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Betty Morris, 83, has an ISBN number (0-9666055-1-9), and she is thrilled. She has just published her new novel, Falling, I Find Wings, under her own imprint, Mayflower Press. “I thought of it as a mass-market book with a literary style,” she says, sitting in the Capitol Hill abode she moved to in 1985. Morris tagged the book as “fiction/literature,” which she hopes will tell retailers: “Don’t put it with the mass-market romance novels.”
Falling is anything but romance. The story weaves together the lives of four womena divorcée, a teacher, a poet, and an artistin the Big Apple through their psychotherapist in crisp, no-nonsense prose. “It has a fin de siècle point of view,” Morris says. “It’s a summary of what we’ve been through” refracted through the women’s movement, cult experiences, and psychoanalysis. Yet the book is also funny: At one point, Elinor, the divorcée, contemplates her washing machine’s gentle cycle and thinks, “I should jump in myself”; Billie, the leftist teacher, looks at her New York Times and asks, “What stodginess will you put forth today?”
Like Anne Tyler, whom she admires, Morris is a mother as well as a writer. “I did raise kids,” she says. “I tried to write when they weren’t needing me.” She’s most fond of “family stories of down-to-earth people who are sensitive and caring” and sympathizes especially with Jane Austen, “hiding her writing under her knitting.”
Now, Morris has quit hiding her work. With a poet as a central figure in her story, she suggests that writingpoetry in particularis a mechanism for self-discovery. But Morris has always been conscious of her writing talent: She won an American PEN Women award in college for three sonnets she wrote. “It corroborated the idea that I could be a writer.” She continued, with comic verse for her college newspaper, a commissioned radio play for the League of Women Voters on child labor, and an original play, The House Beyond the Commonabout a young pacifist who doesn’t want to go into the family businessas her drama thesis.
“My work in theater is one of the reasons I use so much dialogue,” she says. She directed theater at the University of Minnesota until she moved to London with her husband, who was working on the Marshall Plan. When they returned, she taught high school English for 20 years in Queens before moving to D.C.
Morris continually refers to Archie the Cockroach, a character from the modernist comic of her college daysit’s about a bug who writes in lowercase because he can’t reach the shift key. Today, she’s living out the words of the cat from the same comic strip, whose catch phrase is: “There’s a dance in the old dame yet.”John Dugan