I arranged to meet Lorrie Moore for drinks recently at the bar in Manhattan’s Library Hotel. I thought she was late, but it turns out that the hotel has two bars, separated by 16 floors, and she was waiting in the other one—a scenario not unlike the setup for one of Moore’s short stories, or a joke within a Moore short story doing double duty as metaphor.
Moore was my M.F.A. thesis advisor at New York University, and I’ve read all her books, starting with Birds of America (1998), and working my way back through her oeuvre: Self-Help (1985), published when she was only 26; Anagrams (1986), her first novel; Like Life (1990); Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), and, after a 10-year wait, A Gate at the Stairs (2009). This February, Knopf will publish her seventh book, Bark, a collection of stories.
The elevator door opens. “I’m so sorry!” Moore says, sounding as though she’s on the verge of singing. “My voice never knows quite what octave it wants to be in,” she tells me, adding that, as a girl growing up in Glens Falls, N.Y., she loved to sing. “Everybody wants to be a singer,” she says. “It has to be the most beautiful life there is.” But after a humiliating choir audition her freshman year at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., she accepted that she didn’t have the chops to be a serious musician. “Being a singer is a physical thing. It’s like being a jock. At some point you realize you can’t work hard enough to make it happen. I then had to find a different art form. And guess what I did?”
Moore’s interest in music shows up often in her fiction. Tassie Keltjin, the protagonist of A Gate at the Stairs, is a self-taught bassist who claims Miles Davis and Sleater-Kinney as influences. Berie and Sils, the girls at the heart of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, sing almost as much as they talk. The stories in Bark are littered with failed musicians, hobbyist musicians, talented young musicians, and even, in the last story, Michael Jackson, albeit on an iPod.
Moore sits at the edge of her chair drinking champagne, her answers to questions evasive—a private person’s way of getting around the dilemma of being the subject of a magazine profile. When asked how her writing intersects with her teaching, she says, “Well they don’t much intersect. But they are like pen pals who periodically hear from each other.” Moore worked as a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for 27 years. In the fall of next year, she will teach at Vanderbilt.
When asked whether or not she indulges in so-called guilty-pleasure reading, she responds, “Going Clear—I loved that book. But if I enjoy something, I’ll find a way to justify it, so it’s no longer a guilty pleasure.” When asked what we can look forward to next from her, she says, “You can look forward to anything you want, and I will look forward to it with you. I’m editing an anthology right now, of all things.”
This dodging is also on display in her stories. Moore’s characters are verbal jousters—they banter, they tease, they are as smart and self-deprecating as your cleverest friend. “You have to take note of funny things as you go through life,” Moore says. “The element of surprise and unexpectedness is crucial—there can be a bit of agony as well. A person has to be revealing something that isn’t funny for the revelation of it to be funny. Context and rhythm are key.”
If you were to draw a map of stylistic trends in the contemporary short story, you’d save time by tracing Moore’s career. With their wry take on the story as second-person instruction manual, “How to Become a Writer” and “How to Be an Other Woman”—both published in her debut collection, Self-Help—laid the groundwork for writers like Julie Orringer and Junot Diaz.
The influence of “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” from Birds of America, with its blurring of the lines between fiction and real life, can be tracked through best-short-story anthologies. Moore published her first short story in Seventeen magazine at age 19.
“Many, many people have published in Seventeen as teenagers; that is not the beginning of a career, and I really didn’t feel it was the beginning of mine,” she says. “There were still many questionable years after that when I had to educate myself, work for a living, and then, in my spare time, attempt to write. But, more importantly, in those years I had to decide to write, to give myself permission. It wasn’t something I felt I knew how to build a life around, and I still struggle with it. If a career skyrockets, the issue—at least for a period of time—of having the means to a writer’s life is not on the table. But it always was with me—and still is, to a certain extent.”
Bark contains stories that are direct odes to other writers—particularly “Referential,” a rewrite of the story “Signs and Symbols” by Nabokov. When asked about the story, Moore responds: “I had read that story, I don’t know, five or six times, and then suddenly it just seemed like a totally new story. All these little new references keep popping out, and suddenly I’ve dissolved, and I realize there’s a parallel story I’m experiencing that’s next to Nabokov’s story. Or behind it. I’m not trying to hide anything. I realize it’s a little dicey. It’s totally tracking the Nabokov story, and trying to do a piece of its own referential mania. The story itself seems ultimately to be a sign and symbol. It is different, and yet, not.”
Another story, “Wings,” loosely adopts the plot of Henry James’s “The Wings of the Dove.” “We’re all working off each other,” Moore notes. “Oh, I always think I’m doing something new, even if I’m not,” she says. “I try to follow where my mind leaps to. Minds do leap! ‘Referential’ is meant to be a small honoring theft. The brazenness there is personalizing a response to a famous story. But when one is in the grip of something, one just has to proceed. I like to shock myself a little—and I hope to jolt the reader a little bit as well.”
Does Bark differ from Moore’s past work? “You know, when I write a story, it doesn’t feel as if it has any relationship to anything I’ve written before, and that’s why I’m interested in writing it,” she says. “Of course, I’m sure it has some things in common with older work, but, honestly, I always hope not and don’t compare. I never look back, where work is concerned. Each of my collections springs from a certain time period, and so I assume that the America of that decade is there in the fabric of it, and that the characters are negotiating various things that have to do with their time and place.”
In Bark, relationships don’t fare well. Divorce is a theme. “There’s a divorce story I wanted to write that I never fully finished! I wanted to write this Kafka-esque story—I’ll probably never write it now, because the impulse is gone—about when you get trapped in bureaucracy and you’re just dealing with a nightmare coming at you. You’re fucked. That kind of feeling,” Moore says.
I ask if her writing process has changed. “I don’t look back, so I’m not really sure,” Moore responds. “I would like to think each book is better than the last, but mostly, I imagine, they are each just their own things, and reflect the inner lives of various people—including me—at varying junctures and in various circumstances. Doesn’t that sound really evasive and boring? But it’s the truth.”