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Rick Moody was born in 1961 at New York Hospital in Manhattan. His family moved to Connecticut when he was two, and he spent the bulk of his childhood in various towns around Fairfield County.

Moody received his undergraduate degree in English, with an emphasis in creative writing, from Brown University, under the tutelage of such writers as Robert Coover, Angela Carter, and John Hawkes. Following Brown, he received his M.F.A. from Columbia University.

His first novel, Garden State, appeared in 1991, and was awarded the Pushcart Press Editors’ Book Award. In 1994 his second novel, The Ice Storm, was published, and with it Moody proved himself a rising star in American fiction. A short story and novella collection, The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, appeared in 1995, followed by the novel Purple America in 1997. Here Moody’s reputation as a prose stylist began to be cast. Purple America’s surgically deft formal construction, its loping, labyrinthine sentences and stunning ear for both the comic and dramatic (often within the same breath) press the reader through a weekend in the life of the Raitliffes, a Connecticut family—foremost, Billie Raitliffe, late-term victim of a degenerative nerve disease and mother of Hex, the alcoholic, stuttering hero. As the novel asserts at the end of the first chapter: “if he’s a hero, then heroes are five-and-dime, and the world is as crowded with them as it is with stray pets, worn tires, and missing keys.”

The same year as Purple America’s release, Moody co-edited, with Darcey Steinke, Joyful Noise, an omnibus of essays by various artists regarding faith and spirituality. Demonology, a short-story collection, was published earlier this year to further critical acclaim. Intelligent and remarkably diverse in style and content, the stories, taken individually and collectively, exemplify Moody’s constant interest in language, form, and the human comedy. The evidence of Moody’s fiction more often than not renders his oft-stated label as chronicler of suburban angst remarkably inadequate. He’s much too interested in prose to “chronicle” anything.

This conversation was conducted initially at the interviewer’s fifth-floor walkup in Yorkville, Manhattan’s old German-town: a badly planned clustering of tenements and projects, over which hover a growing number of expensive high-rise apartments—the walkup is a few blocks from the hospital where Moody was born. His story collection Demonology had just reached bookstores, and in a few days Moody would embark on a national reading tour.

 

INTERVIEWER

You often use lists as organizing principles for entire stories: do you find a generative power to this technique?

RICK MOODY

The model is William Gass’s work. He’s an awesome list maker, and I always love how he does it. I would like to catalogue less often. John Hawkes was very anticatalogue. He used to say, It’s too easy, and there’s truth to that. But the catalogue is the iteration of characters through metonymy. Instead of saying that your getting up just now and making us tea is going to reveal you, somehow, we could say, metonymically, that it is this incredibly strong mint tea itself that renders your character. That’s one sort of reasoning. Or I could list the books on the bookshelf here in your apartment (Philippe Sollers, Thomas Bernhard, Walter Abish), proposing, metonymically, this as an accurate sketch of who you are. There’s something really rich and powerful in not talking about what you need to talk about sometimes.

INTERVIEWER

Your short story “Primary Sources,” from The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, does an interesting turn by revealing books from which you’ve ostensibly drawn in life, by simply listing them bibliographically, occasionally footnoted with bits of detail of their relevance. For this reason, asking you what writers and artists have influenced you seems kind of silly. But do you mind if I drop a few names and ask for your response? William Gaddis, The Recognitions.

MOODY

I love those party scenes in The Recognitions. Oddly, Sven Birkerts said something to me about how much Purple America owed to Carpenter’s Gothic, which I don’t like, actually—it’s my least favorite Gaddis book. In fact, it’s the only one I think is not that good. So maybe this was not a compliment. Maybe one day I’ll write a book that Sven will compare to JR or Frolic.

INTERVIEWER

How about Thomas Bernhard? Technically what do you think you’ve pulled from him?

MOODY

Certain rhythmical ideas, or at least certain translated rhythmical ideas, since I don’t know what his rhythms are like in German, as I can’t read or speak the language. I suppose he’s the origin for my italicizing too. I’ve often wondered what happens along these lines in the German translations of my own work. I’ve never read a German review of my work that made any connection between my work and Bernhard’s, so it must be that in his original tongue it’s not so apparent.

INTERVIEWER

What about Stanley Elkin?

MOODY

Amy Osborn, my partner, says that she can never understand all the Cheever and Updike comparisons, because when she reads Elkin, she really sees that work as the preeminent influence.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of the comparisons to Cheever?

MOODY

I’m a little tired of these comparisons. But I think the Cheevers are a lot more tired of them than I am. I think the comparisons mainly have to do with topography, not with style. I don’t write like John Cheever at all. I love his work. But I don’t write like him. I would never compare myself to John Cheever.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve mentioned in other interviews that your childhood was relatively uneventful—do you think there was anything in your childhood that sparked an interest in writing?

MOODY

When I say I had an uneventful childhood, I’m really not exaggerating. I guess it’s probably not ridiculous to say that I was pretty vulnerable for a child. I didn’t have defenses against the slings and arrows of elementary school life. But who does? Shit would get under my skin, even totally routine stuff. At the same time, I knew a guy who was on Wonderama, a kid’s show in New York. I saw the Mets play in 1972. I was in love with the girl across the street, Lisa. It was the same stuff everyone else was doing. What made me good at my job, to the extent that I am good at it, was that I was a reader. Nothing inherently interesting happened. I don’t have a skeleton in the closet, anything like that. The only singular thing about me was that I read like a maniac.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of books were you reading?

MOODY

I was reading a lot of the nonsense kids read, but the breakthrough for me was reading The Old Man and the Sea. In sixth grade. In New Canaan. Even then, I had some epiphanic relationship to Hemingway’s language. Even at that age it was revelatory. I just went and read everything else by this guy. Probably didn’t understand much of it. My friends were reading Encyclopedia Brown and Hardy Boys and I got this bug where I had to read Hemingway, Hemingway, Hemingway. It was more of the same in the years after that, in junior high. I too was reading Tolkien and Robert Heinlein, but I read these books while reading Salinger and Fitzgerald.