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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
An Interview with Lorrie Moore
This week we go back a few years to Tin House Executive Editor Michelle Wildgen’s interview with Lorrie Moore (issue 41). If you haven’t read Moore’s work, we hope this piece provides some insight into what you’re missing and maybe you’ll find yourself leaving the office early, swinging by the bookstore and walking out with a copy of Birds of America: Stories (you won’t be sorry). If on the other hand, you’re one of the many who can’t get enough of Moore’s lyrical prose and sharp, well rendered characters, well, this one’s for you.
For a while there, I am pretty certain, I had Lorrie Moore all to myself. I’d been assigned to read her story “You’re Ugly, Too” in an undergraduate fiction workshop at the University of Wisconsin—so I suppose we must include those twelve others too—and I emerged a little slack-jawed over the way her writing captured the whirling prism of an inner life, with its associative magpie quality and the constant, gathering surge of odd compelling phrases and the shifting emotions hooked to them. Her characters were funny, brilliant, and really pissed off and uncertain a lot of the time, and if they were frustrating to their companions and themselves, they were rather intoxicating to me. Now this was the inner life, in style if not substance, that I was reaching for as a twenty-year-old, the goal of all the references I was trying to accrue while I looked up words like “vetchling” and “philately”—which, cunningly, turned out not to be an adverb. The outer lives of Moore’s characters tended to be saddened and a little beaten, but their vocabularies were a wonder.
Lorrie Moore, it turned out, was right down the hall from that workshop, a professor at UW, though I never saw her. This only made it easier for me to believe that her writing was between her and me, the larger world conveniently ignorant. At the time, she had not yet published her second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital and the best-selling Birds of America, one of three story collections. Her story “People Like That Are the Only People Here” had not yet appeared in the New Yorker and become one of the very few instances I can recall in which people who were not writers or editors went around asking one another if they had read this story yet, because they had to. So, for a brief time it seemed reasonable to hope that it was only me and this writer Lorrie Moore, and maybe those other undergrads who were also holding dictionaries and shuffling hopefully past her closed office door.
Moore’s new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, tells the story of a college student, Tassie, who takes a nanny job with restaurateur Sarah and her husband, Edward. Everything about the job feels off-kilter from the start: for one thing, it commences in a suspiciously child-free home, and the husband too is absent for some time, leaving only Tassie and her new employer to interview several social workers and pregnant birth mothers before Sarah and Edward adopt a biracial little girl named Mary-Emma. If Moore’s last novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? was a compact gem, then A Gate at the Stairs is bigger and broader, taking time to skewer racism tricked out as liberal white guilt, to explore the class and economic implications of war, the conundrums of paid childcare, and the oddity of how the farmers, like Tassie’s father, who supply Sarah’s high-end locavore restaurant with their much-vaunted potatoes, could never afford to dine there. It’s also got a touch of gothic mystery: the longer Tassie works for them, the more uncertainties surround Sarah and Edward, and a creeping sense not just of the absurd but of the faintly sinister fills the attic nursery.
Moore’s work has always been known for being funny, and is no exception—Tassie’s eavesdropping on the conversations of the mixed-race family discussion group, in particular, provides a brutally funny round-robin of booze and self-consciousness:
“There is such eagerness to lump black people with apes. Beasts of any kind.”
“That’s done even to Jews.”
“Well, Austrians . . . ”
“What do you mean, ‘even’?”
“I mean nothing. I mean even chickens. I’ve heard the PETA people compare what goes on with chickens to what went on with the Jews.”
“Well, how else are you going to make them sit still in their nests and do your taxes if you don’t cut their legs off?”
“Your sense of humor is too dark.”
“Don’t say ‘dark.’ It’s racist.”
And yet rereading her past books and now A Gate at the Stairs reminded me that, as humorous, even slapstick, as Lorrie Moore’s work may be, lightness does not prevail. The humor is knotty, wry, and verbally tangled; these people are funny both despite and because of their disappointment. As Moore herself says, she is interested in characters who’ve been roughed up a little.
Her work is also so particular and so singularly observed that a reader can recall these images years later: a teenage girl noting that her mother’s shaved armpit resembles a prickly fruit, the fingerling potatoes lopped off at their bumpy little knuckles, the tiny mouse heart packed in snow that is a blood clot in a baby’s diaper. But while any decent writer can turn a phrase, Moore’s language reaches beyond describing. It isn’t about gussying up the page, but is the evidence that the writer perceives, in almost unbearable detail, the moments most of us wish went undetected in our bodies, our conversations, our reachings toward and failures at connection. For a long time—say, back when I was a college student lingering outside an office door—I concentrated only on the failures in these fictional worlds: the spouses who cannot comfort each other, the drying pool that was once a sustaining friendship, the way so many characters seem to have been whisked from their element and plopped among the aliens. But lately I am concentrating on the fact that the people in Lorrie Moore’s work keep making the effort. I have come to think that in many ways her work is really all about this hopeful stretch toward others, toward happiness, toward distraction, toward anything, toward whatever.
Recently I exchanged several emails with Lorrie Moore about whether any fictional character gets to be comfortable, the need for determination toward cheer, and—as a bonus—walked away with at least one parenting-slash-writing tip.
Michelle Wildgen: I’m curious how your teaching career works with your writing career—how does immersing yourself in students’ writing affect your view of your own work?
Lorrie Moore: Oh, teaching, it seems to me, has little to do with one’s own writing except that when the student work is good it challenges you to hold your own work to a higher standard. When the student work is not good, reading it screws up your spelling. But in general these activities—teaching and writing—take place in two different rooms and use two different muscles in your brain. In many ways they are the opposite of each other. I think that can be a very good thing.
MW: “Home” seems to be a thorny subject for your characters—they’re often leaving one place and often striving to reach another. Do your characters ever reach that comfortable place? Can they?
LM: Who knows what a comfortable place is? And do literary characters generally end up there? Even at the happy end of happy novels there will be skeptics. A novel is usually an investigation of comfortable places, a pulling up of rocks and looking underneath. I suppose a novel is always shamelessly trying to engage with a question or two without having any answers. As for my characters reaching any place at all, I’m afraid I don’t think of them as a group with a particular fate assigned. I do think that perhaps the condition you describe—the reaching, the caught-betweenness—is, if not universal, then widespread. But I don’t think of the characters in my books as having a group ailment, though I’m sure that’s a sign that they do. But if I thought that way I probably would lose interest. It is part of the necessary delusion of the author that each character is something unique and different from anything they’ve written before. It’s up to the critic to say, Oy, not this again.
MW: You’ve lived in the Midwest, in Madison, Wisconsin, for many years, and your work retains the kind of distance that keeps the surroundings odd and the observations tart. Is there a danger in familiarity the longer you live here?
LM: The Midwest has given me some things to write about. But another place would have, too, I assume, which doesn’t mean I’m ungrateful about where I am. And true, Wisconsin is no longer new and a little harder to see with a fresh eye. On the other hand, it is constantly changing, as is the entire world. A writer can scarcely keep up with all the things there are to write about. I don’t think that if it’s really your calling to write stories that you would ever run out of things to write about. That said, I’ve probably just cursed myself.
MW: Do you ever hear yourself taking on a Midwestern accent and beat it back down?
LM: Heck, nah. I’m not completely sure what a Midwestern accent is, however, so that may be a bad sign. I suppose you mean those flat a’s. I assume I have a mish-mosh of everything in my voice, though on the phone I’ve been mistaken over and over for my mother, so maybe my voice is just an unshakable redo of hers.
MW: Your work is so often described as humorous, but I think the description misses the complexity of the humor itself—it’s kind of a wincing humor, or else a humor that’s refusing to wince. I had a Shakespeare professor once who told us to forget the idea of comic relief—it’s not relief, he said, it’s the opposite. It’s twisting the knife. Would you say you use it this way?
LM: I don’t feel I use humor. I think that would be disrespectful of humor—to use it, like a seasoning or a tool or a weapon or a drug or a living creature that is willing to do shameful things for pay. I feel humor arises—at least it should, and it will if one is paying attention—from the narrative itself, but here again may be another necessary authorial delusion.
MW: At times the narrators’ puns come racing at the reader; the characters labor both to make us see them as witty and knowing and also to let us see how hard they labor to get others to see them a certain way. Is this an effect you go for purposefully, or does it happen more by feel, as you follow an emotional trajectory for your characters?
LM: I do feel I get accused of puns and wordplay more than I currently should. Certainly I’m interested in the self-conscious use of language by fictional characters in a way that reflects the real-life way people texture their utterances, to either weep or moan or step away from a prickly thicket. The mind loves to play to console itself, and language is the muscle of the mind. But for real punning you need to go to a Maureen Dowd column. Almost any one.
MW: Some writers seem to use words as bare-bones conductors into the imagined experience, but in your writing there’s great enjoyment in the words themselves, yet the language doesn’t stop the reader at the gate. Are you someone who loves a good discussion on etymology or usage? Are there words you love, words that make your skin crawl?
LM: There are words I love—like arpeggio—and words that have a certain inherent ugliness—like gland. I’m not first and foremost a word person—I don’t do Scrabble, and though etymology is interesting I have no special knowledge and sometimes like to make up false etymologies as jokes. Words are interesting to me for their sound and the feelings and meanings they can be made to convey. So I’m really a sound, feelings, and meanings person.
MW: How does a story or a novel begin for you? Are you a careful planner, or a writer who needs to leap in and flail around for awhile?
LM: There is no one way. I do all the things you’ve suggested—I plan carefully and I flail, both. The most important thing is to clear the decks and bear down. Concentration and a willingness to run up blind alleys is key. And not fooling yourself: telling yourself you’ve concentrated when you really haven’t in a deep way is death to the whole endeavor.
MW: Do you have a go-to trick to get recalcitrant characters to come alive for you—the way a parent might broach a sensitive topic with a kid while driving?
LM: Sadly, all my characters are alive for me. Even the ones that seem like zombies to others. So it’s not me they must come alive for. But if characters seem dead on the page, they simply need to say or do more. Or they need to have a really interesting thought. Even a thought so banal it’s interesting. Or they need to be killed or maybe not killed but just roughed up a little or they need to be driven out of town on a rail, an expression I’ve never used before and so am not highly confident about its meaning. Also? I never talk about sensitive matters with my kid while driving. I think that’s not a good idea. We listen to the radio and bounce around or else fall into silence. The car is part disco, part church. But I never turn it into therapy. I made the mistake of buying a car with a moonroof, which could be used as an exit if sensitive topics were being broached. There is a writing lesson in there if you look hard.
MW: A Gate at the Stairs takes place just after 9/11. I’m curious if, during the period you were writing, your own view of that historical moment shifted? And if that affected the novel itself in the writing?
LM: Although 9/11 affected New York, obviously, far more than anywhere else, probably more than Washington, the build-up to war that followed was felt more keenly in the provinces. I did notice all kinds of things here. People in the National Guard who used to run computer shops and fix your computer were suddenly gone. And the recruitment from Midwestern high schools was notorious. The noticing of things is a writer’s job and some of this noticing went into the novel.
MW: The novel includes a teenager considering joining the military, and that seems to highlight how, in this historical moment, what should be normal teenage uncertainty and impulsiveness have such massive consequences. Yet Sarah and Edward too have acted impulsively, with terrible consequences for others even more than for them, and yet to me they seem unable to fully grasp this. Does this feel relevant to you, the sense that some people bear the burden while others start over more than once?
LM: Sure. I also think the backstory with Sarah and Edward has to do with an idea of passivity or paralysis in the passenger’s seat while the person in the driver’s seat makes a terrible rash error. That’s both a metaphor and not. It was certainly part of a national climate post-9/11.
MW: Food carries a great deal of weight in this book—as a marker of one class in Sarah’s restaurant, as a refusal of the same class in Tassie’s father’s choice of farming as a profession, and there is a beautifully described meal that seems to bring a lot of it together near the end of the novel. What caught your interest here?
LM: I live in America’s dairyland and breadbasket, and the way food has become both politics and art is really breathtaking. But when you live where food is grown it should be part of the world you write about, it seems to me. There are times that we eat in a way that people on this planet never before have—on the deliciousness scale, I mean. I was interested in a character whose dad was providing food to restaurants she herself couldn’t afford to go to. I had that meal in mind from the very start of the book: that somehow she would finally have to go and taste her dad’s potatoes in that fancy place. When I finally got to that scene I probably put too much food in it. I was so excited.
MW: There’s another passage, too, that brings together food and violence and war. I’m thinking of the scene when Sarah gives Tassie caramelized sage with Normandy sea salt and Tassie thinks, “So this is what the Americans were busying themselves with in Normandy now that it had been liberated from the Nazis: hand raking the sea salt.”
LM: I think Tassie is very alert to both the beauty and the absurdity of it. Plus the cost. And the invisible world behind what we eat.
MW: A Gate at the Stairs nods explicitly to the gothic elements of Jane Eyre and in some subtler ways as well—it even has an attic nursery, mysterious past and present circumstances, and unexpected people popping up where Tassie least expects it. And of course, Tassie is a girl of a different class caring for the adopted child of a more elevated couple. Can you talk a bit about this literary influence?
LM: Thank you for noticing the Jane Eyre things. Very few people have, and a writer friend of mine said I was totally foolish to expect anyone to. I don’t know that it’s really an influence in a true way except that one can never write a first-person nanny novel that has race, imperialism, romance, and mad secrets in it without Jane Eyre hovering over.
MW: Reading your work I’m often struck by its sense of youth as an expectant time before any of us have gotten old enough to have our hopes dulled. What characters in your body of work escape that pervasive loss of pleasant expectation?
LM: A quiz! Well, let me think. I think the characters in the story “Terrific Mother” do. I think the main character in the story “Charades” is not in a condition of loss or disappointment; although there is complaint buzzing through, there is also great determination toward cheer despite all. As there are in a couple of other stories. And now here I would start to quarrel with your terms—the pervasive loss of pleasant expectation. I’m not sure that any of these characters were in that particular condition to begin with. “Pleasant expectation” suggests a lightness of spirit that may be a little alien to me. But hopefulness, maybe. Or uninjuredness at least. I think even the most melancholic begin there. But I think I’m interested in people who’ve weathered a jolt. I like to see what happens next.
MW: I’d include Cal and Simone, in “Dance in America,” too. The tone of that story is one of those achievements that looks effortless. Do you struggle with tone or does it guide you from the start?
LM: I think it’s something I’m following, trying to keep pace with.
MW: What else might spark your work, at the very early stages? What about the early writing of A Gate at the Stairs?
LM: I don’t think at this point I can pull the pieces apart and tell you where things began; the very early stages were long ago. Perhaps if someone said, “Is this your friend’s dog here on page twelve?” I might be able to say, “Yeah, you know what, it is, but only sort of.” It’s not possible to anatomize more than that. And the inclination of a writer to do that, having spent all that time fashioning the story into what she hopes is a coherent whole, is really very tiny.
MW: Race is of considerable importance in this novel—social workers often hasten to inform Sarah and Edward that a prospective adoptive child is white, and in the fairly pale and pleased-to-be-liberal city of Troy, Tassie and Emmie encounter both overt hostility and white parents hoping to use Emmie as a way of acclimatizing their children to African Americans. You mentioned this earlier as the writer’s job—to take note of just how bizarre attitudes toward race can be when people are trying to act enlightened. What interested you here?
LM: Oh, I have personal reasons but mostly race is such an interesting national topic. And as a theme in life and in the country it takes unexpected turns depending on the region. I think, as a country, half our national conversation is about race. Writers would be fools to turn their backs on that.
MW: I’m curious about how Sufism—a mystical aspect of Islam—lends another dimension to A Gate at the Stairs. When I came across this description, it seemed to describe so many of the book’s concerns, and even to describe Tassie herself: “Abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone.” That last phrase—retiring from others to worship alone—seemed true of Tassie, who, while she certainly longs for contact with other people, is fundamentally alone through so much of the book. Plus there are several missed communications and lost chances to connect . . . What does aloneness mean for this novel?
LM: Tassie is alone the way most protagonists are alone. That’s part of the reason we read books, I think, to bring our reader’s solitude in contact with a solitude created by the writer. That said, Tassie is genuinely with a few people here and there in the book, and I would list them as Mary-Emma, Murph, Robert, her father, and perhaps even, though arguably, Reynaldo. The Sufism is a class she’s taking and where, ironically, she meets her guy. I placed it there as a bit of realism, not as a bit of mysticism, and I wondered how it would waft through the narrative, or even if it would, which it did in a small way, I think.
MW: We spoke a little about the often-unnoticed Jane Eyre influences on the book, and this makes me wonder what aspects of your writing seem crucial and visible to you but often go uncommented upon by readers? Or, conversely, qualities in your work that you didn’t take note of until readers engaged with them.
LM: Well, writers shouldn’t whine. And the Jane Eyre elements are only gestural. But I think at the start of my writing books, I thought I was writing politically—as it turned out, in a way that few people noticed. Though maybe my work was political in only the most general ways. So I made it more and more explicit—not polemical, necessarily, although in heightening the politics, occasionally a polemical paragraph appeared. My characters are political though their stories are less so, I suppose. At any rate, recently someone wrote a piece in the Times Literary Supplement about all of my stories being political, and I do remember reading it and thinking in a sighing way, “At last.”
Lorrie Moore is the author of the story collections Like Life, Self-Help, and Birds of America, and the novels Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and Anagrams. She is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Michelle Wildgen is an executive editor at Tin House magazine. She is the author of the novels You’re Not You and But Not for Long and editor of an anthology, Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in publications and anthologies including the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices 2004, Best Food Writing 2004 and 2009, and elsewhere.