undefinedLorrie Moore, ca. 2014. Photograph by Zane Williams

 

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.