When I was her student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the novelist Marilynne Robinson told our class it was almost unthinkable for women of her generation to become writers. Society afforded women with an extremely limited range of opportunity: You could be a teacher, nurse, or homemaker, she said, and that was about it. Other paths—especially professionalized, artistic ones—were possible, but extremely hard-won.
That was the challenge facing Mary Morris, author of Gateway to the Moon, after she dropped out of grad school in the 1970s. For years, she’d worked in secret, living a kind of creative double life—writing constantly, but never sure she was really a writer. No one ever told her how the verb might earn the noun.
Fortunately, the right book found its way to her at just the right time. In a conversation for this series, Morris explained how Gabriel García Márquez’s classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude renewed her commitment to her art during a dark, doubt-ridden period of her life. The book’s opening line provided license to explore themes that would come to fascinate Morris throughout her career: childhood, family, and the power of tradition and memory, the way the past continues to haunt the present in moments that echo and return.
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.
But of course I agreed. And when I stepped up to read the night of the event, sitting right in the front row, was my nemesis—the woman who’d screamed at me when I asked her to turn her music down. I could read these poems in front of anyone, I thought, but I couldn’t bear to read them in front of her. Somehow, completely terrified, I made it through the reading. The amazing thing was that, afterwards, she came up to me and said, “If I had known you were writing those poems, I would have kept my music down.”
She told me I needed to start sending my work out into the world, that I should be submitting to literary magazines. That was the beginning for me. I sent some poems to The Columbia Review, and they published them. With that experience, I could no longer pretend otherwise: This is what I wanted to do. After a couple years in graduate school, listening to people talk about literary isotopes—I still don’t know what those are—I just decided it wasn’t right for me. I didn’t know what was right for me, but I knew my graduate work wasn’t it. You know the joke about how birds don’t need ornithologists? I was pretending to being the ornithologist when I wanted to be the bird.
So I dropped out. I had no plan. I left the dorm and moved into a studio apartment. I had a little adjunct teaching job, and I started writing. My parents didn’t really understand what I was doing, or why I couldn’t do the same thing back in Chicago. Nothing seemed to be working out. Even my cat ignored me. I’d found a cat in the street and I adopted it, and it turned out to be the meanest cat. One night the cat escaped on to the roof and the animal control had to come and rescue it. The officer, after he captured the cat, offered me a prayer card because he thought I “needed it.” This was definitely not a good time in my life.
But then, one day—I can’t remember why—I started to read One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was a first edition in English, a beautiful hardcover. It was raining, a totally gray day, as I lay with the book in my loft bed. And as I began to read, it was like seeing color again. The grayness went away. Even today, I was looking at the opening words again and I felt that sense of dimensionality and color and richness and aliveness: life.
It started with this incredible first sentence: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
I had to stop and read that line over and over again. I’d never read a sentence like that one before, one that seemed to encompass an entire world. I’ve always loved traveling and travel writing and that moment when your passport gets stamped. When I read the first line of this novel, I felt like I’d just had my passport stamped. I’d walked into a completely different world, one beyond what I’d ever seen or imagined or knew was possible.
How does Márquez achieve the magic of this opening sentence? First, there’s the fact that the character is facing a firing squad—so there’s this threat of imminent death from the very first moment. You have the immediate sense of a dangerous political world, a place fraught with peril. And yet that darkness is juxtaposed against a sense of wonder, thanks to the detail that makes the whole thing so enchanting and unusual: the memory of a childhood journey, one day spent going to “discover ice.” We all know what ice is; it’s utterly familiar. So the sentence leaves you with this question: In what kind of landscape would ice seem like a magical element, something with almost supernatural power? Of course, in much of Latin America at that time, ice was hard to come by, perhaps even exotic. It’s a reminder that Márquez himself always said he did not write “magical” realism, insisting that everything he wrote he had somehow experienced. In that one detail you have that mix of ordinary and extraordinary that is so associated with this writer.
Then there’s the surprising fact that, at this very difficult moment in his life, this mature character is remembering what it was like to be with his father, and how one “distant afternoon” transformed his life. I found it magnificent, Márquez’s sense that the past remains intimately available to us, just beyond the border of the present. My life, too, was filled with memory at that time. I was far from home, and had been thinking about memories of my own family, the things I’d done with my parents when I was young—like how, when I was very small, my father bundled me in a blanket, put me in the car, and drove us off to a farmer’s field where he held me on the hood as we watched a gorgeous fiery sunset. Somehow this opening in Márquez gave me permission to dig into my own memories, those luminous moments of childhood. With One Hundred Years of Solitude and its generation-spanning cast of characters, I finally saw how I might attempt to embrace the personal history I knew while engaging a bigger, more expansive vision.
This must have been the first book I ever read with a genealogy chart in the beginning. I remember being struck by the realization that you really could encompass multiple generations, years of lineage and ancestry, in a single book. It was Márquez who gave me the permission to try that, in novels I’d attempt much later. When I started to write Gateway to the Moon, I felt daunted by the challenge of writing about people who lived 500 years ago, people who lived through the Inquisition. One Hundred Years of Solitude reminded me that I could attempt such a story—it would just require imaging these characters in all their struggle and disappointment and feeling. And one way to capture that humanity, I think, was by looking for moments like the ones that open the book, the archetypal moments a character returns to, again and again, throughout their life.
When my dad turned 80, I called to wish him a happy birthday and was surprised that he started crying. He told me that he’d had a dream the night before about something that had happened when he was 4 years old, something he hadn’t remembered until he’d dreamt it last night. He was stunned by the way he could recover a memory that had long been lost, and do it so completely. “My whole life lives inside of me,” he said. Reading the opening of One Hundred Years of Solitude reminds me to believe in that feeling, that your whole life remains inside of you always, waiting for you to find a way to tap into it.
The afternoon I discovered this sentence—the way Colonel Aureliano Buendía recalled his discovery of ice—is one of those moments for me, the kind that comes back when you’re facing the firing squad. I did feel like I was facing a kind of firing squad, at the time, even if the stakes were not literally life or death, and even if some of my troubles were of my own making. But it has become a kind of refrain for me, the moment I lay in bed alone on a gray day years ago, totally unsure where I was going with my life. I return to how it felt to open a book and be transported. How it felt as a world of new possibilities opened up, alive and in full color.