An Interview With Rick Moody
Andy Sanchez, Issue 37
Rick Moody’s latest novel, Hotels of North America, catalogs the imminent demise of the white male middle class. Its inventive structure also forces reviewers to consider concepts like “the neo-epistolary meta-nar-
rative,” a type of phrase that Moody issues frequently to his students at the New York University Creative Writing Program. But on the eve of Hotels’ publication, Moody back-burnered his enthusiasm for literary analysis in favor of letting off some musical steam and hyping his new band’s debut album. That night, my workshop classmates fled to Brooklyn and watched as our professor performed in concert with The Unspeakable Practices, a project that the website Stereogum describes with underhanded reverence as “an abrasive yet ethereal improv racket topped off by Moody spewing nasal rants and raves.” I was regrettably away for the weekend, but, thanks to an industrious cellphone user in the class, now possess what copious online research suggests is the only video of that event. In the clip, Moody is center stage. He is wearing a button-down shirt that clashes with modern sartorial trends. The melody behind him is hard to discern. And with his usual devil-may-care exuberance, Moody speak-sings into the microphone: “A guilty expression. Like a bad . . . hangover!” Nine seconds later, the video ends. The song hasn’t finished, but the image has taken root: Rick Moody is not here to make life easy for you. He’s here to confront your assumptions, to suggest that maybe the problem isn’t with your instruments, it’s just that the world is out of tune.
In this most recent phase of his career, Moody seems intrigued by the idea of finding art in unexpected places, the uglier the better. He speaks glowingly of his experiences teaching outside traditional writing programs, and devotes considerable online real estate to defending his distaste for pop-music sen-
sations. Meanwhile, no book is too obscure for his ever-changing syllabus, which often seems to span the entire written canon. That slog, wading through the popular to find the sublime, takes an enormous supply of energy, and is the most important lesson to take away from Moody’s classes. Read thoroughly, edit mercilessly, and don’t limit yourself to the old story-telling standards. It’s a formula that’s earned Moody critical acclaim throughout his long career of pushing back against the academy. Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three story collections, and two memoirs, which include Garden State (Pushcart Press, 1992), The Ice Storm (Little, Brown, 1994), Purple America (Little, Brown, 1997), The Black Veil (Little, Brown, 2002), and The Diviners (Little, Brown, 2005). In 1999, The New Yorker chose him as one of their “Twenty Writers for the Twenty-first Century.” He received his MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University in 1986, and has taught previously at Princeton University, Yale University, and Bennington College. He broke from his busy schedule to talk with Washington Square Review’s Andy Sanchez about songwriting, pedagogy, and “not giv[ing] a shit about tomorrow.” — Michael Sarinsky
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’re known to be a voracious reader. Can you tell me a bit about your philosophy on reading: how you decide what to read, how you react to any sort of friction you encounter in reading a book, whether you don’t finish a certain book but consider it “read?”
MOODY: I try to go where the pleasure leads, and not to ask too many questions about the origin of the pleasure. My guilty thing is rock and roll books, but even there when the spirit calls, I just go. I don’t think twice. I read Elvis Costello’s memoir while on tour last week, and I loved it a lot. Remarkably well written for a non-writer. Long, yes, but unlike Keith Richards, he wrote it himself! In general, then, pleasure is my guide. Sometimes there are things that I just don’t want to read, even though they are extremely popular. And then I will give the book the fifty-page test. If I don’t lose myself in it in fifty pages, I’m liable to stop. I would not consider that book read, but I would consider that I was better informed than before the experiment. These days I stop and start more than I used to. I’m always reading four or five things and picking one up and then picking up another. Some books I have been reading for six months but am not quite done yet. And I am very engaged with the classics, so there’s usually a very old something-or-other that is at the top of the stack.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Have you ever gone back on a fifty-page test?
MOODY: Probably, because there are no rules. But not often. I trust my taste.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: So, you obviously cover some nonfiction. How much poetry do you throw in? Lyric essay? The sort of writing that trusts the associative progression of the mind, or at least does so in an apparent way on the page. It reminds me of your thoughts on creating, on trusting language.
MOODY: I read everything. I think with poetry I trust the editorial forces of the world to simplify the field for me. But I belatedly catch up to stuff with great avidity. I had a period of reading a lot of Mark Strand, a year or so before his death. I have been brushing up on Akhmatova recently. About which I didn’t know as much as I needed to. My blank spots are all in the most contemporary, you know? I’m trying to learn a lot about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that mostly is where pleasure leads first.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: As you’ve read more poetry has that changed your sense of language or tangent?
MOODY: Sure. Definitely. It’s always in the mix. I think Whitman has been really influential for me. As has William Carlos Williams. I know “serious poets” look down on Williams a little bit, but I really love his work a great deal, especially Paterson and In the American Grain. But at the other extreme, I like a lot of “experimental” poetry, Susan Wheeler, for example. Claudia Rankine. I like things that have a conceptual apparatus or framework. Rob Fitterman is someone I like a lot too. The Metropolis sequence is really good. Owes a lot to Williams, I think. He was a colleague of mine, and taught me a lot about process-oriented work. I got a lot from working alongside him.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Can you elaborate on “process-oriented work?”
MOODY: Work that is in part about how it is made. I think the Metropolis poems involve a very thorough intertextuality that breaks down the source material into such small constituent pieces that they are no longer recognizable as such. He works really hard at that. I think that process is admirable. It has a visual art density to it.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How would you say that’s come into your own work? And at what stage would you introduce something like that?
MOODY: Well, I make poems, you know. I just don’t talk about it much. At the same time I have been teaching writing to visual artists a lot lately (since 2011, both at Yale and NYU), and their tendency is always to think about conceptual orientation, which I admire. Sometimes the visual artists are better conceptual thinkers than creative writing students are. I think the hotel-review structure of my new novel, [Hotels of North America], in part owes its shape to teaching the visual artists. They allowed me to feel confident about that structure.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I think it says a lot about you as a teacher, that you get that much out of that dialogue, that conversation with the students. When did that structure come into the book?
MOODY: I love my students! A lot! They make the teaching worthwhile. Those moments when the light shines on them and they move into a new open field, those moments make teaching worthwhile. It’s just as rewarding, in the long run, as writing is. The ones who go on and work and publish and flour-
ish, they could not make me happier. I have a big stack of books published by my former students, and every time there is a new one of those I am very, very happy.
The hotels came to me while I was staying in a bad hotel, sometime in 2012, I think, but it was because I was enjoying teaching the visual artists so much, at that time, that I trusted I could pull it off, even though, superficially, the concept seemed sub-literary or gimmicky.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I know your students appreciate that investment.
MOODY: If it’s not going to involve an emotional exchange, a transmission of the whole-personality commitment to literature, then why bother to do it? I could easily clock in and clock out, like my teachers used to do at Columbia a bit, but then I would feel dead inside about the job, and I don’t want to feel that way. I want to share a journey of enthusiasm for literature with those who are up for it. I expect a lot. And I give a lot.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: A lot of that could be said of writing, too, I think. That it requires that same sort of commitment to be done well, that in the end it’s a dialogue with a lot of generosity.
MOODY: Sure, that’s a given at this point. I don’t expect everyone to get it. I don’t care if everyone gets it. But what I do is made for a quixotic group of readers. Apparently there are still some of them.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you think of a specific quixotic reader in your work? What’s the relationship you feel to the audience when you’re in the middle of a page?
MOODY: I take Don DeLillo’s injunction here to heart. He said something like: “I don’t have an ideal reader; I have a set of standards.” That’s kind of how I feel. There’s no particular person out there at the end of publication. It’s more that I have some ideas about what literature is, and those quixotic readers are the ones who are willing to try to go along for that. The ones who will read an eight-hundred-page speculative fiction, followed by a book made out of hotel reviews.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I read somewhere that you loved sharks as a kid, that they were integral to your early reading and even a part of what made you a writer. Considering all the changes you’ve made in your career—eight-hundred-page speculative fiction to hotel reviews—would you consider your artistic life something of a shark? If it doesn’t keep moving, it dies? With each new project, do those standards bend or change? How much do you hold on to, and how does it feel to let things go, things that may have been essential to the previous book?
MOODY: I’m just at a point now, where even though your shark analogy is good (and apt!), I note that I have accidentally repeated myself once or twice. For example, I wrote a piece for the last issue of Black Clock, a really great journal from Cal Arts that is coming to an end, and it’s sort of about apocalypse obsession and the way that is hard-wired into American culture, and right when I finished it, I realized that I had already written a story about that, called “The Apocalypse Commentary of Bob Paisner,” in my first collection. I had completely forgotten this. Which means: even the shark eventually swims back through waters he has visited previously.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Sharing a topic, were they similar in other ways? How did you react to finding yourself in the same waters?
MOODY: They are not really similar in shape or character. They both have apocalypse and the obsession with apocalypse in them. And some biblical citation. But it just goes to show that eventually I will come around again to similar concerns. It’s funny when you get to the point that you don’t quite remember everything that you have written. I have interviewed musicians who don’t remember every gig at all. I think it’s noble in a way—dogged professionalism, perhaps, in continuing on, but in no way being preoccupied with work past. I know very little about The Ice Storm, for example.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: It’s a bit like acting, too, that desire to inhabit but not necessarily capture the ephemeral. Just being in the moment.
MOODY: I really live that way. That is how I think about the world and life. I do not give a shit about yesterday at all. And I only care about tomorrow in that a certain amount of planning is useful so that you don’t waste time.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: You ever read Jon Landau’s comment about Blood on the Tracks? That it would “only sound like a great album for a while” and was “impermanent.” I think he broadened the claim to include all of Dylan’s works. Obviously, he’s wrong on both counts.
MOODY: My god. I have been in print saying it’s the greatest album of the rock era. And I really feel that way. Very few things have moved me as much. I am not in the Dylan Religious Movement at all. But I really revere that album.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I love the way the album talks to itself, that it’s allowed to have these callow moments but then turns them to include Dylan himself—I’m thinking of the shift in the final verse of “Idiot Wind.”
MOODY: “Idiot Wind” is pivotal.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Have you gravitated toward one song in particular, or is it distinctly of a whole for you?
MOODY: Well, I think “You’re a Big Girl Now” is incredible. “Tangled Up in Blue” is incredible. “Buckets of Rain” is amazing. “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” is an outlier. But those story-songs are very important to how Dylan albums happen. So I’m not going to get in the way of that one.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I found “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts” made a lot more sense to me when I listened to the NY version.
MOODY: All the various versions of the album are important. It’s not one thing. There’s not a definitive version. It’s a project that sprawls outward. The guitar sound is really important on that album, too. His tuning is weird. You can hear it more on the NY version, I think. The guys playing around him on the released version cover it up a bit. But the album is a mixture of the songs, which are immense, and his persistence with this guitar tuning. I like that that can really influence the reception of a work.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The tuning and strumming style is such a part of the way those songs were written and the texture and feeling they evoke.
MOODY: He was really restless about that kind of thing. Which is part of his art.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Tell me a bit about how music has affected your writing. Both in terms of what Blood on the Tracks might’ve shaped, but also your band. How long have you been playing?
MOODY: I’ve been playing since I was a teenager. But I am inconsistent about it. I will never be a great player. Unfortunately for me. I can play keyboards well enough, I think. You know, I can play piano as well as Jackson Browne can play it. But I don’t work at any of this stuff. I have given most of my mu-
sical time to writing songs and singing. You know, I am nothing unusual as a performer. But I lived through the punk rock times, and the indie rock times, and I was, and am, incredibly passionate as a listener. So I am well enough informed to be, I imagine, a reasonably astute student of how music happens. I can’t read on the staves very well (I can read a vocal line, but not a piano score very well), but I know what I’m listening to pretty well.
This informs my writing in that I think both literature and music are aural forms. They are about sound. And for me therefore they are related. Playing music makes me listen to the sound of my prose better. I think of the prose as musical, but hopefully not floridly so. It has a musical register—that you ignore at your peril.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Do you read your work aloud when writing? Or do you find the listening in your head to be different or better?
MOODY: I’m always reading aloud. These days I have chances to read aloud throughout the course of writing something longer. I think it’s very important to do. On Hotels, I made my wife listen to the “afterword” section several times to try to get it exactly right. It’s just a good habit to get into.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Have you always read to your wife? Does she write or make music herself?
MOODY: She’s a visual artist. But she wrote in college (she actually studied with Robert Stone at Yale, at one point), and is very well informed about literature. She’s a no-bullshit audience. Nothing false, no false note, will pass muster with her. I’m lucky to have her at hand in this regard.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: The time you’ve given to writing songs: is that process at all like what you do with your prose writing? Or your poetry?
MOODY: Songwriting is its own thing, with its own history. I have changed and modified the writing process there over the years, incorporated new technologies, ways of thinking about songs. I’m playing with a new band now, a sort of a jazz/noise band, and I have to write and interact with that band in a way that is markedly different from The Wingdale Community Singers. I have to stretch.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Would you consider the stretching you mention akin to what you do from book to book, the way the demands of a story push or surprise you?
MOODY: Yes, the songwriting changes the way everything else changes. It’s all one thing: the creativity is all one thing. That’s the idea of my writing class for the visual artists: thinking creatively is a way of life, it’s a way of thinking about the world. It can easily be transmuted from form to form. I think of what I do—writing/music/sound/art/radio—as all basically the same across disciplinary forms. As Neil Young said, “It’s all one song!”
WASHINGTON SQUARE: Where do you introduce your theory and your intellectual framework? I know a lot is letting the words guide you, but at a certain point, you must sit back and see structure/potential/intention, right?
MOODY: That’s something that I retrofit, once I have some words on the page. There are always theoretical preconceptions, but I think those are automatic, or subconscious, and don’t need to be labored over. Sometimes in a second or third draft I worry about what I might actually be doing, but rarely at the beginning.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: That seems healthy: finding out what you’re doing from the words and then actually doing it on the second or third draft.
MOODY: Follow the language. It’s a thought that I have exchanged back and forth with Amy Hempel over the years: the story is in the language. Just let it happen.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: How did you find the story in the language of Hotels?
MOODY: Trial and error over time. I wanted to make Reg Morse’s voice really distinctive. So I got his voice down, and the story really became the story suggested by that voice.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: In approaching his voice and story, what was the balance of sincerity and satire, of all the conflicting and empathetic elements that comprise him? Did that feel natural out of the voice, like the story? Or was that something you continually had to grapple with?
MOODY: I suppose I would quarrel with “satire” in that I don’t think what’s funny about the book is meant to be terribly judgmental, or morally freighted, as satire often is. I imagine it proceeds from character. Reg Morse’s desperation leads him into some highly comical situations, and he is comically inept as regards proper interpretation of events around him, but that’s just who he is. As Stanley Elkin said, all jokes are about powerlessness. Reg is a guy who is economically disenfranchised, and so powerlessness is his closest acquaintance. I think the humor flows from that, but it’s not meant to be a skewering, satirical thing. Given that I think it comes from character, the earnestness can break out at any time. I like to have funny and sad right next to each other.
WASHINGTON SQUARE: I think that’s an important distinction, an honest comic ineptness versus the moral freight of satire, and I do think you’re on the former side. What do you think of the task of creating characters with complicated relationships to power—in some ways privileged but in others compromised or broken—as our society grows more and more sensitive to these dynamics?
MOODY: I think this set of concerns varies generationally to some extent. I am really interested in how your generation thinks about this stuff. It’s very different from how my generation thought about it. I remember the old Identity Politics battles in undergraduate life. It was a time oddly both more casual and more fierce. Great strides have been made, and there’s a lot more to do. I am a dinosaur, in a way. Those who want to say, as apparently some have said, that I made a novel about a relic, a cultural figure who is not an emblem for everyone else, these critics are accurate. That is what I did. But I have also always identified with marginalized voices, not by necessity or because of ethical beliefs, but because I am open to the voices out there. Not out of programmatic obligation, but in my heart. For a long time I thought I was waging a one-writer campaign for just depiction of trans people in American literature (What a vain thought!). And now I have been amazed at how acceptance of the trans community has galloped along in the last ten years. But in talking this way I feel like I am using the language of defense when what I really think is that if you are a narrative artist, observing and thinking about the world, then trying to get access to the wounds in the hearts of others is a noble adventure that is part of your job. It’s thinking responsibly about making art. I don’t, in the end, think that saying “cis-gender” a bunch of times is going to guarantee an end to discrimination, however much I applaud creative neologism. I think what’s important is knowing that trans people, and gay people, and people of color are not other. Literature is the place where that happens regularly, where all subjectivities are granted heroic status, and our national literature increasingly reflects that, and should reflect that. It’s not a democracy in practice, the U.S.A., but it’s a democracy in spirit, and our national literature should be a place where that spiritual commitment is obvious. I can do my little piece, but I can’t be made other than a white male writer, unfortunately. I can try to listen well, and that’s what I try to do.