bill berry, jr.:
Austin, thank you for taking the time to chat with me. While we have had long and informative conversations over the past several months, you may have to tackle some issues that we have not fully explored in our private discussions. With that ‘disclaimer’ out of the way, what type of childhood did you have and in retrospect, what were those youthful experiences that ultimately influenced and shaped your adult personality?
Austin C. Morgan:
You know, I can’t say that my formative years were much different from those of other boys my age who were growing up in southern Indiana. At that point in time, we didn’t have Facebook or Instagram, so I spent a good portion of my time outside; camping out in backyards, talking about girls, constructing ‘hideouts’ and so forth with all the other boys in the neighborhood.
It was not until I left the public school system in favor of homeschooling when I was fourteen or fifteen that things became ‘out of the ordinary,’ I suppose. I wasn’t wild, I didn’t party; I spent the majority of my young manhood reading and exploring different ideas and expressions; you know, didn’t have time for prom or any of that junk.
As for experiences that may have shaped my adult personality, I cannot say that there were many that I can recall. I was always very close with my mother, and still am to this day, so I am sure that I mimic many of her mannerisms as an adult without noticing.
Everything else, I would say, consisted of things that I read or watched in film as a teenager; I remember seeing Rebel without a Cause as a boy and deciding the James Dean was the kind of man I wanted to grow into. His three films were very influential on me from a personal perspective, as well as a creative one.
So, in what ways have you become a James Dean “kind of man” and how did his films inform your creative aspirations? Are there any current public (or private) personalities that you draw inspiration from either personally or creatively?
The significance of James Dean is a conversation that I could have all day long; he is frequently mentioned in my nonfiction writing. A quick fun fact: it is very interesting that we have ended up discussing him in this interview, because this day (September 30th) is the 59th anniversary of his death.
The first time I watched James Dean was around the age of fifteen. I had come across Rebel without a Cause and ended up watching it. At the time, I was going through the various quirks and “rites of passage,” if you will, of transitioning from boy to young man. I, like many other boys throughout time, felt restless and often misunderstood…the classic teenage angst that we all encounter. Dean’s portrayal of Jim Stark in Rebel without a Cause really resonated with how I felt, or how I believed I was supposed to feel. He was an outsider, the new kid in town…he walked with his head held high and asserted an amount of fearlessness; he drove fast cars, he got the girl, he stood up for himself; but at the same time, he cried…he portrayed a character who often felt overwhelmed and confused…he lost his cool while still maintaining his masculinity and charm. That meant a great deal to me at that age, because I cried, and I worried, and I had no idea what the future held in store for me. All of these feelings that James Dean personified both on and off screen really shook me. Never before had I seen a man cry and admit that he was afraid, that he felt weak and unsure. What James Dean said to me was something along the line of “Hey, it’s okay for a boy to cry…it’s okay to feel so restless and misunderstood, you can hold these sentiments and still be ‘hard’ and ‘cool.”
The guy only made three movies, yet he spoke boys and young men of each generation to come. To me, that is something special; to have been able to remain relevant half a century later.
As far as creative influences go, there are a handful of names that have definitely inspired the form of writing I eventually took on, but I am more so influenced by the topics about which I am researching as I write a piece.
For example, my most recent piece deals heavily with opera, as well as some (re-imagined) global political systems. At the time I was writing the piece, I was heavily researching the work of Richard Wagner, among others, and the way that both the politics and philosophy of the time were wound into the construction of his music and plotlines. Not to say that I agree with Wagner’s politics, the man was an ardent anti-Semite and all around bitter individual. I have no time for the foolish ways of prejudices, but this research did give me an idea to work from: the notion of a composer caught in the center of vast and radical political change.
I have always been very moved by the writing of John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and William Gaddis; there is definitely influence from such individuals in my fiction. I am also fond of the films of Terrence Malick and his focus on aesthetics over conventional narrative.
If I did the math correctly, and had Dean survived the car crash, he would be 83 this year. Do you worry about your own mortality and legacy or getting too much too soon? As far as your writing with such significant influencers, how would these writers and filmmakers find their mark in your work? And as far as being influenced by topic more than previous and established works, are there specific operas you are listening to now in addition to Wagner?
I don’t necessarily “worry” about my own mortality; it is something that is inevitable to all, and there is no way around it. I can accept that. If I am to have any say on the matter, all I ask is that I am allowed to stay here long enough to see everything that my family would want me around to see. I have a younger sister who is very talented in her writing, and I would like to be around to see her succeed and find that happiness in life. If I live to see all of those loose ends come together, then I suppose I cannot complain when it’s time to go.
As far as legacy goes, that is something that I have no control over. I believe that a large portion of one’s legacy is rooted in the perception of others; that is something completely out of my hands. Would I like to be remembered fondly? Of course. Do I like the idea of people continuing to take an interest in my work after I have gone? That would be nice, but those are strings that I am not able to pluck.
As far as my influences go, it is a much longer story than one might expect. I began writing around the age of ten or eleven…poetry, mainly. I did not begin writing fiction until I was much older; and I can remember always feeling like I had to stick to writing this tedious genre of minimalistic realism, which I did not enjoy. I remember feeling that I had to write things that the general reader could “relate” to.
On discovering the idea of “postmodernism” as applied to literary theory, everything changed for me. I can remember reading John Barth’s short story “Lost in the Funhouse” when I was eighteen or so, and I was so taken; I had never seen anything like it. The fact that Barth would often break the “fourth wall” and address the reader directly to explain various literary devices tickled me to death. I thought it wonderful. I thought “now here is someone who is writing with complete freedom and honesty; he writes about what he is interested in, he isn’t catering to any reader.”
Over the years to come, I really expanded my personal library. I had begun to read those authors who wrote this very experimental, often outrageous, literature. From The Recognitions to Giles Goat-Boy and Gravity’s Rainbow to Finnegans Wake, I was reading these incredible, often gargantuan, slices of free thought. I was fascinated by the “metafiction” of Nabokov, especially in works like Pale Fire and Ada, so it hit me after a while: I wanted to write about what I was interested in. Reader interest and accessibility went toward the back of my mind as I began crafting pieces that I wanted to write. That is how I’ve done it to this day; I write about the topics in which I find interest, and present them as artifacts versus “stories.”
What I learned from the films of Terrence Malick, particularly his 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven, was that the story does not have to be about the characters; it can be about the atmosphere around them. So with dense character development pushed toward the back, one could focus on essence and environment, instead. I suppose that if I were to put it into exemplary form, my philosophy regarding creative expression would look this: there is a scene of a summer evening, there is this bursting sunset illuminating the clouds and casting decadent shadows on the ground; there is also a young man walking beneath this sunset. Somebody who writes what I write is going to tackle that sunset and skyline before anything else. They will want to trace the history of the Sun. They will want to present the event from every angle and narrative-form possible. The young man walking beneath is, at best, an excuse to write such a vivid piece about the sky above him; at worst, he is standing in the way. Either way, he is the last thing that somebody like me is going to pay any attention to.
As far as my operas go, Wagner has always been ground zero for me. The Ring of Nibelung, in its entirety, will have me slaving over its history and structure for a very long time. Recently, though, I have come to enjoy a great deal of Handel, in particular Rinaldo, with its historical significance of being the first Italian opera written for London stage. As always, stunning.
Your breath of literary understanding and critical analysis and artistic appreciation is impressive. It leads me to a question regarding your intellectual development and evolution of critical thinking especially since your pre-artifacts’ research requires an ability to embrace topic matter that is often fertile ground for a trained historian. How would you describe your overall education after home-schooling, and are you still writing poetry? What type of music do you listen to for personal enjoyment and are there specific musicians whose repertoire you tend to follow?
Regarding my education and “intellectual development,” with the exception of a few subjects, I am primarily self-taught.
The education of oneself is one of the only ideas that I remain considerably optimistic about. I genuinely believe that any human being can learn anything they wish to learn, so long as they remain interested in the subject at hand. It has always appeared, at least to me, that the majority of people seem to believe that they must sit back and wait for somebody or something else to teach them what they wish to know…this could not be more contrary to the truth, as I have come to perceive it.
For example: when I was growing up, I was told that mathematics would never be a strong suit for me; I would never be able to learn it well. I bought into that for a long time, until I began to take great interest in cosmology as a teenager. I bought the important texts on the topic and I taught myself the mathematical details that were necessary in figuring these equations. I was interested at that point, I wanted to know…so I learned and now I know. The same can be said about any of the subjects that I study. I simply purchase the texts on whichever topic I am interested in and I spend month after month bent over at my desk learning how to comprehend the material. I like to learn; I try to learn something new every day. I have always believed that I am eternally a student; if I live to be one hundred, I will still be a student, even then. There is always something to become educated on. I am not sure which is more exciting to me: writing the actual piece I have been researching, or doing the research.
I graduated from my homeschooling program at seventeen, and spent some time in academia, but it was never as pleasurable as doing my own work and research. It took some doing, but I was eventually able to construct somewhat of a personal library in my home. I can pick a book off of a shelf and learn something new whenever I wish, as can anybody else. I am not special, and never have been…I was only intrigued. Anybody can learn these things, the only requirements being dedication and fascination. I do not know any more than anybody else, and vice versa. Knowledge exists on temporary levels; one can always learn more.
Yes, I still write poetry. In fact, I have recently compiled what is to be a “book” of the poetry that I have written over the past year, or so. I am in the process of illustrating bits of it, and then it will be shelved until I complete my “quartet” that we have discussed.
Poetry has always filled the gaps of time between my larger projects. When I finish a hefty fiction piece, I will generally take the following week or two off and work on nothing but poetry.
Music has always been a topic that I enjoy discussing. There are a handful of records that have greatly influenced many aspects of my life.
When I was growing up, I was raised within the Methodist Church, which was not a satisfying upbringing for myself. The majority of “rock” music might as well have come with a sticker that read “YOU WILL BURN IN HELL FOR TOUCHING THIS.” So, as you can imagine, I was very conflicted on discovering The Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut record, The Velvet Underground & Nico. With song titles like “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Heroin,” I was both appalled and intrigued on listening to that album. I had never heard anything like it. Needless to say, I decided to take the road to Hell after that. The Velvet Underground & Nico is actually responsible for my very first writing projects, which began as lyrical poetry. So, as you can imagine, that album holds many memories for me.
The next time that I was blown away by an album was when I was about thirteen or fourteen and I bought a copy of Pet Sounds. The Beach Boys have such a fascinating history of tragedy and mental illness within the group, and to me, Pet Sounds represented the pinnacle of that point in the band. It is a truly perfect pop record that has never been rivaled. In my humble opinion, nothing gets better than Pet Sounds, not ever.
I became very fond of Jazz after a while; you know, Bill Evans, Miles, Coltrane, Django Reinhardt. Jazz has been very influential in my poetry writing.
I am also extremely fond of the vintage Funk and Soul music of the pre-disco era. Parliament-Funkadelic (Maggot Brain being one of my favorite records of all time), Blue Magic, Bloodstone, The Isley Brothers, so forth.
Of course, the old “cowboy” tunes of Marty Robbins and Michael Martin Murphy are near and dear to me.
The Southern California country-rock is a favorite movement of mine. Eagles, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, J.D. Souther, Gram Parsons…all of that great stuff. I’m actually going to see Jackson Browne up in Indy on the 18th. He has a new record coming out, so I wanted my listening experience with the new record to coincide with my seeing him live. This will be the second time, actually. I saw him on his acoustic tour a couple of years ago. Great stuff. Late for the Sky has always been one of my top records.
I suppose I am just all over the place with music. There was a rumor the Zeppelin was going to reunite for a couple of shows in London this year, so I was pretty excited…but it seems as if that idea has gone out the window. Robert Plant has been enjoying his solo success so much that he doesn’t care to reunite with Jimmy anytime soon.
I like Bowie, particularly Aladdin Sane-era Bowie. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars has always been a pretty big deal to me. I am also very fond of The Killers. They seem to be one of the only modern acts that are staying true to the music. That gains them a great deal of respect from myself.
You and I can talk music until the cows come home, which we would not let them as we traded, debated and shared comments and barbs about bands, groups, solo artists across musical idioms. I think we both realize good music, lasting music, influential music defies industry labels. With that said, I am reminded that your education illuminates a concept that is held dear especially by community college folks if not all educators and that is lifelong learning. You set the bar because you are proof that if there is the desire, one can tackle one’s education and achieve intellectual achievement without the consent and approval of an external entity…another topic we could wax eloquently about all night.
I suspect our conversation is starting to veer towards its ending. However, with a few questions left, I am intrigued that you mentioned the “quartet.” While I know the arrangement with aaduna, please share with readers what you meant and as collaborators, what you feel we are trying to achieve? Also, “renaissance man” is glibly tossed around and I think you fulfill that billing with room to spare. What do you think?
Yes, the music is certainly a topic to which I have devoted an entire evening’s discussion many times. Over the past decade, I feel like I have watched a massive decline in musical quality; though the travesty of musical “selection” has always been, even when the greats were active. Look at Warren Zevon; here is an extremely gifted individual who is able to write some of the wittiest lyrical material around, deliver it with a silver tongue, and create perfectly accessible rock and roll hooks to compliment it. He studied under Stravinsky for a brief amount of time during his teenage years, and went on to apply the concept of classical composition to rock and roll music. Though certainly not the first person to do this, he certainly created his own unique branch off of the same tree. All of this said, he is held up as a novelty act, at best. They talk about “Werewolves of London” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” while Zevon recorded tracks like “Tenderness on the Block” and “My Ride’s Here,” which are easily two of the greatest songs I have ever listened to, period. It is certainly something that I could rant on about for pages and pages, though I will close it here, for now.
Returning to the topic(s) at hand, I am in complete agreement with what you have written about education oneself; your words are very accurate. There are so many fascinating things in this world, from art to athletics, science to history, theology to philosophy, and so forth. One may never stop learning, if that is one’s wish.
I have always viewed it as important to emphasize that education is not exclusive to academies and “controlled” settings; as I have stated, all one really needs to possess in order to learn is an interest in doing so and the texts that serve to map whichever theory or equation is at hand. The rest of it, as with anything worth holding as your own, is a product of the perspiration and appreciation that one is willing to invest within the craft of choice. I think that this is very important for any student of any thought to know and accept.
As for the “quartet” I have mentioned it is essentially an umbrella under which I have decided to place four pieces of fiction. While each “installment” is perfectly capable of standing alone as its own independent piece, there are certainly a couple of overarching ideas that bind them as sort of “spiritual” siblings. This began with “Julie Templeton & the Automatic Orchestra,” which was published in aaduna last month, I believe. It isn’t a terribly lengthy piece, but I feel that it serves its purpose very well; I view it as a combo package, in that it serves as the first piece of the “quartet,” but also serves as an adequate “prelude,” if you will, to the three larger pieces that shall follow.
This project, which will be titled The Melancholy Quartet on its completion, serves as my “love letter” to experimental literature, as well as to abstract and surrealist art and thought, as a general entity. I have always seen so much merit in the visual work of great surrealists such as Delvaux and Magritte, as well as the written word of genuine artistic pioneers like Andre Breton. Breton’s collected Manifestoes of Surrealism was certainly an early influence on my creative outlook.
Each piece is structured in its own unique format, which allows me to explore a larger array of ideas and expressions in a much more accessible manner.
While initially I had only perceived a single theme that binds these four pieces, which was simply experimentation and intellectual expression, I have come to notice several other details that bind each piece to one another. I am certainly curious to see if the readers will notice what took me months to realize. Each piece is completely different from the previous, as far as genre and subject matter go. I can say that the third “installment,” which I am currently working on, is something that I am very excited to release. It is very much a science fiction piece, which is a genre I have flirted with in my previous pieces, but never tackled directly. So I am looking forward to seeing the outcome.
During our collaboration on “Julie Templeton,” I had such a fantastic experience discussing some of these details back and forth with you (Bill), as well as Lisa, that I made the decision to offer aaduna the entire quartet, to be released in single increments over the next year.
From the very beginning, I was very aware of a certain interest that aaduna appeared to take in literary expression and thought, which was very admirable, in my opinion. I am very well aware that the sort of material that I write, as well as the various formats that I express it in, are not necessarily popular among the literary masses. In fact, I notice that this sector of literature is often met with more hostility than enthusiasm. This was a discussion I had in an essay I wrote on the topic several months ago, so it is something that I have been aware of, and understand. I accepted this fact a long time ago, when I made the decision to move from writing what I imagined people would want me to write into this more abstract area in which I write strictly what interests me. It is an incredible feeling of creative freedom, but freedom isn’t necessarily free.
Though I plan to continue writing in a fashion that suits my thoughts, about topics that I enjoy thinking about, I know that a smaller number of people are going to take an interest in my material because it is not conventional, and it is not always easy to read. I understand that; and I can live with it. What aaduna has offered me is a priceless opportunity to share my visions with readers without having to alter my initial plans and ideas. I have found a very supportive network among the aaduna community, and for myself, this is something priceless. I feel like there is a great understanding of what it is I am doing with my work, as well as a wondrous display of patience and respect, which I can say is certainly mutual. So, in closing, I am very grateful, as well as sincerely impressed and taken with the work of fellow aaduna contributors that I have seen. This is definitely a collective of some very talented individuals at work, and I look forward to seeing more from these folks, as well as possibly getting to know a few of them, as people.
As for the “renaissance man” detail, I am certainly flattered. At the end of the day, though, I am just an inquisitive boy from Southern Indiana. I never did take my boots off. Learning about the world around me has become a bit of a compulsion, I believe. I pity the man who feels that he knows everything; what a miserable existence that must be…never discovering anything new, never making room for adventures into the unknown. I’ve always found it fair to say that I know nothing less than the man who knows everything, and I know nothing more than the man who knows nothing. As I have stated, it is my belief that knowledge is always a temporary point; it is always subject to change in the blink of an eye. Somewhere, may we all be renaissance men.
It has been a pleasure to chat, ponder and give our readers several thoughtful reflections. Thank you. In closing, I try to raise ten random questions to the colleague I am chatting with and ask that he/she respond to each question without much thought but rather an immediate reaction. Here are yours:
meat & potatoes or fish & rice? I could definitely go either way here; I suppose it will have to depend on who is doing the cooking.
Temptations [with David Ruffin] or The Miracles [with Smokey Robinson]? The Miracles, always. It is difficult to go wrong with Motown, so I really hate to choose, but I am a big Smokey Robinson guy.
morning or night? Night, unfortunately. Rarely do I sleep, often do I dream.
Grateful Dead or Santana? Grateful Dead, for certain. American Beauty is an unbeatable record, not only as a cultural landmark, but also in its composition. The Dead have never sounded better.
draft beer or bottled beer? Draft, definitely.
Theatre or Dance? This is another one that is difficult to answer, but I will probably go with dance. I am very picky when it comes to theatre, where as with dance, I am content watching any sort of performance. Ballet is a first choice, though.
pencil or pen? Pen. I remember being young and in school, and I couldn’t stand to write with pencil, but I was forced to. In my adult life, I write everything in pen; I’m not even sure if I own any pencils, to be honest.
roast pork or stewed beef? Roast pork. My mother always made the best roast when I was growing up; I never miss an opportunity to make that a meal.
food or water? Water. I find that I am always much more thirsty than I am hungry.
roast pork or stewed beef? bald or hair? I’m going to go with hair, at least for myself
When aaduna started, I did an interview process titled “E-Viewpoints” with contributors. The purpose was to construct a wider audience for aaduna writers and artists while providing our readership with a better understanding and glimpse of the individuals who penned the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and created the diverse array of visual arts. For a variety of unplanned reasons, I took a hiatus from that initiative. But now, I am back with “Conversations.” The plan is to chat with current and previous contributors and delve into aspects of their background that you may find intriguing and uplifting. I hope you become a regular follower of this series of “Conversations” and continue to enjoy the work of the individual that I have a chat with. The intent is not to be “in your face” but enable you to savor the nuances, expectations, and challenges that aaduna contributors face as people, just like you and me. I think you will find “Conversations” interesting, maybe provocative, and enlightening. I hope so.