Moore's Better Blues

Lorrie Moore finds the lighter side of ordinary madness in "Birds of America."

Published October 27, 1998 8:50PM (EST)

There's a moment in "Agnes of Iowa," one of the stories in Lorrie Moore's radiant new collection, "Birds of America," in which the title character recalls the good humor that prevailed during her years in Manhattan. "She remembered it had made any given day seem bearable, that impulse toward a joke. It had been a determined sort of humor, an intensity mirroring the intensity of the city, and it seemed to embrace and alleviate the hard sadness of people having used one another and marred the earth the way they had." Then she says: "It was like brains having sex. It was like every brain was a sex maniac."

To read "Birds of America" is to plug yourself into that kind of electric current. 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 gifts were apparent from her first story collection, "Self-Help" (1985), a book she wrote while enrolled in the Cornell M.F.A. program. She has since published two novels, "Anagrams" (1986) and "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital" (1994), plus another story collection, "Like Life" (1990). Since 1984 she has taught creative writing at the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison -- she is now a full professor of English -- where she lives with her husband, Mark, a lawyer, and their 4-year-old son, Benjamin.

Moore, 41, has long been disinclined to talk about her private life ("I'm just a very boring, not very funny person," she says, lying). But at least one story in "Birds of America," "People Like That Are the Only People Here," hints at an ordeal her family recently endured. First published in the New Yorker, the story is about a young boy who's been diagnosed with kidney cancer. Moore acknowledges a slight autobiographical element in the story but says she was not writing a memoir. "It was fiction ... Things did not happen exactly that way; I re-imagined everything. And that's what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction."

Moore spoke with Salon about that story and many other subjects -- the perils of academic satire, the difficulties of writing while child rearing, why she's fearing her upcoming trip to the U.K. -- in the New York offices of Knopf, her publisher.

How did all the bird imagery fly into these stories -- was it planned, or did you just realize at some point that the images had collected?

It's the latter. It was something I noticed as I was completing the last two stories. And then when I went back and read all the way through, every single story had the word bird in it, for some reason. Sometimes it's actual birds, sometimes metaphorical birds. I was a little worried about birds as in the British slang "birds." But it's there for the taking, I guess.

That never occurred to me -- the British usage.

Birds as women. I guess it's on my mind because I have to go to England in two weeks. And that's what they think in England, that this is Women of America. "Birds of America." When I was finishing up [the story] "What You Want To Do Fine," especially when they go to the Audubon Museum and there's a mention of how Audubon killed his birds and propped them up in his study and painted them, at that point I was thinking I might consider calling the whole book "Birds of America." Not thinking of the Mary McCarthy novel [which is also titled "Birds of America"] at all. But thinking of the Audubon book, which is "Birds of North America." I took the north out; it just rhythmically wasn't right. But it's meant to refer to the Audubon book.

What are the rules, or the etiquette, on publishing a book with the same title as an earlier book?

Titles aren't copyrightable. My joke answer, when people ask me about this title, is: "Well, it was either 'Birds of America' or 'The Group.'" Because some people have made too much of the Mary McCarthy thing.

I haven't read her "Birds of America" -- what is that book?

It's out of print. You know, frankly, I haven't read it either. It's not one of her most famous books; apparently it's not even one of her best. And so I went ahead and named the book despite the fact that there was another work of fiction with the title. There are lots of books that have the same titles. I think? Right? Aren't there are a lot of "Lives of the Saints"? And aren't there a couple of "Continental Drifts"? My very first book of stories also had the same title as a famous 19th-century book, "Self Help." Samuel Smiles. That doesn't really qualify as a pattern, but obviously titles are there to refer to each other.

You're a professor of English who likes to poke fun at academia. In this collection a character describes academic publishing as "a big Circle Jerk"; another deplores the use of the word "text"; another calls theory "the vocabulary of arson." Does this land you in hot water with your colleagues?

Besides the hate mail and the low salary? No, everything's fine. Academics, of course, are the first to satirize academia.

All of them?

Well, a lot of them are, I think. Academic life, I suppose, is already in a condition of satire, pre-satire, or something. Most people in English departments read Alison Lurie and David Lodge, and they love that kind of academic novel that's done lightly and sharply. And so I haven't been nervous about that until just now. You've made me nervous. [Laughs] But who knows? There's another issue about writers among any group of people. People get nervous. "Ooh, there's a writer." It's like having a photographer in the group or something. You just don't know what they're taking in, what's going to happen, how it's going to show up.

In a similar vein, there's a story in "Birds of America" that satirizes Wisconsin's aging lefties. That group must see you as a spy, too.

Who knows? That story is called "Community Life," and it has a character in it who couldn't ever, in a literal way, exist. Someone who was a radical bomber who is suddenly running a campaign, a platform for which includes tort reform. But you know, the work of a writer is never sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce; one will offend. I offended people, I just learned, at the local hospital with the story "People Like That Are the Only People Here." I got mail from other hospitals praising the same story from doctors and nurses and patient advocacy groups. But the local hospital apparently felt quite accused.

What made them feel that way?

I don't know. This came to me sort of secondhand. My feeling is just that nobody likes to feel as if they're being criticized. Obviously in fiction, the idea is not to refer to the world but to take from the world. You use it to make this other thing that incorporates and embodies the world. But it's not meant like journalism is meant, to refer to something out there and to direct your attention to something out there. Nonetheless, obviously, people read more journalism than fiction, so when they read fiction they feel it might be doing the same thing that journalism is doing, like "look at over here, at us or at them." So it makes people nervous. What can you do? Every fiction writer knows this feeling and has had some experience with it.

Well, maybe more so with that story, which seemed to straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction.

No, it didn't straddle a line. It was fiction. It is autobiographical, but it's not straddling a line. Things did not happen exactly that way; I re-imagined everything. And that's what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction. It can still have that connection, that germ. It came from something that happened to you. That doesn't mean it's straddling a line between nonfiction and fiction. And the whole narrative strategy is obviously fictional. It's not a nonfiction narrative strategy.

I think I got the impression that the story -- which is about a writer not unlike yourself whose young son has cancer -- was autobiographical from the New Yorker. When they ran it, didn't they more or less bill it as nonfiction?

No, it was always a story. The way the New Yorker originally published it, they may not have emphasized that. They may have been trying to emphasize the autobiographical element there. The story itself talks about that; in the course of its narrative it talks about itself as an autobiographical piece, so I didn't feel that it needed all that other apparatus of the layout.

Did it surprise you, the way the New Yorker played it?

I was in an airport when I first saw it. I picked it up off the stand and looked at it, and I put it back on the stand and then dashed for my plane. But you know, those are the hazards of publishing short stories, that things get published in ways that you might not have done yourself. But you have to trust magazines and you have to try to expect that it's not going to be perfect. Frankly, I don't think a commercial magazine other than the New Yorker would have published it at all.

There's a moment in that story where the husband says to his wife, the writer, something like, "Isn't this just like something out of your fiction?" Did you ever feel that way during this experience with your child?

Oh, no. The life event that gave birth to this story, I did not recognize anywhere from anything. I had no equipment or familiarity, mental or psychological equipment or experience with this. So it felt completely unfamiliar in every way. The character in that story is a teacher and a writer because I was interested in the absurdities that would be particular to someone who was a writer and a teacher. I made the character a writer and a teacher because some of the things I was interested in including in the story could only have been experienced by someone who was a writer and a teacher.

I assume the character spoke for you a bit when she said that she hates "the whole memoir thing"?

I just had her say that. That's not true to how I feel. If you want to talk about memoirs, I have some opinions. But hatred is not one of them. I had her say that as part of a conversation.

But no one should hold their breath for a memoir from you anytime soon?

Oh, no. Oh, no. No.

We were talking a moment ago about your satire of academia and I was wondering if you ever went through a theory-head stage.

Well, you know, I'm familiar with it. I never got really completely immersed. I was at Cornell where Jonathan Culler is, and where Derrida was a visiting professor for a bit, and so it was really very much, you know, in the corridors and in the conversation at Cornell. And as writers we couldn't stay away from it because the writing program was so tiny that we were part of this English department. It wasn't like Iowa where all you know is writers. We hung out with all the other graduate students who were clearly immersed in theory. I did take a couple of courses and read the books and I did find it interesting initially. Although the complete removal of the author from every single text was always a little alarming to me. You know, going back home and trying to write your own. On the other hand I thought it was a useful way of talking about work too, sometimes. And sometimes I thought it was a wasteful and ridiculous way depending upon which theory and which critic you're talking about. And I think my first novel, "Anagrams," has a little bit of that sort of jokingly running through it. The idea of shifting realities and parallel narratives and all of that. It's a kind of cubist structure, but perhaps it owes something to a little bit of exposure to that at Cornell. But in general, I, like most writers, am not that interested in it.

Are there Lorrie Moore theorists out there? Do you come across academic writing about your work?

People don't, by and large, send it to me. If they're doing it I don't know. I have received a couple of things which alarmed me a little. I've become such a lowbrow now that I just go through this criticism and say, "Well, did they like the book or not? I can't tell."

What about criticism in general -- do you read your reviews?

I do. I guess I would be lying to say I never read them. There is at some point a moment where you've read enough. But I read whatever comes my way, by and large. Or else my husband reads it out loud, and I've got my hands over my ears or something. At some point my eyes glaze over.

Does it bother you when the occasional critic says, "Lorrie Moore's too funny for her own good"?

I don't know, there is that prejudice against humor as somehow mucking up the seriousness of your endeavor. I don't really quite get that. I don't think it's a very sympathetic opinion. But whatever, everybody's entitled to it. I do feel that when you look out into the world, the world is funny. And people are funny. And that people always try to make each other laugh. I've never been to a dinner party where everyone at the dinner table didn't say something funny. If you're going to ignore that, what are you doing? You're just saying that part of the world, and that part of human nature, and that particular texture and vein that runs through human discourse, doesn't exist. And of course it exists.

Do you think humor is underrated as a literary virtue?

Oh, I don't know. It's certainly undervalued, obviously, by the people you've [just mentioned]. Do I think it's undervalued by readers? Not really. People are so eager for it.

Is it a burden writing such funny work, in the sense that people expect you to be witty 24 hours a day?

Or I have to be depressed. You know, I'm just a very boring, not very funny person in person. I don't feel pressured to be otherwise.

Are you as quick with smart comebacks as your characters often are -- unlike most of us, who think of the perfect retort a week later?

Most of the responses you're referring to, though, are not these sort of elegant, clever quips. Most of them come out of some sense of estrangement and awkwardness.

I would agree, but they're still very apt.

But it's not the thing that you would say if you could do it over again, I don't think. I think those remarks usually embody the awkwardness and discomfort of the situation and the character instead of smoothing it over and rescuing the character -- it actually kind of buries them further, I think. So, I don't think these are really things that you would say in a perfect world.
Is it hard to be funny on the page? Is it something you labor over?

The humor is more the texture of the situation and the texture of the conversation. Which is not to say it's not deeply tied to the heart of the story. Because it is. But the things that are harder to do are the sadder things. It's harder to get that. Everything's hard. But I am a sucker for silliness sometimes. And when someone says something silly to me, I find it wildly funny. So I'm often given to having my characters say completely silly things and I think this is wonderful. So I have to be careful, because silliness is another thing you have to worry about -- a little goes a long way.
That humor, that silliness, is certainly tied to the darker elements in the stories. There's that line in one of the stories about "flipping death the bird." Is humor one of the ways the characters in the stories deal with difficult situations?

That is a classic theme in fiction -- that humor is used to sort of fend off the nightmarish facts. And, of course, that's true. That is at the center of almost all those stories. People being funny with each other is also a kind of generosity between people. And I'm interested in that, those little moments of generosity, where someone really does want to make someone laugh. Of course laugh, vis-à-vis this horrible stuff that is out there in the world that we all have to deal with. But those moments where we help each other out are interesting to me. And they're theatrical. And some of them are possessed of great silliness, but they are connected to an impulse that is interesting to me. So, it's also not just the awkwardness that creates the humor, but sometimes it's generosity.

Speaking of awkwardness, two things that are almost always somewhat hellish in these stories are car trips and holidays. There's a lot of both. What is it about them that resonates for you?

Well, it's the obvious -- people are thrown together in close proximity when in fact they don't ordinarily live their lives that way. And so you throw these people together and all the extremes of their character really start to emerge. And in a short period of time. Because the proximity, or the propinquity, is too intense. And everybody knows that feeling of going home for the holidays, the family's all together and these old grievances emerge so fast. Usually it's the second day, but sometimes it's the first.

When you start out writing about these car trips and holidays, do you know that these are going to be short stories instead of novels?

Yeah, all of these stories began as short stories. A novel's a different project entirely. Each of these began as a short story. I wasn't always sure how long the story would be -- some of them turned out to be longer or shorter than I originally would have guessed. But they all were definitely short stories from the beginning.

I read somewhere that you're maybe working on a novel now?

I am. "Maybe's" the key word there. I'm trying. I'm taking notes mostly and I've done a couple of pages. It's really at the beginning.

Do you have a preference? Do you find that one comes more naturally than the other? Do you try to alternate?

There has, in fact, been a kind of de facto alternation between the two that was not by design. That's just the natural way things came. I would, of course, say that I am primarily a short story writer -- I have more experience with short stories. I've written so many more of them than I have written novels. But I will also add, now is not the time for me to say I'm not a novelist since I'm working on a novel. So I don't want to lose faith now. I would like to see myself as both.

Some observers have called you a "natural" short story writer, as if that was somehow your truer calling. Does that ever bother you?

No. Maybe I should be bothered. I try not to get bothered by anything that's said like that. People have said it right to my face about my two novels, "Oh, those are novels?" And that doesn't even bother me. So I must have a thick skin about that. My first novel, obviously, was a short novel with some stories attached to it. I was experimenting with form, which invited a lot of criticism. And then my second novel, which I had intended to be 2,000 pages long, turned out to be only 147, much to my surprise. So it would be natural for someone to say, "Oh, the short story is her natural form." But I'm working on a novel now.

You grew up in Glens Falls, New York. Was your family bookish?

Yes. They were readers. My father was the child of academics and was probably destined to become an academic himself but vetoed that idea. Bailed, dropped out of graduate school and just went to work for an insurance company. But the house was full of books and music and all of that. And my mother has always been a reader. Both of them have been -- they read nonfiction more than fiction. They weren't ever big fiction readers, and they also didn't read trash. They never were reading thrillers and romances; they were always serious readers, but they tended to read nonfiction, as I think most readers in the world do.

Were they encouraging about your writing?

They were admirably neutral. Which, when you have a child who says, "You know, I'm writing some short stories and I want to go to graduate school to continue this habit of writing short stories," you have to be a little worried, I suppose. They were neither particularly encouraging, because it's a worrisome decision, but they were never discouraging. They were just witnesses. And in many ways, after I got started, they were very pleased for me and were nice about it.

What did winning that Seventeen magazine contest mean to you?

Well, I don't know. I got 500 dollars -- I just thought I was rich. I thought I'd never get a rejection ever in my life. It was the first time I'd ever sent anything out.

They didn't care that you were 19 and not 17 at the time?

No, you can be actually 21, I guess -- even 21-year-olds have won this. And then I proceeded to send Seventeen magazine everything I ever wrote. They couldn't get rid of me. I was like a stalker. I sent them everything, and of course they didn't want anything more from me. I accumulated some rejections, then I got to some normal place where I thought I should think of something else to do for a living. So there was a big high and then kind of an adjustment -- a "correction," as stock market people say.

I know you lived briefly in Manhattan. Do you ever think of packing up and moving back?

No, not really. But I dream about it. I think about it as a kind of fantasy all the time.

Has having had a child made it more difficult to find time to write?

Oh yes.

How do you manage now?

I don't know -- it's a struggle, it's a daily struggle. I haven't figured it out completely yet. Just when you think you have it, your child becomes a completely different sort of person and needs different things. So it's hard. Initially, when I had a baby, and he took naps, I was pretty good at seizing that hour or two that he was napping, but now things have gotten kind of ... I don't know. So we'll see. You have to be very careful with your time, you have to not waste it. I can't tolerate now going to a movie that's bad. This is two hours of babysitting time, and I'm watching a bad movie? I get too upset. Whereas I used to go to anything, I didn't care. A bad movie, who cared? But now, I'm just tense about things, about time. There is also the issue where, when you have a child, this is the biggest love of your life. Perhaps when you were a writer and not a mother, just a writer, writing was the biggest love of your life. So now you have someone who's competing for your emotional center ... and winning. Do you have children?
I do, a 1-year-old.

So you know this.

Yeah, not as many movies, not as much reading ...

But meanwhile, you're madly in love. Exhausted, but madly in love, the way being madly in love exhausts you. It does. Two lovers in a romance stay up all night and don't get any sleep, too. It's the same idea, having a baby.

It seems like music has always played a large role in your fiction. Your characters are very in touch with that. How important is that to you personally?

I'm surrounded by music, I always was when I was growing up and continue to be. And I love music. And when I imagine a fictional world, I imagine there's music in it for those people too.

Does it play a role in your writing?

I never play music when I'm writing -- it would be too distracting. I'm too interested in music to have it be playing while I'm writing. On the other hand, there are always effects and emotions and internal states of ecstasy that you feel with music that in some way you're hoping to re-create in prose. So music is an inspiration and an idea.

Do you keep current with music?

Unfortunately, I don't. But I have students who keep me informed and tell me about all these various rock bands I've never heard of. But you know, Madison right now is home to the band Garbage ...

They're from Madison?

See, yeah.

I thought they were British.

No, Shirley, is that her name, Shirley Manson? She's Scottish, but she lives in Madison now and all the other people in the band are native Madisonians. That's as cool as I get.

There's a question that one of the characters gets asked in "Birds of America": If there was a gun to your head, what song would you sing?

If there was a gun to my head? I wouldn't be able to sing at all.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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