I interview people. I just interviewed author Lorrie Moore. A few years ago, I interviewed Emmylou Harris. In that interview, we went over the singer's new record song by song. For this interview I decided to go over Lorrie Moore's new book, Birds of America, story by story.
"Oh?" she says, after I explain. "That's very interesting. I feel stories are very close to songs. They have the same urgency and intensity."
Not only are Moore's stories urgent and intense, but they're peppered with great "zingers" -- terrific verbal bits; like a character who says, "Marriage is the film school of the 90s." Or the ones referred to as "cube steak yuppies." I figure Moore has overheard these quips in a restaurant or at a mall, but she tells me that these particular ones are inventions. "I just imagine the sensibility of a character and then imagine them saying something like that." She does confess that she walks around with a notebook. "That's what writers are suppose to do. Do you carry one?"
"Yes," I say. "But I believe if something is important I'll remember it."
"You can get suckered into thinking that," she says. "Sometimes things seem to be on fire in front of you and you're thinking, 'Ah! I'll never forget that.' But you will." Pause. "You always will."
Always? Moore gives that dour pronouncement with such finality that I'm quiet for a good long moment. Then I begin interviewing her about each of Birds of America's 12 cuts -- er, stories....
The book's opening story is about a second-rate movie star who flees Hollywood to hide out in a motel in Chicago. "Have you done Hollywood?" I ask Moore.
"Done Hollywood?" she says.
"Gone out there."
"No," she answers. "It's not like I usually write about actresses. I imagined my way into that bit of midwestern exile." Have you ever holed up in a strange city in a strange motel? "No," she laughs. "Oh no. No. No. I've never done something that depressed. But it was easy for me to imagine it."
Note about Lorrie Moore's laugh: She laughs a lot, and her laugh is delightful. It's neither a giggle nor cackle. And she's not laughing for my benefit. Her laugh seems the call of a woman who is truly amused by existence.
"Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People"
"Have you ever taken a trip with your mother?" I ask.
She gives that laugh. I asked what I asked because this story is about an American mother who forces her adult daughter to kiss the Blarney Stone. "I did go to Ireland," Moore tells me. "But I did not go with my mother." Did you kiss the stone? "I did. It was pretty much that awful." What did your mother think about the story? "Anytime your parents see a father or mother character, they get very nervous," she says. "Now, my mother knows she never went to Ireland with me and she knows it's fiction, but the story makes her nervous." Then she adds, "And I wouldn't know what to think if I had a child who was a writer."
"Dance in America," "Community Life," and "Beautiful Grade"
The first title is a very good, very short story only peripherally about the subject of the title. The next is about a Transylvanian-born librarian coping with life in America. The last concerns divorce and how "the young were sent to earth to amuse the old." For these tales, Moore and I talk shop on the mechanics of being a short story writer. I've always found short stories harder to get published than novels. I assume Moore gets every one of her stories placed immediately.
"Oh, God no," she says.
"Do you still get -- " I say...
"Rejections?" she says. "Sure. Sure." I don't believe her! Surely she's lying.... "Not everybody likes everything that you do," she insists. "Maybe John Updike never gets rejections. I don't know."
Okay. Maybe she's telling the truth.
"Agnes of Iowa"
"What color is your hair?" is my next question.
"What color is my hair?" she repeats.
"Have you ever dyed it red?" Ah. Now she knows that I am referring to the Iowa woman in the story who dyes her hair red during a trip to New York City -- "her bright, new, and terrible hair" (and Moore means "terrible" like "Ivan the Terrible").
Moore reveals that her hair is brown. We then talk about Manhattan. It turns out that we both lived in Little Italy during the mid-1980s. She doesn't realize that she was subletting across the street from John Gotti's social club. "You undoubtedly made numerous walk-on appearances on FBI surveillance footage," I tell her.
This is a Christmas story about adults playing charades with their aging parents, pantomiming such things as "arachnophobia" ("the whole concept, rather than working syllable by syllable"), as well as famous people such as Robert Oppenheimer (after the mother falls on the floor pantomiming an explosion, her son mistakenly thinks she's depicting "dizziness" for "Dizzy Gillespie"). "I write about Christmas too much," Moore says. "Christmas is a kind of a muse for me. I don't know why. During the holidays things occur to me. Maybe it's because of the upheaval of traveling and meeting with families." (Another of Moore's Yuletide musings, entitled "Chop Suey Xmas," will be collected in the upcoming book of essays We Are What We Ate: 24 Memories of Food.)
"Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens"
This story concerns a woman's holiday-season trips to a shrink in an attempt to come to grips with the death of her cat. So I tell Moore about what has just happened up at Times Square -- a scaffold collapsed, and tenants had to flee a residential hotel. Now the police won't let them back up into their rooms to retrieve their pets. A number of cats, gerbils, and fish have been locked up for six days now.
"That's so mean," Moore says.
"I've made this moral judgment," I tell her. "I think the cats should be rescued."
"But forget about the gerbils and fish -- I agree."
"I don't know what St. Francis would say."
"He might say 'include the gerbils,'" Moore states. "But I think he would draw the line at the fish."
"What You Want to Do Fine"
I mispronounce the title to Moore as, "What You Want to Do IsFine."
"This is why Harper changed it to 'Lucky Ducks,'" she says. "What can you do? You either accept these things or yank your story. I told them the title of the book was going to be Birds of America."
Lucky Ducks, Birds of America -- jeez.
"In that caption where they mention my forthcoming book, they did not mention the title," she says.
In this 35-page story, the word "Ha!" is repeated 1,140 times over two complete pages. "That must have been fun to write," I say.
"I have to say, this kind of thing worried my editor at Knopf," Moore says. "She told me, 'As my mother used to say, it's your dress. You're going to have to wear it.'"
"People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk"
This is a hospital drama about a "Father" and "Mother" and their seriously ill "Baby."
"Did you name the mother character the Mother to distance yourself from the events you were describing?" I ask.
"I think the idea was that in this horrible drama, there were roles. There was 'the Baby.' And 'the Mother.' And 'the Doctor,'" she says. "I began to use the roles as important in themselves. The names didn't matter."
She then reveals that this was the only story she wrote in 1996, the result of an overpowering experience with her own child.
Ha! (Only once....) Nothing like a little self-effacing irony. This story begins: "Although she had been around them her whole life, it was when she reached 35 that holding babies seemed to make her nervous...." Ally McBeal shouldn't read this story -- especially the part where the protagonist's boyfriend asks her to marry him: "I'm going to marry you whether you like it or not...I'm going to marry you till you puke." This 40-page story about their screwy honeymoon in Italy says as much about modern marriage as a full-length novel.
My final question is, "Do you consider yourself a short story writer or a novelist or both?"
"I am asked this a lot," Moore says. "You'd think I'd have a pat answer by now." She's silent a moment, then says, "Obviously I've written more short stories than novels. If you've written 35 short stories, you sort of feel like you're a short story writer, and if you've only written two novels you may be making grandiose claims for yourself by calling yourself a novelist. I would like to be both. I'm working on a novel now. I'm at the very beginning of it." Then she adds, "But, as I began to say, I'm a short story writer. It's not something I will ever leave entirely."
Now let me, the interviewer, ask you, the reader, a question: Any of you FBI agents? If so, check the surveillance tapes you made of John Gotti back in the '80s. Look for the female pedestrian who keeps passing on the street holding a cube of laundry wrapped in brown paper from her favorite Russian laundry on Mulberry Street. Spot her? Good. That woman is Lorrie Moore. She's the best short story writer practicing her craft in America today, and Birds of America is her crowning achievement.