Walking through San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Museum’s impressionist art collection and a special exhibit on Camille Pissarro with Christopher Moore, who’s as irrepressible in person as he is in his novels, the conversation ricochets from thoughtful comments about the paintings on the walls to laugh-out-loud anecdotes about the artists—including Pissarro—who populate Moore’s 13th novel, Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art (Morrow).
Like all of Moore’s writings, his satire of the fin-de-siècle Paris art world is a blend of fact, fantasy, and risqué humor that more often than not pushes the envelope of propriety. Sacré Bleu revolves around the grotesque, lustful Colorman and his beautiful, shape-shifting associate, Bleu, who stalk the 19th-century impressionists, trying to steal the paintings they produced using a particular blue pigment. This kind of provocative yet over-the-top story line is the reason the Onion called Moore the “thinking man’s Dave Barry, or the impatient man’s Tom Robbins.”
Moore has no formal education in art history, but he could teach a college course. It all goes back to Moore’s first national book tour in 1997, promoting his fourth novel, Island of the Sequined Love Nun (Morrow).
“When you go on book tour, you’re always talking about yourself and your book from the time you get up in the morning until you go out at night,” he explains. “You, you. You get really sick of yourself.” (He’s happy enough, though, talking about his wife, a hospice nurse, who moved with him to San Francisco in 2006 after living in Kauai for three years, and his mother, who, even after he had five novels in print, wondered if he would have been better off keeping that grocery job with the good benefits.)
So seeking a respite from all the self-absorption, Moore began taking a few hours off in the book tour cities to visit the local art museum.
“There’s this visceral, almost mystic feeling that comes over you when you look at art often enough,” he says. “[Art] is so not about you. It was such a relief, looking at all these scenes filtered by another consciousness and brought to me.”
Moore, 54, is an Ohio State University dropout, who briefly studied at the Brooks School of Photography in Santa Barbara in the mid-1970s. After working a series of dead-end jobs, including that grocery store gig, Moore moved in 1982 from Santa Barbara to Cambria, a small town 125 miles up the coast to write. Three years later he sold a short story; his first novel, Practical Demonkeeping, was published in 1992. Interesting things he comes across, usually while reading, provide the jumping-off point in conceptualizing his novels, which initially involve extensive research, learning all he possibly can about his interest du jour before writing. “It could be a single sentence in a magazine article,” Moore says.
While visiting France to research for Fool (Morrow, 2009), his bawdy spin on King Lear, Moore decided that his next project would be a novel about the color blue, which, he confesses, turned out to be one of the most difficult books he’s ever written, taking him four years to complete. Moore’s inspiration for Sacré Bleu came from two facts that intrigued him: the recipe for the blue in the stained glass windows at Chartres Cathedral has been lost for centuries, and blue is the dominant color used by the impressionists in their work.
While Sacré Bleu is billed as a comedy, tragedies touch the lives of these artists. Moore even uses them, as well as actual pictures of impressionist paintings, as plot devices. For instance, Sacré Bleu opens with Vincent van Gogh’s death, shot in the chest by an angry Colorman for not handing over a painting the Colorman wants. And Monet’s painting of his wife, Camille Monet on Her Deathbed, moves the action along later in the story.
Moore explains that his dark sense of humor was most shaped by his father, a highway patrolman in Moore’s native Mansfield, Ohio, who had to confront human pain and suffering on a daily basis. “I thought everybody made macabre jokes at the dinner table,” Moore says. “That turned out to be a good thing for me, because that’s how I earn my living now, making inappropriate dark jokes.”