More than most writers, Lorrie Moore has devoted readers who fervently await each of her new publications with something approaching reverence. With the release of her last novel, A Gate at the Stairs, Jonathan Lethem declared himself one of those fans: "Moore may be the most irresistible contemporary American writer....On finishing A Gate at the Stairs, I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately." Bark, Moore's latest work and first book of short stories in 15 years, showcases her razor-edged humor, her dazzling skill with language, and her incredible psychological precision. Reading Bark, I realized that as much as I love her novels, I'd been missing the irresistible pull of her stories terribly without knowing it. Kirkus agreed in a starred review: "One of the best short story writers in America resumes her remarkable balancing act, with a collection that is both hilarious and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same paragraph....In stories both dark and wry, Moore wields a scalpel with surgical precision."
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Jill Owens: How did this new collection, Bark, come together? Had you been working on some of the stories while writing other things?
Lorrie Moore: Bark is a collection of stories written over 10 years, from the period of 2003 to 2013. They are arranged more or less in chronological order. During that time I was also working on a novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which was published in 2009. Though there has been some commentary that this is a slim collection, it is my second longest. I think the bound galley made it look smaller than it was. There are eight stories, as there were in my second collection, Like Life. Do I sound sufficiently defensive?
Jill: Did you know that the longer stories — "Wings" and "Debarked" — would remain stories rather than become novels?
Moore: Actually I imagined "Debarking" would be shorter and that "Wings" would be longer, perhaps a novella. But they were never destined to become novels.
Jill: What do you like about working in those different forms (short stories and novels)?
Moore: Once a decade I have an idea that needs the wider, longer canvas of the novel. I like keeping company with the protagonists of my novels. The characters in a short story are assembled in a more temporary way and I don't think much about them afterward. But the heroine of a novel can linger with you. It's also possible, because of that, to take time out to write the occasional story.
Jill: I read that you studied and played music at one point. And you write about music frequently; your characters are often musicians. Do you still play? Are there similarities between playing and making music and writing?
Moore: No, I never studied music seriously, but members of my family did.I love music, and all writers are probably aspiring to the condition of it with every sentence. I also like characters who are musicians since they are fun to spend time with.
Jill: You're pretty well known for the humor in your writing. Do you like reading fiction that's funny, too? What are you drawn to, in that way?
Moore: So many writers are funny and don't get credit for it. Alice Munro, for instance. I'm reading her work with grad students this semester and they are surprised by all the sly humor in her stories. Margaret Atwood is more openly funny and satirical, even in her poetry, and her style and tone was always an inspiration to me. Alison Lurie and David Lodge are very sharp and humorous observers of academe and the literary world. Roddy Doyle is very funny. David Sedaris I adore, but he is doing something slightly different, as a writer of humor. I once went through a big Peter De Vries phase. He always made me laugh out loud. And Shakespeare is always a hoot. Or almost always.
Jill: And your puns! I've actually read some of the puns out loud to friends of mine who are also pun lovers. Does that cross over into real life, as well?
Moore: I feel a little falsely or at least overaccused in the pun department. Shakespeare and De Vries and Maureen Dowd are more appropriate targets. Some of my puns are just mishearings or misunderstandings. Misunderstanding is the key element in a certain kind of comedy.
Jill: Do you think it's related to being interested in language in general?
Moore: Oh, sure. And it's also maybe related to being hard of hearing. There is a hinge between homonyms that connects two very different worlds, and it is sometimes fun to note when a word does that.
Jill: A Gate at the Stairs seemed like you were writing from a perspective that was the opposite of some past protagonists — the student rather than the teacher, the native Midwesterner rather than a transplant. Was that a different kind of empathy, a different kind of challenge?
Moore: No, all empathy is generally the same. It's a leap but a leap you're interested in taking. I don't tend to write characters who have my biography. There has been some overlap here and there, but not a lot. One works, I suppose, a little like an actress. What made Tassie accessible (in my opinion) was her watchfulness, intelligence, and youth. Who hasn't been there?
Jill: In "Wings," you write, "...if one knew the future, all the unexpected glimpses of the beloved, one might have trouble finding the courage to go on." Could you expand upon that idea at all?
Moore: In "Wings" the young woman is seeing all the unfortunate qualities in the man she loves and it becomes a strain on her affections. Eventually she cannot love him at all because of what they both have done. This is a theme in at least three Henry James novels that I can think of: the spring of one's affection being broken by various things that have transpired — mostly betrayals of some sort. But betrayals of self.
Jill: "The Juniper Tree" was a really moving and poignant story, which has very much stayed with me. It's not experimental, exactly — how might you describe the way it plays with what is possible, with death?
Moore: Well, it is based on a dream I had that was so intense it felt like a visitation. Many people I've spoken to have had this experience of seeming to be visited in their dreams by people who have recently died. To the extent it borrows from a dream or dreamlike experience, it could be called surrealism. Or even a ghost story. When the New Yorker first published it, they did so with a spooky photograph that I just loved.
Jill: One thing I like about your characters is that they're game. They're up for anything — or, not anything, but change. Trying new things. Seeing what will happen. It adds an element of unpredictability to your fiction that's exciting and maybe a bit unusual. Do you see them that way, as somewhat adventurous, even (sometimes) through despair?
Moore: That's certainly a nice way to look at them, and they may be looked at in any number of ways. I think they are not as game so much as trying to be game. Trying to be game is just part of going on with life. It's a mustering of resilience and acceptance, but not everyone can do it all the time.
Jill: Your descriptions, throughout all your work, can be razor sharp (and, again, also frequently funny) — one tiny one I loved in "Paper Losses" was that Kit was "part brunette Shelley Winters, part potato." That juxtaposition is fantastic. How do you think about your writing at the prose level, or the sentence level?
Moore: I work from images in my mind's eye and let the associations occur. Then I try to get the rhythm of the sentence right.
Jill: What are you reading and listening to these days that you're enjoying?
Moore: I have long admired the singer Jonatha Brooke and am interested in the songs she's written for this theater piece she's done in New York about her mother. I'm also listening to Irma Thomas and Anne Akiko Meyers. I am also reading, in addition to many student theses, Ron Hansen, Alice Munro, and Emma Straub.
Books mentioned in this post