Photo credit: Linda Nylind
One of the most well-regarded writers in America is in Toronto and I am about to meet her. I’m in a boardroom at the offices of Lorrie Moore’s Canadian publisher, copies of her latest story collection, Bark, on the table in front of me, and an empty chair at the end of the table where, presumably, she will sit when she arrives. I’m trying to contain my excitement, fumbling with my iphone to make sure it’s set up to record properly, and wondering how I got here. When she arrives, dressed in an understated grey jacket and black skirt, it is she who puts me at ease, greeting me with a smile and an outstretched hand. Throughout the interview she is frank and engaging, her frequent laughter creating a charming sense of friendly intimacy and interest.
Lorrie Moore has written three novels (Anagrams, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and A Gate at the Stairs), and four collections of short stories (Self Help, Like Life, Birds of America, and Bark). She has also been a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books, writing about books, films and television, and has taught creative writing for several years, most recently at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The New York Times described Birds of America as “At once sad and funny,” and observed Lorrie Moore’s “virtuosic skills as a writer”. At her very best, her original use of language and close observation of contemporary life combine to create short stories that are both zingily entertaining and touchingly insightful.
I began by asking her about Bark, and whether the book was conceived as a thematic whole, (“Oh, whole with a ‘w’! ‘What? There’s a thematic hole?!”) or was, as she described Birds of America, a “temporal document”.
LM: I think Bark would be like almost all the other collections. Self Help has six mock imperative stories and three that are just first person and it’s called Self Help in a jokey, mock imperative way. But I think all these collections are a pulling together of stories that I wrote over a period of time. And thats why I call them a temporal document. They don’t have a relationship to each other so much but they’re responses. They’re not so much stories about where I am—although I wouldn’t say that but someone else might. Except to the extent that all writers write about what’s on their mind so there’s that. But usually there’s something that has happened in the world or in life and I get an idea and combine it with another and then I sit down and work out a story and that’s really sort of fun. In Birds of America there’s a stronger sense of place, I think, in each of those stories than there was in the previous collections. And in the book following Birds of America, which was A Gate at the Stairs which was very much focused on place. And then in Bark the settings of all the stories are key but not important—or they’re necessary but not the thing the story is about except to the extent that they’re all stories about America.
DM: Some stories are overtly political and some have a political backdrop. There’s a mood of disappointment overall in the book, a coming to a stage in someone’s life where one’s been through a significant amount of loss. How much of that is cultural and how much is personal experience?
LM: I think that’s what stories are reckoning with. In a sense they’re tiny little narratives of injury and of disturbance and three of the stories have public events in their background. So the first story [“Debarking”] has the invasion of Iraq which was driving everyone crazy in 2003 which was when I wrote the story. (And it was fact checked by The New Yorker so if anyone thinks I got the facts wrong they’ll have to take it up with The New Yorker.) That was really a huge thing and I’m not sure it was sufficiently appreciated by people in other countries how crazy-making that was for most Americans. It was really a hard time. And then we have the worn out intelligence analyst in “Subject to Search” and then there’s the guy that is just so happy that Obama is about to be elected [“Foes”]. So those are the three out of eight that have those kinds of public events in them. But that’s just true to how one lives. It’s not as if you live without those things in your life. So is there regret and rue and all of that? Sure, but there always is. I think there were in other collections of mine as well. But nobody stabs anyone! There’s a stabbing in the first collection and in the third collection someone jumps out a window. And someone shoots someone in Birds of America. So there are no real weapons here. I think it’s a lighter book because no one gets shot and no one gets stabbed!
DM: Two of the stories are based on works by other writers.
LM: “Based on” would be a little strong for one of them. But one of them [“Referential”] yes, it shadows the Nabokov. The other one [“Wings”] just lifts a plot element.
DM: I wanted to know more about your motivation for writing those stories.
I don’t know what came over me. It’s really crazy. Each came about differently. With the Nabokov, I read “Signs and Symbols” yet again. I seem to read it every other year as a teacher and suddenly I noticed different things about it and it set off a kind of shadow story in my mind. Maybe I was inspired by Nathan Englander having done this with the Ray Carver story. He wrote something that was not a close shadowing of the Carver story. Do you know the story that I mean? He wrote a story called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” and it’s a brilliant story. I just loved it. And he used some of the language of Carver and it’s exhilarating. He takes a situation that is like Carver’s where he has the couples meeting for dinner. He sometimes has the language show up, but he’s just telling his own story—it’s different. I stay very close to the Nabokov story. I have them actually visit the son, which in the Nabokov story they don’t do. And I have the couple not be married, but I follow the Nabokov story very closely. I thought, I don’t even know if this is kosher! Can anyone really do this? I don’t know. Nathan did it in one way and I was doing it very, very closely and I didn’t know. And so I thought well, I’ll let the world decide.
DM: You did follow it closely. But I felt it was your story too. It was one of my favourites in the collection, and there’s so much beautiful writing in it and the emotion really came through. The son is in an institution and his impulses are extreme, but he’s very sensitive to the world, very intuitive, and he senses Pete’s leaving before his mother. I wondered where you stood in terms of his “craziness”.
LM: Well, I guess you’re not even supposed to use the word crazy when you’re talking about mental illness! Mental illness is just illness and I don’t necessarily think that it means that you’re completely out of touch with any truths, or what you say is nonsense, and in fact the history of the mentally ill is such that in some cultures they’re thought of as possessing the truth and speaking from the gods. I don’t believe that. He’s a troubled boy but these are troubled adults too and he knows that Pete is going away because Pete has already been absent. But the mother has dragged him there on the boy’s birthday and so Pete gets a lecture from the boy.
DM: A very poetic lecture. Is poetry something that you read a lot or have ever written?
LM:I used to. I wrote very terrible poetry and I used to read very good poetry. I read it only sporadically now but I do read some.
DM: The other form of storytelling I’ve heard you talk about is television, and some examples of longform television drama that can tell a story in a very novelistic way. What are the things that writing can do that television can’t?
LM: Well, writing is not a collaborative thing. It is one person designing and telling stories and that will always be interesting in its own way. That’s something television can’t do. The collaborations on cable for particular narratives are often incredibly interesting but its not a writer’s form. It’s not one solitude meeting up against another solitude. The author is behind a story, but is creating a story that then is just for the reader. The story is almost a kind of mask for the author and then the reader encounters the author through that story. But in television there’s thirty creators and the writer may be the least of it. So that’s what fiction writing continues to do. It’s one person writing and that has its strengths. You don’t have this great cast of actors to use and you don’t get to have their facial expressions with all their subtlety and amusement. Facial expressions are really what make these actors so valuable and interesting. So you don’t have that, but also you don’t have any time limits. You don’t have some director saying “no no no we’re doing it this way” or story editor saying “no, we’re cutting out the part about the tree.” It’s all yours. You get to design it all. It’s one human mind, one human imagination, it’s not a committee. That’s the way literature will continue to be important.
DM: You’ve talked about your admiration for Alice Munro. I felt that reading “Wings”. Are there other contemporary writers you admire?
LM: I admire them all. We didn’t talk about “Wings“ and the James thing.
DM: Yes, I wanted to talk about that.
LM: The James thing there was just the triangle. The plotting that has been taken and done by a number of people. Terrence Malick did it in Days of Heaven. That’s Wings of the Dove too. So it doesn’t have James’s writing. It doesn’t have his story. It has that elemental plot thing which he used over and over again in different ways. I just kind of lifted that but then wrote my own story. I wanted people to pay attention to the fact that this was a kind of gilded age story in a new gilded age so I named the characters KC and Dench after the James characters. It’s not a close following like “Referential”.
There are a couple of stories that move around in time and end back in time rather than forward in time. I dont know. I don’t think my writing bears any resemblance to Alice Munro’s. I wish it did. She’s a genius.
DM: Can you talk a bit more about the evolution of “Wings.”? I think I read in one interview that you had originally conceived of it as be a novella.
LM: It depends on your definition of novella. I thought maybe it would get to sixty or seventy pages. I just thought the amount of time that would be needed for these relationships to merge could possibly require a novella. But it fell a little short of that. That’s alright, that’s just life.
DM: I wanted to ask you about the title of Bark, which can have multiple meanings. Joan Didion once said “I write to find out what I’m thinking” and I wondered if you found that with your writing. Do you sometimes understand something better after you have written about it, or followed a train of thought through wordplay and puns?
LM: I think I may start with a question and then end up with an answer to a different question. Not that short stories have to ask questions or be quests for knowledge but often they are. Language sharpens and refines but may also lead you down the garden path. And yes, “Bark” has multiple meanings—the cortex of the brain, the yelp of an animal, the papery skin of a tree (sometimes used for writing), the boat that takes one across water, as in the river Styx. It’s a good anglo-saxon word, and its etymology is perhaps related to the German for “broken.”
DM: Can you tell me about your writing process? You teach as well. How much time do you have to devote to your writing and how do you generate ideas? Do you keep a notebook?
LM:I do keep notes. And files, and I used to literally keep notes on my desk. Right now I don’t even have a desk that I’m working on because I’m in a rental. It’s just a dining room table. And I am teaching so that does take up time. Back in Madison I have a room with a table that’s just for writing. I also bought a new place in Nashville which I haven’t had time to move into. And that’s just mostly empty. So I thought, this could be perfect, I can just write on the floor! When I’m running errands in Nashville if I spot a furniture store I’ll go in and I’ll look around at the tables and the desks and see if any of them speak to me but none of them have yet. It’s very catch as catch can.
There’s not a week that would go by that I’m not taking some notes, but there might be a week that goes by that I haven’t written a page. That’s bad. These tours take you completely away from your work and it’s absolutely not what you signed up for. I have a writer friend who,when he has to have his picture taken, says to the photographer, “When I’m not writing I’m a dead person. And when you take a picture of me you’re taking a picture of a dead person.” And that keeps it short! But to have a long spell without interruption? I’ve had that. I have a dim recollection of it. And I’m looking forward to having it again. But there‘s no set process because there’s too much interruption. There’s no set life.
DM: What makes something a novel vs. a short story when you start to think of an idea?
LM: I think the novel is essentially sterophonic. Everything I’m going to say about the novel is probably also true for an Alice Munro story. I think of the novel as being about time, that time is a real player and you need the space to work out the force of time, time as a character and that’s why you’re working in a longer form. There’s a stereophonic aspect so you can have different points of view. You can operate in different times and have those sections be talking to each other that way. Stories tend to be too brief to accommodate that, too fragile. And I think also that a novel wants to present a world, and recreate that world and so it needs the space to recreate that world. I think short stories are better speaking out from a world that is already shared somewhat with the reader so it doesn’t have to spend time creating and presenting that setting. So it is a good form for presenting stories of contemporary life. I shouldn’t say form, I should say genre, because it doesn’t really have a form except to the extent that it’s briefer than a novel. It would be harder to write historical fiction in short stories or it would be harder to present a world that you didn’t already take for granted and understand and then push your story out through that. If you had to spend the time inventing that world and creating that world, that might be better to do in a novel.
If your ideas have to do with setting, which is time and place, you probably need a novel. If the setting is less attached to your idea, and the setting can be assumed or presumed between the reader and the author then you can work in a story.
DM: You don’t prefer one or the other? Or it’s just where the idea leads you?
LM: It is that. I don’t have a big stack of novels that I’ve written and yet I’m taking notes for a novel now and I’m looking forward to really somehow settling in to it at some point. We’ll see.
DM: And you’re not interested in working in a collaborative genre?
LM: I’m not. I’m not because I just think, why would I? Why would I want to do that? The thing is once you choose to be a writer of books you have made that decision to be alone. I made that a long time ago. I don’t want to have to take someone’s notes and include them. The whole idea was to be a literary artist and artists work alone. Essentially that’s what they do, especially writers. If you just want to be paid and have a job that has some writing in it, maybe its fun. I’ll never know.
DM: Any ideas exciting you right now?
LM: Yeah, but I can’t speak of them. It has to do with the novel that I’m beginning but it’s going to take a long time. We’ll see what happens.