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Interview: James Morrow on “Bird Thou Never Wert”

James MorrowWhat prompted you to write “Bird Thou Never Wert”?

The story—novelette, really—began life as a potential contribution to Ellen Datlow’s avian horror anthology, Black Feathers. But when I sat down at the computer, what came out of my brain was not a horror story at all but a fable about the uses and misuses of magic. So Ellen and I looked at each other and agreed I should let my enchanted eagle fly off on his own.


Was “Bird Thou Never Wert” personal to you in any way? If so, how?

I suppose any piece of fiction about a fiction writer is ipso facto personal for its author. But the dimension of “Bird Thou Never Wert” that means the most to me is the animal rights subtext. During the composition process, the cruelties visited upon my enchanted eagle turned the story into a quasi-parable about humanity’s pathological attitude toward the biosphere, the malignant idea that nature exists essentially for our benefit.


Can you tell us about any research you may have done for this story?

My original outline merely called for a bird whose blood and feathers (employed as ink and writing implements respectively) could turn an amateur scribbler into a master of genre fiction. At some point I decided that my eagle must be an archetype of some sort, so I looked into Hindu mythology and eventually came upon the story of Garuda and Aruna.


What aspect of this story was the most fun to write?

In the earliest drafts, the story was framed as a critical essay, written by my female protagonist, Marsha Waszynski, introducing an omnibus of horror stories by the late, legendary Darko Cromdahl. But I came to realize there was something incoherent about that conceit. What editor in his or her right mind would publish a collection prefaced by an exposé declaring the book a fraud? My fix made me happy. Marsha’s knowledge of Darko’s modus operandi is something she’s been keeping to herself, and she shares that inside dope, privately, only when circumstances force her to come forward. Hence the story’s epistolary form.


Why do you write?

I love the potential of fiction to disorient people with ideas that would otherwise never have occurred to them. If I’m thrilled and unnerved by one of my thought experiments, I figure there’s a chance the reader will have the same response.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

I’m a satirist by trade, and I would have to put Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Sheckley, and Joseph Heller at the top of the list.


What are you working on now?

In the 1980’s I did a cycle of scriptural spoofs under the rubric Bible Stories for Adults. I’ve recently rebooted the series. So far I’ve completed “The Jawbone” (an anti-NRA take on the Samson legend), “The Great Fish” (a theological phantasmagoria riffing on the Book of Jonah), and “The Twin Cities” (narrating what really went down in Sodom and Gomorrah).


“Bird Thou Never Wert” appears in the November/December 2019 issue of F&SF.

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Click on Mr. Morrow’s photo to visit his website.


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