you and get cured that way. It's very American somehow. Somehow it all got fused in my head that day. And I had been through there as a kid a lot. I had seen Chimayo for the first time when I was nine or ten years old, and had been up to Los Alamos and Bandelier Canyon. All these ancient memories in me were getting unclogged. I just felt very inspired by the proximity of such a pure, simple, powerful religious place as Chimayo, and Los Alamos, a high tech, scientific....

JL: It's almost like a monastery itself...

BM: Yes. And every major physicist on earth went there in 1942 to develop the atom bomb. They lived in total isolation up there for the 27 months it took to complete both the plutonium and the uranium devices that were eventually detonated. Right there in the middle of the most ancient world. You know, you have Indians still dancing corn dances that their ancestors danced, working their fields, and right up on the hill you have the place where chaos theory was invented, and neutron showers rather than rain showers were the standard.

JL: How did they settle on Los Alamos?

BM: Oppenheimer chose it. As a kid he'd gone to New Mexico a lot, and he loved it. What they needed was a place that was isolated and protected, and the mesa was just perfect. Also, they needed to be away from large population centers, in case something went wrong.

JL: He seems like a really interesting character, Oppenheimer.

BM: One of the most amazing Americans of all time.

JL: Son of a bitch, apparently.

BM: He was a son of a bitch? Oppenheimer?

JL: Yeah.

BM: I don't know. I still see him as not such a bad guy. I mean the way this country had treated him, the way he was driven into an alcoholic craze, the way he was beat down by Senator McCarthy and by the reaction against nuclear weapon. He became a kind of a scapegoat figure. But his brilliance in helping put that project together is awesome. But they did make an atom bomb and there is no getting around that.

JL: I didn't mean a son of a bitch for building the bomb. I just got the impression that he was very maniacal, extremely vain, and sort of overbearing.

BM: No. I don't think so. He was put together with a bunch of megalomaniacal, half-crazed physicists, and I think his managerial skills were very good.

JL: Did you talk to anyone who knew him? Are any of the scientists or the military people still alive?

BM: Edward Teller gave a piano concert up at Los Alamos last year.

JL: Teller's still alive?.

BM: He played the piano up at Fuller Lodge. I would have given anything to be there. Several of the scientists are still alive.

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