"You Have To Be Willing To Have Only Four Friends": Lorrie Moore On Writing

In a profile in this month's Elle, author Lorrie Moore talks about her upcoming novel and why being an artist is kind of "creepy."

Moore came on the scene in 1985 with the collection Self-Help, and readers familiar with her later collections, Like Life and Birds of America, and her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? will recall her dark wit and often acerbic view of human relationships. According to Elle's Louisa Kamps, New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman has said that Moore deals with "female" topics but that no one would "dismiss her work as chick lit." Moore does often write from the point of view of women, but the assumption that women's lives are "female topics" (translation: private, soft, and not of interest to men) is one of the publishing industry's biggest canards. The idea that calling something "chick lit" is the same as dismissing it may be the other side of that coin. In fact, Moore's stories often make women's lives sound hard — kids get cancer, babies die, relationships are unsatisfying or just plain infuriating, and the idea that one finds oneself in others is generally disproved. The fact that these "topics" need apology, a not-chick-lit stamp of approval, just makes the problems of Moore's characters seem that much graver — life is tough, and people aren't necessarily taking them seriously.

Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, is set in a Midwestern university town much like Madison, where Moore lives and teaches, and Kamps spends a lot of time trying to figure out whether it is autobiographical. Moore doesn't seem very interested in this question — when asked if a particular Madison restaurant found its way into the novel, she says, "sure, I thought a little bit of this place." She's more interested in discussing how one writes and becomes a writer than in her own divorce or its impact on her fiction. At times she sounds like a terrifying teacher: she once told her students to "satirize the tics and tendencies" of the classmate seated next to them, which sounds like a pretty good recipe for shame, especially for the student satirized by Moore. But her teaching philosophy also displays a tough-mindedness that is as refreshing as it is unsettling. She says,

The only really good piece of advice I have for my students is, 'Write something you'd never show your mother or father.' And you know what they say? 'I could never do that!'

She's commenting on the close relationship young people today often have with their parents, but this closeness can breathe an eagerness to please not only the parents themselves, but authority in general. Moore's writing sometimes conveys a nasty view of humanity, one that would surely sadden any mother or father, but the nastiest parts are often the most funny and true. Insofar as it encourages students to stop trying to make people happy, Moore's advice is great — readers, like all humans, don't necessarily know what they want, and trying to please isn't a very good way of actually doing so.

On the writing life, Moore says,

The detachment of the artist is kind of creepy. It's kind of rude, and yet really it's where art comes from. It's not the same as courage. It's closer to bad manners than to courage. [...] if you're going to be a writer, you basically have to say, 'This is just who I am, and if I'm going to do.' There's a certain indefensibility about it. It's not about loving your community and taking care of it — you're not attached to the chamber of commerce. It's a little unsafe. You have to be willing to have only four friends, not 11.

The idea of the writer as ill-mannered hermit going against the grain of society can seem a little self-aggrandizing — after all, there are more "unsafe" forms of rebellion than writing. But Moore's vision of the writer seems more troll-under-the-bridge than Che Guevara. And if her anti-communal view of writing sounds a little lonely (really? Writers only get four friends?), it's also a good antidote to the idea that the purpose of fiction is to uplift readers. This idea seems to be particularly foremost in publishers' minds when they market books to women, and it does us a disservice, assuming that we have to like the characters, their lives, and also their reflection on our own lives if we're going to buy a book. But it's not so easy to predict what will bring us joy — what writers can do, as Moore suggests, is detach themselves from what they think will please, and free themselves up to be a little rude.

Elle [Official Site]