An Interview with Lorrie Moore

I met Lorrie Moore in a cafe near Columbus Circle the publication week of her new collection, Bark, and in the midst of a whirlwind reading tour that had temporarily taken her from her visiting professor gig at Vanderbilt. She wore earrings with small airplanes dangling from them and at a point, one became tangled and she had to fiddle with it and replace it. It seemed like an apt metaphor for the slight but nagging discomfort of constant air travel. We both had beer, and she initially ordered a Blue Moon, but wound up settling for whatever they had on tap. Our conversation was wide-ranging and general, covering MFA programs, a loyalty to a team of her agent, editor, publisher, writing program, and Alice Munro. She, however, insisted that I not take notes; she was afraid of being misquoted. When I told her she didn’t need to worry, I had a recorder, she laughed and said, “That’s even worse!”

Since her first publication (Self-Help in 1985), Moore has stood out as a striking voice unafraid of any subject. Bark is the result of a long wait; her last original collection of stories (Birds of America) was published in 1998. Though she published A Gate at the Stairs in 2009, there is a special excitement around a Lorrie Moore short story collection.

Moore’s stories in Bark can read like miniature time capsules from a just-passed era. “Debarking” takes place against the backdrop of the Iraq War, “Foes” references 9/11 and the first Obama campaign, “Subject to Search” contains veiled hints toward Abu Ghraib. Still, each story contains timeless human truths about our interactions with the world around us. The exchange below took place over email.

—Michael Hafford

THE BELIEVER: Both “Debarking” and “Foes” take place against a backdrop of political events that have to some degree left the public consciousness. Why set “Debarking” in an era of worry about the Iraq War rather than, say, the Great Recession? Similarly, what do you feel “Foes” gains by being in conversation with the tragedy of 9/11 and the first Obama campaign?

LORRIE MOORE: The settings were less “chosen” than experienced as an integral part of the story I was trying to construct. They were inspiration and fuel. “Debarking” was written in 2003 (when the invasion of Iraq occurred and was on everybody’s mind) and “Foes” was written in 2008 just before Obama was elected. That was an exciting year. I would like to live in that year forever.

BLVR: Can you elaborate on why?

LM: The Obama election.  I don’t think the world gets more exciting than that.

BLVR: In many of these stories, there is the threat of physical violence hovering just beyond the page. “Debarking” and the war, “The Juniper Tree” and the car accident that claims Isabel’s arm to name a few examples. In “Paper Losses” you say the only commonality between men is a capability for extreme violence. What is the role of violence in your stories beyond as a backdrop or referent?

LM: There really is no more violence in the stories than there is in real life, and actually, when you think about it, much, much less. I’m trying to write about the way we live now, to borrow that old phrase.

BLVR: You write about a singer in “Wings,” and you’ve talked about singing in past interviews. Do you see a common ground between a singing “voice” and a writing “voice”?

LM: Interesting question!  And to all interesting questions I suppose one has to say “well, yes and no.”  A singing voice is a physical thing. A writing voice is more abstract and conceptual. But both are informed by a singer’s “ear.” One is always writing to one’s ear and hoping for some musicality to the sound of the thinking on the page.

BLVR: George Saunders talks about having to fight against his own typical moves when writing a short story. How do you maintain a degree of freshness or originality of approach? Do you find yourself reinventing your own writing voice or sensibility as you get older?

LM: If I retain any freshness of approach, it’s by going slowly having long intervals between finished projects.  If in fact I’m repeating myself, who can recall? Not me. That said, I do feel that one is more concerned with the story’s voice and not one’s own. So each story has its own sound. Somewhat. Or, should at least a little.

BLVR: Do you notice certain trends in student fiction? Does that old saw of MFA students trying to write like Carver hold true?

LM: I never have noticed any “trends,” although everyone likes to speak of them.  I think one semester I got a lot of shark stories and then years later a lot of zombie apocalypse stories, but that’s all I recall. George Saunders when mimicked doesn’t sound that much like George Saunders—to my mind.   Students all write in their own way for their own reasons.  I never thought that the Carver imitations were really all that widespread.

BLVR: Is the professional anxiety in “Wings”—of an indie band slowly disintegrating—related in any way to an anxiety you’ve seen in either yourself or your creative contemporaries?

LM: Not until you put it that way and then suddenly anxiety abounds!

BLVR: A lot of your stories include really fantastic one-liners. Do you find yourself generating these sort of pithy lines as separate documents in a way or do they occur naturally within the flow of a story? Do you write to a line or let a single large-scale observation organize a narrative?

LM: I don’t think of any sentence as a “one-liner”, but I do pay attention to how people actually speak when they are being funny. Rhythm is key. But so is the context. So a funny line can never exist on its own. It needs to be surrounded by mood and circumstances.

BLVR: The story “The Juniper Tree” is both wish fulfillment and nightmare–getting to see your friend one last time but having to confront her as a ghost–what was the genesis of that story? Did you have an emotional effect in mind when writing it?

LM: That story came partially from a dream that was quite vivid and perhaps more like a visitation, if one can say such a thing without sounding insane.

BLVR: Can you explain more about the dream leading to “The Juniper Tree”?

LM: A friend had died.  And she seemed to have come to me in a dream shortly thereafter.  Another friend of mine recently died and he appeared in a dream to me that night resurrected somehow and not dead at all.

BLVR: Has living in Nashville changed your writing? Do you find yourself being affected strongly by place?

LM: I assume Nashville will have some influence but I don’t know just yet as I’ve only been there for six weeks.

BLVR: In “Subject to Search,” Tom talks about having a time limit over which he can no longer speak certain languages. Do you include that as a commentary about communication? As in, we stop being able to process linguistic information past a certain point? How do you feel it interacts with the geopolitical and personal ambitions of that particular story?

LM: The is how I’ve heard people speak about languages when they know several. I don’t know several so it’s interesting to me to learn about people who do and how their minds work.

BLVR: I’ve heard that you’re an especially meticulous editor. How many drafts does a typical story take? Is it more for longer pieces? Is there a specific editing process that you take your work through?

LM: Editing is just ongoing. I don’t count drafts, or know what would fully constitute a draft.  But I try to fix as I go. And there’s always more to fix.

BLVR: Do you ever find yourself writing to a specific audience? Do you ever have people in mind when you write a story?

LM: I do have people in mind when I write. I don’t know precisely who they are, however, or how many of them there are.

BLVR: How do reviews, either positive or negative, affect you? Do you read them? Are they important to you?

LM: Well, I sometimes write reviews, so I’m sometimes interested in how others take on the project of writing them. But reading reviews of one’s own work one’s eyes glaze over after a while, though sometimes there is something very fresh and interesting in one of them. I did think reviewers were supposed to be polite about story collections—collections are rather delicate creatures in the literary environment—but not everybody got this memo, I guess.

BLVR: You’re reading Alice Munro in your workshop at Vanderbilt. What do you think you gain from focusing deeply on one writer? What specifically from Munro?

LM: Well since it is a workshop and since the stories are profound and long, we go one story a week. It seems a special celebration not just of her genius but also of her Nobel Prize. Her use of time and her out-of-sequence structures are especially interesting to look at and discuss. There are lots of instances of rhyming action and also of gutted centers placed at the end to show where the pivots in a human life really are.

BLVR: What was the last thing, besides Alice Munro, that really grabbed you?

LM: A story in a winter New Yorker by Antonya Nelson. I think it was called “First Husband.”

BLVR: You’ve stuck with your agent, editor, and publisher for the entirety of your career. You’ve also been teaching at UW-Madison for the vast majority of your time in the teaching world. Why do you think that is?

LM: Loyalty? Terror? Love? A thrilling combo?

BLVR: Your story “Wings” is a retelling of the Henry James story “Wings of the Dove”. Do you think there’s a particular reason that narrative called to you?

LM: Oh it’s got the thrilling elements of swindle and love. Those are timeless.

BLVR: Do you have a favorite of the stories in this collection? Are there any that you want more time with?

LM: I am sympathetic to those who understand what “Subject to Search” is doing. Which means probably that I feel it is misunderstood or sometimes set aside. Which may make it seem like the runt of the litter. Which will make me cast a fond pity in its direction. Well, it is a love story. Probably more than any of the others.

Michael Hafford is a freelance journalist from the moon. Follow him @Michaelhafford.

Photograph: Lane Christiansen/Getty Images

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