April 7, 1996

Following Their Literary Muses

In This Article
  • Rosanne Cash
  • Bill Morrissey


    The cyber-lords would have us believe that the printed word, if not dying, is hobbling toward retirement and needs its medication three times a day. Well, Rosanne Cash and Bill Morrissey disagree. When the two critically acclaimed singer-songwriters sought new creative challenges, they didn't build a Web page or go CD-ROM. Instead, they set down their guitars, shut their mouths and wrote serious books of fiction. How square.

    "Some of us have to be standard-bearers for fiction, that hopelessly old-fashioned form whose rhythm is so different from all the electronic media." says Ms. Cash, a Grammy winner whose first book of short stories, "Bodies of Water," published by Hyperion, is just out.

    We're talking real fiction here. No ghosts in the word processor, no manuscript surgeons at the publishing house. "Bodies of Water" and Mr. Morrissey's novel, "Edson," from Alfred A. Knopf, are far removed from the recent Joan Collins-Random House tango. Their renown as singer-songwriters may have helped them get book contracts from New York publishers. But their works aren't part of the current epidemic of pseudo-books by celebrities and near-celebrities.

    They are, though, part of what may be a tradition of singers and songwriters writing fiction. In recent years, Jimmy Buffett gave readers his tales from Margaritaville, while Kinky Friedman spun out light mysteries. The punk rocker Richard Hell has a first novel, "Go Now," due out in June.

    Rosanne Cash

    An excerpt from the short story "We Are Born" from "Bodies of Water" by Ms. Cash

    "My grandmother is inside the house behind me, baking Scripture cake, which uses only ingredients found in the Bible. The ingredients themselves are listed in her recipe by citation to each relevant chapter and verse, so someone less knowledgeable and virtuous than my grandmother would have to get out her Bible and look them all up. My Grandma, however, knows them all by heart."

    Ms. Cash was born in Memphis and became a star in Nashville (11 No. 1 singles and a Grammy award), but as she bustles into a Greenwich Village tearoom, a funky hat jammed on her head, black coat billowing, it's clear she has become a New Yorker. In the two albums, "Interiors" (1990) and "The Wheel" (1993), Ms. Cash, who is 40, turned her back on Nashville. And "Bodies of Water" represents another step away from being a country music star. Her sensibility today is more The New Yorker than Country Music Weekly.

    "I love writing short stories," says Ms. Cash, who lives in Greenwich Village with her husband and three daughters. "I love the rhythm to them. You're not limited by three minutes and a rhyme scheme."

    "Bodies of Water," told in a strong, confessional voice, is a book about women and girls and the warp and woof of their daily lives. These stories take place in Manhattan, Paris and, most important, inside the characters' heads. It's clear that the songwriter of "Interiors" is the writer of "Bodies of Water."

    "The themes are drawn from my experiences," Ms. Cash says, "but they are not from the pages of a diary. They are about and from a woman's inner life, and they are about how that inner life is formed."

    Still, Ms. Cash says she needed to be careful while writing the stories. "You can use emotions to carry a song," she says, "but you can't do that with a story period. You need to use craft."

    Publishers Weekly calls "Bodies of Water" an "impressive collection," while Booklist says Ms. Cash's "talent as a lyricist translates beautifully into short fiction."

    Nice, but New York publishers these days aren't falling over each other to publish short-story collections. The one thing Ms. Cash's fame probably did was elevate her from a university press or small literary publisher to Hyperion.

    And Ms. Cash's celebrity did get her a trip last year to the American Booksellers Association convention in Chicago, where she sang. But Ms. Cash's singing career aside, her editor, Rick Kot, says, "I had the same kind of dialogue with her that I have with any writer."

    Not that Ms. Cash has turned her back on music. For starters, she has a new album, "10 Song Demo."

    "The album and the book kind of speak to each other," Ms. Cash says. "Certain images pop up in each of them. In the book, there's a section called 'Roses and Bells,' and on the album there's a song called 'Bells and Roses.' "

    In both the song and the story, bells and roses offer a promise of redemption to women who are trying to sort out their lives. Ms. Cash adds that another song from the album, "The Summer I Read Collette," about a woman finding solace and inspiration in the French writer Colette, turned into the story "Part Girl," about a high school teacher at loose ends in Paris.

    But it is fiction that seems to matter most to her now. "I think I always wanted to be a writer," Ms. Cash says. "And with some of these stories, I felt like I finished something in my life that was unfinished. It was like picking up a piece of knitting that wasn't done."

    Bill Morrissey

    An excerpt from "Edson" by Mr. Morrissey

    "The first snowstorm of the year snuck into New Hampshire as a light dusting that blew itself off the road as soon as it touched down, as if apologizing for the inconvenience. But no one was fooled. People hurried about their business, eyeing the clouds as they loaded the last of the cordwood into garages and cellars, finished weather-stripping the windows, inspected snow blowers and told themselves they might be able to coax one more season out of them. At dusk the wind died down and the wisps of snow gave way to fat white flakes. The leaves still on the hardwood trees and the needles on the evergreens trapped the snow until the weight forced the branches to point to the ground. The season had suddenly changed."

    Wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, Mr. Morrissey, 44, is talking about his first novel between songs at the Turning Point, a club in Piermont, N.Y., close by the Tappan Zee Bridge.

    Describing "Edson," which will be published later this month, Mr. Morrissey is a little shy and a little proud, like a rookie who has just hit his first game-winning homer. "The word gray is used a lot," he says to the audience in a voice full of salt, gravel and humor. "And bourbon. Bourbon is used heavily. I think you should buy it, but wait until February to read it."

    The audience laughs; Mr. Morrissey smiles and eases into his next song.

    His songs stand out for their detail -- he is considered one of the best singer-songwriters working today -- and those strengths are apparent in his first novel. "Edson" is a carefully observed novel of small-town New Hampshire and focuses on a lapsed folk singer whose life, like his pickup truck, keeps stalling.

    The novel in many ways, echoes one of Mr. Morrissey's signature songs, "Small Town on the River," an elegy for a dying mill town.

    "I originally thought of 'Edson' as a song, but it evolved into a novel," says Mr. Morrissey, who also has a new album, "You'll Never Get to Heaven." "But writing the book was the difference between running the mile and running the marathon."

    It took him 18 months to write the novel but just six weeks to write the songs for "Heaven." "I've been writing songs for 25 years," he says, "and it's more instinctive. There was more trial and error with the novel. I recorded one song that was less than a week old. You can't do that with fiction. I started rewriting the book the day after I sent it in."

    Gary Fisketjon, Mr. Morrissey's editor at Knopf who also edits Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford and Andre Dubus, isn't surprised that Mr. Morrissey turned to fiction. "Not only did the songs tell a story of a sort," says Mr. Fisketjon, who discovered Mr. Morrissey's music in the mid-1980's, "but the language was precise, and he had great images and word choice."

    Mr. Morrissey wrote most of the book while on the road, in motel rooms and in the back of the bus. "The hardest part was trying to keep a perspective," he says. "I didn't know where the novel was going. Reading and listening are different. Rhythm and rhyme hold a song together. But I do hear the same interior voice when I am writing songs and fiction. I think people are more forgiving of songs. You can slide an easy rhyme by them, not that I would do that" -- he laughs -- "but fiction, fiction is pretty naked."

    Their books and albums ready, Ms. Cash and Mr. Morrissey will hit the road. She will only be reading, but he will travel with a band for three months. When Ms. Cash ends her tour, she will return home to work on a children's book, a study of creativity and a novel. Mr. Morrissey will work on his second novel as he travels.

    Still, that first book can be a little confusing for a singer-songwriter.

    "I have six readings coming up," Mr. Morrissey says, "and I'm not quite sure what to do. I'm thinking of setting the first chapter to music, but it doesn't rhyme."

    Dana Andrew Jennings's latest novel, "Lonesome Standard Time," which was published last month, is about the influence of roots music.

  • Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company