An Interview with Lorrie Moore
Alisa Koyrakh, Issue 38
My correspondence with Lorrie Moore was itself a lesson in craft. Here is how to conduct yourself in an interview: respond to questions directly and without unnecessary embellishment; when you don’t understand a question, say so; and if you don’t have an answer, don’t pretend that you do. Be generous with your time, but careful with your words. And if you can, if you have the confidence, wisdom, and artistry, be equal parts funny and mysterious. There are surely worse guidelines for writing successful literary fiction.
Moore graduated from Cornell’s MFA Program just over thirty years ago. “Even though I loved my time at Cornell,” she wrote to me, “I don’t think I ever once took my peers’ advice.” Her early talent and stubbornness were quickly rewarded: Moore’s thesis at Cornell developed into her stunning and innovative first story collection, Self-Help (Knopf, 1985), which introduced readers to her distinctive voice. Thirteen years later, her wry, frank stories about parenthood, marriage, and loneliness in Birds of America (Knopf, 1998) established her as a literary master. The book became a New York Times bestseller, a rare feat for a story collection. She’s now published three novels and four story collections, and sometimes she even asks for notes from a friend. “Maybe as one gets older,” she muses, “one knows how to sort through advice better.”
Moore’s latest book, Bark (Knopf, 2014), is a collection of eight short stories. Its modest size is deceiving. Her protagonists make precise and biting observations while harboring vague, unfulfilled dreams—a combination that reveals their complicity in an America becoming ever more bewildering. The book reflects a deep love of language—the clever puns and dark comedy, for which Moore first gained notice, persist—but the collection also reflects a suspicion that language’s recourses are limited in a world inured to panic. In the story “Subject to Search,” which concerns the American military prison at Abu Ghraib, she writes: “When you fled one room of moral ambiguity, it was good to have a nice, overstuffed chair awaiting you in the next. But you then perhaps became your spook self, your ghost self, restless in a house you never knew was quite this haunted—and haunted by you.”
She wrote to me from Madison, Wisconsin, where she’s spending the summer with her son before returning to her teaching job at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “I’m working on a novel right now,” she says, “and that is where I want to be.”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Some writers and editors say that one should only write if one has something urgent to say. Do you think that’s useful advice?
MOORE: I try to start a project with at least a small sense of urgency—one has to feel there is some reason for it, and something must propel it. That said, one often continues work with an intermittent sense of lostness, despondency, and an inner voice chanting why why why. But that is merely falling down a little, and one gets back up and continues. (Cliché alert! I would like to fall down and just lie there for a very long time—but almost never do.) Working on anything for anyone—as far as I know—is like that.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In your story “Debarking,” the protagonist is dazed by American politics and the violence that’s returned to the world. There is a willingness in the prose to implicate the reader, an admission that there’s enough blame to go around. Did you make a conscious decision to “go there”? Were you worried about the consequences of getting into politics, even just slightly?
MOORE: I think the answer to your first question is Yes, and the answer to the second question is No. I have always had the world and its struggles lurking in my work from my very first collection onward. If by “politics” you mean geo-political events, I have my usually very American characters sometimes intersect with them but more often just speak of them as American individuals would and did and continue to do.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Take, for instance, your story, “Subject to Search,” in which the characters have just received news of the events at Abu Ghraib. In that case, is your writing embodying the protagonist’s particular set of beliefs and feelings, or are they your own?
MOORE: There is no set of beliefs to infuse: everyone would agree that the events at Abu Ghraib were morally reprehensible. What I was interested in there is how large the network of responsibility might be.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I remember a particularly dark joke from the same story, in which the main character says of his friend who sat first class in one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers, “You don’t expect things like that to happen except in coach.”
MOORE: What draws me to humor is the mordant and paradoxical way people actually speak in times of worry and despair.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Is setting very important in your work?
MOORE: Setting didn’t used to matter too much to me but now it matters completely. I need an exact location and an exact year in which my narrative is set and sometimes that shifts around while writing, which is stupid and disconcerting.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Why do you think setting matters more to you now?
MOORE: I think I used to believe, when young, that I was writing about universal matters of the heart or some such thing. Also, perhaps I was moving around too much. I moved every year for a very long time.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you think the experience of being raised a woman affects the female writer?
MOORE: I’m sure you realize how huge that question is and how there is no particular answer to it. So I will query your terms. I’m not sure I was “raised a woman.” When I was young, I was just a girl in a culture that didn’t disabuse me of that idea or at least didn’t disabuse me of it constantly. We were not allowed to wear pants to school—public school—until I was in the eighth grade, when the NY State legislature finally said we legally could. Up until then our knees froze in the cold while the boys stayed warm. Etc. When I mention things like that to my students, they think I am speaking of the nineteenth century, and maybe I kind of am. But in general, we got to be “artistic” with impunity—which is different from being an artist.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s a fascinating distinction. What do you think distinguishes an artist from someone who’s “artistic with impunity”?
MOORE: What distinguishes those two ideas is the nature and quality of the work. The “artist” doesn’t matter. Just the art.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you think the conversation surrounding writing by women has changed since the eighties?
MOORE: I suspect I’m not tracking the conversation surrounding writing by women as closely as I perhaps should, so I’m not sure. I heard Jennifer Weiner on the PBS NewsHour speaking to this, but I wasn’t sure I knew what she was talking about—I think she was talking about being a literary entertainer. Something I’ve never been. My experience is about making narrative art while trying to earn a living and support dependents. And a lot of men have that issue too. Is there some giant monolithic thing in the culture that is at least slightly sexist? Or at least some strand of something unconscious that disparages literary women and holds them back a little? I’m sure there is. I would bet real cash money on it.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I’ve heard people argue that women are more likely to write narratives that are less linear and more fragmented. Do you agree?
MOORE: Have people forgotten Evan Connell and Manuel Puig and Donald Barthelme? I don’t think fragments belong to any gender in particular but I do occasionally try to discourage them in my students’ work (and use Flannery O’Connor as the shining counterexample) because sometimes a student’s fragments are a sign that they as authors have grown suddenly tired or self-contented, or have lost the narrative thread and have gotten on their phones to chat with their mothers.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How does teaching inform your creative life, or does the classroom distract you from your own writing?
MOORE: Teaching and writing have nothing to do with one another. And they compete with each other for time and energy, sad to say. But I must add, I learn a lot of things from my students. This is an exciting aspect of teaching but it has very little to do with writing. (No one has asked for their tuition money back, however. Yet.)
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What’s the most interesting lesson you’ve learned from your students?
MOORE: Oh, I wouldn’t rank anything. But they say things like, “There’s no such thing as men and women.” Or, “Whoever says ‘Hitler’ first loses the argument.” They tell me the precise names and spellings for various body piercings I’ve never heard of. They are very open and tolerant regarding identity issues—more than students of my generation were—and they fill me in on their lifestyles which involve smartphones a lot. I don’t own a smartphone. Here are some other people who don’t: Rihanna, Ann Patchett, and Charles McGrath.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: What are you reading and watching these days?
MOORE: For reasons I can’t precisely grasp or reveal, I am reading the newest biography of Custer. And when Custer becomes too much of a jerk—which is often; I’m not sure how this book got written—I switch quickly to Emma Straub’s terrific Modern Lovers.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: And what are you listening to?
MOORE: The same things I always do: Jaco Pastorius, Joni Mitchell. I may be temporarily over my 24/7 Prince memorial. But that will resume again, I’m sure.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Last question. You edited 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories last year. What was that experience like?
MOORE: Oh, it was very heartbreaking and difficult because of the things we had to leave out. We had brutal space restraints that Updike didn’t have when he did his and it made the job kind of upsetting. We had great stories. They all stood out because they had stood out originally if they were in the BASS series. But in the anniversary volume we had to whittle and whittle until we felt like we were cutting away at some of the vital organs. I still lie awake going, “No Charlie D’Ambrosio?”