Our village is built on a great fish—Ceta—so sizeable we have room for nineteen huts, built with the bones we find floating on the sea. Osa always thought it more precarious than it is—we have the huts lashed down with great belts of kelp, for those rare moments when the seas get aggressive. Our huts are grouped in two rows, facing each other across the bony length of Ceta’s spine, extending from her dorsal fin to her blowhole. My hut is closest to the blowhole, so I can monitor it, keep it free of debris- fish lice like to force their way into those warm, wet recesses. And even a small child, crawling loose and free, is liable to fall in, become wedged in the delicate tracheal membranes, suffocating our gentle Ceta. Who knows what she would do in such a situation? Thrash and flail the sea, flinging our meager posts and provisions miles across the deep? Perhaps, but Ceta is the gentlest of beasts, and also the wisest—she would see the futility in such aggression, knowing with a beast’s instinctual wisdom that there’s no cure for calamity once it has lodged itself inside. No, I imagine her simply sinking calmly into the sea, giving her flukes one last flip as if in apology, or farewell. Either way that would be the end of us.

David Lawrence Morse

David Lawrence Morse teaches writing and literature at the University of Michigan. He is currently working on a novel about a rice farmer in coastal Georgia, as well as a collection of stories. “Conceived” is his first published short story.

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
DM: About ten years ago I studied in Russia for a time and saw in one of the museums there—possibly a folk art exhibit—a wooden scultpure of a village on top of a fish. I hadn’t thought about it in years, then suddenly one day it returned to me, who knows why.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
DM: The beginning is always the hardest part of any story for me—finding the right combination of setting, voice, point of view, characters, and conflict, that will propel the story forward. I usually begin a dozen times or more before I find the right combination—and with some stories I never find it. But if I can find that combination, the rest is inevitable. Once all the gears of the engine are in place, working properly, it drives itself. Also the dialogue (which is why there’s so little of it). Idiomatic phrases and colloquialisms felt out of place, but the other extreme did as well—the kind of stilted, faux-formal stuff of bad Hollywood historical epic. In the end the difficulty just gave me an excuse to rely more on narrative, which I prefer to scenes anyway.
HT: Did you picture this world as one of the future, or of the past?
DM: I’ve tended to look at it as something like an origin myth—a story about beginnings. But whether this beginning comes before or after our own time on this earth, I can’t say I really know. Though it’s true evolution was also an interest—historical or otherwise—for me the interesting question is whether we have the ability to be agents in our own evolution. I guess ultimately I imagined the story being out of place and time, which makes it easier to strip life down to its essentials—the hope for life and the threat of death.
HT: How did you develop Ceta as a character? Were you inspired at all by that other great whale of the sea—Moby Dick?
DM: Yes, Moby Dick, the novel, rather than the whale itself, was probably an influence—those lengthy, loving passages in which every aspect of the whale is detailed: the meticulous articulation of the phenomenon of awe. Other whale role models? I’ve always admired the one that had the misfortune of swallowing Jonah. That story gave me courage—if a fellow can live inside a fish for a few days, then maybe he can live on top of one as well. But as bizarre as the Jonah story is, there is something fundamentally compelling, even haunting, about it—that big fish is essentially a giant floating womb. So I guess the element of the maternal was important to me in the portrayal of the great fish, the mutual care exchanged between parent and child, and the mutual risks that such exchanges entail.
HT: What drew you to write about the ocean? Do you have any boating experience?
DM: Melville asks that same question—what draws us to the sea—in the opening pages of Moby Dick, and his answer, which sounds better than anything I can come up with, is that we see in bodies of water the image of the “ungraspable phantom of life.” I’m actually fairly terrified of the sea, though I don’t mind looking at it from a safe distance, that is, from the chair of my desk.
HT: The arrival of the bird is reminiscent of Noah’s Ark. Was this conscious on your part? And did you intend it to symbolize hope? Or was it a messenger?
DM: Well, it was conscious insomuch as, once the bird was on the page, I thought, hmm, sounds like the Noah story. But the critical thing, at least for me, is that symbols or images can’t be conscious while you’re composing, or else it comes across forced, simple allegory at best, literary pretension at worst. I used to set out to write stories that were retellings of one old story or another—Adam and Eve, say, or Pygmalion—but the results were always awful. But on the other hand I grew up with the stories from Genesis—which is something I’m grateful for—and I suppose I’ll always be wrestling with them at the subconscious or conscious level. So it doesn’t surprise me when parallels like that pop up. But nailing down what the bird means is tricky. Hope probably has something to do with it, more specifically, the human mind, and what it’s capable of creating. Initially, though, I just enjoyed the dramatic irony of the moment: the village’s fascination with something that to the reader is commonplace. That’s what writers try to do—show us the typical in an atypical light.
HT: Can you talk about the difficulties faced in creating this alternative reality? How do you make the reader suspend their disbelief?
DM: Writing this story was easier for me than writing a story set in, say, a fast-food restaurant (which is an alternative reality if there ever was one). I think all stories create alternative realities. The world of Proust or Melville is not wholly recognizable and never was, though each may at times look very similar to the world as it exists. Writers create worlds of their own making, and the exterior landscape reflects or resembles the inner landscape of the characters, which is to say, that of the author. So the difficulties I encountered in making this reality convincing are the same that any writer of fiction faces—fill the pages with meaningful details, establish an authoritative tone. But that’s not altogether accurate—there is a difference between Kafka and Proust, and one difference might be that Kafka begins in alien territory and moves toward the more familiar, while Proust is the opposite: you begin with the supposedly familiar and gradually realize this world is operating in ways difficult to understand. Kafka doesn’t waste any time; he makes the alien immediately apparent. So I tried to do the same: establish very clearly the nature of this world, how it operates. It’s an agreement you make with the reader—allow me these indulgences so I can say what I need to say. But as soon as you break those rules, the system becomes arbitrary, trust is lost, the illusion is broken.
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
DM: A couple of weeks, writing obsessively. Months later, I made a few revisions, fleshing out the sister, elaborating on the motivations of the primary characters, drawing out the ending.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
DM: I’ve gotten plenty of great advice, from friends and teachers, but I find the bad advice comes less frequently and is thus more interesting. I read a quote once from a Nobel Prize winner who advised his father—also a writer—to write one short story a week, to finish each story as quickly as possible. At the end of the year, he said, you’ll have 40 stories, then you can choose 16 and revise them for publication. This sounded like a wonderful proposition to me. 40 stories! What a disaster. Working at that speed, it was impossible to pay attention to the language, and what kind of writer is happy ignoring language? Maybe there’s an analogy here with cooking—at the end of the day, you could have made 40 quarter-pounders, or one really good meal. You can’t at the end of the day add some lemon and coriander and make the quarter-pounder into beef bourgeoisie.
HT: What are you working on now?
DM: A few things. More stories in this vein; a novel in a different vein altogether, which is where I’ve dedicated most of my time in the last year. I’m also collaborating on a couple of projects: a screenplay, set in a similar time-place as “Conceived” (though hopefully, from a logistical point of view, somewhat easier to film). And, in collaboration with the Takacs Quartet, a play for voices based on the letters to and from Beethoven.