Try to be something, anything else," Lorrie Moore urged would-be writers in her debut short-story collection, Self-Help, published by Knopf in 1985. For those who stubbornly persist in their "unfortunate habit," Moore had this tip on how to succeed: "Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age --say, 14. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at 15 you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire."
Moore's dictum came in the story, "How to Be a Writer," packaged in Self-Help with a half-dozen other seriocomic "how-to" pieces. Perversely enough, Moore was a conspicuous failure only when it came to following her own advice -- the book, which began as Moore's graduate thesis at Cornell, was an instant success, propelling the young writer into a literary fellowship with Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Bobbie Ann Mason and other writers who reconstructed the American short story in the 1980s in vastly different ways.
Moore's subsequent books -- two novels, Anagrams (1986) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), plus another collection, Like Life (1990) -- were welcomed with escalating acclaim, reaching a peak when Caryn James in the New York Times nominated her as "the most astute and lasting" writer of her generation.
Those judgments are not likely to be revoked with the publication of Birds of America (Knopf), her third collection. Whether documenting the inhuman comedy of home ownership ("Real Estate"), charting the decline of a Hollywood actress ("Willing") or keeping a frightened vigil with parents in a children's cancer ward ("People Like That Are the Only People Here"), these stories are as innovative and emotionally complex as anything Moore has written.
The spiritual and physical transience of her characters helps account for the book's Audubonish title: most of them exhibit some form of avian behavior, however discrete and illusory -- looping, migrating, soaring, disappearing on the horizon. "I realized, when I was writing the last couple of stories, that this bird imagery was just running through the book," Moore tells PW in an interview on and around the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, where she's taught creative writing since 1984. "To some extent, unrest and searching always make for a good story." As it turned out, Birds of America was also the title of a lesser-known Mary McCarthy novel, "but I decided to go ahead because enough people I talked to had never heard of it."
However grateful for her precocious success as a fiction writer, Moore insists that it's as much the result of hard work as good luck. "I'm not so lucky that I've had any bestsellers or movie sales," she says. "I've had nonstop financial problems my whole adult life. It's always been a constant balance, year to year: Where's the time? Where's the money?"
One might also ask, where's the self-pity? The bitterness? The rage? If Moore suffers from these or any of the other maladies to which midlist writers are occupationally prone, they're nowhere in evidence. On the contrary, as she talks about her hardships, financial and otherwise, she has a distinctly carefree, way-it-is attitude, a mordant cheer. That's a quality she liberally transmits to the characters in her stories -- largely populated by materially and spiritually discontented singles, fractious couples, the recently or soon-to-be divorced, many of whose lives are shadowed by misfortune, illness, tragedy.
However profoundly befuddled or bereft, they usually respond by "flipping death the bird" (as Moore puts it in her story, "Dance in America"), with wisecracks, zingers and jokes. That "impulse toward a joke," muses the heroine of "Agnes of Iowa," another story in her new collection, is what "made any given day seem bearable.... People need to laugh."
Despite the lyric grace and p tic agility of her prose, Moore's most distinguishing feature has always been her resilient humor, which regularly asserts itself in the most odd and irregular places in her stories. Her prevailing tone is comic despair, suggesting (as she once put it) that "although life is certainly not jokeless, it probably is remediless."
Moore can be hilarious on the page (so hilarious that her one-liners and epigrams could be compiled into a mid-sized "wit-and-wisdom-of" collection). And yet for a few critics, Moore's aggressive comedic impulses tend to sabotage her characters' credibility. Reviewing Like Life, Merle Rubin complained in the Los Angeles Times that Moore glibly provides "material for all the standup comedians in Los Angeles, but with very little ability to create convincing characters or tell stories that invite us to suspend our disbelief."
Asked about the criticism, Moore explains that she's incapable of harnessing her humorous instincts -- not that she'd want to. "The world just comes to me that way. If you record the world honestly, there's no way people can stop being funny. A lot of fiction writing doesn't get that idea, as if to acknowledge it would trivialize the story or trivialize human nature, when in fact human nature is reduced and falsified if the comic aspects are not included."
In person, Moore is no standup -- or sitdown -- comedian. She answers PW's questions earnestly and patiently, the Eastern inflection still evident in her voice, even though she's been a Midwesterner for almost 15 years. A confessed "shy person," Moore is friendly and forthcoming enough about her work but cautious about her private life, preferring to meet PW at a coffee house rather than at her home, and adamantly discouraging all autobiographical readings of her fiction. If she's not riotously funny in person, Moore does laugh easily and often. Regally tall, she has longish brown hair with gold highlights and dark, reflective eyes, as animated as "shy stars," to borrow her description of a character's eyes in her story, "You're Ugly, Too."
Born in Glens Falls, N.Y., 41 years ago, Moore was the second of four children whose father was an insurance executive. "Was I a typical second child, fighting for attention by trying to be funny?" she asks, rhetorically anticipating PW's question. "I was very, very shy, but we all loved to laugh and joke and amuse each other." Moore says that her second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, which centers on the wistful friendship of two 15-year-old girls, "does draw upon a feeling from my own childhood." But, she insists, "it doesn't correspond in any exact way at all."
Field Guide to Life
In retrospect, Moore's literary career seems almost foreordained. In 1976, at the age of 19, she won Seventeen magazine's story contest. Two years later, she graduated from St. Lawrence University, in upstate New York. Taking a job as a paralegal in Manhattan, Moore quickly tired of the drudgery and enrolled in the Cornell M.F.A. program, where she caught the attention of Alison Lurie, another novelist and academic whose guidance and encouragement convinced her she could write for a living.
At Cornell, Moore wrote a series of what she calls "mock-imperative narratives," counseling readers on "How to Be an Other Woman," "How to Talk to Your Mother..." and simply, "How." Impressed by Moore's efforts, Lurie recommended her to her agent, Melanie Jackson, who became the first of two long-lasting alliances, rare in contemporary publishing.
Jackson, who had recently left the Candida Donadio Agency and was looking for new writers, sent her stories to Victoria Wilson at Knopf. Wilson not only published Self-Help but also brought out her subsequent four books, through Birds of America. "She also has Anne Rice," Moore says of her editor. "Which is the reason she can afford to publish people like me. I always think of Anne Rice as the reason I have my house in Madison."
When PW suggests that her career has the idiosyncratic, fairy-tale flavor of one of her stories but without all the melancholy comedy and anguish, the author laughs and forcefully suggests otherwise: "I was discouraged all along, by my parents and other people who said, 'You have to be practical.' All but two or three of the stories in Self-Help were rejected by magazines. It was a fluke that I got the book published."
Coming to Madison directly from Cornell after she was offered an assistant professorship at the University of Wisconsin, Moore says she was initially oblivious to the city's social and physical attractions. "With all my friends and family living back East, I felt quite isolated and estranged. For the first three or four years, I spent half the year in Madison, half in New York."
The more time she logged in Madison, however, the more it grew -- or forced itself -- on her. "I had my job, I was dating a guy from Wisconsin who's now my husband, and I thought, What am I doing in New York? I couldn't even afford a decent apartment. I was living in Hell's Kitchen, above a meat market."
Now a full professor of English, Moore not only has a house near campus and a husband, Mark, a "struggling" lawyer, but a four-year-old son, Benjamin. Living in a culturally progressive university town also puts her in close proximity to an informal community of writers, including novelists Kelly Cherry, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Jane Hamilton. "I've settled in," she says. "I'm middle-aged and happy, and I actually like Madison now."
On this agreeably warm, breezy summer afternoon, one can only wonder what's not to like about this energized city, situated on an isthmus between two sparkling, photogenic lakes, with the Wisconsin statehouse at the center. "I have lots of free space," Moore says. "I don't feel like a prisoner of campus, or locked in by teaching creative writing, because I take a lot of leave time."
Judging from what is easily the most atypical and unsettling story in Birds of America, however, Moore's life in Madison hasn't been entirely free of grief and pain. "People Like That Are the Only People Here" largely takes place in a hospital's pediatric oncology ward (or "Peed-onk"), where a "Mother" and a "Husband" are living a parental nightmare: their "Baby" has been diagnosed with kidney cancer. Almost as funny as it is frightening, "People Like That..." recalls the comic rage of Stanley Elkin and Flannery O'Connor, but it's still a one-of-a-kind story, astonishingly balanced between heartbreak and "sick" humor.
No matter how far she distances herself from autobiographical fiction, Moore confirms that the story accurately approximates an ordeal she and her husband experienced with Benjamin. (At one point, the Mother declares: "I write fiction. This isn't fiction.") "We went through something that was very, very difficult with our little boy," Moore says. "It was as if the house had been set on fire, but we'd gotten out the back door. I was stumbling around for a year after that, and the only thing I could think of, the only thing I could possibly write was that story. I felt I was drawing much more explicitly and fearlessly on my actual life, which up until that point had failed to traumatize me. At that point, I was traumatized."
From this story and others in Birds of America, it's evident that Moore has accumulated a lot more hard experience and practical know-how than when she was so freely -- and satirically -- offering advice to aspiring writers in Self-Help. That's an apprentice book she'd just as soon forget, Moore says, along with her first novel, Anagrams. Even so, she's not ready to disown the book or to retract her discouraging words, stressing the awful truth behind the mockery. "I still think you should become a writer only if you have no choice. Writing has to be an obsession -- it's only for those who say, 'I'm not going to do anything else.'" In Moore's case, it's been a serendipitous obsession for her and her readers. With a third novel now under way, it's one that's likely to take flight in even more unexpected directions.