Like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gateway to the Moon begins with a dramatis personae that lays out a family tree. The book moves through continents and five centuries of history as a troubled teenager of Spanish descent, living in modern-day New Mexico, slowly begins to piece together the mystery of his heritage. As we follow his ancestor, a Jewish man fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, on his harrowing journey to the New World, Morris wrestles with questions about history and identity, including how the traditions that define us survive and transform across time.
Mary Morris is the author of seven novels including The Jazz Palace and a winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Her short story “Mama’s Haven” appears in this month’s issue of The Atlantic. She lives in Brooklyn and spoke to me by phone.
Mary Morris: When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude, it was 1974, and I’d just made the decision to drop out of graduate school to try to become a writer. I opened the book on a gray day, lying in the loft bed in my tiny studio apartment. It was a moment when I had no one in my life—I was totally alone. It can be so lonely, living in New York. I didn’t know what my next step was going to be. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
I’d been getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Columbia, but my heart wasn’t in it. This must have been obvious. Two years previously when I went to ask Michael Riffaterre, my famous professor of French literature, for a recommendation to a fellowship I wanted, it surprised me that he told me to close the door. At first, I wasn’t sure what to think.
“What do you do besides study for graduate work?” he asked me. “Are you a writer?”
The truth was that I was writing at the time. All the time, and always in secret. He said he could just tell, from the papers and exams I’d written. The surprising thing was, he really encouraged me. He’d treated me almost like a protégé in the beginning, but there he was, almost encouraging me to take a completely different path. Which, ultimately, was what I chose.
During this period I was living in a funky dorm called International House on Riverside Drive, home to students from all over the world. It was wonderful in some ways, but it was also kind of chaotic. There was a woman across the hall from me who played really loud, annoying music, which distracted me terribly while I was trying to work. One day I knocked on her door and asked her to turn it down—and she just screamed at me, furious. In the end, I had to move to another room in a more quiet part of the building. I thought that would be the end of it.
Around then, a friend of mine, a Pakistani poet named Shuja, asked me if I would read some of my poems at a reading he was putting together. I’d never shown my work to anyone at that point. I mean, I had drawers full of stories and poems, but I never thought I could really be a writer. It was a different time for women. At best, I thought, if I had a graduate degree, then I could maybe teach courses part-time while I raised a couple kids. It didn’t occur to me that I could take the leap into really being a writer, with everything that meant.