[This blog post was inspired by the county board of education decision to eliminate creative writing as part of the creative and performing arts program at our local middle school. For local people, here is the link to the petition to preserve the program.]
When I was in middle school English, I was accused of writing inscrutable poetry. No one could fathom it, but that mattered little to me. I knew exactly what it meant. I would take long journeys that no one could follow.
Later, I wrote building code requirements in which clear communication was imperative. Nothing could be confused or misinterpreted, and all extraneous words were eliminated. This text, however, was devoid of imagination.
In the career that followed, I began writing novels. My aim was to provide entertaining, thought-provoking fiction – stories and characters that propelled readers forward with interesting themes. Each has been drawn from the well of my life, and each is on a topic that has piqued my curiosity and sent me deep into research.
The first was Cologne No. 10 For Men. I had served in Vietnam as an infantry rifle platoon leader – a very lucky one. Although gung ho at the time – fighting to defeat international Communism – after I returned I gradually grew disenchanted with the war. I wanted to put my thoughts down on paper – organize them – and reappraise my positions. The war was full of horror that I knew well. But in my novel, I felt I could not dwell on that. I needed a story to engage readers, and I had to entertain them. I was inspired by Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. My novel would include the terror and the emotions of real soldiers, but would add farce to the mix. The result was a book that Kirkus Reviews called “a funny and serviceable satire about the gross rationalizations that propel war and peace.” David Willson of the Vietnam Veterans of America “Veteran” magazine said, “There aren’t very many funny Vietnam War infantry books. This is one of them. Read it and be amazed.”
My next novel was Well Considered, which dealt with racial justice and conflict. It reflected my interests in race and the history of Maryland – from a tobacco-growing slave state (1642-1864) to a segregated bastion of Jim Crow until 1954 (and later). The protagonist in this novel, Ron Watson, replicated my research into Don S.S. Goodloe, the first principal of what is now Bowie State University, a historically black university. A report I had read said that there were lynchings in the area near the school as late as 1907. My research tried unsuccessfully to corroborate this statement. There was one in Annapolis in December, 1906, however. So I decided to have my protagonist look into the lynching of his great-grandfather on a tobacco plantation in 1907 and have descendants of the murderers attack him. Kirkus called this one “a sensitive study of race and history in the American South” and “a multilayered thriller.”
Canoedling in Cleveland is a young adult novel that adults of all ages have enjoyed – a Huckleberry Finn story examining the themes of residential segregation, racial conflict, and environmental degradation, as three teens canoe the polluted rivers and lakes around Cleveland in 1960, the same waters I navigated when I was a teen growing up in Cleveland. Kathy Cunningham (Goodreads) wrote, “On one level, Richard Morris’s CANOEDLING IN CLEVELAND is a cute, nostalgic story about three teenagers spending the summer of 1960 taking canoe trips. . . . But on another level, the novel is about the racial divide in the suburbs of Cleveland, and Jeff’s growing determination to change the world,” and Writer’s Digest reviewer says it’s “a book that deserves a place in every middle school and high school library.”
My latest, Masjid Morning (11/2016), evolved from Islamophobia – readings about a mosque-burning in Tennessee and opposition toward it and to other efforts to build mosques, the registration of Muslims in New York City after 9-11, and other hateful deeds and words against Muslims. My first reaction was to a malicious email we received that attacked Muslims. I responded by countering every erroneous statement with facts in my “Funny. . .” series of blog posts. Searching further, I studied booklets on Islam and visited two mosques (later five), discussing the religion with the imams. After further research, I decided to write a novel on the theme of religious tolerance, using a Romeo and Juliet plot – a young Muslim man and Christian girl falling in love as he explains Islam to her and as she compares it to her religion. At the same time, his father, a surgeon from Lahore, is leading a group that is building a mosque (masjid), while her father, who owns a large dairy farm, is doing everything he can think of to stop the construction. This novel taps my experiences learning about Christianity as a child and building custom homes decades later. Kathy Cunningham (Goodreads) describes it as “A powerful novel about hate and intolerance–religious and racial” and “a Romeo and Juliet romance about two young people caught up in their parents’ feud.” Edd Doerr, President of the Americans for Religious Liberty, says, “With Islamophobia on the rise in the US, publication of this interesting novel is quite timely. Its two intertwining plot lines converge in a stunning denouement that I won’t reveal.”
In each book, I have tried to make a difference in the world, supporting peace, racial justice, environmental justice, and religious liberty. But in all cases I have tried to engage and entertain my readers. Many say that I have succeeded.