The funny and poignant stories in Lorrie Moore’s first collection, Self-Help, established her as an original new voice in contemporary fiction more than twenty years ago. She has since published two more collections: Like Life and Birds of America, as well as two novels: Anagrams and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? No minimalist, Moore uses language lovingly, fiercely, fearlessly, and allows her characters to do the same. We watch as they hopefully—sometimes desperately—wield puns and wordplay, jokes and nuance, while navigating the ambivalences of love in its many iterations.
Moore’s hallmark has become the inextricability of humor and pathos, which she explores with rare understanding. She exposes her characters in their most complicated moments of awkwardness, resignation and mysterious resilience. They face change, abandonment, sickness and loss. They face each other—from family members to lovers to strange men who invite them to sing something—anything—at gunpoint. They kiss the Blarney stone and entertain each other with Tom Swifties (“I like a good sled dog, she said huskily,”), and find themselves outlandishly costumed. They lie and confess. They are lonely and intelligent, distressed and grateful. They are enchanted with others and imperfectly loved. They figure things out too late and they crack themselves up. Above all, they’re observed with such generosity and insight that we’re returned to our own lives crushed, revived, often giggling and always deeply moved.
Moore holds the Delmore Schwartz Professorship in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she has taught English and writing for two decades. This interview took place during the month of April 2005, over a series of emails.
THE BELIEVER: At nineteen, you won Seventeen magazine’s fiction contest, and at twenty-eight your first book of short stories, Self-Help, was published. How did you come to writing?
LORRIE MOORE: I came to writing out of various sensitivities, plus a love of art and literature, and a capacity for solitude. I took some creative writing classes as a high school student and in college. I just kept going, undeterred by very much, despite the many pauses and uncertainties, cultural and individual.
BLVR: What do you mean by “cultural uncertainties”?
LM: Oh, the precarious position of fiction in our world: that over the last several decades the novel has continually been declared dead, and the short story is in constant resurrection, which means half-dead or post-dead or heaven-bound. But one continues writing anyway—as has been said by many—because one must.
BLVR: Did you ever consider or participate in the other arts? Music or visual art? Drama? Your characters are often singing—Benna, for example, in Anagrams, and Sils and Berie in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? Do you sing?
LM: My love of the other arts, when I was young, was greater than my love of writing. I took fairly serious ballet—until I had to drop it (cramps in my legs and no useful determination; plus too tall). I loved music—played the piano and sang in the shower (a piano in the shower! this will be an excellent interview!)—and was just at a karaoke bar last night with my graduate students, who all love to sing, too. Who doesn’t? I went to college thinking I might be a painter and within weeks realized I knew nothing about working the paint, getting it to do interesting things. In other words, in so many things I loved I was sadly insufficiently gifted and driven. But writing I could plod along with—and no one discouraged me. People were much kinder. I headed toward the kindness.
BLVR: Do you think of writing as a kind of willing, if indirect, personal exposure? Do you ever feel overexposed and wish you could take something back? You’ve said you will never write memoir—why is that?
LM: Well, I don’t have an interesting enough life for a memoir—unless I get to fudge and exaggerate and lie. But then that’s fiction. As for personal exposure in fiction, well, sure. One has to be brave. There is always a little personal exposure, to use your phrase, and more than that there is the illusion of personal exposure, which may have the same annoying repercussions. There is nothing one can do. A writer can’t control the reception of one’s work or the perception of its author—as much as one would like to. You just have to put on your helmet and boots and get out your pen. At some point, to some extent, what is both right and wrong with your work is what’s right and wrong with you. What is in it is what’s in you—and that’s if it’s going well.
BLVR: Memoir seems to be a form that has taken off, recently, and often the writers are young. I’m curious about what you think that means. I’ve been wondering about its popularity as some kind of cultural counterpart to “reality television,” some priority we’re giving to the apparently true.
LM: What little reality television I’ve seen seems to be about economic desperation. Like the marathon dancing of the Great Depression, which should give us pause. People willing to eat flies and worms for a sum that is less than the weekly paycheck of the show’s producer. I haven’t seen “reality television” that is other than this kind of painful, sadistic exploitation of fit young people looking for agents. Memoir, it ain’t. But perhaps it will go into one someday. The phenomenon of memoirs has several aspects to it, I suppose. There is the therapeutic one for author and reader seeking to reveal, confess, and discuss a real-life problem. There is the desire of readers for Something that Really Happened; my ten-year-old feels this way. Things don’t hold his attention unless they are Actually True. This speaks, too, I think, to the failure of a voice to cast a spell. If prose can cast a spell we will listen to it no matter what it’s saying (and maybe decide afterward whether we like what it’s saying—how else could, say, Lolita work?) If a narrative uses language in a magical and enlivening way, we will listen to the story. But if the language doesn’t cast a spell, we will listen to it only if it is telling us something that actually happened. So in this way, there is a wider range of prose abilities in memoirs, it seems to me.
BLVR: Studies show that elementary-school-aged boys like books that are Actually True, while girls gravitate towards fiction.
LM: Really? I haven’t seen that study (and am a little suspicious of any study; too many are constructed poorly). What is true is that children are very susceptible to their peers, and to any flicker of prejudice or perceived predisposition in the culture. I once assisted with my son’s art club, and the girls were all painting flowerpots while the boys were all messing around with the electric glue guns. But there are many explanations for this. Not just one. I have to say, many children’s storybooks are steered toward female experience, and a boy can feel exiled from that. My own son and his friends are defining themselves as Not Girls; so whatever the girls are doing they have to do something else.
BLVR: You’ve written one children’s book, The Forgotten Helper. Any plans to write another?
LM: No real plans, no. I have the text for a picture book—but even this I shouldn’t speak of.
BLVR: Was your initial selection of a narrative form intuitive? What do you see as the unique resources of narrative?
LM: Narrative combines elements of vision and sound, like little else, as well as the psychological and the social. You get to design the set, write the lines, and be in the play. It is glorious. It is musical, dramatic, intellectual, and historical in its record of inner and outer. There are usually a few false starts in a story’s finding its true form—so intuition is only a small part.
BLVR: In the introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2004, you discuss some of the differences between short stories and novels: “the novel arrives to reader and writer alike, baggy, ad hoc, bitter with ambition, already half ruined,” but a story’s “very shortness ensures its largeness of accomplishment, its selfhood and purity… a story lies less. It sings and informs and blurts. It has nothing to lose.” Do you always know which form you’re working with at the outset?
LM: I do know ahead of time. It would be strange to me to find a surprise novel suddenly at my desk. The nature of the idea determines which form or genre it will be in, the novel having time as both medium and subject, and dealing with something that requires perhaps multiple points of view or technique or a larger social canvas generally. For me stories are responses to little disturbances that rattle the windows, or to creatures that suddenly enter the house. Then I take to my desk with my little notes and “what-ifs” and attempt a narrative object.
BLVR: Self-Help is mostly written in the second person, while all of the stories in Like Life, and all but one in Birds of America, are in the third. Most of Anagrams and all of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?—your two novels—are in first person. Do you get into a groove with narrative voice? Like a Blue Period? Is it significant that most of your shorter works are in the third person and your two longest works to date are in the first? What narrative voice operates in the novel you’re working on now?
LM: One does, I guess, get into a groove—though all my periods surely are Blue. If you actually do a page count, I think there are more pages in Self-Help in the first person, since the three longest stories are in the first, not second, person. But, yes, the second person certainly proved to be a kind of groove I couldn’t quite shake. Why is getting into the groove a good thing, when so many people would like to climb out of one? The two novels, as you say, are mostly in first person, as is the novel I’m working on; most of the stories, true, are in the third, although my most recent story was in the first person but very short. All this is to point out what? That each narrative dictated itself differently to me—I don’t know what else really to say about it. There are times when the first person is necessary for observing others (not the protagonist) in a voice that simultaneously creates a character (usually the protagonist); then there are times when the third person is necessary for observing the protagonist in a voice that is not the character’s but the story’s.
BLVR: Are you comfortable talking about your current project?
LM: Oh, please forgive me: I’m really not.
BLVR: You push words and sentences in a way that forces a new experience with language while keeping the reader firmly within the experience of character and story. How do you maintain this balance?
LM: Well, thank you. I’m not sure I do. I just keep my fingers crossed. Keeping your fingers crossed makes it difficult to hold a pen, but I must say, it’s worth it.
BLVR: I guess I’m trying to describe the way your fiction pulls me in. Even when I’ve enjoyed a first read and return to try to figure out how it works, I always get caught up in the story again and forget the question. It’s like reading Alice Munro in that way for me—kind of irreducible, as you’ve described her, and impossible to imitate. Yet certain young writers have been described as “Lorrie Moore imitators.” Do you ever come across work that strikes you as imitative of your own—good or bad?
LM: I don’t know what an imitation of my work would be—but apparently others do, or feel they do. There are a lot of student stories, which all writing teachers get, that are written in the second person. I get blamed for this, I know. A former professor of mine once complained to me about it, and I said, “Well, if it’s any consolation, I too get stories like that.” And he quickly replied, “You should get them all!”
BLVR: You represent awkwardness exquisitely. It’s cinematic, in a way—revealing something of the important minutiae we take in through the eye so automatically that we’re not always conscious of what we’ve seen. There’s a persistent discomfort with the little ruptures you create in the automated ways people observe and talk to each other, ruptures where unbearable and lovely humanity kind of dribbles through. Can you talk about the relationship between awkwardness and emotional access to characters?
LM: You put it so flatteringly, I’m mute. But awkwardness is where tension is, and tension is where the story is. It’s also where the comedy is, which I’m interested in; when it resolves it tends to resolve toward melancholy, a certain resignation, which I find interesting as well.
BLVR: I recently came across the part of Walden where Thoreau says, “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.” To me, in your work, resignation also implies a complicated sort of relief—a dark levity, perhaps? Can you talk a little bit more about resignation and the relationship between comedy and melancholy?
LM: Well, they both involve the release of energy, I suppose. And yet they are also a kind of team, feeding each other and enlivening each other and becoming each other—one of those kinds of marriages. They compete for the discourse, then collapse on the sofa. They are both true. That is what I’m realizing more and more: that in most dichotomies each part is true.
BLVR: The other day someone told me that our current president said he was a big fan of Thoreau—specifically, that he loved On Walden Pond. This probably wasn’t intentional humor, unfortunately, but I thought of your character Zoë in “You’re Ugly, Too.” She’s writing about humor and the American presidency. How would you describe the relationship of fiction writing and politics, and where does your own work weigh in?
LM: I hadn’t heard that On Walden Pond remark. This is funny—but funny and sad, no? One laughs but then sighs. As for the relationship of my writing to politics—in the broadest sense, of course, everything is political, and I am interested in power and powerlessness as it relates to people in various ways. I’m also interested in the way that the workings of governments and elected officials intrude upon the lives and minds of people who feel generally safe from the immediate effects of such workings. All the political things we discuss with our friends are things my characters consider, too. Or almost all. Of course, in short fiction, things are put forward in abbreviated ways.
BLVR: Intrude upon?
LM: Or insinuate or enter or otherwise come to call, visit, make themselves known in quiet or not quiet ways.
BLVR: And these intrusions have more power the safer people feel?
LM: Oh, no, I’m not suggesting that. I’m just trying to register the way we, here in America, live. Everyone’s life is deforming, to some extent, but some more than others. In this country there is a great range in the way people live, and this has to be acknowledged and felt by all of us, no matter how lucky and safe we may feel—and in fact are—at any given time.
BLVR: You’ve been teaching English at the University of Wisconsin since 1984. How would you characterize the interaction of your teaching life and your writing life?
LM: I don’t feel there is much interaction, though before there were spell-checkers, student writing could be very bad for your own spelling, when you got a chance to do your own spelling. In general, teaching and writing use different muscles in your brains, and although they are both literary experiences of a sort, they are also exactly opposite, one taking place in solitude over large stretches of time, the other requiring short jarring bursts of community, which are sometimes very pleasurable and can make your own work alone at your desk feel even more depressing.
BLVR: What’s your philosophy of teaching writing?
LM: Sadly, I don’t believe I’ve discovered yet my “philosophy” of teaching, though you would think I would have by now. After twenty-two years, I may still be making it up as I go along. In teaching workshops you simply take each student on their own terms, and each student needs something a little different. Some need confidence; others need to be shaken up a little; others need to be told what to read.
I try to do only a little hand-holding—I think hand-holding is counterproductive in the end. Self-reliance as a writer and as a reader of one’s own work is a goal of every workshop, I think, although, of course, it comes protractedly, out of many complicated conversations with a dozen or so others.
BLVR: You’ve lived in upstate New York, New York City, and the Midwest. How has living in distinctly different regions affected the way you write? I’m thinking of several of Zoë’s comments about the Midwest in “You’re Ugly, Too.”
LM: When you are new to a place, you see it with a freshness and clarity that eventually you will lose if you begin to live there for a long period. The places where you’ve lived long stretches are often better conjured while living someplace else entirely. This is the function of writers moving around a little—which most writers do, at least some.
BLVR: Over the years, has the Midwest come to feel like home?
LM: Oh, yes. I no longer have a fresh eye with which to see it.
BLVR: Names seem so important—deterministic—of characters. Your names have run the gamut from the familiar (Mary) to the unusual (Olena). In “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the characters’ names are Mother, Husband, and Baby. The withholding of given names, in combination with the subject matter, makes the story incredibly immediate—when I first read it in the New Yorker, and understood it to be based on real events, I wondered if it was a way of gaining distance on something very difficult in order to approach it as fiction. Did you originally name the characters and then abandon the names?
LM: No, those characters never had names. They came to me nameless because I felt them to be caught in designated roles, as if in a script. Of course the story mocks the idea of a script, but it still is very much aware of the responsibilities and actions befalling each character because of their roles. It wasn’t a conscious way to create distance, but I’m sure you’re right—that it helped in the writing to have that faux distance, and that I came to it both deliberately and unconsciously, which is the combination one sometimes hopes for in making art.
BLVR: You received recognition fairly early in your career. How did this affect you? Did you ever feel worried about living up to expectations?
LM: Well, I never wanted a public existence of any sort, and to the extent that I’ve had to have a small sort of one, it’s been reluctant and difficult, yet not without its tonic, collateral benefits. I’ve met some terrific people, for instance, who have become my friends. But really all I ever wanted was to be left alone to write. I’ve never had a big commercial success, no movies, etc., but given what I do, I’ve been incredibly lucky. What was the question again? Oh, expectations. Artistically, the only expectations I attend to are my own. In life, there are a couple of others that compete.
BLVR: Whose work inspires you? Are there types of books that formerly appealed to you that don’t now, or vice versa?
LM: Early on I loved Donald Barthelme, Gilbert Sorrentino, Margaret Atwood, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Charlotte Brontë. And I still do. Now I would add so many to that list, including Alice Munro, Henry James, Edward Jones, Michael Ondaatje. The things I loved when I was young—the Bee Gees, the soundtrack to Funny Girl, the poems of Plath and Sexton—I still love. I am loyal and unchanging in that way, though there are other, harsher, more clinical adjectives that might be used to describe that very same quality. Ah, well.
BLVR: How have your feelings about writing evolved? What kind of eye do you cast on your earlier work? What has become easier, and what more complicated?
LM: I’ve been writing seriously for thirty years, and less seriously for more. (The Seventeen story you mentioned above was written thirty years ago.) I don’t go back and look at my early work, because the last time I did, many years ago, it left me cringing. If one publishes, then one is creating a public record of Learning to Write. My first two books, I know, are full of energy, and there are sentences I still like here and there, but mostly they are chock-full of mistakes of judgment and taste and sensibility. I did not have the skill to take on some of the material I took on, even when the material was fairly stock or meager. But that inadequacy, or feeling of inadequacy, never really goes away. You just have to trudge ahead in the rain, regardless.
BLVR: You’ve spoken about Anagrams as a book that reflects what writers do when they imagine alternative lives, that ideally you’d like the book to be mobile-like, with the first three sections in suspension around the longer “Nun of That.” The way it has to be in a book—with a firm sequence—evokes the abandonment of ultimate possibility that comes when you pick one thing and not others. And with the imaginary daughter, Georgianne, you bring into great ambivalence the comforts of the creative life. Even though we know that she’s imaginary from the beginning, it’s an incredible loss to realize again at the end that a character we’ve enjoyed really isn’t there, and to experience the full impact of the narrator’s perpetuation of this fantasy. It’s one of the loneliest books I’ve ever read—in every way one can be lonely, it seems, practically, existentially, etc.—and I’ve always wondered if it was as devastating to write.
LM: I thought I was writing about loss and about creative remedies and women of a certain age. (I was worried about the future, and thirty-four seemed “a certain age” to me then—I was twenty-six when I began the book, and it was published when I was twenty-nine.) But I had so taken for granted the loneliness of people, and of fictional characters generally and of mine in particular, I hadn’t realized I’d written such a lonely book until someone who knew someone at Knopf said to me, “I hear you’ve finished a very interesting novel about loneliness and that it’s coming out next fall.” That was the first time I’d heard it characterized as “very interesting” (and perhaps the last) or “about loneliness.” And I wondered if that was what I had done, written a novel about loneliness. Well, of course that’s what I’d done. But it took a while for me to understand that. And I’d done it longhand and on a typewriter and it probably contained more crazy solitude than any other book I’ve written.
BLVR: You say that that feeling of inadequacy never goes away, that you have to keep on trudging through the rain. What do you do when writing isn’t going so well?
LM: Did I really say “trudging through the rain?” So Rodgers and Hammerstein. It must have been raining when I said that. That’s the kind of clever mind I have. What do I do when writing isn’t going well? Well, I don’t write—which is symptom, cure, and cause. And then sometimes I just tell myself, as I’m writing, “I’ll fix it later.” And sometimes it’s true, I do.