Mary Morris is the author of the new novel The Jazz Palace. Her many other books include The River Queen, House Arrest, and Nothing to Declare. She teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. She was raised in Chicago and lives in Brooklyn.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Jazz Palace?
A: In 1997 I had all these stories in my head. One story was long and complicated, about how I came to acquire my bed. It has to do with my father and my family history. I decided to write a memoir called Story of My Bed [but was told], “This is not a story, it’s a saga!” This is the impetus for The Jazz Palace.
My father had a half-sister, but didn’t know about the half-sister. I thought, “I want to tell this story.” I learned more about my great-grandmother Anna who raised 22 children and had a saloon. I was interested in family stories, but had nowhere to go.
I started to work with the material, and it went from a 17-page essay to an 850-page novel. It began with the sinking of the Eastland and the original version went to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
After rendering the book down like soup, it got smaller and smaller and became [what it is today]. I loved the 850-page novel, and so did my agent, but we couldn’t sell it. I spent 17 years on it. It was rejected many times. Every time I got a rejection, I printed it out and kept it in a folder, and looked to see what the editors were saying: Too many characters. It was rendered to the sisters, Napoleon, and Benny.
Q: Will you turn the other material into more novels?
A: I have a friend who loves this book and is begging me to go back to the pages from 1933-1968, and look at what happened to Benny, Pearl, and Napoleon, and the changing world of music. I’ve looked at it recently, and was thinking maybe everyone was right, and the book shouldn’t have gone on as far, but part of me thinks a sequel is there. The thing about the novel is that it flattened out into a domestic, suburban story, less jazzy. It’s been a journey!
Q: How did you research all the details in the book?
A: I have a giant bin of books. I read 50 books. My dad was born in 1902 and lived to 2005, and he was full of stories. He told me about his young manhood, and how he would hang out in clubs. He was not Benny, but had elements of him. He experienced the whole 20th century, and told me many stories about that period in time, the clubs…he was a snappy dresser, and was very charming.
I spent a lot of time at the Chicago Historical Society, and with the cultural historian for the City of Chicago, who would drive me around…I also took piano lessons for four years.
Q: Your novel includes fictional characters and actual historic figures. What did you see as the right blend of the two?
A: Once I realized the book didn’t go to 1968 but ended in 1933, I started focusing a lot more on the historical figures. I read some biographies of [Al] Capone and [Louis] Armstrong. I was fascinated with their stories. They came to life for me on the page, and I tried to balance it out. By the time I got to this phase with the book, it wasn’t like I ran out of steam, but you reach a point as a writer when you can’t imagine anything more. I’ve learned to trust my imagination…
Q: What’s the legacy for Chicago today from this period?
A: One reason Chicago embraced this novel is that there’s no legacy. Everything is gone. None of the clubs exist. The Regal Theater exists. There is a Museum of Black Culture. There are a few things, but it’s just not there.
When I’ve spoken in Chicago…people are surprised; they’re not even aware of the [demographics] in Chicago and how the sharp divide between black and white happened. The sad thing is that when you go to the South Side of Chicago, it’s just projects and poverty and disenfranchisement.
Q: As someone who’s written fiction and nonfiction, do you have a preference?
A: I love fiction. I love to tell stories. Telling a story—to me, that’s my life. I live for telling stories and hearing them. I think I will probably write one or two more nonfiction books. I have a book about tigers in the works.
I’m working on a book set in 1492 and 1992, about crypto-Jews. It’s all about one family that finds itself in the hills of New Mexico. It’s an origin story.
I was reading about Columbus—he was a maniac. He was in the New World and found a toddler by a river on his own. He gave the child to one of the prostitutes who was on his second voyage. I thought, That child will be in a book.
I go into nonfiction, but it sparks a story and I want to tell the story. I learned Al Capone was a good dancer, so [in the book] he has to dance!
Q: Can you say more about the nonfiction book about tigers?
A: Eight years ago I had a sabbatical...I had travel planned for six months, all over North Africa; I had many journeys planned. On the first day of the sabbatical, I said to my husband, Let’s go ice-skating—and I fell and broke my leg.
The sabbatical consisted of me cancelling all the plans I had made. I couldn’t walk for three months. During my invalid period, I was planning for a new class, about stories set during journeys.
I read Death in Venice, and there was a line that [the character] said: He would go on a journey but not all the way to the tigers. I thought, When I can walk again, I will go all the way to the tigers. I went on a tiger safari in India, I hung out with tigers in Thailand. In my nonfiction—four travel memoirs—each is at a different section of my life…
Q: What does the Jewish component of The Jazz Palace mean for you?
A: With my name, people don’t know I’m Jewish. I’ve been a crypto-Jew. I wanted to embrace my own heritage. Jews were very deeply involved in the world of jazz, in Chicago and elsewhere. Benny Goodman to name one.
As I started evolving these Jewish characters, what helped was creating Napoleon, [an African American character]. I was interested in the relationship between black and Jewish musicians…there’s a very important connection between Jewish and African American culture. We’re outsiders. Family, food, there are lots of ways we are culturally connected despite our differences.
Also, I think the more I delved into Jewish history, I understood what it means to be Jewish. I understood the dark, terrible history my people have lived…
Q: How was Chicago ranked at the time in terms of its jazz?
A: It was the epicenter. Of course, there was Kansas City, St. Louis, New York. But the train from New Orleans went to Chicago. For blacks who wanted to get out, it was a straight line. I’m sure some jazz historians might argue with me, but I feel Chicago is where it happened.
I was watching the jazz episodes of Downton Abbey, and the black musician Lady Rose falls for was from Chicago. Chicago has such a rich, textured musical history.
The music in The Jazz Palace—on some level, the structure of [the book] itself became a jazz composition. There are solos, there’s an ensemble moment, there are themes that run through it.
Q: Was that deliberate?
A: No. My husband always knew when I was working [on the book] because I was listening to jazz. It was not deliberate, but there was a moment when I said, Hey, this is like some of the music I’m listening to!...
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Sometimes people like to know how it was written over many years. I’m the poster child for perseverance. I did not give up on this book.