Interviews | September 01, 2001
An Interview with Rick Moody
Interviewer: More than many writers, you seem unwilling to repeat yourself. I’m thinking of the formal experimentation in your work as well as the thematic diversity.
Moody: I was educated as a writer by the experimental writers of the ’60s and ’70s: John Hawkes, Angela Carter, Robert Coover, et cetera. They made range and ambition central to their mission. No Robert Coover novel, for example, is much like any other. Since that was the work I first loved, during the period when I was really falling in love with literature, it was natural to me to try to work that way myself. By the time of Ring of Brightest Angels, I was pretty much determined to keep experimenting. The only anxiety was if anyone would want to read so much diversity. Our culture in general seems to prefer that its artists stick to one thing, but so far I have gotten bored easily. Lately, I have been thinking of Pete Townshend’s famous remark about why he smashed his first guitar during a performance of “My Generation.” He said something like, “I heard music in my head that I couldn’t play.” That was the case with me in my early work. I had things I wanted to say, material I wanted to deal with, but I just wasn’t up to writing about these things yet. With more confidence and more understanding of voice, these ambitions came within reach. Although now I try to let the prose dictate the subject matter, and not vice versa. So it’s not a question of subject matter; it’s a question of style. The subject matter is dictated in part by my subconscious, and I don’t care to force it to behave one way or another.
Interviewer: Could you say more about your developing sense of vocation as a writer?
Moody: I never really thought of it as a vocation until after I was already doing it. I wrote things down well back into my childhood, all the way into the single digits, in fact, and though I didn’t finish much until my late teens, my interest has been the same throughout my writing life: language. Even in graduate school, when I had a sense that I wasn’t making stories in the realistic style like many of my friends (it was during the height of Carver’s influence), I rarely thought of writing vocationally. I figured I would be neglected, and that didn’t seem all that bad. Better to write for the sheer pleasure of it than with professional ambitions. It was only after The Ice Storm came out (the book, not the movie) that I ever thought of writing as my profession. But it’s the kiss of death, in a way, to think of yourself as a “professional.” I don’t want a career. I would like to die having written a number of books and let that be my epitaph: Here lies a guy who wrote a number of books.
Interviewer: That’s quite a juxtaposition between an austere epitaph and your background. You are someone who is in many ways privileged, yet you seem uninterested in all that.
Moody: If by privilege you mean my class background, well, yeah. It’s not something I really like to draw attention to—in fact, it makes me pretty uncomfortable—but by the same token, it’s indisputable. I don’t think about class too much because, contrary to the perception of some, I haven’t professionally benefited by the privilege associated with my forebears. I came up the way writers always come up. I worked in bookstores, had some bad jobs, was without health insurance for several years. My fortunes turned when The Ice Stormwas published, and not before. I live by my own wits, as a writer, cobbling together advances, journalism, teaching and so forth. Maybe the values of literature are above and apart from this class stuff to some degree. That’s my opinion, anyhow, and that’s why I want to be known for having worked hard, done my job, published a few books. But if by “privilege” you mean talent, then I would say that I don’t believe I have that much, in truth. I have worked really hard to get better at my job, and this work has paid off. Lots of other writers have more talent than I do. I have persistence and patience, and maybe a little talent.
Interviewer: The Garden State was your first novel. With The Ice Storm you were more willing to play around with form and technique, to explore, in ways both comic and intellectual, the resources of American language. Could you talk about the genesis of these earlier works?
Moody: Garden State is so long ago now (it was begun around Christmas of 1986) that I can’t remember the genesis of it at all. I had been frustrated with a novel and two novellas that I had attempted to write earlier—frustrated with the longer form, uncertain about how to use the entire canvas. (Later, however, I came to feel that I was a better writer of book-length manuscripts than of short stories, although I continue to compose short pieces.) Then, I was just looking to see if I could get a story going that would last for three hundred manuscript pages. All of the problems with that book, for me, have to do with inexperience. At the same time, I was wrestling with a number of rather serious personal problems while I was trying to write the book. I can’t remember what my thematic concerns were, except that I know I wanted to deal with all these kids I had seen and known who couldn’t figure out what to do with themselves after college. The Ice Storm was written as a reaction against Garden State, against its simulated working-class milieu. It should have been my first novel really, but after many, many rejections I lucked into a publisher forGarden State. The Ice Storm, like all good first novels, contains absolutely everything I knew and remembered of life up until that time. It was more a statement about what I could do than Garden State. I had figured out how to make a novel, how to work with the novel form, how story works and so on.
Interviewer: You also discovered your voice—one that’s very personal and prone to social observation, yearning yet ironic.
Moody: I agree entirely that I “found my voice” in The Ice Storm. I found it in a specific passage in the novel, the opening of the third section, when Mikey meets his demise. I really did “arrive” at this voice. That is, I gave up trying to behave myself so that my work would get published, which had been my strategy with Garden State. So it’s voice, in this case, as an absence of intention. The result was that I started using rhythms and sentence structures that represented how I think and talk. Unfortunately, I think and talk in extremely digressive tangles, rather than in straight lines. Meanwhile, I could say a lot about your use of “ironic” in the question, which I would dispute, and in a very detailed and specific way, but it would be an example of my digressive tangling, and we would never move forward.
Interviewer: Benjamin Hood, the father in The Ice Storm, suffers from canker sores that he believes are caused by “language and its insidious step-relative, sentiment.” Hex Raitliff, in Purple America, stutters, while his mother, Billie, suffers from a degenerative neurological disease that makes mush of her speech. Why all these characters whose emotional lives are intense but who cannot articulate them?
Moody: Articulating life badly is a fact of life. I don’t know anyone who is really good at talking about his or her feelings, and thus I see communication problems as endemic to humans. In the South, there’s that gracious, pleasant conversation that seems so effortless, but with crosscurrents that run underneath. In the northeast, there’s the genteel discussion of highway routes and weather patterns that ignores the emotional freight that runs under it. Discussion of psycho-logical life is hair-raising; when one approaches it, one feels the aphasia begin to set in. The characters in my books reflect all of this. As for myself, I think it’s fair to say that I am attracted to writing because it’s not speech. I have never been an easy conversationalist, though I can fake it pretty well sometimes. My literary voice is a revenge against my speaking persona; it is counterposed against that failure. My literary voice is a voice that cannot be spoken, which is part of why it’s hard to read my work. It doesn’t sound entirely “natural.” Because it’s not.
Interviewer: What is your life like when you’re not writing?
Moody: I’m really writing most of the time; at least, I’m trying to work every day, somehow, even if it’s only correcting a manuscript. But a catalog of other, things I like to do would include gardening—I’m very interested in gardening these days—the movies, music (live and recorded, and in all idioms, and I like to both play it and listen to it), baseball, tennis, photography, yoga, etc.
Interviewer: One of the key features of your style is your unorthodox use of italics. Could you elucidate?
Moody: There are two obvious sources among contemporary writers I admire, the poet Frank Bidart and the Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard. But I like to think that my italicizing is closer in spirit to an early American model, the writing of Cotton Mather. That infamous Puritan always seemed to be operating at a number of registers, always hysterically, and he italicized every third word if he felt like it. I’m trying to make do with fewer italics now, but the tendency has become part of my nervous system, and it’s a hard habit to break.
Interviewer: Purple America begins with the memorable line, “Whosoever knows the folds and complexities of his own mother’s body, he shall never die”—which is then followed by a tour-de-force elaboration on this theme. How did the novel develop from there?
Moody: The book developed rather badly at first. I initially had the idea to write Purple America in the first person, a sort of unreliable first person, and so I strung out about a hundred pages of story from that point of view. It was just bad and rushed, not the best way for me to work. Donald Antrim, to whom I gave the first hundred pages, delivered the bad news. He was at that point the only person who could deliver bad news to me without making me want to be dead. I survived, and cut all but the first six pages, which are the “tour-deforce” section you refer to. Then I restarted, with shifting third-person limited points of view, which has always been the narrative strategy of my novels, except for the little first-person outbursts inThe Ice Storm. I find this third-person structure very satisfying for more panoramic narratives. Once I figured out how to construct the book, it wasn’t a problem, although there were a couple of awful family tragedies right in the middle of my work on the book that shunted it off to the side for a while.
Interviewer: I assume that one of those tragedies was your sister’s death. You dedicate Purple America to her. The death of a sister also plays a prominent role in your recent short story, “Mansion on the Hill,” and is the subject of the nonfiction piece “Demonology.” Did that loss change you as a writer?
Moody: I don’t think so, but it certainly changed me as a person, in ways fundamental enough that they are just as urgently upon me today as five years ago, when my sister died. To the extent that I am a different person in some ways, perhaps there have been some thematic differences in my work that came after, but no differences in intention. I’m still trying to write with my ear first, which I was doing before November 1, 1995, too.
Interviewer: “Demonology” and Purple America are evidence that while you cut your teeth on the erudite, sardonic fiction of Coover, Barth, Gass and others, you are willing to plumb emotional content without the irony and self-consciousness generally associated with those writers.
Moody: Coover and Gass, et al., were big influences on me in my adolescence, although I’d probably point more to John Hawkes and Angela Carter, who were both teachers of mine in my undergraduate years, and to Stanley Elkin. One Gass story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” was a big eye-opener for me. I also like the Coover of “The Babysitter” and “Spanking the Maid” a great deal. This so-called postmodern work, especially the fiction of Hawkes and Carter, did not seem ironic to me then and doesn’t really seem so to me now. People often think that formal experimentation is at odds with affect, but I see them as allied in a way. Some of Barth’s and Coover’s later work is more cerebral than intuitive. I haven’t wanted to be a part of a literature that was purely cerebral, but I also understand that to some intelligences the work of more effusive, less formally ingenious writers can seem sentimental or melodramatic. I remember once reading my story “The Grid” up at Brown, my alma mater, at a symposium, after which Bob Coover remarked to me that first kisses—the subject of the story in question—never did anything for him. That statement implies some of the differences between our approaches. But Bob was also very complimentary about the opening of Purple America, and that is a very operatic and emotional passage.
Okay, I have to talk about this now. As far as irony goes as a strategy, I do think that my generation and the generation that came up behind me are occasionally afflicted with a comedy that serves only to mask feelings that its authors find too frightening to express. While I don’t want to be part of an anti-irony movement—because the instant a movement becomes codified one wants to resist it—I agree with David Foster Wallace’s broadsides against irony as a strategy. I have tried to depict psychology directly and in a heartfelt way, because I want the work to ring bells instead of simply entertaining. And irony rarely accomplishes this. One has to make a distinction between irony and ambiguity, too.
Interviewer: The schism between the cerebral and the emotional has a long-standing tradition in American letters. There is in your work, however, a willingness to operate on both levels simultaneously.
Moody: All literature, all art, has intellectual bulwarks, philosophical presuppositions. To avoid thinking in a sophisticated way about them renders the work of an artist derivative. The point for me is to be both intellectually sophisticated and entirely in touch with my own emotional life and the emotional lives of my characters. I don’t see these things (the cerebral, the emotional) as dialectically related, but rather as two strategies that can be applied as needed, even simultaneously. For me, work with no intellectual sophistication is very rarely satisfying. I get bored with it easily.
Interviewer: I’m struck by the degree to which autobiography appears to infuse your work. What are the risks and rewards involved in writing honestly about yourself and those you care about?
Moody: I have to take issue with the frequent assumption that all my work is autobiographical. It’s not. Some of it is, as I presume is the case for many writers (Cheever, for example, or Bellow). Certain material calls to me at certain times, and I give this material my best effort, whether it’s true or imaginary or some amalgam of the two. However, I’m always trying to keep myself off balance with each project, and sometimes telling the truth seems risky—I have to be up front with things I’d rather keep to myself—and sometimes imagination seems risky. The fear inherent in the early stage of the project makes it that much more interesting. So risk is always something I evaluate with my work, but the risk specifically associated with publishing autobiographical work is always ex post facto (people thinking they know you because they have read about you, or people included in the work expressing dismay at their handling, etc.). I don’t usually worry about those kinds of problems when I begin a project. I just write, and I worry about the rest later on. This has occasionally caused trouble, sometimes quite serious trouble, but I still feel like certain material calls to me, and I’m honor bound to hear that calling.
Interviewer: Your new work, The Black Veil, was triggered by a reference to one of your ancestors in a Hawthorne story; is that right?
Moody: It was the sense of literature having a real, human referent that made me want to pursue this work. Hawthorne, the way we are taught to think about him, seems untouchable, part of some America that is impossibly vanished and mostly mythical. But in my family, the theory was put forward that a Hawthorne story, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” was based on a Moody ancestor. There’s a Hawthorne footnote in Twice-Told Tales to support this. It was the human part of the Hawthorne story that made me want to work with it.
Interviewer: Hawthorne notes that Joseph Moody, early in life, “killed a beloved friend; and from that day till the hour of his own death, he hid his face from men.” Did your research confirm this story?
Moody: This is a very interesting question, one that needs about 380 pages to answer properly. Many of the residents of York, Maine, where this killing was done, believe that the murder took place, and their accounts of the event range from the plausible to the outlandish. However, the town historian’s version of the tale is riddled with skepticism about all of these rather ornate accounts. For me, the question is more interesting as spiritual conundrum than as murder mystery. Was there some reason that the citizens of New England needed Joseph Moody to have killed his friend, Ebenezer Preble? Yes, there was a reason that these early Americans needed the story. There is some reason that Hawthorne needed the story. There was a reason that my grandfather and his family needed the story. The Black Veil attempts to divine the reasons.
Interviewer: Your previous work has focused on contemporary America. What were the challenges and attractions of writing a book that delves into history?
Moody: The challenge was creating a credible depiction of the past. Luckily, since I’m working in nonfiction in The Black Veil, I can rely completely on research instead of imagining how things must have looked or felt. Accordingly, I did a huge amount of research and could not have written the book without the aid of two researchers, Alec Michod and Cathleen Bell. Cathleen practically moved into the New York Public Library on my account and selflessly searched out some really harebrained leads I was chasing.
Interviewer: What sorts of leads?
Moody: I tried to ask a lot of other Rick Moodys questions about their lives, like a guy named Rick Moody from out West, who’s a motocross fanatic. There’s also a Rick Moody who is a dry cleaner in the Bay Area. One Rick Moody, whose father had the same name, is in agriculture in the Midwest, and when I tried to explain that I was this semi-well-known novelist and my aim was true, he recoiled from me as though I were a known felon. I also spent a fair amount of time reading about and watching on television Rick Moody, the very successful women’s basketball coach of University of Alabama—where I almost got a teaching job at one point (then we would have been on the same campus). I can’t think of two guys with the same name who have less in common. He’s a Baptist, deacon in the church, a motivational speaker, a great competitor. I am none of these things. I don’t imagine he comes from my line of Moodys, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Interviewer: Why was it important for you to get in touch with these other Rick Moodys?
Moody: I wanted to see if name and identity had any correlation at all. American genealogy believes in the science of family, but I think family is more a mythology, a system of assumptions. And these assumptions begin with naming.
Interviewer: What other wild-goose chases did you send your assistants on?
Moody: My father has a portrait of Handkerchief Moody, the protagonist of “The Minister’s Black Veil,” that he had painted by a friend at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] when he was at Brown in the ’50s. It’s a painting in the nazf style, but sort of hilarious. At one point I thought I wanted to interview the woman who painted it to see what she thought about the commission, etc. My father couldn’t remember anything about the artist. The back of the painting said “McCormick” on it, if I remember correctly. I had my research assistant attempt to pry the identity of Ms. McCormick out of the RISD alumnae association. No dice. They wouldn’t have divulged McCormick’s identity, even if they had the name. It’s just policy, as with most schools. For a while, I was also in touch with a professional genealogist from the Boston area who was ill with pulmonary disease. He was so ill, in fact, that he couldn’t work on my queries at all. He did find out that he and I were related, though. A lively conversation sprang up along these lines, but that was about all.
Interviewer: Did you attempt to get inside the head of the historical figures you wrote about?
Moody: Yeah, I tried to get into the head of Joseph “Handkerchief” Moody all right. Born at the very beginning of the eighteenth century, he was the son of a sort of firebrand Congregationalist minister called Samuel Moody. He appears to have been shy and retiring and was pushed into the ministry by his father. His father’s parish was in York, Maine, which was then part of Massachusetts. It was an area with frequent Indian attacks. Joseph may or may not have shot and killed his best friend when he was nine, as I’ve said. Later in life, when he was a minister, his wife died in childbirth, and as a result he seems to have become unhinged. He began to wear a veil about in the world occasionally, and started to refer to himself in the third person. Then he had to be removed from the pulpit. His children (there were four, I think) were taken from him, and he died an indigent in his fifties.
Interviewer: Not a very happy life.
Moody: I’m sure his insides are really my insides, however. At least in the pages of my book. How much can we really know of any historical personage? The process of examination always tells us more about the examiner than the thing examined. That’s what Jung was saying about alchemy, that it was a process for the metallurgy of the spirit. It was about alchemists, not lead and gold.
Interviewer: What does your new collection of stories, Demonology, say about its alchemist?
Moody: That’s a question that I leave to other interpreters. The work is more interesting if you don’t talk so much about its themes and meanings. I like the mystery of literature, and I want to leave the mystery of literature to my readers. And anyhow, I’m not the alchemist but the demiurge. The reader is the alchemist.
Interviewer: Could you describe the relationship between your stories and your longer work? Are the stories vehicles in which to work out narrative concerns or explore voice? What prompts you to write a story as opposed to a longer piece?
Moody: The truth is I don’t really have an idea why one and not the other, and I don’t really want to have any idea. I’m one of those creative people—I suspect this is true of all creative people and probably true of most people generally—who don’t want to be bored. When something seems dull or routine, I just want to try something else. I heard William Gaddis comment in a similar vein, at a panel discussion in ’87, that his work was the way it was so that he might “avoid boredom.” It would be great if I were only concerned with the lofty themes of my work or with my readership, but the truth is that sometimes I make stories because I’m bored of longer works, and sometimes I make unusual stories because I’m bored of making conventionally shaped stories. Someone recently told me they had seen remarks in print describing my work as both very “traditional” and very “experimental.” This exemplifies the danger of the word “experimental” these days. It doesn’t seem to describe anything.
Interviewer: One story in the collection, “The Double Zero,” is a hilarious send-up of Sherwood Anderson’s “The Egg.” How did that come about?
Moody: Dave Eggers, who edits the quarterly called McSweeney’s, was pondering an issue of pieces that were all “covers,” to use the rock-and-roll term, of classic American short fiction. He asked if I was interested, and since I like unusual assignments, I immediately agreed. But I was a little worried that he would suggest something really obvious: “A&P” by Updike, or “The Swimmer” by Cheever—something that really boxed me in. Dave had other stuff in mind, much to his credit. I think he’s just a big fan of the Sherwood Anderson stories, as am I, although they are far from the kind of thing I usually like. I had read “The Egg” way back in high school, but it was a great eye-opener to reread it as an adult. I like the discursive style of the original—the plot doesn’t really get rolling until the end—and I preserved that part of its structure, while opting for a really contemporary Gothic sheen.
Interestingly, “The Double Zero,” when published in McSweeney’s, garnered one of the most vitriolic pieces of hate mail I’ve ever gotten. Occasionally, this is a good sign.
Interviewer: What did the reader take exception to?
Moody: I tried to find the letter on the website so you could reprint some fabulous excerpts, but there are just too many letters on theMcSweeney’s site to go through all of them. My sense was that the reader in question hated everything about my story, just everything. I don’t think the plaintiff had read the original, however. So maybe he wouldn’t have liked the Anderson story either. He seemed to hate my anticorporate subtext particularly, though. It was an America-love-it-or-leave-it kind of thing. He was pretty close to telling me that I should move to a goddamn communist country if I didn’t like it here in the good old U.S. of A. He was from Ohio, I think, so maybe it was a regional pride issue, too. Anyhow, he cancelled his subscription toMcSweeney’s because of me.
Interviewer: A number of friends have remarked that the film version of The Ice Storm was a seminal movie experience for them. I wonder if you could comment on what it was like to have your novel made into a movie. I’m also wondering if your story “On the Carousel,” which to some extent is an indictment of Hollywood, was related to that experience.
Moody: As for the movie of The Ice Storm, I really liked it, and I wasn’t much involved, except as an observer. “On the Carousel,” my little Hollywood story, was written before The Ice Storm came out and before I wrote my one and only screenplay, so it has no hint of either of those experiences in it. To the extent that it has any personal experience in it at all, it has to do with my 1997 tour for Purple America, a five-week marathon that found me in L.A. over a weekend. It was there that I started the piece, just because I was in L.A. long enough to see more than the airport, for a change.
Interviewer: Weren’t there moments in seeing that movie that were wonderful to you? For example, the electrocution scene, which is so beautiful and so terrifying—so sublime?
Moody: Yeah, actually, I love that electrocution scene a lot. It’s really beautiful. I like all the scary, icy parts of the movie. In fact, were I not associated with the movie in any way, I’d probably love even more of it because it’s a pretty great movie. My partner, Amy, watched it on a cable station last night, on a women’s channel, I think, and it’s good, as far as I’m concerned, that it still shows on television so much. But the disjunction that goes with having written the source material makes it hard to show up emotionally for the film version, I think. At least at this late date.
Interviewer: Most of Demonology I read while in England. Maybe for this reason I began to see your work as consciously American in the same way that, say, DeLillo’s White Noise is a very deliberate chronicle of America. Is that a fair characterization?
Moody: The question reminds me of a lecture given by Richard Feynman when I was an undergraduate at Brown. I didn’t actually go. I was too stupid to know what I was missing! But many people returning from the lecture reported that Feynman attempted to describe what a water bug on the surface of a lake, essentially living in two dimensions, imagined about the possibility of three dimensions—as when a trout leaped from beneath the surface before the water bug’s eyes. In just the same way, he said, we, essentially the inhabitants of three dimensions, could better imagine some of the ramifications of four dimensions. My problem as an American writer is not dissimilar. What can I really know of the psychology of people from other cultures, when I was born and raised in this one, which is so exportable and so resistant to inviting in the arts of other nations? Since I have had an American life, I have no choice but to begin my work from an American perspective. That said, I would like to grow to include more of Western culture; as yet I know nothing of Eastern culture, so I leave it out of the discussion regrettably. As a result of my good fortune as a writer, I’ve started to travel more, and even though I’m terrified of travel I’m always grateful after I venture out of the country. Hopefully, some of what I’ve learned in these journeys may creep into the work.
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