Interviews

Lorrie Moore, The Art of Fiction No. 167

Interviewed by Elizabeth Gaffney

When The Paris Review approached Lorrie Moore about doing a Writers at Work interview, she responded with a warning (“My life is impossible to make interesting—others have tried before”) and a lament (“Alas, I am virtually incoherent speaking in person”). She then proposed that we simply begin with a written interview rather than “making our way politely toward one.” We compromised on an initial interview session to be followed by extensive questions and answers exchanged via U.S. mail and fax (but not e-mail, which she abjures). Of course, Moore turned out to be exquisitely coherent in person. Our meeting took place on an afternoon in the spring of 2000 at a bar in Gramercy Park, and substantial parts of the conversation eventually did make their way into this interview in some form. True to her word, however, Moore rejected much of the original transcript, saying she didn’t agree with it and couldn’t hear herself in its sentences. Indeed, when some of the original questions were later reiterated, her responses were subtler, more nuanced, funnier, and occasionally just entirely different. Where there had been a joking demurral, a thoughtful reflection appeared; where she had waxed on, she substituted a quip; she also deemed irrelevant various digressions, including one on her interest in the JonBenet Ramsey child beauty queen murder case (it has all the stuff of the great American novel, she said). What became clear over the year that we corresponded—usually just one or two questions or answers per letter, sometimes on a daily or weekly basis, sometimes monthly—is that Moore guards her words carefully, whatever form she works in and regardless of whether her tone is serious or light. “Nothing’s a joke with me,” as one of her characters says. “It just all comes out like one.”

Moore’s literary career began at the precocious age of nineteen, when she won Seventeen’s fiction award; she was an English major at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York at the time. After graduating, she moved to New York City, where she was a paralegal, and then enrolled in the M.F.A. program in writing at Cornell University. In 1985, her first collection of short stories, Self-Help, was published to considerable critical acclaim. The following year brought her inclusion in the influential anthology 20 Under 30, as well as her first novel, Anagrams, which challenged some more timid reviewers with its experimental form. A children’s book, The Forgotten Helper, was published in 1987 (and rereleased in 2000). In 1989, “You’re Ugly, Too” became the first of Moore’s many stories to appear in The New Yorker (notwithstanding the fact that the quirks of its prose broke a number of the magazine’s infamous rules of style and diction). In 1990 that story was published with seven others in Like Life, a collection that demonstrated Moore’s remarkable ability to juggle everyday outrage and high tragedy with a hand so deft that her most poignant passages are often also the most hilarious or sardonic. With her second book of stories Moore’s reputation as a story writer was cemented, but it was her third, Birds of America, that firmly superglued her to the pantheon of contemporary American writers. For the first time, the praise of critics and her cult status among literary readers was matched by a several-week run on the New York Times best-seller list. But Moore does not define herself as primarily a short-story writer: halfway into writing the stories in Birds of America—an eight-year endeavor—there came a second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and she is presently at work on her third. Since the mid-eighties, she has taught English and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she holds the Delmore Schwartz Professorship in the Humanities.

 

INTERVIEWER

What in your childhood do you believe contributed to your becoming a writer?

LORRIE MOORE

There was the usual dreaminess, I suppose. Also a shyness that caused me—and others—to notice that I could express myself better by writing than by speaking. This is typical of many writers, I think. What is a drawback in childhood is an asset to a literary life. Not being fluent on one’s feet sends one to the page and a habit is born. In addition to the predictable love of books, I was also quite captivated by the theater when I was a child—as much as I could be, given where I was growing up, a tiny town in the Adirondack foothills. My parents were members of an amateur operetta club, which put on musicals as well as straight plays, and from a very early age I was brought to watch the rehearsals on Sunday afternoons (the actual evening productions were past my bedtime). And when I think about it now, those Sunday afternoons of watching grown-ups put on plays—watching them fall in and out of character or burst into song or laughter—were probably the most enchanted and culturally formative moments of my childhood. (I attempted to use a bit of this in one of the stories in Self-Help.) I would sit there, fantastically engaged—gripped, really—while someone who was ordinarily the postman, say, or the office manager at GE, came out and danced something wild from Pajama Game. And watching it all—from the time I was about three or four—I became if not stagestruck, then theater-struck, or art-struck. Something-struck. For my parents it may all have been a cheap form of baby-sitting, I don’t know, but it was enthralling for me. Looking back I now suspect that bit of early theatergoing is still at the heart of what I think is interesting and powerful narratively. I suspect that love of theater—and that condition, however thrilling, of forever being in the audience—is part of the pulse of everything I’ve written.

 

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever act yourself?

MOORE

God, no. My very un-Cocteaulike ballet class was once called upon to be a little garden of roses in a community college production of Beauty and the Beast. Aside from that, for dressing up and pretending to be something else, there was only Halloween. And church.

INTERVIEWER

That story in Self-Help, “What Is Seized,” explores a very dark kind of split between art and life. The main character learns from her dying mother that her funny, charming, amateur-actor father was actually a cold, even cruel, husband. “Bitterness and art are close, gossipy neighbors,” you write. Do you share that view?

MOORE

It’s probably less a view than a mood. It’s difficult, anyway, to share entirely the view of a fictional character. An author’s life is different, complex, and ongoing, while a character’s remains frozen in one little story. I can certainly understand that view—of bitterness and art—even if it is a little crudely put (I was twenty-four when I wrote it and the character is even younger, I think) but it is not wholly true outside of the story. Its truth is only within the story. It is true for the character saying it. Certainly bitter emotions can fuel art—all kinds of emotions do. But one is probably best left assembling a narrative in a state of dispassion; the passion is, paradoxically, better communicated that way.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say a little more about the relationship of your fictional characters to you, their author? The usual prurient question, about how autobiographical an author’s fiction is, is especially tempting in your case. A lot of your lead characters have names that mirror yours metrically—Berie Carr, for example. And then there’s the way The New Yorker presented “People Like That Are the Only People Here”—with a photograph of you, almost as if it were nonfiction.

MOORE

Why is the usual prurient question especially tempting in my case? Is it really? But yes, that photograph. It made me very unhappy. I was told the magazine wanted only “an author photograph” and was assured it would not be using any shot as an “illustration” of the story, though of course a magazine is often assembled in a rush and by an assortment of people and at the end a photographic “illustration” is apparently exactly what was desired and attempted. I won’t say anything more about that particular event, though God knows it gratifies something in me to complain about it in print.

As for the relationship of my fictional characters to me, their author, I suppose it would depend on which characters you mean. Each has a slightly different relationship, I believe—I hope. I assume you mostly mean the protagonists, who sometimes have the burden of having a couple of things in common with me and sometimes don’t. I’m never writing autobiography—I would be bored, the reader would be bored, the writing would be nowhere. One has to imagine, one has to create (exaggerate, lie, fabricate from whole cloth and patch together from remnants), or the thing will not come alive as art. Of course, what one is interested in writing about often comes from what one has remarked in one’s immediate world or what one has experienced oneself or perhaps what one’s friends have experienced. But one takes these observations, feelings, memories, anecdotes—whatever—and goes on an imaginative journey with them. What one hopes to do in that journey is to imagine deeply and well and thereby somehow both gather and mine the best stuff of the world. A story is a kind of biopsy of human life. A story is both local, specific, small, and deep, in a kind of penetrating, layered, and revealing way. Perhaps it’s even diagnostic, though now I’ve got to lose this completely repellent medical imagery. And as for metric similarities!? OK, there’s only Berie Carr, I think, whose metric similarities I noticed but didn’t plan. But there’s no one else, is there? I’m feeling falsely accused but perhaps I’ve forgotten. I do have one Elizabeth, you know. I’ve also got a Bill, a Harry, a Mack, an Adrienne, a Zoë, an Odette! (what was I thinking? of Swan Lake or just Swann? neither, I think), a Gerard, a Benna, a Mary, a Riva, and for some unknown reason a couple of Marjories. There. Have I become sufficiently defensive?

INTERVIEWER

Why do you think people are so curious about this kind of thing? Is it a preference for gossip over literature?

MOORE

If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story. Or the story behind the story, pick your preposition. It does seem to me to be a kind of animal impulse almost, a mammalian curiosity. For a reader to wonder about the autobiography in a fiction may be completely unavoidable and in fact may speak to the success of a particular narrative, though it may also speak to its failure. Certainly literature has been written about and taught in this manner for a long time; it’s not new. It is sometimes, however, like so many things that are natural, unfortunate.

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of Gerard and Benna and the ideas of fabricating and working variations on stories, would you describe how you conceived your first novel, Anagrams? It’s not a novel in the usual sense, either structurally or narratively. Take Benna—essential features of her character, such as her profession and the existence of her daughter, differ in each of the chapters. Was that book originally written as separate stories?

MOORE

Anagrams is a novel that takes as its form a short novel and four stories. The stories are variations on the central narrative line—rearrangements that visited me while I was writing the main story. Since the novel was about (among other things) the powers and imperfections of the imagination, I decided to include these stories as part of the structure of the overall novel. Although it was necessary to impose a sequence upon them, ideally they should be thought of as little satellites orbiting the longer “Nun of That” section. (Perhaps the book has things in common with certain kinds of cyberfiction in that regard, although I wrote it entirely on a typewriter, one with a manual return, if I may boast.) At the time I thought of this novel as a kind of sculpture, like a Calder mobile, with the main narrative sprouting these little reworkings. The reworkings came to me because of my habits as a story writer, obviously. Reworking people and recostuming them, etcetera, is what a writer does, and so even though I was hard at work on my first novel, one part of my brain still wanted to make stories and was using the material from my novel to do that. It was weird and parasitic of those stories, but I allowed them in and included everything in the book. I believed the novel to be a messy expression of that mysterious banality “the creative process”—not unlike life, I suppose. (Certainly, we’ve now seen that the human genome resembles a rather long, messy, ad hoc novel—a kind of monster anagram.) And so Anagrams became an exercise in bringing something into being, even bringing something impossibly into being. It was a kind of cubism, really—laying out mutually exclusive angles and possibilities, refusing to choose, refusing to allow one perspective to obscure another. Ironically, of course, it ends up revealing what few possibilities and arrangements a single life may ever have, even allowing for the reckless ride of the imagination (a life of fantasy, of pseudonourishment, which may be consolation or tragedy, depending on your point of view). At any rate, I expected my editor would veto the experimental form of this book, but happily she didn’t and it went out the way I’d written it and got a lot of bad reviews and did terribly, and we were all brave and philosophical about it, although my editor did suggest that if I were feeling strapped for cash perhaps I should consider entering my cat in the Purina Cat Chow contest. Shortly thereafter, for money reasons indeed, I left New York for good.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of cat was it?

MOORE

What kind of cat was it? Well, he was a farm cat from Ithaca, New York. Very beautiful, very intelligent, a certain je ne sais quoi, but in a national competition, believe me, he didn’t have a prayer.

INTERVIEWER

About the bad reviews of Anagrams, do you feel vindicated by the fact that it—and all your books—are still in print and widely read?

MOORE

Many not very good books are still in print and many wonderful ones aren’t. Perhaps the terms here need defining. Vindicated, for instance, suggests a soldierly stance or at least a lawyerly one, foreign to my nature. And widely read? I don’t know about that.

INTERVIEWER

Who is your editor and how did you first start to work with her?

MOORE

She is Victoria Wilson at Knopf. The manuscript was sent to her by my agent and she bought it. Every book since then has proceeded that same way.

INTERVIEWER

You make getting published sound easy. Was it really? How did you find your agent? How did you first get published in magazines? Were mentors from Cornell or elsewhere helpful?

MOORE

I had no idea I had made it sound easy—or sound like anything. I really don’t know much about it. It’s not really a writer’s business, and so I, like most writers, have been necessarily helpless before the whole thing. There is luck and stubbornness to help ward off despair, I suppose. As for the fate of my various manuscripts, I assume I have mostly been lucky (although there’s never a point in your life where rejections don’t occasionally find their way to your mailbox). I was lucky to have Joe Bellamy as one of my first writing teachers and Alison Lurie as my thesis advisor at Cornell. I was lucky to be taken on by her young agent Melanie Jackson. I was lucky to have my first book of stories land in the lap of Vicky Wilson. (Before that on my own I had faithfully sent out stories to small magazines I admired. My dream was to someday be published in Antaeus on that thick creamy paper of theirs—no such luck there, however.) So much about having a manuscript accepted is just out of your hands: the blood sugar level of a reader, the slant of light across a page, some personal event in an editor’s life that connects them profoundly with something you’ve written on page three. Who knows? There’s nothing you can do but write the best book you can.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say a bit about how you begin? Do you start with a character, an image, a sentence, an idea, something else?

MOORE

All of those things. I have always begun with a small pile of notes of some sort, usually regarding some specific set of circumstances that for whatever reasons (demented, arbitrary, therapeutic) interests me at that moment in my life. Settings have always come second—not exactly an afterthought but not a burning inspiration either. Yet they are a crucial part of any fiction, so I do my best to pay attention to them and often find the landscape or milieu of a particular tale the most engaging part to write. In stories especially I allow emotional and musical matters to carry the thing along; I believe in inspiration, which in creative writing discussions often gets short shrifted vis-à-vis ideas of hard, daily effort. But something uninspired will never recover from that original condition, no matter how much labor one pours into it. In general, if a person were to watch me work—which I am grateful no one ever has—I suspect it might look like a lot of cutting and pasting of notes, stopping, starting, staring, intermittent flurries (as the weatherpeople say), sudden visitations (by invisible forces), the contemplation of the spines of various dictionaries and reference books stacked behind the computer, and much reheating of cold coffee (a metaphor and not a metaphor). But what it feels like is running as far as I can with a voice, a tuneful patch of a long, nagging idea. It is a daily struggle that doesn’t even always occur daily. From the time I first started writing, the trick for me has always been to construct a life in which writing could occur. I have never been blocked, never lost faith (or never lost it for longer than necessary, shall we say) never not had ideas and scraps sitting around in notebooks or on Post-its adhered to the desk edge, but I have always been slow and have never had a protracted run of free time. I have always had to hold down a paying job of some sort and now I’m the mother of a small child as well, and the ability to make a literary life while teaching and parenting (to say nothing of housework) is sometimes beyond me. I don’t feel completely outwitted by it but it is increasingly a struggle. If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov, or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about. (In my mind I see all your male readers rolling their eyes. But your female ones—what is that? Are they nodding in agreement? Are their fists in the air?) It’s hardly news that it is difficult to keep the intellectual and artistic hum of your brain going when one is mired in housewifery. This is, I realize, an old complaint from women, but for working women everywhere it continues to have great currency.

INTERVIEWER

When exactly do you fit in writing in the end, between the teaching, the parenting, and the dishes?

MOORE

Thank you for asking. Well, the dishes are the least of it (I realize you are being synecdochical, but for your more literal readers, I should say I have terrible, ill-tended dishes). In my life right now, I’m afraid, a routine is scarcely possible. It’s all very catch as catch can (can that possibly be a phrase? it suddenly seems completely alien); my writing life is mostly a lot of grabbing desperately here and there. It’s not an impossible one, it just requires a kind of coldhearted determination that I don’t always have. But sometimes I do and things trickle along. I take many notes, as I said, and I try to see that as writing too, which of course it is. It’s not an especially grueling part but it’s an essential one. A note registers a moment of special distillation or insight or oversight or merely a mundane observation. You discover the quality of your notes much later, but it is important to write them down as they come to you.

INTERVIEWER

Do you begin in longhand? What about typewriting versus word processing?

MOORE

Gee, people are still asking these questions about longhand versus typing versus computer. That’s good, I guess. To the extent that I begin with notes, I still begin everything by hand (the notes are short, but the hand is long). I move fairly quickly to the computer now and store notes there. As for typewriters, I haven’t used one in years, although I wrote my first three books that way. Very time-consuming. I used to believe that everything should be written out first before being subjected to a keyboard of any sort. One needed to feel the words coming down out of your arm, out your fingers and onto the paper. Then I felt one should do it all again percussively to the clackety-clack sound of a typewriter. But as for revising, well, computers really are God’s gift to writers. It took me a long time to accept even the possibility of that.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned that someone spying on you might see you doing a lot of cutting and pasting. Do you still do that with scissors and tape? Could you describe how a particular story or novel was rearranged by this process?

MOORE

Cutting and pasting have become computer terms now, of course: no other utensils necessary. I still rely on Post-its, which for some reason I’m sheepish about admitting—they just don’t seem proper somehow, but you can move them around and stick them anywhere, which is a beautiful thing. Before I had a computer, I cut and taped like mad. I loved all that toxic Wite-Out. I loved those long white strips you would put on to erase lines. All my manuscripts got quite three dimensional this way, and usually there was difficulty getting them to go through Xerox machines. I worked incessantly in this dreary manner—there’s no story to tell about any one particular piece. It was just how I always worked.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve been looking at Birds of America, your most recent book, and Self-Help, your first, side by side. How would you say your voice and work have changed? Is it just a matter of practice or have your concerns evolved?

MOORE

A writer who thought a lot or articulately about the evolution of his or her own voice and work would be a little doomed, I think. For purposes of artistic sanity one should probably not be standing outside one’s own oeuvre looking in like that—or at least not very often. All of which is to say I couldn’t exactly tell you how my work has evolved (has it? she asks, fishing), not really, not strictly speaking. These days, I’m afraid, my brain goes cold when that early work is too near. But I can say this: I guess I don’t think of work as evolving. I think of writers as sitting down and starting from scratch every time—at least that is how it is for me. I don’t think of one book as having any relationship to the others. The books are not canvasses upon which I attempt to develop my voice, grow my themes, or evolve my concerns. They are not early or later drafts of one another. They are not in conversation with one another. They have no awareness of the others’ existence. They are merely narrative objects that I’ve worked hard on in order that they be the best (most interesting, most true, most beautiful, etcetera) I was then capable of. In retrospect, I could describe each book, but such a description would not constitute a description of an evolution, or a picture of a process, or the naming of a journey, not really. Writing is too disorderly for that—or at least mine is. I don’t mean to hide behind the mysteriousness of the creative act—although it certainly is mysterious, more afterwards than at the time—but I don’t think of the books as a deliberate attempt (by me) to form a body of work that can then be stepped back from and discussed (at least by me). That would be far too overdetermined. I can try to say some things about them as discrete entities, however, if you would like: Self-Help was very interested in feminine emergencies and how the voice and point of view—both the mock imperative of the second person and the idiosyncratic voice of the first—might be used to tell particular stories. It attempted to satirize formally the idea of advice and a culture of advice, at the same time borrowing from a poetic tradition an intimate second-person address. Anagrams was a structural experiment that in a theme-and-variations way attempted to explore both the play and the loneliness at the heart of the creative act. With Like Life and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? I was much more interested in specific settings—times and places that shaped characters’ lives. With Birds of America, I’m not sure. As with most collections, it is a temporal document; it rounds up the dozen stories I wrote in the 1990s—and in those pages is registered a variety of concerns and subjects, I think, but certainly children, especially the loss of children or children in danger—figure predominantly there.

INTERVIEWER

There are a lot of critters in that collection too—bats and raccoons in walls and chimneys, the birds that have their cameos in (I think) every story. Can you talk about what they’re doing?

MOORE

Stephen Sondheim recently said somewhere that excessive bird imagery is the sign of a second-rate poet. He was referring, I think, to Oscar Hammerstein. But “to sing through the night like a lark who is learning to pray” is one of those busy, nonsensical lines I grew up on and loved. I guess as a girl I could really imagine a lark praying and therefore I could imagine a dense or pagan lark who might not yet know how to pray and would then actually have to be taught, and all those struggled-toward prayers coming out as a kind of personal singing. I did not plan the bird imagery of Birds of America, however. I discovered it there and then chose the title because of the explicit reference to Audubon in the last story I completed. Although birds figure literally and metaphorically in the book, I was also interested in Audubon’s killing of the birds he painted—interested in that as a symbol of the creative process. I was especially interested in the idea of killing a lark who is learning to pray. As for the other creatures, I don’t know. I live in Wisconsin and animals abound here. Perhaps they mortify me a little.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve told me that Alice Munro is a favorite writer, and partly for that reason I’ve recently been reading The Love of a Good Woman. What’s your relationship to her? Has her work been an influence?

MOORE

Well, I have no relationship to her. I’ve never met her. And as for her work, I came to it too late probably for it even to have been an influence, which fills me with despair. I am merely a big fan. She is a great artist, alive and among us, and still writing as well as she did at the start—if not better, which is really saying something, since if you look again at Lives of Girls and Women, her first book, you will see it is a masterpiece, not like any other first book I can think of offhand. (You will also find in it many of the elements of Love of a Good Woman and other later fiction—the obsession with drowning, the allure and menace of men, the erotic moment as narrative pivot and the glimpses of wickedness that only the young are able to act upon to save themselves; the middle-aged must attempt to endure, make do, compromised and complicitous, with what they know.) Her later fiction is quite bold structurally—its handling of time is fearless and satisfying and not to be imitated. She seems over and over again to be writing a kind of ghost story. She is also witty and cruel (that is, unblinking) and painterly. Although she writes of the provinces, she is the least provincial writer I can think of. I’m not sure that this is always understood about her.

INTERVIEWER

Since you say that Munro has been misunderstood as a provincial writer, I wonder if there are ways in which you think that you’ve been misunderstood?

MOORE

Oh, I feel misunderstood all the time, including right now. I meant to say it sometimes seems that it is not always understood how unprovincial a writer Munro is. (I don’t believe any serious reader would call her provincial but I also don’t think it is often emphasized how she is the opposite.) You see how quibbling and niggling feeling misunderstood can be? As for other ways I’ve not always been understood—by, say, my husband or Publishers Weekly—let me bore you later. Not to beg the question too desperately, but looking at my life I can see there are the standard childhood years of feeling a little unseen, which is misunderstanding of a fundamental sort and which typifies the female experience and is actually good for writing (as well as espionage) but bad for life. Most things good for writing are bad for life. “May your life be not very good material” is a blessing I offer students and small babies. Another writer friend of mine is fond of leaning over bassinettes and offering “may you never be reviewed by Michiko Kakutani.”

INTERVIEWER

If not Munro, what writers have influenced your work?

MOORE

Aren’t writers often the last to know—know truly—the literary influences on their work? All they really know is what they’ve read. Everything one reads is nourishment of some sort—good food or junk food—and one assumes it all goes in and has its way with your brain cells. I imagine that the things one read and loved while young have had the most subconscious influence, which in my case were biographies and mysteries of a generic sort plus a lot of A. A. Milne. There was also Sherlock Holmes, The Wizard of Oz, and a little book called Nine Days to Christmas, which still makes me cry. In college some of the writers whose prose style most amazed me included Margaret Atwood, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Gilbert Sorrentino, and John Gardner in his Queen Louisa stories. My favorite poems were George Meredith’s “Modern Love” and Hart Crane’s “Chaplinesque.” I loved Plath and Sexton and all of Shakespeare’s tragedies (though not his comedies, which baffled me). Some of my favorite novels were Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native, and Henry James’s Washington Square. If there is influence there, in that eclectic list, I salute it. When I first got out of college I had a job digesting legal depositions—taking long pages of windy testimony and reducing them to what was optimistically called their “essence” (now done entirely by computers)—and this activity no doubt disabled my tolerance for the extraneous word, which I have since been working to build back up, along with my tolerance for lawyers. The greatest influences on one’s (my) work may not be literary at all. The more profound influences may be childhood piano lessons, rock concerts, strong coffee, smart friends, and one’s own responses to life’s “challenges,” as they are astonishingly called.

INTERVIEWER

What about grad school? Is it possible that being a paralegal is better training for a writer than an M.F.A. program?

MOORE

Anything, I’m sure, is possible. I’ve actually known many writers who were paralegals. Probably it is simply because working as a paralegal pays Manhattan rents just a tiny bit better than entry-level publishing jobs—although maybe it doesn’t pay them at all anymore. This was in the 1970s. I’m not sure I believe in “training” to be a writer that is external like that anyway. I don’t think writers “train” the way athletes do. It is not performative and helped by little exercises; one’s mind is probably not beneficially roughened or honed by deadening work. Writing is more a habit, but a soulful one like smoking, which compulsively connects the head to the hand; from there one tries to make art of it. How does one pick up such a habit? By hanging around the kids with the cigarettes, of course. And a love of books and music—every writer must have that.

INTERVIEWER

What was Cornell like when you were there?

MOORE

Cornell was the smallest graduate writing program in the country, so one worked a little bit with everyone. I worked most closely with Alison Lurie (who, among her many other gifts, has an acute feel for narrative form). But I also worked with Lamar Herrin, Dan McCall, and Bob Morgan (then a mere brilliant poet, now an Oprah writer). The wonderful James McConkey, whose work was appearing in The New Yorker a lot at that time, was also there. The glamorous Harold Brodkey visited. As for fellow students in the program, they included Alice Fulton, Paul Russell, Lisa Ress. When I went back to teach in the spring of 1990 the students there included Melissa Bank, Stewart O’Nan, Melanie Thernstrom, Manette Ansay, oh, and others. I’m leaving people out, I’m sure. Junot Diaz came to Cornell later, I think. At any rate, of course my own experience at Cornell was very important. It was a great gift in almost every way—a profound situation, like some simple but exciting café, more than a conventional education. Without it I’m sure I would not have become a writer. Some writers I read for the very first time when I was there include Calvino, Puig, Boccaccio, Foucault. Many others, I’m sure, but those names come first to mind. Cornell, of course, is full of lore about E. B. White, Vonnegut, and Pynchon, who were all students there at different times, and Nabokov, who was a professor for a decade or so. (Toni Morrison was once there too, but briefly, I guess.) Because Nabokov moved every year within Ithaca, the chances of living in a house that he had lived in were not miniscule. These kinds of magical shadows across a community were fun and good for the campus literary life there. At least I think they were.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written about New York a lot. When did you live here?

MOORE

Oh, I’ve lived in New York at various times. My parents moved to New York when I was nineteen, then I moved there on my own in the late 1970s, after college. I moved back again part-time in 1985, after my first year in Wisconsin, and divided my year between Hell’s Kitchen and Madison, where I would teach every fall semester. Madison has really been very tolerant of me. Fundamentally, however, I was always only a tourist in New York. I was agitatedly broke, young, and in thrall to the place, like so many people who grew up elsewhere.

INTERVIEWER

So even in the beginning of your teaching career, you were only in Wisconsin half the year?

MOORE

Well, not the first two semesters, but certainly by the third. From the beginning I was a teeny tiny bit ambivalent about the Midwest. But eventually I consolidated my life in Madison—job, husband, house, and that cat you were asking about earlier. The cat, of course, was much happier in Wisconsin.

INTERVIEWER

You pun a lot and your characters tell a lot of bad jokes, but the real humor in your stories comes from somewhere else it seems. How does this work?

MOORE

Humor comes from the surprise release of some buried tension. It may be buried in the story by the author or buried in the world of the story—a shallow grave will suffice—or the reader may bring his or her own sedimented feelings to bear upon the reading. Often it is several things simultaneously. Some expectation, however, must be disrupted. Wordplay itself is not usually funny, only clever, unless it is attached to some other psychological force in the narrative. (I am often interested in mishearings—part of the comedy of misunderstanding—which employs an accidentally generated wordplay. These mishearings I often collect from real life.) Most of the humor I’m interested in has to do with awkwardness; the makeshift theater that springs up between people at really awkward times—times of collision, emergency, surrealism, aftermath, disorientation. Bad jokes may be an expression of that awkwardness, without being inherently funny themselves. Of course, in including humor in narrative a writer isn’t doing anything especially artificial. Humor is just part of the texture of human conversation and life. Storymaking aside, in real life people are always funny. Or, people are always funny eventually. It would be dishonest to pretend not to notice.

INTERVIEWER

But do you think that there are many writers at work today who deal with humor as seriously as you do?

MOORE

Well, yes, I do, of course. There are dozens of very funny writers writing, although many writers I know are even funnier in person than they are on the page. But then that may be true of people generally, that they are funnier than characters in books. Wait a minute, do you mean funny ha-ha? There. That’s a nervous joke. Humor is really part of the fabric of human discourse—it may be deflective or knee-jerk, intimate or distance-making, organizing or derailing, and may arise from hostility, generosity, boredom, anxiety, existential fatigue, or good drugs.

INTERVIEWER

Was it at Cornell that you started the stories for Self-Help?

MOORE

It was around 1980. I started those stories just before I arrived at Cornell, while I was still in New York. I came to Ithaca with at least one of those stories in hand.

INTERVIEWER

Which story was it?

MOORE

“Go Like This,” I believe.

INTERVIEWER

Where did it come from? Did you know someone who’d had terminal cancer, or what was the trigger?

MOORE

“Go Like This” was inspired by a documentary I saw about the artist Jo Roman. I was very interested in the kind of fatal and fatalistic ambivalence she seemed to project about her own suicide. From there I wrote my own tale.

INTERVIEWER

With Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? you shifted for the first time to having a child as a protagonist, or at least you shifted your focus to childhood. How did you decide on that story? What about the title, was it an afterthought too, like Birds of America?

MOORE

I was interested in female adolescence as a comical and embarrassing time as well as a powerful, passionate, formative, and very free time. That particular period in a girl’s life is unprecedented and unrepeated. Thank goodness, most would say. But personally I sometimes wonder. At any rate, I wanted to tell the story of the kind of protoromance that best girlfriends often have with each other at that age. And I wanted to set it as a memory, keep it within a frame of adult life, in order to give it context and perspective. The title came from a painting by a painter and friend here in Madison, Nancy Mladenoff. I came upon the painting after I had started the novel, and it seemed at the time a wonderful, feminist witticism, and illustrative of something I was also trying to get at with my book, and so the whole painting, title and all, fell into my novel. There is a time early on in the writing of a book when the book is wide open and such things can fall in. Later the book closes up and nothing outside gets in at all. (In real life I bought the painting and hung it in my house; in the book it is the title of a painting that one of the characters paints and my publisher actually reprinted it as a frontispiece in the book.)

INTERVIEWER

You wrote Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? in the middle of the period when you were working on the stories for Birds of America. How does writing stories compare to writing novels?

MOORE

Well, it is possible to believe that the busier and more disorganized a writer’s life, the easier it is to write a novel as opposed to a short story. To write a short story, you have to be able to stay up all night. To read it all in one sitting and at some point see the whole thing through in a rush is part of the process. There’s urgency and wholeness in stories. Not necessarily in novels, which may proceed at a more leisurely or erratic pace. A novelist—like the reader of novels—can check in and out of the novel at short intervals. One can write it in pieces, just as it can be read in pieces. A novel’s often a big, sprawling, shapeless thing—even when it’s short. A story is different. One gives birth to a short story—to haul out those tired procreative metaphors. But with a novel, you raise the child—to continue ridiculously in the same metaphorical realm. Like many novelists, I can now work by putting in a couple hours every morning; but short stories require those twelve-hour stretches.

INTERVIEWER

So at some point in the writing of every short story, you work your way through from beginning to end in a single sitting? Even the very long ones?

MOORE

Yes. I have to see the shape of the entire story, and I have to see it pretty early on, which means that I always put at least one twelve-hour stint in. As a mother of a young child, however—all metaphor aside—it’s difficult to write that way. This is where dangerous fantasies of joint custody enter the picture.

INTERVIEWER

So you’re a novelist for the time being, and not a story writer.

MOORE

In theory, I’m always available for stories, if they come to me. But right now I’m at work on a novel; there’s a plot, and a kind of subplot, an idea or two, and a little group of characters—rather than a collection of details, a swell of feeling, and a desire to set down an experience, which often is what is involved for me in story writing.

INTERVIEWER

You’re making it sound like the short story is a more artistic form.

MOORE

Perhaps, in many ways, it’s a more magical form. Who knows sometimes where stories come from? They are perhaps more attached to the author’s emotional life and come more out of inspiration than slogging. You shouldn’t write without inspiration—at least not very often. As I’ve already said, in discussing writing one shouldn’t set the idea of inspiration aside and speak only of hard work. Of course writing is hard work—or a very privileged kind of hard work. A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. A novel is a job. (Story writers working on a novel are typically in pain through the entire thing.) But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.

INTERVIEWER

Certainly the marketplace values novels more highly. They sell more copies and writers are better paid for them.

MOORE

I guess. There’s a lot of yak about how short stories are perfect for the declining public attention span. But we know that’s not true. Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story. (Though they may have a narcotizing paperback novel in their purse. This is not their fault.) Shockingly, people often don’t have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have fifteen minutes. And that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can’t read stories that way.

INTERVIEWER

How long does it take you to write a story?

MOORE

Well, I used to be able to write three or four stories a year. And there were other stories those first couple of years that I set aside. That would never happen now. I would never write a story and abandon it.

INTERVIEWER

What happened to the stories you set aside? Did you ever go back to them?

MOORE

I had decided they weren’t any good, and I didn’t include them in my MFA thesis or the collection, but I didn’t do anything dramatic like burn them. Recently I started thinking about a couple of them and wondering whether I might be able to see something salvageable in them now. I went up to my attic and dug through a lot of old papers, but I think they’re just gone. It’s a luxury to be able to abandon a story. Ideally, I suppose, that’s how a writer should work, but I can’t do it anymore. I can’t afford the loss.

INTERVIEWER

Does that make it harder to get started now? Is there more at stake, knowing you’re dedicated to making an idea pan out?

MOORE

No, not really. In graduate school, I was generating enough stories in a short time so that there was always a new one I felt more strongly about, pushing the weaker ones aside. Obviously, I don’t have that kind of traffic jam going on now. But I’m still devoted to the form—I’m just writing at a slower pace. A slower pace, I suppose, helps prevent certain kinds of mistakes. You are less likely to take off full speed in a foolhardy direction.

INTERVIEWER

I heard you read from the novel in progress last year in New York. It seemed to have some things in common with Frog Hospital, in terms of the rural setting, the adolescent-girl main character, and the tone. Can you speak about it at all?

MOORE

I can’t. Do you mind?

INTERVIEWER

Could I ask you to say if it’s set in upstate New York or in Wisconsin?

MOORE

Not New York. But I never say the word Wisconsin. I’ve always avoided it. I’ve gotten letters from people in Iowa and Minnesota saying, Would you quit saying Minnesota and Iowa? We know you’re talking about Wisconsin. So actually I do name other Midwestern states, just never Wisconsin. I don’t really know why. Perhaps I imagine that particular specificity will constrict my imagination. I will say, however, and do in the novel, “down along the Illinois border.”

INTERVIEWER

But you can’t set a story in New York City without making that fact apparent, can you? There are certain features and neighborhoods, like Hell’s Kitchen, that are unique to this place.

MOORE

Well, in Batman they don’t have to say New York. It’s Gotham. So it is possible to write about New York without saying the name. I once set a story that was clearly a New York story in Cleveland, and now it just seems so stupid and arbitrary to have insisted that it wasn’t New York.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever live in Cleveland?

MOORE

No, but I had an aunt and uncle in Cleveland and a friend who lived there, so I had enough details to use. I think I just decided I had too many stories that were set in New York—I wanted to get out of the city.

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk about the moment you decided to become a writer, if there was one that you can put your finger on? Or was it always obvious?

MOORE

It’s never always obvious.

INTERVIEWER

Some writers seem to think it was inevitable—they were writing poems when they were five and never stopped.

MOORE

Does that mean it’s obvious? I’d like to see some of those poems.

INTERVIEWER

So you don’t feel you were destined to it, that you had no other choice but to be a writer?

MOORE

Well, that’s all very romantic, and I can be as romantic as the next person. (I swear.) But the more crucial point is the moment you give yourself permission to do it, which is a decision that is both romantic and bloody-minded—it involves desire and foolish hope, but also a deep involvement with one’s art, some sort of useful self-confidence, and some kind of economic plan. One’s life, especially one’s artistic life, is an interplay of many things and the timing of encouragement—from teachers or parents—is also one of the most important elements. Although both my parents are creative people in their way, I was not especially encouraged by them, which might have been good. I certainly don’t blame them. I think they believed you threw things at your children— lessons, books, music—and then let the children sort it out, that if you were too present or too committed to a child’s accomplishment in any area, the child would run away. This, of course, is not really true. Or rather it’s not extremely true. But I received most of my initial encouragement in college, from professors, and by then I was ready to absorb it. I didn’t have the financial freedom to be a writer and have always struggled with that, but I also knew I didn’t want to find myself sixty-five years old and ruing the moment in my youth when I became prematurely practical. I wasn’t at all sure whether I would be able to survive as a writer for the rest of my life. But I decided to keep going for as long as I could and let someone else lock me up for incurable insanity.

 

Author photograph by Marion Ettlinger.