Put a rare book in the hands of author Bradford Morrow and he will tell you about it like a sommelier discussing fine wine and handle it like a newborn kitten. Morrow has devoted his life to literature, working since his 20s in a variety of facets of the industry. After attending grad school at Yale, Morrow ran a rare bookshop in Santa Barbara, California, which he later sold in order to launch the innovative literary journal, Conjunctions.
Morrow’s seventh novel, The Forgers (Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic, November 2014) draws upon his area of expertise, telling the story of forgers in the rare book trade. Our narrator is Will, a semi-repentant and publicly shamed forger—erudite, perhaps a bit nerdy, and sly as an alley cat. His lover Meghan’s brother, a book collector named Adam Diehl, is discovered half-murdered and missing his hands. When Adam dies, his hands and killer are nowhere to be found. As Will tries to recover his reputation from his unsavory (if esoteric) past in order to build a stable home life with the grieving Meghan, he is stalked by another forger whose abilities rival his own.
Morrow is wily in his ability to tinker with genre. The reader who appreciates finer details is rewarded with a trail of narrative lacunae the size of a pinprick and an exquisite tone that is just barely, barely uneasy. Morrow knows how to lay canvas on a frame and stretch it just until the fabric is so thin, one cannot tell whether one is looking at reality or fabrication. The portrait of Will, as he tries to put his life back in order after being exposed as a highly skilled forger, is moving. Will is both an artist and an addict, and his disgrace saturates the page. The deeper thread that drives Will is the artistic urge to have a hand (ha) in beauty and history, and thus much of the novel can be read as a series of meditations on art itself.
I met with Morrow in his Greenwich Village apartment (stuffed floor to ceiling with books) to discuss The Forgers, the idiosyncratic book trade, and what a little imagination can do to alter history.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
How did you get involved in the world of rare books, which inspired The Forgers?
Growing up as I did in a household where there were very few books, I suppose I’ve spent the rest of my life overcompensating by surrounding myself with all kinds of books, from beat-up paperbacks to rare first editions. I’ve done almost everything with a book you can do, from writing them to binding, selling, editing, publishing, translating, collecting, and teaching them. All of these are facets of my lifelong love affair with books.
My first job in a used bookshop had more to do with handling reading copies of classics from every field than with rare books, although I was always intrigued by the volumes the owner kept in a glass-fronted cabinet. They possessed a kind of magic that to this day I can’t quite explain. When I went to graduate school on a fellowship to Yale, I somehow got it in my head that rather than spending my money on typical necessities like groceries, I would acquire first editions of some of the 18th century books I was reading for class. I persuaded myself that reading them in original editions might bring me closer to the text somehow. There was a very dangerous and wonderful bookstore near campus at the time called C. A. Stonehill, and so I bought a mixed edition of Tristram Shandy in the original nine volumes, three of which were signed by Sterne for copyright purposes, as well as a set of Fielding’s Tom Jones in contemporary speckled calf, six volumes. Believe it or not, these were relatively inexpensive at the time, although I did wind up moonlighting in a pretty sketchy Italian restaurant in order to pay off my book debts. After I moved on from Yale, I got a job at a rare bookshop out in California that specialized in modern first editions and that was when I really got interested in rare books. I left the shop after a while and started my own business with some borrowed money. Before I knew it I was in my mid-20s and running a pretty substantial rare book trade of modern first editions in Santa Barbara, California. After putting a lot of effort into that business for four or five years, I sold off most of my inventory and moved to New York so I could start the literary journal Conjunctions.
Have you known any forgers in your dealings?
I hope not!
There is an element of fetishism of rare books suggested in The Forgers. Is that what the rare books community is really like?
No, not always. Scholarship is one of the leading reasons people and certainly institutions collect. Still, every book collector has his or her own reason for participating in what Nicholas Basbanes calls “the gentle madness” of collecting. The collectors I find most intriguing and even endearing are those who accumulate books—books they’ve read and cherished—because it somehow completes an essential part of their life. I have a friend whose rationale for buying signed first editions of his favorite books is to be a little closer to the author—a book that the author actually laid her hand on makes the experience more tactile or vital to him. Those who collect rare books as an investment may be involved in folly because writers go in and out of favor. Back in the early part of the last century, writers like John Galsworthy, for instance, who we rarely talk about anymore, were highly collected. So collecting books is a really tricky investment. But finally, book collecting, like collecting anything, involves a lot of personal imperative, the first and foremost of which is a visceral as well as intellectual love for what is being collected.
Meghan—the narrator’s lover—is the owner of a bookshop. Were characters in The Forgers inspired by personas you know from the book trades?
This is the book I had to research the least because in a way I spent my whole adult life researching it without even knowing it. In retrospect, it seems strange that it never occurred to me before to write about this milieu. So no, none of the characters in the book are drawn from a single individual in the bookselling world, but there are definitely some composites. In Meghan, I wanted to recreate a little bit of my experience with a man I knew when I was going to college in Boulder, Colorado. Dick Schwartz, proprietor of Stage House II, was a real mentor to me. Back then I didn’t have much money, so I would just take books, carefully chosen, and pay him on time when I could. One day he said to me, “Hey Brad, do you know how much money you owe me?” And I said, “Yeah, I do.” He said, “How would you like to work some of it off? Here’s a broom, go upstairs, and do some sweeping and you’ll see there’s shelving and alphabetizing to do up there.” It was as if Dick read an invisible sign hung around my neck, Will Work for Books. I can’t tell you how happy I was to sweep and shelve and pack books for shipment. That said, I tend not to base many characters on specific people. I find it a confining rather than useful approach to character creation.
Landscape is important in your work, and many of your stories take place in bucolic settings, but much of The Forgers takes place in New York City, where you’ve lived for decades.
I’ve lived in downtown New York now since 1981, so I didn’t have to do any particular research on the East Village or Gramercy Park. Every year I attend the New York Antiquarian Book Fair at the Armory, so, again, walking around in my mind through that show with my narrator and a nemesis of his, I didn’t even have to close my eyes to imagine it. I know what it smells like. I know the lighting. I know the dealers there. I didn’t have to give it a lot of thought. It came very naturally.
Bucolic settings are more characteristic of your narratives, and some of how you handle landscape reminds me of Willa Cather’s writing. You’ve written a bit about her, and like Cather, you’re familiar with and affected by both the American Midwest and NYC.
Willa Cather and I share a love of landscape. Landscape to each of us is a kind of character. Nature is interactive and often willful in our books. To me, My Ántonia is as much about the Nebraska prairielands as the pioneers who populate it. My own novels such as The Diviner’s Tale, Ariel’s Crossing, and Trinity Fields are much more landscape-oriented than The Forgers, in part because much of the action occurs in natural environments. In The Forgers, the nature-based scenes in Ireland are invested with a quality of interactivity between people and the natural world. For instance, images of the night sky with its wheeling stars and constellations offer the narrator a kind of magisterial, eternal counterpoint to the transient, nasty machinations of those running around in the darkness terrifying him. Though some of the most violent acts in the novel occur in Ireland, there remains for me a kind of quasi-mythological aspect to the landscape there. Whereas New York scenes and those in Montauk are very tactile and “real” and have a dimensionality, scenes in Ireland verge on nightmare. Ironic, since Ireland is meant to be a safe haven where Meghan and Will are hoping to find peace.
Something that interested me about the parts of The Forgers that take place in New York is the foreboding sense of being watched or followed. I thought about how cameras are now all over lower Manhattan and how the city has been a Petri dish in a way for the privacy wars. Did this mindset impact your portrayal of the city?
I heard recently that you can walk from Battery Park to Harlem and be caught on surveillance video the entire time. It’s my understanding that more and more building owners are compelled to install cameras in foyers, elevators, and front doors for fear of lawsuits if the property isn’t outfitted with surveillance.
The Forgers begins with the line, “They never found his hands,” which is prelude, of course, to a murder. I was thinking, If you wanted to deprive a forger from pursuing his questionable art, what would hurt him the most? Taking away his pens, inks, papers? He could find more of those. No, the answer is his hands. Like a concert pianist, it requires years of practice and great skill to be a master forger. So when accounting for that murder (about which I wouldn’t want to go into details for obvious reasons) I had to think about those nosy cameras, too. There weren’t quite as many of them in New York around the time The Forgers is set as there are now, but the murderer still had to find a way to get around being seen. Comes with the territory, if you want to avoid capture.
The characters in the book who are forging are also sort of classic examples of New York paranoids. But we’re living in a world now in which everyone is paranoid.
The forgers in the book, Henry Slader and Will, and perhaps Adam as well, have all earned their paranoia. They would be crazy not to be paranoid. What’s that line by Delmore Schwartz? “Even paranoiacs have real enemies”? Even though Will’s past has caught up with him, so to say, and he makes an effort to reform, he must look over his shoulder, as the past is a hard thing to shake. A phrase by another author, William Faulkner, comes to mind—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In The Forgers, that concept is very much in play in a host of different ways. For one, the whole notion of forgery involves messing with the integrity of the past, changing the past by creating ideas and objects that are supposedly a part of the past but in fact didn’t exist before. And in a world where the reliability of the so-called objective past is put in question, paranoia about what’s real and what isn’t becomes central to how life and “reality” is viewed. So, yes. Paranoia and the terror of not being in control of one’s fate are very much a part of this narrative. There’s even a section that opens with the line “Dying is a dangerous business,” followed by a brief meditation on how, when you are dead, you lose control of how people perceive who you were and what you did. Death is open season on you, in other words. That’s classic paranoia at full throttle, I think.
You are sometimes labeled a mystery writer, but what especially delights me in the revelation of a mystery in your works is that you are a writer who will reward the detail-oriented reader. For example, you only name your narrator once.
I don’t really think of myself as a mystery writer, as such, and tend not to play by the traditional rules of mystery or crime fiction. I’ve always been considered a literary writer, whatever that means, but have in recent years gotten very interested in working with genre, which I consider a profoundly rich form of literature. Having said that, I do very much adore detail, and it’s just in my nature to bring my narratives to life with as much nuance and meaningful detail as I possibly can.
As for Will, he does not like his name. I was halfway through writing the book before realizing he hadn’t given his name. It didn’t take much deliberation to figure out why he didn’t, but I wanted him to offer it up, if grudgingly, just once. I thought Will was appropriate because he’s willful. Also, there’s a famous 19th-century forger named William Ireland—one of my all-time favorite forgers—who created Shakespeare (another Will) letters to give to his father. Ireland’s father was a Shakespeare scholar and collector, and since there are only a handful of bona fide Shakespeare signatures, young Will Ireland saw an opening to create some ersatz manuscripts to enhance his dad’s collection and thus please his father. He got away with it for quite a while. Some great forgers such as Ireland and Thomas Chatterton are actually collected in their own right.
Will, the narrator, is reliable, but as the novel progresses, the tension that develops is a did-he-or-didn’t-he-do-it thing. Of course, he’s also among other forgers who are just as suspect.
Well, the reliability or unreliability of the narrator is very similar to forging. It all has to do with imagination and making things up. If you’re good at it, you can get away with it. There’s a line in another of my books, “It takes a lot of truth to tell a lie.” If you stop and think about it, for a lie to work, it has to be mostly truth because if it’s just a pure fabrication, nobody’s going to believe that lie. But if you frame the lie in truth, people will be inclined to believe. So when people in this novel are forging, masters that they are, they know it’s imperative that their forgeries are grounded in truth. For example, to properly forge Conan Doyle papers, as we see in the novel, the forger would have to have done extensive biographical research and have an empathic knowledge of how the author’s mind worked. He would have to really know the period, work with materials that are as close as possible to the period. Nibs, ink mixtures, everything has to sing authenticity.
Forgery is also in a way an act of betrayal, and betrayal is also a theme of this book.
I think that when my characters, and especially in Will’s case, are making forgeries, they honestly believe they’re bettering the world. We on the outside may consider this a rather insane thought, but if you can forge an interesting document well enough, add something intriguing to the history of literature, for instance, can make something great out of the ether, then it’s not impossible to delude yourself into thinking this is a good thing. It is, I guess, an elaborate form of self-betrayal to think like that.
But betrayal has a role in almost all novels. Betrayal—in politics, in love, in business, you name it—is one of those things that humans unfortunately do. It’s an activity that sparks a crisis, which in turn can often be central to an interesting narrative. I think in The Forgers, Will in particular has the capacity to believe that he’s not doing it for the money and that he’s just doing it because he needs to. Much as I am fond of him, I’m fully aware he’s a deceiver. He’s also a writer who creates narratives that didn’t exist before. He loves going back in time and mucking with it. He adores laying claim to literary history, to biography, and bending it to his will. And if you can bend history perfectly enough, the original historical fact becomes wrinkled, complicated.
I’ve always been interested in memory and how memory is a function of an original perception that has been shaded by desire—the desire to reshape the moment that was just lived into something more palatable and fulfilling. I don’t want to play his analyst, but I do think a lot of the forgeries Will makes are, in a way, in (admittedly twisted) honor of his mother because she was a great calligrapher, his teacher and inspiration.
Will says at one point, “History is subjective. History is alterable. History is finally little more than modeling clay in a very warm room.” We know that Will’s character is morally shaky, but I found this train of thought about history insightful.
The Western world’s very first historian, Herodotus, is called The Father of Lies. Why? Because he was really a writer of historical fictions as much as anything. Where he couldn’t verify, or if he needed to fill in lacunae in an account of some war, say, in North Africa, he simply made things up and approximated. Objective, verifiable fact is, in the everyday world, as rare as hen’s teeth (maybe rarer, since there might be a genetically altered hen out there somewhere with incisors and molars, who knows?). Once people armed with imagination and predisposition witness anything, it morphs. I’m not saying we’re all delusional, by the way, but we are to some degree creatures of approximation, certainly when it comes to emotions. So yeah, to be sure, one of the themes of this book is to look at the idea of what is real and what is illusion, what is authentic and what is a fabrication meant to trick the eye into believing it is authentic.
Which implies something intrepid about art. The Forgers is asking, in a way, what is the role of imagination in the world?
Imagination is what we use to get through the day. It funds and nourishes us. Even when we’re asleep, imagination is firing up our dreams. Imagination is the prime mover of any individual’s life. You can imagine that there is a god you will worship that is your main reason for living and breathing. You can imagine that there is no god and you’re not going to have anything to do with such a crazy idea, and you’re going to imagine a way to be ethical without having to follow an ancient rulebook. And what I find fascinating is that you can imagine yourself as being very, very innocent and a very good person, and you’re not. There are a multitude of things that shape an individual life, but imagination has to be at that top of that chain.
Protagonists in your books tend to behave badly in order to protect something beautiful or special or good. Will, for example, rationalizes making forgeries in a variety of ways, one of which is convincing himself that he does it in order to create a good life with Meghan—and their life together is indeed kind of lovely. I thought in a weird way that might be what art does—keeps things that are beautiful and precious and strange, and protects them for us, but sometimes at a price.
And enlivens them, because most artists I know, not just writers, work in order to share with others, the ultimate purpose being to offer a gift to someone else, probably someone you won’t ever meet, so they can share in your experience, dreams, ideas, vision, life. I’m not the kind of writer who is particularly interested in drawing the reader into embracing any philosophy or worldview but I do like the simple idea of building something as best I can, and sharing it with those who might want to commune.
If you’re a fiction writer, you’re making things up, but it’s also important to be absolutely truthful, as honest as you can be, sentence by sentence, and every word has to be the truthful word. You have to create a mathematics of truth that constitutes a book and it has to answer to itself or else it’s not going to add up. I don’t like fiction that smells like fiction. There’s a certain stench. I love fiction that makes me feel I’m truly experiencing a fact. Obviously, I’m not wedded to only realist fiction or historical fiction. I love Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, but that book is just golden in terms of the truth page by page.
Does this relate to your more recent tendency to write in the mystery genre?
When you think about it, everything is steeped in mystery. Many novels are crime novels in the sense that they explore the human capacity for subversive behavior, harmful behavior that goes full-bore against the grain of societal mores. A lot of fiction investigates subtle criminalities that occur in everyday life. Not necessarily robbing a bank or shooting a bodega clerk, but the moral equivalent of such rotten, even evil behavior, is often at play in the narrative arc of much fiction. Nursery rhymes, fables, and fairy tales often portray some of the most diabolical, violent, and deplorable acts humanity is capable of. London Bridge is forever falling down and don’t try to put Humpty Dumpty back together again, for he’s a lost cause!
As for your own process, it sounds as if you tend to write quickly?
Sometimes I write very slowly. But The Forgers was white heat fast, written in a matter of months. Otto Penzler, my editor, runs Mysterious Press, and he has a wonderful series called Bibliomysteries, for which he asked me to write a short story. That’s when I got that opening line about the hands, and I asked Otto if I could write about forgers. He said, “Absolutely, just so long as there are books and there’s a murder.” Those two elements are the premise. I started with a short story last year in the spring, some pages and notes. It shot way past the 50 pages. When I finally gave it to him, I gave him 86 pages, but I had already moved on past 120 pages. I said, “This isn’t all,” and I showed him the rest, and he asked me if I could get all of it to him by the end of the year. Every day I got up and couldn’t wait to get back into the forger world, so it was done ahead of schedule. When I handed in the novel, I turned around the next day and wrote another bibliomystery called The Nature of My Inheritance, as a way of fulfilling my original promise to Otto. That one came out this past summer.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on a book for many years now that I am finally finishing. It’s called The Prague Sonata, and is a novel in which the holograph manuscript of the second movement of an unattributed, magnificent piano sonata from the late eighteenth century surfaces in New York. Its owner, Irena, is a Czech immigrant dying of cancer who passes it into the care of a young musicologist, Meta Taverner, after telling the hair-raising story of how it came to be in her hands. In 1939, when the Nazis came to Prague to establish “the protectorate,” this manuscript, which had been inherited by a woman named Otylie after World War I, was deliberately broken up in three parts to save it from Reich confiscation. Oytlie gave one movement to her husband, who perished into the underground, another to her best friend Irena, and she kept one part for herself. In short, Meta’s quest to locate the missing movements of the sonata takes her to Prague, London, and elsewhere. It’s a novel that has involved doing research in places as far apart geographically and culturally as the Czech Republic and the hinterlands of Nebraska, not to mention endless reading and consultation with experts about Beethoven and other composers from Mozart and Haydn forward. I hope to have it completed by year’s end.