Good to Know
In our interview, Moriarty shared some fun, fascinating facts about herself:
"There are other Laura Moriartys I shouldn't be confused with: Laura Moriarty the poet, and Laura Moriarty the crime writer. If it helps, I'm Laura Eugenia Moriarty, though I've never used my middle name professionally."
"I got my first job when I was sixteen, cooking burgers at McDonald's. I've been a vegetarian since I was ten, so it was a little hard on me. I'm also technically inept and kind of dreamy, so I frustrated the guy who worked the toaster to the point where he threatened to strangle me on a daily basis. I kept that job for two years. I gave Evelyn a job at McDonald's too, and I made her similarly unsuccessful."
"Another job I was really bad at was tending bar. I was an exchange student at the University of Malta about ten years ago. I thought I wanted to go to medical school, so I signed up to take all these organic chemistry and physiology classes. In Malta. It was terrible. The Maltese students were into chemistry. I had a lab partner named Ester Carbone. There was a rumor my instructor had his house built in the shape of a benzene molecule. I couldn't keep up. I dropped out in February, and I needed money. Malta has pretty strict employment laws, and the only job I could get was an illegal one, working at a bar. I don't know anything about mixed drinks, and I don't speak Maltese. I think I was supposed to stand behind the bar be American and female and smile, but I ended up squinting at people a lot, so eventually, I was in the back, doing dishes. That was the year I started writing."
"The Center of Everything has a few autobiographical moments, but not many. I grew up with three sisters in Montana. When you say you're from Montana, people get this wistful look in their eyes. I think they've seen too many Brad Pitt movies. I saw A River Runs Through It, which is set in my hometown, Bozeman. That movie drove me nuts: I don't think anyone is even wearing coat in the whole movie. They can't keep filming up there in August and tricking everyone. Of course, now I live in Maine."
"I have tender hands, and the worst thing in the world, for me, is going to an event that requires a lot of hand shaking. Some people shake nicely, but some people have a death grip, and it's really painful. The thing is, you can't tell who's going to be a death gripper and who isn't. Big, strapping men have shaken my hand gently, but an elderly woman I met last month almost brought me to my knees. She was smiling the whole time. I went to a hand shaking event a month ago, and I went along with the shaking, because I didn't want to look rude or standoffish or freaky about germs. But hand shaking just kills me. I'm not sure what to do about it. I went back to Phillips Exeter a month ago, and a very polite student reintroduced himself to me and extended his hand to shake. I actually tried to high five him. He looked at me like I was a crazy person. My sister told me I should take a cue from Bob Dole and carry a pen in my right hand all the time, so I might try that."
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In the summer of 2003, Laura Moriarty took some time out to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
It's difficult to pick just one, of course. But I will say that while I was writing The Center of Everything, I read Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World, and it made a strong impression on me. I only knew about Sagan from watching the Nova Channel when I was a kid, but I happened upon an essay he'd written before he died. I was so impressed I went to the library and checked out some of his books. In The Demon Haunted World, Sagan stresses the importance of skepticism and rational reasoning when considering the mysteries of the universe. It's easy for us today to see the insanity of the witchcraft trials, but Sagan gives a sympathetic account of how frightening the world must have seemed in those times, and how quickly our ability to reason can be dismissed in the face of fear and superstition. Today, Sagan points out, we have crop circles, alien abductions, and religious fundamentalism; the book has a great chapter called "The Baloney Detection Kit," an important tool for any open-minded skeptic. What I like most about Sagan is that he seems skeptical without coming across as cynical. He looks at the vastness of the universe and the intricacy of the natural world with so much wonder and awe, and he's able to translate it to a reader who isn't a scientist, such as myself. I also noticed how he refrains from making fun or putting down his opponents; there's such a generosity of spirit in his writing. I tried to put a bit of Sagan in Evelyn, the narrator of The Center of Everything.
What are your ten favorite books -- and what makes them special to you?Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood -- This book recounts an actual murder that took place over a hundred years ago in a small town outside of Toronto. The narrator is the alleged murderess, an Irish immigrant servant girl. I listened to this book on audiotape, and I liked it so much I went out and got the book and read that too. The narrator has one of the most haunting voices I've ever come across.
Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl -- I read somewhere that Anne Frank's diary was the best selling book of all time, not including the Bible. I don't know if that's true or not, but I know I'm one of millions who feel fortunate to have read her words. I've reread the Diary many times over the years, and it's a different book for me with each new reading. I first read it when I was thirteen, and at that time, it introduced me to the cruelty of the Holocaust, to the extent that I could comprehend it at the time. But when I read it again a few years ago, it was an entirely different book for me. I was more aware of the difficult relationship she had with her mother, and how she struggled against the way others perceived her. When I read the Diary again recently, I saw the brilliance in her writing - her eye for details, and the way she conveys character with just a few brief lines of dialogue. I am certain that if the Franks would have emigrated to America and Anne would have grown up in the suburbs, she would still would have been an important writer.
This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff -- I really like memoirs, especially when they're honest, when the writer refuses to let his story fall into comfortable, familiar patterns. Wolff survived a brutal upbringing with a sadistic stepfather, and so on some levels, the book is a story about survival in the face of emotional and physical abuse. But my favorite passages in the book are ones when Wolff takes a hard look at himself as an adolescent and admits to feelings and urges that a less courageous writer might have omitted. He chooses honesty over neat endings. His prose is beautiful, too.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris -- Sedaris is hilarious, first and foremost. His stories are so funny that they could get by just on being funny, but often, once I stop laughing and think about them, I realize there's more going on. When I taught English at UNH, I read his story about his brother, "You Can't Kill the Rooster" to my students. I thought it was a great example of how alive writing could be. They weren't used to laughing that much in English class. I think a lesser writer might have been satisfied with turning an essay about his brother into one of the funniest character sketches of all time, but Sedaris's narrative also has so much respect and warmth in it.
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang -- This book is non-fiction, an account of three generations of Chinese women. The grandmother was a concubine with bound feet; the mother was a soldier in the Red Army, and the daughter, who wrote the book, lives in London today. Wild Swans gives a personal account of the misery of the Cultural Revolution and the insanity of life under Mao. It's a big book, full of details and sad stories. I assigned it when I was teaching at the University of Kansas, and some students practically rioted because they hated having to read such a long book about China. But some students loved it just as much as I did. Wild Swans reminds me that people have the capacity to create immense misery, but we also have the capacity to survive it.
A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton -- I read this book years ago, and I remember I liked it very much. But just recently, I was lying in bed, trying to sleep, and for some reason I thought of it, and I thought about the plot, and it hit me all of a sudden that it was a great book. It's as if it took me that long to realize it. A Map of the World is about a school nurse, Alice, living a mildly frustrating life in a small town with her family; she's kind of happy, and she kind of isn't. But then two very bad things happen: the child of a close friend drowns while under Alice's supervision; months later, she's falsely accused of sexual abuse by a vengeful parent at the school where she works. She's sent to jail, and many of her former neighbors think the worst of her. So while Alice is plagued with guilt for something she did do, she's also attacked by others for something she didn't do. I think guilt is a really interesting concept for a writer to work with, and Hamilton does it so well. The prison scenes are amazing.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham -- This book takes a sympathetic look at people who choose to commit suicide; ironically, it's one of the most life affirming books I've ever read. The characters have real struggles -- AIDS, mental illness, grief -- but at the end of the book, I felt I had been asked to look at life a little more carefully to see the beauty in it, even in its most difficult moments. And it's such a short book! I'm always impressed with authors who can convey so much in relatively few pages.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- This novel is structurally perfect. As if that weren't enough, there's the lush, beautiful prose -- the fresh green breast of the New World and all that. And Nick is my favorite kind of narrator. Like Ishmael in Moby Dick, he's a side character observing the downfall of someone larger than life.
At Home in the World: A Memoir by Joyce Maynard -- I was pretty skeptical when I checked out this book. All I knew about Maynard was that she had had an affair with J. D. Salinger in her youth, and she recently attempted to sell his old love letters on eBay. I remember thinking, "what a jerk she must be," and I got the book to prove to myself that she was, in fact, a jerk. But I was instantly captivated by Maynard's voice as she described her parents' tormented marriage, her father's alcoholism, and her own pathological obsession with accomplishment and success. I learned that she was eighteen and anorexic when the fifty-three-year-old Salinger began courting her, and by the time I got through the brutal details of their "romance," I decided that Maynard had every right to sell his letters: she earned them. I think some of the reactions to this memoir have been suspiciously vicious. If so many people don't want this woman to talk, it makes me more interested in what she has to say.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley -- This is kind of a tough book for a white person to read. I almost stopped reading half way through because the anger towards white people was so unrelenting, and the way he viewed white women seemed especially simplistic and unfair. It occurred to me, of course, that this was how it felt to be viewed as a color and not as a person, and given the stories he told about whites murdering his father and humiliating his mother, his anger made perfect sense. But as an individual reader who happens to be white, his generalized hatred was hard to take. I'm so glad I kept reading, though, because about three quarters through the book, he starts to question whether hating white people is really the answer. I think it was so brave of him to admit his worldview was changing when he was already famous and immensely popular for hating whites. It would have been very tempting to save face and just keep serving up witty one-liners and angry rants to the press. I think it takes a lot of courage to change your mind on a public stage. But Malcolm X was intellectually honest with himself and with his followers. And the book is particularly interesting because he's going through these changes after Haley has already started interviewing him.
What are some of your favorite films?American Beauty
Best in Show
A Room With A View
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like to listen to music that helps me write, that makes me think of whatever character I'm working with. I recently took a road trip from Salt Lake City to San Diego to Phoenix, and I listened to this amazing new song by Johnny Cash, "The Man Comes Around" maybe three hundred times. I just kept hitting the rewind button. It's a good thing I was alone in the car. A passenger might have murdered me.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Memoirs, I think. They're my favorite kind of book to read and discuss with other people. The good ones tend to be a little messier than fiction; it's sometimes less clear if you've got a reliable narrator or not. I'm reading Nuala O'Faolain's Almost There right now. It's a memoir about the writing life, and it's really interesting. If there are any other good memoirs about writing, I want to know about them. (But I already know about Anne Lamott! Bird by Bird is great.)
What are your favorite books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I give away almost every book when I'm done reading it. I don't understand the point of hoarding books on my bookshelf. I figure once I read them, they're in my head, and if I want to read them again, I can go to the library. So I'm always mailing a book off to whatever friend or sister I think would appreciate it the most. I hope people don't feel pressured to read a book they don't want to just because I gave it to them. I have a friend whose boss gave her a six hundred page book that she doesn't want to read, and it's making her miserable. She thinks she has to read it.
Who are your favorite writers, and what makes their writing special?
Both Margaret Atwood and Tobias Wolff tend to knock me out with their prose. Atwood is a poet as well as a talented weaver of plot, and it makes me green with envy. I like Jane Hamilton for her compassionate portrayals of characters most people would ridicule, and the way her books show the beauty of rural life without romanticizing it. Lorrie Moore is my favorite short story writer.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a book that's pretty different from The Center of Everything. It's set in Maine. The protagonist is male. Best of all, the narration is third person. I loved writing in Evelyn's voice for The Center of Everything, but first person narration can be limiting as far as word choice and metaphor. It's nice to have the free reign of third person.
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