Per Contra

Summer 2007


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The Per Contra Interview, Rick Moody by Miriam N. Kotzin



MK: Would you tell us something about how you go about writing your novels and stories? Do you do outlines, character sketches?


RM: I never outline, I’m afraid. I tried to do it, back when I was beginning The Diviners, just because I felt I had never given the idea of outlining any credence at all. And one should always investigate one’s antipathies. But it turned out I just don’t have the aptitude for it. Whenever there’s a plan to which I’m meant to adhere, I begin to rebel. If I managed to write an outline in full, that is, I would begin to violate it. Beyond that, I don’t really know how to describe how I do my job. I just do it. There are no scientific rules, at all, except that I try to write a minimum of 1500 words every time I sit down and work. I work irregularly, but quite diligently when I get myself to focus.


MK: In a 2001 interview with Bill Goldstein in the New York Times, you said, “I start with characters, and I want to sort of invite them into the landscape, but then always be open to the possibility that the story could really go in a great number of directions, that the characters, you know, if they're being treated as though they were real people have to be accorded the volition to behave spontaneously. And similarly, all these kind of accidental . . . you know, the accidental death of Mikey in "The Ice Storm" and the accidental death in "Demonology" and so forth, those are evocations of a kind of natural law that permits and even seems to delight in chance event, in kind of the eruption of spontaneity in the universe and in the order of the universe. So I think the two things are working sort of at the same time. It's both a theme . . . you know, it's something that I write about . . . and it's a narrative strategy because I'm trying to get into the story and let the story develop however it wants to go.”


RM: It’s agony to read these old interviews! Lately, I have this feeling that any kind of attempt to talk about fiction writing is always a hustle, to use Marlon Brando’s word. It’s giving away the mystery! I think there’s a lot of mystery in writing, and people always want the mysterious part explained, but I find that when I think I am doing it, giving away the mystery, I’m almost always just making things up. Not in a malicious way, and yet my remarks are always oversimplifications. The truth is there’s no truth, there’s no one way of working, for me, and there never has been. Even though it would make for better copy if I were to assert that there were. However: part of what I’m talking about, in the passage you quote from the Times, is God. I’m trying to talk about it (him/her/it) in a veiled way, which is good if you don’t want your secular friends to dislike you are look at you suspiciously.


MK: In The Ice Storm, Paul is with Libbets, “He thought maybe he wanted some sort of contact, some shocking and permanent contact. He wanted to be surgically attached to Libbets. stitched, cat-gutted to her, or he wanted one of those Looney Tunes kisses that were like electrocution.”


I wondered, was that description “Looney Tunes kisses that were like electrocution” added after you wrote the chapter on Mike’s death? Or was it written knowing what was to come?


RM: Can’t remember really. It was probably sketched in during the rewriting phases to foreshadow. Mikey’s death was a bolt from the blue, though; I had no idea I was going to do it until it was right upon me. So I can’t have written this line in the first draft. Until The Black Veil, I had never written a book out of sequence. The early books always started on page one and I just kept going to the end. Although Purple America, befitting my comment above that there really is no method to my madness, was sort of more complicated than I’m letting on.


MK: Do you do your research as you go along? I’m thinking of the historical details about comics in The Ice Storm as an example.


RM: All the comic book stuff just came from reading comics as a boy. But I do research a fair amount. I try to do it while I’m doing the work, not apart from it. Otherwise I’d just get lost in threads of research.



MK: Your use of point of view and narration is unerring. Are there instances in which you’ve written a story, or part of a story, and then changed to first or third person narration?


RM: Yes, this happened in Purple America. I started in first person, wrote almost a hundred pages, disliked it, and then went back and started from a more distant third-person point of view. I very much like the austere third person, the kind you might find, e.g., in Gaddis’s Recognitions. I think it’s much more elegant than the Salingerisms of contemporary first person.


MK: What are your current thoughts on the use of autobiography in fiction?


RM: One must write about what one must write. It has ever been this way. I want to invent, myself, having recovered from the agonies of my memoir. I think invention is a liability in the present market, which overvalues the confessional, even the falsely confessional. But I don’t quarrel with the autobiographical impulse. Look at Grace Paley or Amy Hempel or Lydia Davis, to use three sublime examples.


MK: When you are working on a novel, you concurrently write other fiction and lyrics? Do you work on both the same day—or in blocks of time?


RM: It just all happens at once. Sometimes literally at once. Sometimes I’ll have multiple files open at the same time. I don’t recommend this to anyone. I would like to be more orderly. But I feel that my scattered qualities are something that makes my work particularly mine, so I try not to worry about it unduly.


MK: In a roundtable on music and literature, you write, “Music, on the other hand, has specific formal properties that I do want to ape, because they lie outside of the ordinary sphere of things. For example, The Black Veil was built on ideas about structure elaborated by Miles Davis when he was talking about how some of the fusion albums were constructed. That is, I guess, inspiration of a sort.” Would you say more about that, your method of structuring The Black Veil?


RM: The Black Veil is collage-oriented. It’s really a lot like those Miles Davis sessions in the early seventies, because I would just write for a while, and then I glued the results together, somewhat arbitrarily. It was only then that the book started to have the veneer of total intention. In subsequent drafts I shaped it a little bit so that it would cohere. But to me it still feels haphazard-on-purpose, which was the point.



MK: Reading The Black Veil, I kept thinking about Moby Dick, and in your book the chapters on Hawthorne’s story were like the chapters on cetology, and then the parallel of your chapter on blackness with the whiteness of the whale….so this will give another way of framing that book.


RM: Yes, it’s very, very Melville influenced. Perhaps more Melville influenced than Hawthorne influenced. I actually did a little “extracts” chapter with uses of the word “veil” from history, but everyone thought I was being pretentious, so I cut it. Melville was huge for me, a major influence. Of course. How could he not be? Maybe there are two threads in the American novel, and one comes from Melville and leads to symbolisms and gigantism: Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo, Wallace, that sort of thing. The other strain comes from Huck Finn, and it leads to Salinger and to the realisms of the Iowa Writers Workshop.


MK: In that same 2001 interview with Bill Goldstein, in the NYT, “And some days, you know, I feel this tremendous virtuosic talent, like the opening of "Purple America" or the story in "Demonology" called Boys, where language is really . . . seems like it's at my disposal, and I can use it in a way that seems really evocative. But then there are other days when I just really . . . I'm really frustrated and disappointed with using the same old words and feeling like still experience eludes being captured in language a little bit. . . . And a lot of time I feel like that. I feel sort of that way as a writer, that my desire to use language to capture emotional and psychic states is always outstripping the ability of this sign system to do its thing. It's always still lying there having only done 80 percent of the job somehow. . . .” That virtuosity is, I believe, in all of your work, but, I wonder whether that’s part of the desire for your writing music, lyrics, and your band, “The Wingdale Community Singers.”


RM: The band, and the music entailed therein, is relief from writing prose. I never think about my lyrics much. I just write them fast and adapt as the Wingdales need me to adapt. It’s writing at the service of the song. I am looking to be emptied of Rick Moody the writer in this musical context. Actually, these days, I am often looking to be emptied of Rick Moody the writer. I have had enough of him, and my ridiculously ambitious quotation above is a good example of why I need to be emptied of him. Funny how seven years later so much of my tone in this interview feels needlessly elevated to me.


MK: In The Black Veil you write, “I have long been a lover of the facades of Harlem Valley Psychiatric…better known as Wingdale. Coming over the lip of the hill on Route 22 and seeing those buildings, the ones with concertina wire draped around them, home for the criminally insane, that bygone brick architecture, it always invigorates me; it suggests that the cruelty that I imagine secreted away under the impeccable fairways of civilization is fact.” So that’s where the name of your band originates…


What relationship, if any, do you see between your lyrics and your fiction? Any chance that these lyrics might lead to a fling with poetry?


RM: See above. I write poems periodically, but I keep them mostly to myself. Some things I need to do AGAINST the world of literature, the world of the book business. The lyrics, and the poems, serve this function. They free me up from professionalism. I don’t think there’s much relationship between them and my literary work beyond that. I need to be free to find influences elsewhere. I need to find influences in other media.


MK: You have a new book just out, Right Livelihoods, three novellas, published by Little, Brown. You’ve said the three “all have to do with what Nabokov (in "Signs and Symbols") referred to as ‘referential mania,’ or the desire to impute meaning to things that don't necessarily deserve the effort. In the context of Right Livelihoods, this has a lot to do with living in the years after 9/11, though that tragic turn of events is only glancingly alluded to.”

Would you tell us more?


RM: Paranoia of a sort that one might recall from Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, is, I figure, the disease of the age. Perhaps things are loosening up a tiny bit now that we are nearing the 2008 presidential election. Still, I feel as though this tendency to interpret all the time, this inability to leave things as they are, is endemic among anxious Americans. The hurtling of the media, the ever-increasing velocity of news cycles, makes it all worse. We are meant to be exegetes by the culture, to see plots under every rock. That’s how the characters are in this book. It’s what connects the three novellas.


MK: You’ve studied with Angela Carter and John Hawkes. How does what you learned from them show up in your writing?


RM: This would take weeks to answer properly! In brief, I think they gave more to me as people than as writers, though they gave plenty to me as writers. Perhaps the literary influence would have been more visible in days gone by. But it’s the mentoring that remains with me still. They both taught me how to love books and how to think about being part of that tradition of book culture. I miss them both too, however. There was a lot of love, I think, in those old workshop classes. Is there that kind of support and affirmation in workshops now? I’m not sure.


MK: Can you tell us something about the novel you’ve been working on most recently?


RM: It’s based on a dreadful horror film from the early sixties, and it’s very comic and very out of control. The influences are Pynchon, Vonnegut, Walker Percy, Richard Brautigan. It’s sort of an existentialist Vonnegut novel.


MK: In the blog of the National Book Critics Circle you wrote in support of book reviews. In that context you wrote that you are “widely regarded to have received one of the worst reviews ever written. (I won’t remind you if you didn’t read it or hear about it.)” Having read the review in question—I agree that its vitriol surpasses the better-known work by Francis Jeffrey writing about Wordsworth’s The Excursion, which begins, “This will never do.”


What was your attitude towards reviews before that one? Did this review influence the way you anticipate critical reception of your work?


RM: I was well on my way to recoiling from the reviewing establishment even before the Dale Peck review. I didn’t much read my own reviews as it was. After the maelstrom that followed Peck’s review, I was resolved. Now I avoid reviews about myself entirely, and I read very few about anyone else. I read the NYROB and I read Bookforum, and that’s it. I don’t read The New Yorker, or Harper’s, or the Times Book Review. I’d rather die than read the Times Book Review. I’d rather read a book. Life gets in the way of book-reading as it is. Why add to the problem by reading these ephemeral periodicals?


MK: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions so fully.