In stark contrast to what meets our eyes as we look out our Maine windows these days, the landscape that Eleanor Morse lays out in White Dog Fell from the Sky is one where the water of the ocean is a figment only to be imagined, where “the heat, the dust, the gray-green foliage, the skinny cows, the goats…,” combine to form a backdrop that is, as she says, itself a character in this story of Africa during Apartheid.
Morse made a generous visit to the MWWC last week to discuss her book, and she began by reading from its first chapter. Isaac, a South African medical student, arrives in Botswana near death and is dumped in a dusty heap on the side of the road, having been smuggled across the border in a hearse to escape the wrath of the white South African Defense Force. He awakens to blue sky and the face of White Dog, who assigns herself as his companion for the journey that follows.
After reading from the book, Morse gave some background on the setting. White Dog Fell from the Sky takes place in Botswana in the mid-1970s, about the time that she herself lived there. Botswana was then still a young country, having gained independence from Britain just six years before, in 1970. It was a fortunate country, on a firm financial footing with an educated, enlightened first president — a good place to be in those days. Radically different, however, was the neighboring Republic of South Africa, which at that time was consumed with Apartheid. Refugees were coming into Botswana from South Africa, and though not modeled on anyone in particular, Isaac is one such seeker of safety.
Morse started the discussion with a question possibly on many minds: “How did I get to Botswana?” “Probably the way many people get to places they don’t expect to: love. I met a man from Botswana while I was going to college at Swarthmore and he was in graduate school at Bowdoin.” When they eventually married, Morse moved to Botswana and both she and her husband took on hectic jobs in national offices, working on issues of health, education and literacy. “We were both fortunate to be engaged in work that mattered,” Morse reflected.
The couple returned to the United States in 1975 with their young son, had another child and eventually parted ways. It took Morse these nearly-four decades to write this book, publishing two others in the interim. “Something in me knew that I needed more experience, that I needed a wider vocabulary of emotional range to write the story. I didn’t know what the story was when I started the book but I knew that it was going to require something of me.”
“What was that?” a member of the group probed.
“It required a good deal of courage, for one thing,” explained Morse. “It wasn’t an easy book to write because of what ended up happening to Isaac. Through a series of mishaps, Isaac ends up being sent back over the border to a prison in South Africa. Those are harrowing scenes and they were harrowing to write. I felt as though I needed every bit of courage I had in me to go there.”
Another issue gave Morse pause when approaching the project. “There was a question when I started writing this book as to whether I had the right to tell the story of a black person as a well-educated white woman…Isaac was a well-educated South African man but he’d grown up in a very different culture and in very different circumstances. There was quite a bit of soul searching before I plunged in…but Isaac’s voice kept coming to me.” Morse asked a writing buddy about her dilemma and her friend said, “That’s what writers do. They cross barriers and make worlds come alive that people don’t know or understand.”
Morse shared that during the writing of White Dog Fell from the Sky, she experienced the abrupt end of a relationship that she had expected would last the rest of her life. The pain of that loss made it “a darker book than it might have been otherwise, but also a deeper book and a better book.”
“How long did it take you to write it?” one guest wanted to know.
“It took three and a half years to write the book and then another year for copy editing, final edits, and deciding on the cover image,” which was quite an engaging process in itself.
Another group member wondered how might the story have changed in the editing process, and Morse described trimming about 14,000 words from the book. “Quite a bit of that was backstory and some broke my heart to let go of…One thing I felt really strongly about was that Botswana and the landscape really be like a character.” Morse was glad that her editor at Penguin was open-minded and honored the frequent reestablishment of setting to keep that character present. And because the editor herself was born in one country and grew up in another, she understood the recurring theme of passing through boundaries that is key to the book.
“I didn’t want the book to be overly political, even though it has to do with the politics of southern Africa at that time. I wanted to be faithful to that but I didn’t want the characters to be existing just to tell a political story.”
Morse said, “The hardest part in writing the book for me is the very beginning, because I don’t have a story that I impose on the characters. For me, a book starts with the characters, sometimes with their voices. It’s a period of puzzling things out, asking, who are they? When I sit down to write, I don’t have a firm idea of what I’m creating. I want to be true to what’s emerging. There’s a lot of listening that goes on, open-hearted listening…I didn’t know that a lot of the things that happened in this book were going to happen. I was sorry that some of them did, but that is part of the process.”
Much of the process has to do with being curious, she says. “When I’m teaching I sometimes talk about following the heat or the energy of something…I want to write something that matters. When I think back in my life, I think I’ve always wanted to get under the surface of things… If I knew what was going to happen in a story, I would never write it.”
Morse pointed out that the main characters in all of her three books have a certain marginality about them. “I am much more interested in marginal characters than in mainstream characters, partly because they are just more interesting.” She describes her childhood self as a figure on the margins, having been the new girl in a number of schools as her family moved with her father’s work as an engineer for GE.
Anne Zill asked Morse if she had a favorite of her three books, and if she saw anything in the first two that might relate to this one.
“I like them all for different reasons,” Morse says. “This is the biggest book and I think for that reason, if I had a favorite, it would be this one, because I feel as though I really stretched my legs in this book and opened my heart in a way. I did so in all three books, but I might have had more to work here with because of life experience. It all enters in.”
Learn more about Eleanor Morse and her books at eleanormorse.com.