Laura Leigh Morris's first book, Jaws of Life, is a story collection set in Appalachia. Published by Vandalia Press, an imprint of West Virginia University Press, the stories feature characters of all ages in the hills of West Virginia who struggle to get along with ex-spouses and sick relatives, and who grapple with poverty, addiction, and joblessness. Dark topics, but Laura leavens the stories with touches of humor and vivid characters.
An assistant professor at Furman University, where she teaches creative writing and literature, Laura previously spent three years teaching women in prison as the NEA Bureau of Prisons Artist-in-Residence in Bryan, Texas. She is originally from north central West Virginia.
The stories in JAWS OF LIFE are set in West Virginia, where you grew up. Fracking and coal mining, for example, are integral to the place and and appear in your stories. When and how did you decide to write fiction informed by this "sense of place"?
I’m not sure I ever decided to write about West Virginia, but I know it took my leaving home to start writing about it. When I was working on my Ph.D. in Texas, I started writing a series of stories, and it quickly became clear that they all took place in West Virginia. Once I realized what I was already doing, I decided to keep writing about home. It made Texas an easier place to live.
How long did you work on the stories in this collection?
Oh, years. Off and on for seven years, really. I started it in 2010, completed it in 2015, and then revised it again during the last part of 2016 and the beginning of 2017.
Do you think it's fair to say that Appalachia, as a region, is often misunderstood in news, books and film? Is that changing?
I think that’s fair to say, and I’d love to say it’s changing, but the popularity of books like Hillbilly Elegy make that harder to say. It seems as though people want to believe Appalachia just needs to pull itself up by its bootstraps, that it’s the region’s fault for its problems. But, some books and films are doing good work – really changing view of the region.
At your reading at Fiction Addiction, you told the audience that a writing exercise prompted one of the stories. Which story?
“The Dollar General” began with a story in a fiction writing class during my Ph.D. I don’t even remember what the exercise was now, but I found the little girl’s voice in that story. She was so very vivid, so I went back to her after class.
Can you say a little about your experience teaching creative writing at a prison in Texas?
Teaching creative writing in prison was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I met women I’d have met nowhere else, heard stories I’ll never hear elsewhere. The women really worked hard and loved having a creative writing class. The hardest thing about leaving Texas was leaving the prison.
Now that you're a professor of creative writing at a liberal arts university, what are some ways you've found to teach the craft? For example, point of view, which is often more complex and crucial than students first realize.
I use a lot of exercises in the classroom – I want my students to practice as many different aspects of craft as possible. Only through getting them to put words on the page will students really understand how point of view or backstory or any other part of craft works. I emphasize how much we all learn through the actual writing.
You're working on a novel now. How is that different from writing stories?
At first, I thought it was different in terms of length, and it is. It definitely is, but that’s not the only difference. When I first started writing, I assumed the chapter could be thought of in terms of the story, but it can’t. At least not for me. The chapter is such a different genre, and I was on a second draft before I realized the difference. Now, I’m working on a third draft and have finally realized the role of the chapter. Of course, there are a ton of other things I’m still learning, but that just takes time.