After sitting with an author, it's always funny to consider all the things we didn't talk about. In this case, here's a partial list of omissions: alcohol and drug abuse, psychiatric care, Moody's father, his sister (mentioned incidentally, if ever a reference to one's sister's death can be dismissed as incidental), Connecticut, Maine, the granite industry, the church, genealogy, and subways.
We found plenty to talk about otherwise, mostly writing as process and vocation, as a means of communication and, alternately, as a mask.
So is The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions a memoir? Not in the conventional sense. "Genre is a bookstore problem," the author explained.
Fiction, nonfiction - "sometimes it's really honest about life," Moody admits, "other times it's about completely other things" - concealment and revelation, never one without the other. On one page the author describes the dementia that once confined him to a psychiatric hospital and on another he's driving along the back roads of Maine with his father, searching for clues that would connect their lineage to an eighteenth century preacher known as Handkerchief Moody, the reported inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic story "The Minister's Black Veil."
The latest achievement from the author of The Ice Storm is something like an obsessively crafted primal scream, a stylized purging of demons, an evocation of consciousness shaped and delivered in such a manner as to seem immediate and inevitable, sometimes singular and other times representative of our culture at large: sound and fury signifying nothing but the pain and wonder of one man's existence in modern America.
Dave: Near the end of The Black Veil you write:
|When I started this book, I told myself I would conceal nothing....Why this feeling, then, that I have left something out? Some weeks now I've been nauseated with this perception.|
The book seems to unfold with your understanding of the veil. Did you imagine yourself coming to some kind of understanding as you wrote or did you actually believe you understood the story, and the veil, before you started?
Rick Moody: Not the way you're describing. Among nonfiction writers, my heroes are people like Thoreau and Montaigne and Emerson, people who attempt to depict consciousness as it happens, so it wasn't necessarily, Oh, I'm going to prove I'm related to Handkerchief Moody. I'm going to tell a story about going to Maine. Or, I'm going to tell a conventional memoir about being in the psychiatric hospital. It was more that I wanted to depict the narrator, me, in the moment of apprehending how gigantic the veil could be as a symbol, as a motivating force in the book. So it's consciousness, not just storytelling.
Dave: A review I read this week said, more or less, "In some ways, the book is more about the veil than it is about the author." The reviewer clearly approached the book expecting a more conventional memoir. He didn't find that.
Moody: My only regret about the book at this point is the subtitle. I think it's giving people the wrong idea.
The good news is that there are people who've really understood it and read it in the spirit in which it was made. I know there will be a trickle-down effect with that, and in the paperback life of the book no one's going to expect it to be a memoir in the conventional sense.
Dave: The form seems a natural evolution of your writing, particularly on the heels of Demonology, which is also difficult to pigeonhole by genre. Those stories certainly contain many nonfiction reference points.
Moody: Precisely. I find tremendous energy in work that's hybridizing genres. Like W.G. Sebald's stuff; Rings of Saturn, for me, is an incredible book. Also Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor. Nonfiction that uses novelistic devices and strategies to shape the work. That's material that I really like.
Literature precedes genre. Genre is a bookstore problem, not a literary problem. It helps people know what section to browse, but I don't care about that stuff. I'm trying to stay close to language first and foremost and make sure that the paragraphs sing, that it sounds like music to me. What genre it falls under is only of interest later.
Dave: Meanwhile The Black Veil finds its source in the Hawthorne story, The Minister's Black Veil, which itself is based on this Handkerchief Moody person. So is his story fiction, exactly? Clearly Hawthorne fictionalized, but an actual historical figure inspired the whole thing.
Moody: Right. And that really gets at this idea: what's concealment? How do you conceal? How do you reveal? How do you balance things? Writing the book was itself a process of concealing and revealing.
I would suggest that that's what identity is really like. That's what being human is like. The idea that Handkerchief Moody was a real guy and Hawthorne's story was a fictionalized version...it's the same thing, all these layers of veiling and unveiling.
Dave: With very few exceptions, a few passing references to Garden State, you don't discuss your work in the book. Maybe part of that is simply to keep the narrative cleaner, but I wondered how you make that division in your own life. Clearly your vocation is a big part of your life.
Moody: This is odd, but there are certain things that are really embarrassing to talk about - one is my job and the success that I've had in it, and the other is money. I can tell you all about the psychiatric hospital, but talking about the making of The Ice Storm movie...it makes me really uncomfortable. Maybe later. Maybe when I'm sixty-five I'll talk about my literary life.
Dave: But this career...writing is something you've been pursuing for a long time. I read somewhere that you started to write a novel in the sixth grade. Maybe career is too cold a word but, money and notoriety aside, you've achieved a lot if only in the sense that you now write for a living. Is it what you thought it would be?
Moody: A lot of really interesting stuff gets crowded into that question in the last couple years. I'm finally engaged. I turned forty, and I'm finally going to get married and maybe have a kid. I have a whole passel of nieces and nephews. My sister, who passed away, left two kids behind. All the stuff that I used to treat with contempt - you know, I'm an artist, man, I don't do that family stuff - has begun to seem really important. Now I feel like: midlife crisis! I'm forty, I'm half-dead. How does my job fit into all this other stuff now?
The process of composition, messing around with paragraphs and trying to make really good prose, is hardwired into my personality. But that incessant drive to be out there in the literary universe that was important to me when I was in my twenties, like going to a Paris Review party or whatever, that seems totally irrelevant now.
Dave: There's a section toward the end - it's when you're thinking about wearing a veil of your own - that discusses how often things that are sad are also funny.
|For the purposes of instructing myself about Handkerchief Moody and his crime, for the purposes of understanding Hawthorne's preoccupation with the image of the veil, it became obvious that I needed myself to wear the veil for some unspecified period....The prospect was a lonely one, in ways that I couldn't have known at first, so it was something that required labor and philosophy, but it also had a lot of practical issues associated with it, and so like a lot of sad things, it was also funny. Would I, for example, wear the veil to lunch with the guys I usually met at noontime at the Star Burger Deli on 46th Street?...And what about at the gym? Would I wear shorts, T-shirt, running shoes, and a veil? How would I fit my portable cassette recorder over my veil?...|
It's a really funny passage. Like so much of your writing, it can be bleak and even heartbreaking yet it makes you laugh. I imagine that's not even a conscious effort on some level, but is it a defense mechanism, is it a literary endeavor that you're trying not to turn off your readers by making them weep on every page?
Moody: You're probably right that it's inclination, just part of how I am, but it's also true that I have this fairly astringent worldview. Unleavened by other stuff, lightness or comedy, it's too much. So while it is true that I find really dark stuff funny sometimes, it's also true that as a writer of books I want to have the whole range of human emotions.
For example, A Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone: that's an incredibly bleak book, unleavened by a moment of lightness. I happen to think it's great, but it's not for everyone. I'm trying to make sure that there's comedy as well as sadness. It makes the sadness more memorable.
Dave: I know you're friends with Donald Antrim. He's a favorite of mine. His stuff can be very dark, but it's hilarious. Do you gravitate toward that kind of reading?
Moody: I love Donald's work. I think he's brilliant. Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World I think is one of the best novels of the last thirty years, in some ways, and The Hundred Brothers is really great, too. I like a lot of stuff like that, that alternate history of literature, the doom and gloom comedy guys like Flann O'Brien. Stanley Elkin was really important to me. I love all that stuff. And they were all beautiful prose writers. Donald, line by line, is an astonishing prose writer. Those sentences, you just wish you could do as well. But it's often misunderstood because the work has a comic dimension to it. People forget that.
Dave: Speaking of novels that are completely off the wall, marriages of utter depression and hysterical comedy, a character in The Ice Storm says that Breakfast of Champions is a failure. I wondered if you agreed. I'm guessing the answer is no.
Moody: Actually, I like Breakfast of Champions. It was my favorite one as a kid when I was reading all his books, though probably everyone would agree that Slaughterhouse-Five is Vonnegut's high-water mark. But that was the year The Ice Storm was set, so I had all these 1973 novels in my head, the best of which is Gravity's Rainbow.
I was thinking about all this work. What might they say in the suburbs?
Dave: When you wrote The Ice Storm you were listening predominantly to music from 1973, right?
Moody: I had this whole stack....Close to the Edge by Yes. What else? Some Jethro Tull record and all those K-Tel Top Hits of 1973 things.
Have you ever read that Borges story, Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote? I was trying to do the same thing. Pierre Menard tries to learn thirteenth century Italian and immerse himself in the sociology of that time in the hope that he'll spontaneously produce Don Quixote. That was sort of the idea.
Dave: There's a story in Demonology that cracked me up, "Wilkie Fahnstock, The Boxed Set," wherein you itemize the musical soundtrack of an ordinary man's life. You discuss the playlist in the guise of an advertisement for the chronologically arranged, ten-cassette compilation of his favorite songs. Where did that idea come from? Playfulness?
Moody: A little bit. What happened was that after I wrote The Ice Storm I had a period where I was blocked for a little bit, before I wrote Purple America. I'd just gotten Microsoft Word, which enabled some strange new capabilities, for example italicizing, that I had not had before.
In The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven there's an annotated bibliography story called "Primary Sources" - that was the same thing. I figured out how to annotate, which I'd never been able to do before. This was before Infinite Jest, let us say in passing. I also figured out how to do this two-column thing, and I got really interested in What could you do with two columns?
First I made a list of every song I'd ever liked in my entire life, and I made tapes of all of them. I had to go out and get things like Machine Head by Deep Purple....Then I had to figure out what to put in the left-hand column of the page, so I tried to make up a guy for whom this was the ideal set of songs. Once I had Wilkie, the weird thing is that the list started changing. I started deleting certain songs because I had decided he wouldn't like them. That's how it happened.
Dave: I've read in numerous places where you've talked about The Ring of Brightest Angels as being the first time you really let yourself go, when you started to write longer sentences and in some ways really find your voice. What triggered that?
Moody: The way I usually answer that question is to say that it was killing off Mikey in The Ice Storm. The scene that starts the third section, this really weird, dreamlike part: "Okay, the time has come in this account for a characterization of the mind of God. Just briefly, for thematic reasons," it begins.
I didn't know how to kill off a character unless I was able, as a narrator, to get really complicated. Because it was a big deal. I'd never killed a character before.
That passage in a way was the first time I brushed up against...it was as if there was a secret room in the building and suddenly the pickaxe broke through the wall. I realized that there was a chamber in there. Then when I got to "Ring of Brightest Angels," the story, I finally chose a theme and a subject that demanded that style for its expression, which was addiction and New York City. There was no way to write a portrait of the city in a simple language. That's when I realized, Oh yeah, this is actually how I think. This is a language that gets closer to my own state of mind. It seemed more like me than the kind of short sentences I'd used in the first two books.
Dave: You say you want your writing to be musical, but then you've written other pieces like the Wilkie Fawnshaw story that play with physical form, instead.
Richard Ford, when he was here, had been criticized by Colson Whitehead in the New York Times Book Review for, among other things, being too formal a writer. Ford responded by saying, "I don't want to be e.e. cummings. I don't want to be interesting because all of the words are in the wrong order. I want to be interesting because all the words are in the order that I think make sense to the reader. And at the same time not sacrifice complexity, not sacrifice good sense, not sacrifice felicity, not sacrifice intelligence."
Where do you draw the line between trying to foster a specific reading of the text and on the other hand creating mood and rhythm and letting the reader gather what they will?
Moody: That's to ask an important question about what language does, how it works. There's a Roland Barthes book called Writing Degree Zero, which is about the idea that's implicit in all naturalistic American fiction: that there's a style that is perfectly transparent. In other words, that you could write a simple sentence - I picked up the cup - which is completely free of stylization and utterly transparent in terms of its meaning. There's a whole through line in American fiction going from Hemingway to Richard Ford that supposes that the most elegant style is the one that sheers away the most ambiguity, cleans out the most affectation, and leaves the most transparent style.
My contention is that that style is just as stylized as an ornate style. Hemingway, clearly imitative of Gertrude Stein, the ultimate experimenter, was therefore a stylized writer. I'd say the same thing about Ford. He depicts a certain kind of masculine energy in really simple sentences.
In my style, the idea is that it's more ornate because that's what consciousness is. To the extent that it hurtles, that it's circular and hurtling, it's because that's how I feel consciousness is, that's what it's like to be a person. You don't have these perfectly transparent, simple thoughts. You have thoughts that are all cluttered up, like overused bookshelves. Do I think there's content that's important and even essential in those sentences? Absolutely I do. When prose gets too stylized and out of control - and Stein is sometimes a good example - when you don't know what the hell is going on, then it's kind of boring. The point is to balance on the edge between musicality and content.
Dave: There aren't many scenes in The Black Veil. It's more interior and descriptive. Was that simply a product of the kind of book you were writing, one born directly from consciousness?
Moody: It turns out that my memory is just not that great, so for specific scenes with people doing stuff, sometimes I'd have the details all wrong or I couldn't remember what happened exactly, so I just let that be. As readers, even though we want scenes, and we want that kind of drive, this one's tougher that way.
I think the next book is going to be very narrative-driven so hopefully I'll repair my relationship with those people I drove off.
Dave: What is the next book? Are you working on it now?
Moody: I've just started. I'm not very far yet. It's a novel set in New York City, about television, actually. It will be really contemporary and full of pop culture.
Dave: You seem to set challenges for yourself each time you start something new. Sometimes you're very specific. "Ineluctable Modality of the Vaginal" [in Demonology], for instance, was a direct response to a challenge put forth by Fiona Giles: to write in the first person from a woman's point of view. So is writing a novel with more narrative, more scenes, a challenge you've set for the next book?
Moody: Totally. I made this list of stuff that it's time for me to try to do. I'm going to take a stab at one of these books that makes you want to turn pages a little, see if I can do it. I probably can't. What ends up happening is that the book becomes the compromise between intention and the pragmatics of who and where you are.
Dave: You used to write a comic strip.
Moody: I wrote it for five or six months, the Details comic strip, which was really fun. It was a bummer when they cancelled it.
Dave: Did you draw, too?
Moody: No, no. They got some D.C. guy to illustrate it.
Dave: What was it about?
Moody: It was about me, and I hire a body double to take over my life. So this body double went out and started being me on the road. But then he started to go kind of crazy, drunk with literary power. He started taking over my life.
I didn't get to finish it because they pulled the plug after six months when a new editor came in.
Dave: Working in such a strict, short format provides challenges of its own. There must have been some compulsion to make the strips work as self-standing pieces - for readers who only pick up one issue of Details - yet because of your nature, you probably wanted to make the story a lot bigger.
Moody: Actually, that was really my interest. What I loved about comic books when I was a kid was the broad spectrum of narrative developing over years and years. The whole infighting between The Fantastic Four over twenty years...I wanted to have that kind of narrative, a soap-operatic, large-scale development, which is really hard to do when you have two pages a month for five months.
Dave: What are you reading these days?
Moody: I judged about a zillion awards this year so I've been reading a lot of books that just came out. I liked Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri. I read this really great collection of stories that almost nobody knows about because it was a paperback original called The Bostons by Carolyn Cooke. Houghton Mifflin did it. It's a total kick ass book. Colson's book [John Henry Days] I liked a lot. House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski I liked.
I'm trying to read more dead people because I keep having to read stuff for juries and so forth. I've been reading Barthelme's stories, the old ones that I hadn't read before, and Somerset Maugham. Richard Yates's Collected Stories, which I hadn't read yet. Isaac Babel. Like that.
Dave: What are you thinking on this tour?
Moody: It's different every night. It's so exhausting. Some nights I just don't have it. But especially with a book like this what matters is that the people in the audience get a chance to connect a human being with the words on the page. I think that really changes the reading experience, makes the sentences stick better.
A book like this, people want to impute a person with respect to the material. I'm here to try to fulfill that function. That part is always good. Even if the room only has ten people, if there are three people who really give a shit about my work it just makes the whole thing better.
The publishers are always controlling the deployment of image, and I have no interest in any of that. I don't care about it. This gives me a chance to say, "I'm just some guy. Don't believe the hype."
Rick Moody visited Powell's City of Books on May 19, 2002. "First time in Portland," he scribbled on our wall beside his signature and the date. "Nice trees."
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Books mentioned in this post
Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State