Former Cary resident Michael Morris returns to the Triangle with his new novel, “Man In the Blue Moon,” (Tyndale) inspired by a true story his great-grandfather told of a distant cousin being shipped in a crate.
The man had been exonerated for the murder of his wife by the courts but not by her relatives. For Morris’ purposes, it offered great ingredients for his latest story, set in Florida in 1918. Ella Wallace is trying to raise three sons when a ruthless banker tries to take her land away. She finds an ally when a man claiming to be a relative of her husband, who has abandoned her, arrives in a box.
Morris is a Florida native but lived in Cary from 1994 to 2003, while working in public policy and government affairs for GlaxoSmithKline in RTP. He was happy to answer a few questions about his third novel as he makes his way to North Carolina for readings.
Q: What can we learn from the Wallace family that is useful today?
A: Even though ‘Man in the Blue Moon’ takes place nearly a hundred years ago, some of the societal implications are true today: financial struggle, fighting to keep the payments on a home and intolerance. Ella and her sons are on the verge of financial collapse and are fearful that they will lose their store and home to the bank. They don’t let their fears paralyze them. They keep going in hopes that tomorrow will get better. They also become innovative in seeking ways to pay their bills – and I think we are seeing many people doing the very same thing today – with second jobs and side businesses.
Q: Is Ella based on any strong women in your life?
A: My mom and I fled an abusive household with my biological father and through the years I have watched her grow and become stronger. My wife now says she can’t imagine any man assaulting her because the woman she now knows would take him down to his knees. But that has been a progression, as we all progress and change. So I think there are some of those characteristics in Ella. My wife, Melanie, is also an artist, as is Ella in the novel. For me, Ella is a balance between strength and artistic sensitivity.
Q: What qualities did Harlan Wallace have which would make a smart woman like Ella choose him over a career and travel to Paris?
A: Ella struggles with fear, and I believe fear has held her back. When she confronts losing everything to the bank, she has to confront a lifetime of fear head on. Harlan presented Ella what she thought would be security and plus he is a con-man, so as a younger woman, she is taken in by his charms. Her aunt tells her, “He’s a con-artist at best and a gambler at worst.” Of course, he proves to be both of those things. Also I think it’s important to recognize that this novel takes place at the turn of the century, and women did not even have the right to vote yet in this novel. Their choices were limited. I purposely set the novel in 1918 because there were so many dramatic elements brewing in our country: the end of World War I, the Spanish flu epidemic and the woman’s suffrage movement – which is growing just as Ella herself is growing and becoming more independent.
Q: Did living in North Carolina influence your writing in any way?
A: I didn’t start writing until I moved to North Carolina. I had been introduced to the work of some of the North Carolina writers, Lee Smith chief among them. Back when I was living in Florida I had heard her read on “The Bob Edwards Show” and I was mesmerized by the story. I went out and bought her collection of short stories, “Me and My Baby View The Eclipse” and I’ve read everything that she had written. So when I learned that I was being promoted and moving to GlaxoSmithKline’s home office, literally my first thought was wow … I’ll now get to meet Lee Smith. I became one of those literary stalkers who sits on the front row at the events and lets others go ahead of him in line so that he can monopolize all of the time with the author … I cringe to think about it now, but Lee is so gracious and every time I met her I would tell her about “The Bob Edwards Show” story. I started writing my first novel, “A Place Called Wiregrass,” while taking an evening creative writing class with the late Tim McLaurin. Tim and Lee were early readers of the novel and gave me blurbs before I even had a publisher. The writers in North Carolina are so generous. I miss living there.