Kevin Morris owes it all to rejection.
Despite his myriad connections as a high-powered Los Angeles entertainment attorney, Morris met a brick wall when he sent out five of his short stories to literary agents. One responded bluntly with, “No offense, but these are just white man’s problems.”
In other words, the problems of having your dreams met but fearing you’re an imposter, that those dreams are an illusion, that you are utterly alone but hanging on via a thin thread of antidepressants and extramarital affairs.
“I ran with that,” Morris says. “I decided to get off my high horse and go ahead and get the accomplishment done.”
The stories reverberated. Morris bought a review from Kirkus Indie, whose reviewer writes in a starred review that White Man’s Problems is “a clear-eyed, finely wrought and mordantly funny take on a modern predicament by a new writer with loads of talent.”
Morris’ law partner Kevin Yorn hosted a Los Angeles book-release party attended by actresses Minnie Driver and Courteney Cox. That was followed by a New York City event hosted by Morris client and South Park co-creator Matt Stone; the guest list included Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic. Entrekin took a copy home and ended up signing Morris to a two-book deal for his Black Cat imprint that includes a future novel.
Don’t mistake Morris or his book as an undeserved insider success story. Consider that New York Times culture writer David Carr dubbed the collection “remarkable.” Morris sees it as the culmination of a life’s dream deferred for a guy from a blue-collar family in Media, Pennsylvania. “In my decision-making years it seemed the responsible thing to do was to pursue a commercial career considering where I was coming from,” he says. “I saw a real job, real work and real money in being a lawyer.”
As an attorney, he has gravitated toward representing artists. Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey and director Mike Judge are clients, but Morris is most infamous for his work on behalf of Stone and Trey Parker, whom he met at Sundance long before South Park existed. Morris negotiated a deal that gives the pair an unprecedented chunk of the show’s future revenue, most significantly that derived online.
“There’s a lot that’s enlivening to me about representing artists—protecting them, collaborating with them,” he says. “That’s very rewarding to me.”
The writing bug began with him penning newspaper opinion pieces, but he went all in by renting a place in which to write a couple of days a week. “I had to acknowledge I was a writer at heart,” he says. He wrote stories, expanded one into a novel, then went back to the stories with the notion of collecting nine of them in a nod to J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories.
A painting by friend Karen Green of Morris’ bulldog, Henry, graces the cover of both the self-published and Black Cat book versions. In “Mulligan’s Travel’s,” perhaps the book’s finest story, a rattled former football player–turned-businessman is emotionally estranged from his family. He runs over his own dog as he tries to exit his driveway. “He’s accomplished, but he can’t get out of his own house,” Morris says. “He can’t get his computers to work. That dog he adores more than anything. But he figures it out. He still ends up going nowhere, but he maybe gets a sense of what’s important and what’s not.”
His characters range from youth to old age and recall the Johns—Cheever and Updike—who also wrote about the mixed-up lives of American men. “They either settle or fall apart,” Morris says of his characters. “On some level they all know they’re messing up. There are problems they can’t control within themselves and around them. There’s this sense of mortality.”
Morris chose to deal with his influences by hitting them head on. The book’s opening story, “Summer Farmer,” shares a title with a Cheever story. Morris also was taken with how Cheever used a lengthy poetic sentence near the end of another tale. Morris’ “Summer Farmer” connects the viewpoints of its two characters—a wealthy man and an elevator operator—with just such a poetic longer interlude.
“It’s getting the matter of influences off the table,” he says. “A lot of that has to do with me not doing this until later in life. There’s that anxiety I lived with by not doing it. That goes back to Harold Bloom’s book The Anxiety of Influence.”
Updike’s work taught Morris to write about unlikable characters in a way that is still compelling. The collection’s closing story, also titled “White Man’s Problems,” is about a divorced, self-important dad attending his son’s class field trip to the Civil War battle site in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and offending everyone he runs into. After the dad utters a racist remark, Morris writes, “When he says it, he worried he had gone a bit too far over the boundaries of political correctness. But it was a calculated risk, he thought, the kind white Americans make every day when entering into a new relationship.”
Morris doesn’t believe in neat endings, which he sees as at odds with his work as a lawyer. “There are all kinds of different writing in the practice of law,” he says. “Lots of them are about getting rid of ambiguity. I think fiction and life are ambiguous and multifaceted and don’t lend themselves to easy resolution.”
Despite his film connections, Morris has made no effort to sell movie rights to the book, preferring instead to keep his writerly life separate from his day job.
“Fiction writing takes a lot of hard work in the coal mine,” he says. “I’ve acknowledged that. A big part of me wishes I’d started doing this in my 20s, but maybe I had to wait. What I wrote about certainly would have been way different.”
Joe M. O’Connell, author of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, is based in Austin, Texas.