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A Literary League of his Own

A visit with Speer Morgan, Professor of English

By Noelle Buhidar
Published: - Topics: writing editing interns The Missouri Review English
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Foreword: From Arkansas Boy to American Novelist

Speer Morgan’s illustrious career began when he was a young boy growing up in Fort Smith, Arkansas. “Like most writers, I started by loving books, and having a magnetic, impossible attraction for them,” he says. “My happiest moments were spent with books.” As a child, he attacked literature with thirsty eyes, and read works seemingly impossible for a boy his age to comprehend. Morgan reveled in the challenging writings of Thomas Mann, Leo Tolstoy, and philosophers such as René Descartes. For him, these writers ignited the inspiration that would shape his life as an American novelist, short story writer, editor, and MU English professor.

As a graduate student at Stanford University, Morgan became serious about a career as a fiction writer. During the 1970s, he published stories in magazines such as The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s. His early fiction was compiled in a short story collection called Frog Gig, and Other Stories (1976). The literary aficionado then went on to publish five novels and serve as editor for the accomplished literary magazine, The Missouri Review.

Chapter 1: A Writer’s Mind

When Morgan first sets out to craft a new story, his initial task is to pick a place and concept. Take, for example, his most recent short story, “The Big Bang,” which is about a washed-up writer visiting his editor in London. “My stories are very place-oriented,” he explains. “I had this great desire to write a story set in London, and so I did a lot of research; and because some of my characters are English, I had to do a lot of research on my ‘English English'.”

All of Morgan’s novels except one have been set in Oklahoma and Arkansas during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He admits that these recurring settings are a product of his past. “I started my career doing an awful lot of research about 19th-century Indian Territory because I grew up there and sort of naturally knew about it, and naturally knew the language,” he says. “Part of my family came from that area, so there are a lot of obvious reasons why it’s my subject.”

Of all the characters Morgan has created, his first novel’s heroine, Belle Star, is the one he cherishes most. “I love Belle Star, who I learned about in grade school,” he recalls. “She was a myth in Fort Smith, and when I was growing up I heard stories about her that were secondhand, word-of-mouth stories. So my first novel, Belle Star, is an attempt to reconstruct the last month or so her of life.” Ron Maxwell currently has optioned Belle Star for possible movie production.

Morgan's writing technique is slow and laborious. “I’d love to say I’m a writer who loves to write, and who can’t wait to get to his desk,” he admits. “But I’ve always been one of the more typical writers for whom it’s work.” He describes his role as an editor and writer as twofold: “The downside of also being an editor is that you realize the necessity for excellence, and the necessity for it being complete, well done, and well wrought,” he observes. “Ultimately, I think it’s an advantage. But sometimes it’s hard on productivity.”

Chapter 2: The Missouri Review

Morgan’s devotion to his work is intense and consuming, and when the topic of The Missouri Review comes up, passion just pours from his heart. For over thirty years, he has worked tirelessly as the magazine’s editor, guiding it through its evolution from a paper magazine with no subscribers to a print and digital publication with over 10,000 subscribers.

The Missouri Review publishes four issues each year, presenting new fiction, poetry, and essays. Morgan notes that the magazine has a reputation for being the first to find and publish renowned writers. Some of their discoveries are Bob Shacochis, author of the National Book Award story Easy in the Islands; Wally Lamb, writer of Oprah’s Book Club pick She’s Come Undone; and Daniel Woodrell’s first story that became part of his novel Woe To Live On — a book that Ang Lee later adapted for the silver screen.

When asked what makes a submission to The Missouri Review worthy, Morgan replies that it must possess style, eloquence, and meaning. “We’re old-fashioned in wanting all of those things,” he says. “We’re not a magazine trying to be super contemporary; we’re not a magazine following a trend of any kind; we’re a classic literary magazine.”

Along with featuring fiction’s fresh faces, The Missouri Review also focuses on “found text” projects composed of previously unpublished work from past literary figures. For example, the magazine has published letters written by Jack Kerouac dating from 1947, ten years before On The Road, to 1968, when fame and alcoholism had taken their toll on the literary iconoclast. Heretofore unknown plays by Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams, as well as a series of private letters from Zane Gray, have also appeared in its pages.

Even with all his achievements, Morgan is hardly pompous. He takes delight in reflecting on the helpful role The Missouri Review has played in the literary community. “I think the thing that I’m most proud of is that we as a magazine have focused on writers,” he explains. “We’ve discovered a lot of writers, and helped writers early in their careers by publishing accomplishment rather than reputation.”

Morgan’s eyes glitter with pride as he talks about the training and experience the magazine offers to its student interns in writing and editing. “One of the challenges in higher education is providing students with real-world experience to complement solid scholarship and learning,” he observes. “Our interns are able to say they’ve contributed to one of the finest literary magazines in the country, and they’ve literally helped shape American literature.”

Watching The Missouri Review's students learn and blossom is a privilege Morgan witnesses weekly. “Every year, I appreciate the students more,” he acknowledges. “And I’m not saying that to be a good PR rep for the University of Missouri. Quite the contrary; it’s actually true.”

Afterword: Untitled

Morgan sees himself working in the literary scene for years to come, but he also wants to try his hand at another unique activity. “Actually, I want to become a windsurfer,” he laughs. “But I’m not sure I’m going to quite make it.”