Morrow's Conjunctions: A View from Below

By Vollmann, William T. | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Morrow's Conjunctions: A View from Below

Vollmann, William T., The Review of Contemporary Fiction

My friend Bradford Morrow has written some beautiful prose, in particular the beginning of The Almanac Branch, where eldritch sexuality moves and shimmers in the foliage outside a young girl's window. But in this brief tribute I plan to pay homage to Brad as an editor, for a very good personal reason. His literary journal, Conjunctions, was the first paying periodical in which my words appeared.

I began sending out submissions to magazines when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. It wasn't until almost a decade later that my first book was published, through a lucky accident. My novel, You Bright and Risen Angels, had made the rounds of a number of commercial American publishers, not one of whom even replied. I suppose because it arrived unagented and typed single-spaced on both sides of the page. The English publisher Andre Deutsch finally took a chance. An American publisher purchased the book from Deutsch and made one or two weary attempts at selling the first serial rights, but the magazines showed the same lack of interest as before. I vaguely remember somebody at the New Yorker, for instance, writing that the violent language and subject matter of that book would be "absolutely unacceptable to Mr. Shawn," who was then in charge. And my first book never got serialized anywhere at all that I know of.

My second book, The Rainbow Stories, seemed even less capable of sending out pseudopods into the periodical world, and I was astonished one day while loitering in my illegal, pipe-smoke-reeking basement apartment, when the phone rang and I learned that Conjunctions (of which I'd never heard) would reproduce a long story, uncut--moreover, a story filled with violence, obscenity, and racism (it was reportage on neo-Nazi skinheads). A friend sent me a copy of this plump biannual anthology, each page of which was laid out as attractively as a California orchard. It offered works from the esoteric to the experimental to the extreme. Cerebral language-play appeared to be the common thread. A few days after I received this object, Brad himself telephoned me and proved very kind. Because I was an unknown kid possessed of little more than grubby blue jeans and greasy hair, I had quickly learned that the doormen in the offices of my New York publisher would usually direct me, not politely, to the service elevator, that at the readings it was the other author whom the audience had come to hear, that my credit, in short, was about as valid as a title deed to real estate on Neptune. It was almost shocking when Brad expressed such enthusiasm and graciousness. He made me feel that someone who'd never met me actually valued me on the basis of my sentences, that I might therefore have something to say. So that phone call meant a lot to me.

Many of my dealings with Brad over the years have been by phone. Brad is a homebody; he's the mountain to which merely aspiring Mohammeds must move. During my three years in New York I think he visited me once. The rest of the time, if I wanted to see him I had to take the number 6 subway down to his book-lined flat. Several times he drove me out to his house in upstate New York, on whose creeked, waterfalled, and wooded property I first conceived the idea of the Stream of Time as employed in my novel Fathers and Crows. There, too, one winter night I first tested some snowshoes and mukluks which I planned to wear on my trip to the Magnetic Pole. I remember Brad's house, like his apartment, as a book-lined dream. There was a biography of Baudelaire on my bedside table one time, and it sent me into a zone of opiated phosphenes. Brad and I rarely discussed books in and of themselves, however. I helped him with chores, or he took me walking amidst many trees, and we discussed the subjects of deepest gravity to any serious writer: food, sex, and money. I remember every season there, and in particular one autumn afternoon with Brad, the blood-colored leaves rustling and rattling about us: more good notes for Fathers and Crows, which is set in part in those upstate mountains, all references to Brad's place duly cited in the endnotes. …

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