Lorrie Moore’s trademark prose has earned her a place as one of the finest American writers of her generation. She imposes a kind of kinetic, cosmopolitan energy on her subjects, most of whom are familiar to those who grew up or live in the Midwest. Born in Glens Falls, New York, Lorrie Moore received her BA from St. Lawrence University and graduated summa cum laude. She attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she completed her MFA. Her first collection of short stories, Self Help, was published by Knopf in 1985, garnering praise for the young writer and comparisons to Grace Paley and Woody Allen alike. Subsequent books include Anagrams (1986), Like Life (1990), Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), Birds of America (1998), and The Forgotten Helper (1997), her first children’s book.
Moore regularly reviews books and discusses literature in the pages of the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, and the Paris Review, and she is the editor of the anthology, Best American Stories 2004. Moore has been the recipient of Rockefeller Foundation and Guggenheim fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts award in 1989, as well as a 1998 O. Henry Award and 2004 Rea Award for the Short Story. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she is the Delmore Schwartz Professor in the Humanities.
Famed literary critic Dwight Garner notes how Moore’s “crackling wit and exacting eye make her America’s sexiest writer; she seems incapable of putting a dull sentence to paper. What makes her one of America’s most important writers, however, is the way her comedy bubbles up—the way it does so often in life—through discomfort, tragedy, awkwardness, and loss.” Moore’s new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, the first to appear in more than a decade, will be published in September by Knopf. Wisconsin Book Festival director Alison Jones Chaim took the afternoon off from her hectic job to catch up with Lorrie Moore recently. Here’s what they had to say:
Alison Jones Chaim (AJC): You once made a comment about “the unlived life, which is a fictional and neurotic and existential and completely human and sympathetic mental construction, and also a classic Midwestern one.” What about “the unlived life” is Midwestern?
Lorrie Moore (LM): Oh, I think I would need the original context to answer this question. I don’t recall saying that, though I’m sure in context and with a strong cup of coffee I could decipher it.
AJC: It was in 1998. That’s all I can tell you.
LM: I don’t know. That was eleven years ago.
AJC: So what else is Midwestern?
LM: I’m not sure I know anymore, since I’ve been here so long. I feel that I’m Midwestern, and I do have Midwestern relatives, but another Midwestern writer recently told me I was absolutely not Midwestern, which leaves me adrift. And which should give me a certain perspective useful for seeing what is indeed Midwestern, though I’m not sure it does. In the context of this new novel I would say Midwestern means living close to where food is grown and soldiers are recruited. I do believe Midwestern weather is especially unnerving, and it’s indicative of something in the character of the residents here that people can tolerate it. My apprehension about the weather may be a telltale sign of my non-Midwesterness.
AJC: Is it the snow?
LM: No, it’s not the snow so much. It’s the thunderstorms. They’re so violent and huge, and the tornados; it’s like being in London during the Blitz. I’ve noticed that my son’s not afraid, because he’s grown up here. But on the East Coast, we’re used to quieter weather. It doesn’t have that slashing quality. People on the East Coast would have heart attacks, they’d have Valium prescriptions for this weather. It’s really intense. Someone I know of was just hit by lightening on a soccer field last week. Where did you grow up?
AJC: In Michigan.
LM: It’s milder there, isn’t it?
AJC: I think it is, a little.
LM: Where in Michigan?
AJC: Suburbs of Detroit. My mom just told me this story of where she was during the summer of ‘67 riots: in an apartment, with me, a month old, while my Dad was drag racing in Baltimore.
LM: So, you have a kind of wild dad. Did you inherit any of that?
AJC: Yes, I like to go fast. I like to ride roller coasters, bicycles, horses—the faster the better. But cars don’t excite me at all. Because being in a car and going fast is like being in an airplane; it’s just a moving room.
LM: My temperament is like, Why do you want to be excited at all? Why excitement? Why do you want excitement? I don’t want it. In many ways it’s a tougher breed out here in the Midwest. But I do have some Midwestern street cred, I swear. It could be argued that my grandfather was a Midwesterner because, although born a Southerner, he did grow up all over the place. He was the son of a traveling minister, and when the family hit a college town my great-grandmother would stick the kids in college. So my grandfather went to the University of Missouri when he was twelve and graduated when he was fifteen. One of the results of which is that I grew up in upstate New York with a family that rooted for the St. Louis Cardinals. Also, my great aunt did graduate work in English here. Perhaps that counts.
AJC: Someone told me that you were once a pianist at a piano bar.
LM: Wow. I should just go with this. I should not deny this complete untruth. I would love to be a pianist in a piano bar!
AJC: Now where did I get that from? Hmm. I was going to ask you some questions about your interview of Scott Spencer in BOMB Magazine, because I did my research …
LM: I guess you did. I have to say, my sympathies are with you on the interviewing front. You know, Scott’s a friend of mine and he asked me to do that interview with him. I was really worn out: I was busy raising my four-year-old, and I had just completed a book tour. And I was amazed at how hard it was. I couldn’t think of anything to ask him. I thought, How am I supposed to do this? This was ten or eleven years ago, before I had e-mail. That would’ve made it easier. But it was really hard. I thought, Gee, all those years of being asked questions by people and you would think I would know what to ask another writer. And then I would ask him a question, and he would go blank. So, it was this comedy of errors. We got through it. And, I guess it’s still online.
AJC: Yes, it is. The interview I like best is the one with Angela Pneuman, from The Believer. She asked really smart questions.
LM: I think we did that mostly by e-mail. I can’t remember precisely. We may have talked by phone. She’s a wonderful writer.
AJC: Interviews can be tough. You have a history of declining to discuss whether certain elements in your work are autobiographical, even though people often want to know. Raphael Kadushin once asked you why you think people want to know, and you said, “Maybe it [also] bespeaks an ignorance as to how else stories might or should be appreciated.” So, how else might/should fiction be appreciated?
LM: How else? In every way else. Fiction has to be appreciated as art. If one wants autobiography, there is autobiography over there. A novel is a work of imagination and language; it attempts a parallel world—a coherent dream—that contains, as do dreams, signs and symbols of the real world re-worked. The idea is to have a new experience, not one already had by the author.
AJC: A Gate at the Stairs will almost certainly lead to more questions about your personal experience. How are you going to deal with that?
LM: With a combination of unloaded firearms and a well-loaded iPod, which I will bring with me wherever I go. But, honestly, there is not a single character who corresponds to a real life individual or even resembles anyone in my life at all. I think you may be mistaken on this one. But maybe you’re saying things are vivid enough to get people confused? So, I’ll take it as a compliment.
AJC: You’re going to get all these personal questions.
LM: But, will I? Why do you think so? It’s a novel. Personal questions are usually reserved for people who write memoirs. With novels, questioners usually have other questions.
AJC: But didn’t you get it in spades when you wrote the story [“People Like That Are the Only People Here”] about the sick baby?
LM: Not really.
AJC: Because you said no.
LM: Well, the answers to most questions readers had were already in the story. And I would answer questions about the story, but not really about my family life. I will part with some pieces of personal information, but not usually when asked directly. The thing about my readers is that, even though I don’t know precisely who they are, and it’s not a massive number, it seems to me they’re pretty polite, pretty literate, and pretty nice. I’ve actually been told this by bookstore people, “The people who come to your readings are so polite.” And they are polite to me, too. I think readers of fiction know that when you write fiction you’re not offering up a collection of facts. You’re creating a story that, of course, may draw on certain things from your life or concerns you have acquired that your own immediate circumstances have illumined in some way for you. But there are no characters in here that correspond—anywhere—to my life. Are there characters that may have been carved or prompted by ideas from my life, or ideas of people from my life? Sure. That’s why we write fiction. We want to mess around with the facts of the world. We want to be able to create something new that runs parallel to the actual. That said, I may be wrong about any assumptions of autobiography. Who knows? Thus far someone has wondered whether perhaps Tassie [from A Gate at the Stairs] might have been based on a UW student. Because she is twenty years old, I suppose. However, none of my students would think that. And if any reader had ever seen me boil an egg until it’s green, they would know that I’m not that middle-aged chef, either. But that kind of biographical detective work is such a distraction and a red herring.
AJC: Speaking of food, there is a great deal of public discussion these days on the subject. Volumes, literally, are written about the myriad dangers of the so-called Western diet, the economic and ecological benefits of eating locally grown food, and everything in between. The Wisconsin Humanities Council is even working on a traveling exhibition about American food culture called, Key Ingredients. Your new book is full of food: from the traditional fare of Wisconsin supper clubs to gourmet produce and artisan cheese, sometimes referred to as “food for yuppies,” but elsewhere celebrated. So, care to talk a bit about food?
LM: Yes, food is in the novel. And I have been having some fun doing research on food, but it’s one of those things where you realize at some point that you could do endless research. As things stand now, a former European publisher of mine turned down the book in manuscript, saying, “Too much food.” I was interested in having a farmer’ s daughter who couldn’t afford to eat at this expensive, organic farm-supplied restaurant eventually have a meal there and eat her dad’s produce. When I got to that scene I was mad with excitement. Afterward, I drenched Tassie in a rainstorm for purposes of cleansing.
AJC: Your characters have names that range from the very familiar to the very unusual. Where do they come from? In A Gate at the Stairs, the main character is called many things: Doll, Dolly, Dollylah, Tassalah, Tossa, Tassa, and finally Tassie. Why so many? Was it difficult to name her?
LM: Not at all. It’s only her mother who has different names for her. And Tossa and Tassa are just the mispronunciations of a little girl. I did once know someone named Tassie, but not very well.
AJC: What about the name-changing you do, with relation to some familiar Wisconsin places? Does that protect you, as a writer?
LM: I have always done that, and did that in my last novel with respect to upstate New York. Most fiction writers don’t want to be hemmed in by too many facts. And so one makes a mish-mosh of the actual map in order to give the characters and the plot more options. You want something fully imagined on the page—not something already known off the page and just slid in.
AJC: The image on the book jacket is quite haunting. Where did you find the photo, and why did it speak to you so resonantly?
LM: You can always get writers to speak endlessly about their book jackets. And usually the only people who are interested are other writers. But, since you asked, I’ll tell you. I found myself enchanted by the cover of Sebastian Barry’s 2008 novel, The Secret Scripture. When I saw the photo credit on it, I looked up the photographer online, and, lo and behold, there was a website with an eerie, surreal photo of some stairs in a field. It seemed just about perfect. To me this was clearly destiny, God’s will, kismet, etc. But my publisher did not see it that way. They had other ideas, which I was open to, until I saw them, and then I cried out in pain and woe. And things proceeded from there.
AJC: When you spoke to Ploughshares in 1998, you said you were working on a new novel “about hate.” Is A Gate at the Stairs this book?
LM: In a way, though I didn’t know it then. It’s eleven years later and the book has evolved since I first said this.
AJC: There’s a passage in A Gate at the Stairs about reading the story for what the story itself has to say, versus what the author says or means to say. In short, dealing with the story’s intentions, rather than the writer’s. Which is correct?
LM: These are paraphrased ideas of critical theory. And the narrator there is alluding to what she’s learned in college. Of course, as far as theory goes, it depends on the book. Some theories are more interestingly applied to some books than to others. But as far as I’m concerned? I’m not terribly involved in theory. With a novel I hope that a reader will be given an experience of intensity and intimacy and meaning, along with an immersion in some unmediated language.
AJC: What, then, is the reader’s responsibility?
LM: Not to write disrespectful things in the margins.
AJC: So, how do people learn to read well?
LM: Reading well is probably like living well: it’s something that’s done or not. And it’s probably not all that teachable. But, reading involves the same skills as writing: concentration, sensitivity to language, a limber imagination, free time, letting the mind bear down. Also: a good clip-on light and a quiet room.
AJC: In your intro to Best American Short Stories 2004, you said “the novel arrives to reader and writer alike a little baggy, ad hoc, bitter with ambition, already half-ruined.” Harsh! Were you working on this book, when you said that? And how do you feel at this point?
LM: Yes, of course I was working on A Gate at the Stairs—that’s in some ways why I said this. I don’t feel this is necessarily a harsh remark. Novels are always less than they want to be, because they want to be so much. And that’s the moving quality about them.
AJC: There is a lot of recent discussion about the drastic changes made to Raymond Carver’s early work. To what degree does an editor impose their will on a novel or story, and is Carver’s case typical?
LM: I have no idea what’s typical. Gordon Lish, who was Carver’s editor, was known to edit with a very heavy hand and alter his writers’ prose styles somewhat. My editor is Vicky Wilson, and she is the opposite of Lish. But while light-handed, she will send you back to your desk if she senses trouble spots. And though our solutions to a problem are usually different, we tend to agree when something needs more work. In the end we get through it amicably, always. I feel completely unbullied. In many ways, she is the perfect editor for me. I would never have the complaints that Carver had. And, yes, Vicky has been my editor now for over 25 years. A Gate at the Stairs is dedicated to her and to Melanie Jackson.
AJC: How is the editor’s job similar to or different from the work you do as a creative writing professor?
LM: Well, I’m not putting together books; but I do copyedit to a certain extent. I suppose there is some overlap in the activities. But, mostly, in a class we are creating a conversation among a dozen or so people. The writer’s relationship with an editor (with any luck) isn’t this type of mass, collaborative process. It’s more of a one-on-one relationship. Something else to keep in mind is that an editor is also a businessperson—and this is the unfortunate part—but this is an aspect has not intruded upon my relationship with Vicky at all really. There are times when I feel my students would like to talk about business matters, but we keep this kind of conversation to a minimum. Because, again, I don’t know all that much about the ins and outs of the publishing world. In a classroom, we are literary writers concerned with writerly things, like point of view and characterization—not agents.
AJC: Can an editor or teacher become too familiar with a writer? Possibly making certain assumptions about a writer’s intentions … rather than the story’s intentions?
LM: Oh, I’m sure all things are possible. The intentions are usually not the problem—everyone’s are the same, that is, they want to write something really engrossing to others. It’s more how is this done, and with what material. I’m sure as a teacher I’ve entered into biographical musings myself. The best students know what is interesting about their lives and know how to use it. But sometimes students are avoiding what is most interesting because it is also the most difficult. Sometimes, as a teacher, I’ve attempted to say to a student, “Here’s what I know is interesting about your life and what you might want to think about when embarking on a fictional tale.” But these are dangerous waters, and one must tread carefully. A mixed metaphor! Treading on dangerous waters! But that’s exactly what it is.
AJC: In Birds of America a character describes academic publishing as “a big Circle Jerk.” What about trade publishing? There’s a history of an old boys network there, has this changed?
LM: Again, I know very little about publishing. I’ve never worked in it. The character in the story you quote is a fictional character—an economics professor momentarily disgruntled with his colleagues. I can’t be held accountable for the utterances of fictional characters. They are just living their lives on a page, and their words are not essays or authorial pronouncements. At least, not usually.
AJC: When I first started with the Book Fest in 2003, there was a kind of typecast response to self-publishing—substandard, unedited, etc.—and it was really easy for us to say that we don’t look at self-published books. And there has been more and more pressure every year since then to revisit that—
LM: Pressure from yourself or pressure from others?
AJC: Pressure from myself, I guess, just because of what I see out there. Basically, the alternative production and distribution system is evolving, growing and becoming more vibrant. One example is the National Poetry Slam: a lot of people at last
year’s big event in Madison were promoting their self-published books on MySpace, Facebook, you could download their MP3s, too …
LM: And they were making money?
AJC: Yes, they were making money.
LM: Good for them.
AJC: It seems like there are increasingly legitimate alternative pathways to getting the work out—and maybe this is happening at a time when traditional pathways are narrowing? Considering the traditional pressures of the publishing industry, combined with the economic crisis we find ourselves in, doesn’t it seem like publishers are not taking chances on new voices?
LM: As I’ve said, the publishing world and their business model is not something I know much about. It did seem to me that for a while new voices were preferred, because all the heard voices had a track record of sales that could be brought up on the computer. And, if the numbers were meager. … So, for a while it seemed everyone was looking for new people. I don’t think there is anything wrong with self-published books. And there have been some fine writers who’ve done it. Archie Ammons, the great poet at Cornell, self-published his first book. And if an editor at a New York publishing house publishes a book with that very house, a book he or she has written, is that not a variation on self-publishing? Is there anything wrong with having an art show at your own home? If people want to do that, if they have the stamina and personality—and the money—for it, that’s fine.
AJC: I want to ask you something straight from the questions you asked Scott Spencer. You two were discussing how fiction is supposed to function and how that function is changing. Do you worry that the readers literature needs to most reach are no longer interested in the enterprise? I mean, that the people least in need of deepened human connection and expansion of sympathy are the ones who are already your readers?
LM: Now here is a truly Dante-esque fate: To have to answer the very questions one posed to someone else long ago. And to discover them unanswerable. I need to phone Scott and apologize right now—he is a UW alum, by the way. I think what I was trying to get at in the BOMB Magazine interview is something almost ineffable, that is, what do you hope your fiction is doing?—which is a dizzying question and one that can put you on a tilt if it’s asked in too deep a way. Of course, to answer it prosaically one might say that one hopes to do many things: register the world in a new way; open a window on something unseen; create a kind of useful intimacy; rescue language from corrupted, commercial places and preserve it in the human and the musical. I’m not sure I can say any more than that. What did Scott say? I’ll have to look it up.
AJC: So, back to my original question: What about “the unlived life” is distinctly Midwestern?
LM: Am I the Socrates of Dane County? I am dazzled. And bewildered. So here’s my answer: Nothing. The search for self-definition is a sucker’s game, even if an entire region wants to do it. Amelia Earhart was a Midwesterner—no? As was Charles Lindbergh. And both of them became national symbols of courage and adventure. Earhart was especially interesting since, as a Midwestern woman, she seemed to embody the desire of all women to burst out and seize a life that was previously unavailable—the complete opposite of the safety and thwartedness you’re alluding to. Joni Mitchell, a Canadian-Midwesterner, has a long sad song about Amelia Earhart. … She is a haunting figure who worked too hard. I think Mitchell identified with her.
AJC: Well, look what happened. It was disastrous—
LM: It was. Earhart was basically destroyed by book tours. She had to take these round-the-world flights, come home and write a book about it all, and then go on tour to sell the book. It was exhausting, as working life can be. So it’s not the mythic existence you might imagine. Nor was it the kind of life she had wanted. It was quite constrained and trapped—but not really in any “Midwestern” way. Unless marriage is Midwestern. She was married to her New York publisher.
LM: Yes. Literally. So, in essence, she was a victim of the publishing world. Oh, my God, is that going to be our last word on the subject?