Lorrie Moore’s first collection of stories, “Self-Help,” was published in 1985, when she was twenty-eight and teaching creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she would stay for almost thirty years. The collection, a series of stories often told in the second person, used the tropes of self-improvement texts to capture the complicated and sometimes excruciating details of life as a young woman in America, and introduced to readers what Jay McInerney, reviewing the book for the New York Times, called “a distinctive, scalpel-sharp fictional voice that probes . . . the depths of our fears and yearnings.” “Self-Help” was followed by three more story collections, “Like Life” (1990), “Birds of America” (1998), and “Bark” (2014); and by three novels, “Anagrams” (1986), “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” (1994), and “A Gate at the Stairs” (2009). The first story she published in The New Yorker, “You’re Ugly, Too,” came out in 1989. It was followed by fifteen more, including her devastating, O. Henry Prize-winning portrait of a mother coping with a child’s cancer, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” of which Lauren Groff writes, in the introduction to Moore’s “Collected Stories,” which was published by Everyman, in March, “This is a story written from the deepest part of the soul; it sings with rage and despair, cuts you with its violent maternal love, and wears its wit like the pitch-black bravado of a man facing a firing squad.”
We carried out this interview by e-mail during the coronavirus lockdown, going back and forth with batches of questions and responses, and responses to the responses, while I was at home in New York and Moore was at home in Nashville, where she has been the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt since 2013. Our exchange was edited.
To start at the beginning: you won a Seventeen magazine fiction contest when you were nineteen. When did the impulse to write first hit you? Was it something you’d always imagined yourself doing?
I don’t know if Seventeen was really the beginning of anything. It was all a little misleading and has continued to mislead others, who imagine, “Seventeen! That’s when you became a writer.”
I don’t think most of the winners of the Seventeen contest kept on writing, and it was a little bumpy for me, too, for a while. When I was twenty-three, I decided to give myself seven years to learn how to really do it, and, if no one was interested in my work by the time I was thirty, I would find something else to do. That, too, is a little stupid. But I just kept going. I kept moving the goalpost and stayed in it for the long game. Is that a mixed sports metaphor? It was all less an impulse and more of a decision. I really wish I could have been a singer or a painter, but I was insufficiently gifted in those areas. As in, not gifted at all.
Did you see your winning the Seventeen contest as a form of validation? Perhaps, among other things, that was what made you feel justified in devoting seven years to learning to write?
Again, I really don’t know what that Seventeen thing meant. It was a surprise and a gift, but even the lawyers who hired me, after college graduation, to work as a paralegal in their Manhattan law firm, were more impressed with the fact of it than I was. I wasn’t attached to the story that won; I felt I had better stories. In fact, I had sent the magazine two stories and thought the other one was more interesting. Which it may not have been. So, you see, I had a certain independence of judgment, which is important for all artistic pursuits. I didn’t depend on Seventeen magazine to give me validation. You can’t depend on anything external for that. In fact, I’m not sure what validation even means. If you are looking for validation (a stamp of approval?), you may not last long. Validation is for parking tickets: yes, I parked there.
You had writers in the family, right? Were your parents supportive of your ambitions?
I did not come from an era or a demographic or a gene pool where parents were supportive of their children’s ambitions, if we even had them. We all stayed very quiet. Everyone minded their own business. My parents had tried a little writing, but I wouldn’t say I had “writers in the family.” I had a great uncle who was a Defoe scholar and published some poetry. Did I have ambitions? That was a besmirching word when I was a young adult, unless it referred to the aspirations of an actual work of art. The work could be ambitious. As an artist, you merely had to have intelligence and devotion. Everything else would come from that.
Can you describe the demographic and the gene pool you came from? What are your strongest memories of childhood?
I am from provincial people, though some were academics and scientists and musicians. There was very little money, some religion, much education, some unrealized talent, some actualized talent, and a strong sense that the world was simultaneously beautiful and unwelcoming. My strongest memories of childhood are of quiet interior spaces as well as the outdoors, full of mud and bugs and us kids running everywhere. I miss running everywhere. It was flight in both senses.
You wrote in an essay that, when you were reading as a teen-ager, “books by women came as great friends, a relief. They showed up on the front lawn and waved. Books by men one had to walk a distance to get to, take a hike to arrive at, though as readers we girls were all well trained for the hike and we didn’t learn to begrudge and resent it until later.” What were the books that waved at you? What made you feel so at home with them?
Oh, any and all stories of women who spoke and thought! Those were, by and large, not the books we were taught in school. I am of the “Johnny Tremain” and “Old Yeller” generation. But I did love “Old Yeller.” When I was in college, I took a course on the contemporary American novel, and the professor, when asked at the semester’s end why we hadn’t read a single novel by a woman, said, “Women have not yet taken on the great American themes.” By which I think he meant “lighting out for the territory” in all its masculine guises. He was not horrible. He was a very nice man mired in his upbringing. But times were changing.
And what were the first books you read that made you think about writing as a possible vocation for yourself? Why?
Not a one. Loving books and then applying them to myself in terms of a creative pursuit didn’t occur to me much. I mean, I suppose I sometimes would read something fantastic and maybe then, in retrospect, think about how I also might contribute to the great sea of literature. But it was very much like hearing a song and wanting to sing it. I might have thought, Wouldn’t that be a good song to try to sing? I didn’t think I was being called to it. I loved all the arts and merely hoped I’d somehow find a little spot for myself among them. I especially loved plays, and my friends and I would read plays aloud just for ourselves. We had no audience except us, the cast.
You’ve said that your talent for writing came partly out of your “capacity for solitude.” Is that a required trait in a writer? Do you still have it?
I think I referred to my “ability” to write, meaning just the basic physical ability, not so much “talent,” which perhaps is a different element. A capacity for solitude is a required literary trait, but I don’t know if it’s an acquired one. That is, I don’t know if you can teach yourself to be alone if you really just can’t bear it. Yes, I still have the capacity for solitude. It’s kind of like eye color. Not much you can do about it. Although perhaps quarantine and lockdown and social distancing will teach it to everyone.
You did an M.F.A. at Cornell back before M.F.A.s were popular. What attracted you to that program?
Among writers back then they seemed popular enough. I knew about these programs.
Flannery O’Connor had gone to Iowa. My undergraduate writing professor had gone to Iowa. I was terrified of the faraway state of Iowa but was interested in programs that would fund you to write, and there were many that were not in Iowa, as it turned out.
What do you feel you learned there?
All the things you learn from reading and writing and hanging out with writers and scholars and artists. I had to leave New York to do that. New York at that time seemed to be filling up with Reagan-era financial people.
When you made the decision, you were living in Manhattan and working as a paralegal. What led you to that?
To working in a law firm? I was not really led. I was twenty-one and living in New York and just needed a job. I didn’t have any family subsidy that would have allowed me to take a job that grossed less than ten thousand dollars a year and still pay rent, and entry-level publishing jobs in 1978 paid nine thousand a year, so they often went to people with invisible (parental) money. I had no invisible money. I was completely financially independent at twenty-one. And in Manhattan.
Your first collection of stories, “Self-Help,” came out when you were in your late twenties. Was it a shock to be published so young? How did you cope with the response to the book?
I was twenty-eight when the book came out, in 1985, and I was teaching creative writing at the University of Wisconsin. When you say “cope,” I don’t know what you are referring to. How did I cope with living a thousand miles away from everyone I cared about? I had a cat, a job, no furniture, and I cried and exercised a little bit every day. Some news of the publication reached me. A dear friend sent me a photo once when he saw the book in a New York store window. This was before the Internet, before e-mail. I wasn’t shown the cover until the book came out, and it was quite ghastly; so, O.K., there you go—that, I guess, was something to cope with. And probably I didn’t cope well, because I do recall bursting into tears at the sight of it. But maybe that is perfect coping.
Does that part get any easier over time?
Covers? Mostly they have improved, but not one is perfect. Responses to the books? I’m interested in intelligent responses, I guess, but I’m sure I don’t see them all, and that is fine with me.
“Self-Help” was structured around the concept of self-help instructional manuals—stories in the second person, ostensibly giving advice. How did you come up with that conceit?
Is it a conceit? Hmmm. That doesn’t sound very attractive. It sounds a little manufactured. Oh, well. I think I’d seen the second person used sometimes in poetry. There were also some stories out there written in that point of view, but probably I thought I was being original. I thought the mock imperative was a nice way to unfatten a sentence, get it lean and mean. Or lean-ish and mean-ish. It meant you started the sentence with a verb.
Why did you then stop using the second person?
The last story I wrote in it was “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” which, with its focus on music, is also (somewhat) an outtake from “Anagrams,” my next book. That is, the story is a kind of bridge from one book to the other.
You once said that the subject of “Self-Help” was “feminine emergencies,” and, in a lot of your work since then, you’ve taken on the lives of women in America, grappling with the rules of society. Did you purposely take on that material, or did that material take you on?
Oh, both, I’m sure.
You have a rare talent when it comes to fiction writing: you’re funny. You crack jokes. How difficult is it to write comedy?
I don’t think of myself as writing comedy. I think I’m writing tragedy. But then time goes by. And, as we know, tragedy plus time is comedy. Sometimes. Not always, of course. Sometimes it just drives by without parking. Wow, this is my second reference to parking.
You’ve been called a satirist, an ironist, an absurdist, a realist, a journalist, a parodist. Do any of those labels align with what you try to do in your work?
Oh, I’m just trying to be a short-story writer and a novelist. All those other things you name are fine with me but probably say more about the person using them. Someone once called my work “satirical realism.” Is that term still around? I kind of like it.
How much do you know when you sit down to start a story or a novel? Do you have a basic outline in mind? Or just a first line? An idea?
Well, I’m working on a novel now. And I’ve been thinking about it so long that it’s completely done in my head. But every time I go to work on it, the whole enterprise shifts slightly. That’s a very typical thing for writers. I hope.
You’ve gone back and forth between the short-story form and the novel form. You’ve called the short story a love affair, the novel a marriage. Does that reflect your own investment in the two forms?
I don’t think of writing in terms of investment—except, perhaps, with regard to time. I guess that’s what I must have meant: that a marriage lasts longer than a love affair. Usually. I suppose it might work the other way around. Sometimes you just have a longer story to tell, and it requires a novel.
There was a long gap between your second novel, “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” (1994), and your third, “A Gate at the Stairs” (2009). Did you resist going back to the longer form, or were you just married to short stories in those years?
I don’t resist anything. I was raising a child and supporting a family by teaching. I don’t mean to whine, but I often feel this total busyness is not understood. I was not one of these lucky women with a spouse who supported her while she wrote. A novel, in a way, needs that. Instead, I supported everyone. I was the head of household. And writing stories meant you got paid twice: once for the story in a magazine, and then again when the collection came out. All that said, I’m not an efficient user of time. And I guess I genuinely write slowly. And stories can come in short bursts while the baby is sleeping. I think. Not sure. I dimly recall this. I’m sure I should have another book in there somehow, but I just don’t.
Like most writers, you’ve written some stories that draw directly on personal experience and some that don’t. In general, how much of you is there in your work? Are you more an observer of the world around you or a miner of your own life?
Very few of the stories use actual events from my life. I like to make things up and then slip a few real-life things in, but usually those things have been re-costumed and renamed and always recontextualized.
Do you have a favorite among your works? Or one that you wish unwritten?
Oh, there’s a thing or two that should just be tossed, at least in part. But I’m not going to call attention to anything by naming it.
You’ve taught writing in universities for decades. How do you think teaching influences your own work? Or doesn’t it?
It both buys me time and devours it. So I don’t know. It sounds coldhearted to say that it pays the bills (although a true writer must say that), because teaching is supposed to be a passion and a calling. But if one is teaching in the arts, one is an artist first—and is hired to be an artist first and set that example, even in the classroom. Teaching was never the goal for me, but it strangely became my life in a lovely and satisfying and accidental but necessary way. I have felt very lucky to have brilliant and engaging students and to have a job.
Do you find that the nature of teaching creative writing has changed since you started? Do the students have different expectations?
That’s an interesting question that I have no answer to. I suspect there are a number of changed expectations that I don’t quite have a handle on but that I can sometimes feel or surmise without being able to articulate just yet. I will know better down the line.
You taught at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, for almost thirty years, and then, in 2013, moved to Vanderbilt, in Nashville. What made you want to move?
You live in rarefied air! People who move for work don’t usually want to move. They are usually having trouble paying their bills—their student loans or their kid’s tuition, for instance—and a nicer opportunity comes along, which might help. For work, I have moved a thousand miles all by myself to an alien place where really I knew no one. I’ve done this twice. Once when young (twenty-seven)—and once thirty years later. I guess I kind of want a medal. I was a timid child and can’t believe I did either of these things.
Who are you writing for, if anyone? Do you imagine a reader?
I imagine you. Sometimes scowling, sometimes laughing.
I imagine Jesus in reading glasses.
I imagine faceless hordes.
Not really. You know who I imagine? The narrator. I imagine the narrator as an actual reader, reading what I’ve written and commenting to me about the voice and point of view. You have to be true to your narrator. The narrator is the supreme reader. And narrators may quibble with the narration you’ve created for them.
What do you think has been the biggest hindrance to you as a writer? The biggest help?
The biggest hindrance: not having an unburdened life with lots of free time and boundless energy.
The biggest help? I like computers, even though I was quite late to them. I didn’t have e-mail until 2003, and then it suddenly seemed like magic. I don’t like the Internet but, having grown up with typewriters, where you have to correct the errors with paint and tape, I like word processing.
You’ve talked about Alice Munro as a literary hero.
Well, I just love her work. Her stories are unlike anyone else’s.
Who else, if anyone, would be in that category for you?
Everyman’s Library recently put out your “Collected Stories.” What is it like to see all your short fiction gathered in one volume? Did you reread it all?
You know what? I was supposed to proofread the stories but kept procrastinating, because I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting down and reading the whole thing. My head was in my hands, back when you could touch your face. But I finally got braced for it and wrote the publishers and said, “I’ll have this proofread soon,” and they wrote back and said, “Too late! These books are printed in Germany and yours has already gone off to the printers there.” So I never read everything together. Sometimes I pick it up and open randomly and am pleasantly surprised. And other times not. Of course, there is that extremely sweet intro by Lauren Groff and the nifty ribbon sewn into the binding. And who wouldn’t love that?
You recently published in The New Yorker a short response about life in quarantine, in which you talked about, among other things, Trump’s voice. The response on Twitter was censorious. Do you feel you were misunderstood?
Grossly misread, misunderstood, etc. Not really read at all, I think. I only meant to present some self-mocking, cock-eyed optimism (and as many “South Pacific” references as possible) from the cognitive tilt of quarantine—a little humor, a little information, a little positive thinking about humanity, which clearly is not my forte. The motif throughout was the consolational torque of the human voice in quarantine, and I began with the POTUS but also with “so sue me,” which used to signal comedy but may be antiquely Borscht Belt now; too many readers apparently thought it was a signal for actual litigation. I can’t make great claims for the piece as an elegant piece of writing: I was a little rambling and wrote past the assigned word count, so things had to be removed from every paragraph. But the point at the beginning is that, if you are in the next room, feeling mildly deranged, and can’t hear the words, the POTUS can sometimes sound like Merv Griffin or Mel Tormé: one hears a crooner’s croon. This is not praise. This is noting a sound. But it only lasts about five minutes before the register changes and he becomes belligerent with the press, etc., and you cannot listen to the words. “It will be great. Very great. That I can tell you.” Vacuuming in the next room, which is how I first discovered this croon, improves the experience. One perks up and thinks, Is that Mel Tormé? Has the velvet fog returned? It occurred to me that this element is perhaps what some of the MAGA people hear.
Then, of course, the piece went on to other voices, including that of the W.H.O.’s SARS page, which has some information on it that Twitter should take note of.
Like many people right now, I’m dealing with a lot of family precariousness and illness, including loved ones with COVID. Twitter’s feeding frenzies seem a display of people with obscene amounts of time on their hands, yet a disinclination to read in any real way. And it seems possible that this one was triggered by the right to get the left to eat its own. That may sound fanciful and paranoid, but I will tell you more over drinks some day. Remember “drinks”? As opposed to just “drinking”?