Best of September (and Omni Podcast): Lorrie Moore, "A Gate at the Stairs"
As I've been following in the last couple of Old Media Mondays, Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, is getting some of the most interesting--and mostly glowing--reviews of the year. It makes sense: she's a major American writer who hasn't published a new book in 11 years, and a new novel in 15. And A Gate at the Stairs is just what you'd hope for from her after all that time: showing off all of her strengths (she is just about the funniest person you've ever shared a page with, but she also has a wry and sometimes raw sense of the tragic) but also showing signs of stretching for something she hasn't done before. Some readers have thought that those stretches showed signs of strain, and they didn't buy some of her attempts for more worldly relevance. There's one element of the story I don't think works (Tassie's boyfriend, to be specific), and I wouldn't describe it as the most flawless book I've read this year (I'm not sure what would be), but it is the book I feel I've lived in the most, and that has lived with me the most, and that I find myself going back to with the most interest. Does that mean I think it's the best? I'm still trying to decide...
Something Jonathan Lethem (who gave A Gate at the Stairs such a rave in the Times) said about his own main character when I talked to him the same day I interviewed Moore rings true about her narrator, Tassie Keltjin, too. I'm paraphrasing from memory here (I'll be editing and posting his interview in the next week or two), but he said something to the effect that Chase, his narrator, might be a bit of a nonentity, but he's a good observer. He has an interesting sensibility. And that's what's so wonderful about Tassie. She's curious, funny, and judgmental: she's open-minded, but she's also trying to decide what she should think about everything. In my review I compared her to the toddler she takes care of: she's taking the world between her teeth and trying it out, tasting it the way we do before we get trained not to. It's one the great (and neglected) pleasures of a good novel to spend time in the mind of someone like that.
I talked to Lorrie Moore at BookExpo America in New York in May about A Gate at the Stairs, about the Midwest, about housecleaning and jokes and collecting her stories. Listen here, or read it all after the jump.
Amazon.com: We were just talking about the place where the novel is set, which you call Troy, but some readers might call Madison. (You teach at the University of Wisconsin.) So tell us about Troy.
Moore: Well, Troy is a fictitious town in the Midwest. In fact, I don't even use the word "Wisconsin" in the book, but it's a college town, and it is north of Illinois so people will probably assume it's Madison. But I gave myself the flexibility of a fictional name so I could say or do whatever I wanted with it. Of course, I make a joke and say that it's called Troy, but it's the Athens of the Midwest. Madison has been known as the Athens of the Midwest.
Amazon.com: Your main character, Tassie--she's a country girl who comes in and kind of has her mind blown by college. Is that something you see in a lot of your students, people who are coming from a small town or from a city, and being exposed to the college life and having their lives changed?
Moore: I don't know. I think it's something that happens to all people who come to college. I mean, it certainly happened to me when I went to college. You come from a small place or a small town. You suddenly are exposed to people and things you weren't exposed to before. And if it works as it should, your brain opens up and you become very interested and excited in these new things culturally. In this book, she also gets a job and encounters--she is working within the household of a family in town, so she has a working experience as well as the student life.
Amazon.com: I like that this was a college novel that's almost entirely off-campus. That I think actually reflects the lives of real students--it's not just going to class. That's kind of in the background, but really, the daytoday is she's babysitting.
Moore: Right. It's probably more of a nanny novel or a governess novel than it is a college novel. It's a little bit of everything.
Amazon.com: The best sense that you get of Troy is from these moments in the book that are among my favorite moments, where she's at the house where she's a nanny, and the parents have adopted a child. They have people over to their house, and have these discussions that filter upstairs in this--I don't know if you call it a Greek chorus--but those were some of my favorite parts of the book.
Moore: Oh, thank you. They are sort of disembodied dialogues. They're remarks that are floating up. This is the adult conversation that's below the kids upstairs. They do hear it, or at least she does, the protagonist, but in this kind of fragmented, disembodied way.
Amazon.com: Were those comments attached to people for you, or did you write them as comments, and they didn't have to come from a character?
Moore: Some of them you can see are attached to people, but others, no, I thought it doesn't matter who's saying this, but some of them you can see are. There are references to people in the room.
Amazon.com: One thing I felt reading you--and I hope this doesn't come across the wrong way to say to a novelist--but do you think of yourself as a storyteller? I think at a party, there are the people who dominate the room, telling funny stories about themselves. Then there the people who are off to the side of the room who are making jokes about what's happening. I think of you, as a writer, as the kind of person on the side of the room who's making jokes. Is that how you see yourself?
Moore: Well, at a party, I'm afraid that is where I am. You're right there. If I could tell stories at a party, I probably wouldn't write them down. If you can stand up and tell a story, that's a real skill. One of the things I think that sends writers to the page is the fact that they can't do that, but if they sit down and fashion it on the page and have some time and can take the care to put the sentences together and get the rhythm right--because rhythm is key--then you can tell the story on the page. I feel like I can tell a story on the page given enough time and given an eraser or a delete button to revise, but do I stand at a party and hold forth with highly polished anecdotes? No. No, no, no. I don't do that.
Amazon.com: There's a moment--actually I wanted to quote it--that reminded me of that. You're describing somebody mopping up. You say, "This method of cleaning the floor in patches, I imagined, was like writing a poem every day until eventually you said everything about the human condition there was to be said." Is that how you approach the vast canvas of a novel, that kind of slow accumulation of moments that somehow add up to a life?
Moore: Well, that would be one approach, and that would be, perhaps, a hope. But more importantly, I suppose, it is how I clean. [laughs] It's how I clean the floor, and as I say in there, you think eventually you'll get everything, but in fact, certain things get ignored, and other floorboards get polished over and over again.
The novel takes place over a year. This is the only novel I have attempted that's set in the Midwest, and I did want to try to have some sweep to it and try to have everything that I think is interesting about the Midwest in it. Now, that's probably not only an overly ambitious goal but a silly one, but I did try to fashion this character and try to think about everything she might encounter and everything that would belong to her life in the course of a year, and I tried to think, "Now this has got to be one of the most important years of her life." Because if there's another year that's more important, that's what the novel should be about. So, this has to be a key year in her life, and important things have to happen, and I also want the Midwest to be a kind of character to be felt in her day-by-day life.
Amazon.com: One of the most important things in her life--and again, I don't want to reveal too much about the book either--one of the most important things that happens to her that year is actually something that happened to someone else that she learns about, and it's a very dark episode in the story. I'm curious how you think of that kind of a moment within a story that's full of jokes? It's very light. [I misspoke. See below--it's not really light.] Where do you place that and the decision whether or not to place something so dark at the heart of it?
Moore: I don't know. I'm just a sick person, I guess. [laughs] I didn't think of this book as being very light and funny. Somebody early on said, "Oh, this is a very funny book.", and I thought, "It is?"
Amazon.com: It's funny, but it's not light. [That's more like it.]
Moore: I couldn't remember one funny thing in it.
Amazon.com: I was just reading over things earlier today, and I was laughing even more than I had the first time, I think.
Moore: Oh, good.
Amazon.com: It's funny. Tassie's a joker. Murph's a joker. There are a lot of jokers in the book. So, it's not you joking; it's your people joking.
Moore: People joke.
Amazon.com: And they joke about things that aren't light.
Amazon.com: Yeah. I think they go together.
Moore: People do joke, and I try to capture the ways in which people do talk to each other, but I think, as an author, I was much more engaged with all the really tragic parts of the book. That was really on my mind so that's there. I wanted to write a book that would make me cry, and I did. I cried when I wrote it, but now I'm rather dry-eyed when I look at it. I thought, "Oh, no. What have I done?"
Amazon.com: You were saying earlier that you have a hard time letting go of books, that you keep wanting to fix or change or add, and, using that metaphor of cleaning the house, were there things that you feel never got clean or parts of the Midwest that you didn't get to or of this character?
Moore: Oh, yeah. I feel all kinds of things. I feel like there's stuff about growing potatoes that I didn't get in there. There's a ton of stuff. I could have hung onto this book a long time and put more things in it, and it probably would have only been better from my perspective. I think, at some point, people don't want too much of your research and your descriptions of the sky and all of that, but that is really what I wanted to put in the book, page after page, and of course, there are things... If you look back over sentences and paragraphs, you can start to think, "Oh why did I do that?" or you can double-clutch and think that, perhaps the book would be different if you wrote it now, but that's the way with all the books.
Amazon.com: It's in our hands now. I wanted to ask about your stories. I noticed in the UK in the past year, there was a Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore that came out and got great reviews. I wonder why you did that in the UK and if there are plans for something in the US on a similar scale?
Moore: Well, my British publisher owned all the rights to all the stories, and instead of repackaging the other ones, they decided to bring it out as a single volume. And I said, "Oh, great. Fine." There were some legal rights here which prohibited that because one of the collections of stories is actually published by a different publisher. So they couldn't put them all together in a single volume here. Whether I would do that here or not, I don't know. I don't know. That remains to be seen. I don't know if we'll do that.
Amazon.com: As someone who has a hard time letting your stories go, did you take that opportunity to look over your whole oeuvre from beginning to end?
Moore: I did, and it was painful, and I have to say I put them in reverse order because the early ones are not so good. Some of them are just excruciating to read. So it was in reverse chronological order, and the newer stories were up front, and not that I think the newer stories are great, but they don't have the mistakes in them that the early stories have. I wrote those early stories when I was in my 20s, and what can I say? I would never write those stories now, but I had to proofread the galleys and go over the page proofs, and that was really, really hard. I don't think I made any changes, but I think I was really tempted to. But some of the mistakes were so organic to the story and so entrenched, they were unfixable, absolutely unfixable.
Amazon.com: We're glad to have a record of your 20s as well.