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Lorrie Moore

in conversation with Johanna Zwirner

Lorrie Moore is author of the short story collections Self-Help, (1985), Like Life (1990), Birds of America (1998), and Bark (2014). Her novels include Anagrams (1986), Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994), A Gate at the Stairs (2009), and most recently, I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home (2023), which was awarded the 2023 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction. Moore’s writing throughout her stories and novels is funny, sensitive, and wise in equal measure. Her central characters—often young women—have the capacity both to see the world exactly as it is, in all its pocked, unwholesome ugliness, and also to witness the tenderness and brilliance of its most joyful moments. They observe each other relentlessly, never shying from the details of the older characters around them with a rmercilessness which is a pleasure to read and a bone-chilling truth to imagine always happening around us. As a longtime reader of Moore’s, I was stunned by her ability to bend the physical rules and mores of consciousness in her latest novel, which tracks Finn, a young man embarking on a cross-country trip with the very real, reanimated corpse of his girlfriend, Lily. After several unsuccessful attempts, Lily has committed suicide, and the novel traces the history of their relationship and the ways in which it has rotted, all while Lily literally decomposes next to her traveling companion.

The surreal elements of her writing here exist alongside the more grounded plots of such works as A Gate at the Stairs, which follows a young woman hired as a nanny for a couple who have adopted a child, or Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, which traces the friendship between two girls in a small upstate New York town. It is this duality—this endless curiosity—that characterizes Moore’s writing and the flexibility of her intellect and her humor. In this interview, we discussed the mystery of a writing practice and sources of inspirations; the ways in which characters come and go in a writer’s mind, and how long they stay, if they do; and the necessity of living in a dream world when conceiving of a story or a novel. This conversation was conducted over email in February 2024.

JZ

In I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home, you balance humor with such piercing tenderness, and the characters have stayed with me; I find myself returning to the moment in which Lily and Finn say goodbye and her flight over the fence. Did you know you wanted this book to be a novel as soon as you began? Or were you initially thinking about it as a single story or the beginning of a collection?

LM

Oh, it was always a novel. But a bi-cameral one. So the two sections were always going to talk back and forth (slightly) with each other, while maintaining some independence. And yet also being part of Finn’s mind. It had to be a novel since a story requires too much compression to fit these two different time periods and the particular dramas contained therein.

JZ

How did you find dividing this book between contemporary and historical frameworks?

LM

I had the two characters. I had Libby and her voice. And Finn and his point of view. So each had its own language, I guess. But when you are ventriloquizing a character or a mindset the language kind of comes on its own, through concentrating on the character.

JZ

Can I ask more specifically where Libby and her voice came from? How did you arrive at that specific split between these narratives, and how did you know that you wanted this story mostly to operate with Finn rather than remaining with Libby?

LM

She came to me so many years ago. I’m not sure how any characters come to me or come to any writers. I think they float in as vocalized predicaments. I suppose writers say to themselves, how about a person who is stuck in this particular situation, at this particular time, and looking around at everything close by her. And then the author tries to get a page or two written which establishes the voice, somewhat.

JZ

Do you have a psychic or an emotional relationship to your characters once they come into being?

LM

I feel very close to them while writing them and then increasingly distant as time goes by. Eventually I can hardly recall them! After I finished A Gate at the Stairs, I missed Tassie Keltjin. But right now I have two characters trying to be born/come into focus in my mind and so I really can’t indulge any other sort of hauntedness.

JZ

This novel seems to be a constant exploration of the possibilities of living memory—of mourning and celebrating all at once through these ghosts. How did that braiding of the imagined with the real emerge on the page?

LM

I think it comes naturally if one allows oneself those possibilities. I did put an event or two in the narrative that allowed for the reader to interpret things differently and not remain in Finn’s consciousness for the entirety of it. It is somewhat like The Wizard of Oz; did she really go to Oz or did she just hit her head…et cetera. I think we really want her to have gone to Oz, even if we know it couldn’t literally be true. A novel is always a kind of dream.

JZ

I definitely prefer to live in the Oz world, the dream. How, then, do you think about questions of stakes when the dream world and the real begin to collide? There are so many moments in which it feels like this narrative takes flight and leaves the physical world.

LM

Novelists are always living in an alternative universe when they write. So they can make up their own laws of physics and metaphysics. It is sort of the thrilling part of fiction writing. One walks back and forth through a gossamer curtain.

JZ

How does existing in that alternate universe affect your world outside of writing? Do you talk about your ideas in early stages?

LM

It can be bad luck to speak too much about your ideas before writing them. I discourage my students from doing this. What you will write will probably differ greatly from anything you give voice to in advance. I’m always tinkering and always taking notes. And often I lose my notes and things don’t make it into the narrative that were originally meant to.

JZ

In A Gate at the Stairs, Tassie’s perceptions of Sarah’s and Edward’s physicalities are almost brutally clear from the start of the novel, and particularly when it comes to the ways these characters age.

LM

She is a young woman observing an older woman who is her mother’s age. Such descriptions are seldom done sympathetically. Young people are ruthless! and are judgmental and have excellent hearing and eyesight.

JZ

There are echoes of A Gate at the Stairs in I Am Homeless; both books deal with ghosts and the existence of the dead alongside the living. Are those conscious reverberations as you write?

LM

A Gate at the Stairs was interested in boys as a targeted soldier class. The world is quite reckless with boys and that enters the plot in different ways. I guess my view of the world is not Barbie’s. I feel the world is quite hard on boys and deforms them. Of course, girls are deformed in different ways. Again, see Barbie.

JZ

Your Barbie mention makes me wonder: how do you feel about the world of adaptations and remakes we’re in? Would you ever adapt your work for the screen, or for a play?

LM

Adaptations have always been with us, and perhaps I just don’t watch the remakes as much. But I suppose they are all acts of nostalgia? And/or are you hinting that there may be a dearth of original ideas out there for stage and screen? Would I ever adapt my own work? I might if someone wanted me too. Often authors are the last people asked to adapt their own material. Producers want to go at things with a machete and they don’t believe an author can do that, which is sometimes true.


JZ

Which, if any, characters throughout your writing do you find reflect you most closely?

LM

Characters are always such a mix of everything that in the end they feel very much their own person. I don’t think of any of my characters in conjunction with anyone else. Once they are complete they are quite on their own.

JZ

Can you tell me about the first time you wrote something you were especially proud of? How did winning Seventeen Magazine’s fiction contest inform your desire to continue writing?

LM

Feeling proud of something is nothing I ever feel. That would be contentment and that is probably bad for the work. There is always more tinkering one can do. There are always fixes one can make—and also fixes that one cannot make because one does not know how. I don’t believe anyone encouraged me to enter that contest—I think I was just a bit of a fantasist and thought “Why not?"

JZ

How do you know when a piece is done?

LM

You can feel it’s done many times. I just made some changes for the paperback version of I Am Homeless if This Is Not my Home. So the revisions can go on and on.

JZ

Did you enjoy studying writing at Cornell?

LM

The way we “studied writing” at Cornell was not didactic at all. We were artists in the arts. And we just sat around in workshops discussing one another’s stuff. Afterwards we drank wine.

JZ

What is it like to enter the room now as a professor? What has been the most surprising part of teaching writing for you?

LM

Alas, I’ve been entering the world as a professor for over 40 years now. Technology has changed a lot of things and that affects workshop life in both good and bad ways. Students submit their stories by email now. I’m getting used to it, sort of. Most surprising for me has been how long I’ve had to do it! So how old I am compared to my students! but since they are all smart, I feel connected to them—mostly. They also keep me informed on all manner of things that have changed in the culture. And I tell them about the 20th century, which most of them know nothing about.

JZ

What is the hardest thing about writing about/alongside technology?

LM

I am new to the smartphone, having had only a flip phone until a year ago. It’s hard to get attached to a flip phone so I also am not attached to my smartphone. There was no attachment transfer. I don’t consciously think that much about technology unless it is an important part of the story—and sometimes it is. But I’m not in the habit of using technology decoratively in narrative.

JZ

Not to ask a magician to explain her tricks, but I would love to hear what you reliably recognize as potentially funny elements for a story?

LM

I’m mostly just observing the world, and there are a lot of funny things in it. Also, once you have your own fictional world on the page and characters walking around in it you notice funny things about that world as well.

JZ

Do you enjoy writing “on writing”?

LM

I do very little of that kind of speaking or writing, even though the world is always interested in getting writers to do that, and as you can see, I don’t have a lot to say on the matter because much of it is mysterious, especially when one looks back from a great distance.

JZ

Are there particular experiences that consistently put you in a creative mindset? Do you do a fair amount of research for your books?

LM

I would say there are no constants. Research can be really exciting! but one doesn’t need a lot of it in a novel or the story will get weighed down and inert. Reading good work inspires me probably more than anything else. Plays on the stage (not on the page) are a source of endless fascination for me; I mostly can’t figure out how they came into existence, so they are a bit of a puzzle.

JZ

What about the presentation of plays is particularly compelling for you? How language becomes embodied and translates form?

LM

I guess it’s the actors, who are usually good (such a great depth of talent in this area of the arts) so it is sometimes like spying, sitting in a park or at a dinner party and watching and overhearing others. There is often tension or comedy not personal to oneself, which is a relief.

JZ

Do you ever think about when you worked as a paralegal—that period in New York, and observing that kind of system?

LM

Well, it was the late 1970s, before the Reagan years took over New York, and so New York was still rather interesting. A wide assortment of people worked at the firm I worked at, but it would be difficult to characterize it as even having a culture.

JZ

How do you feel about writing book reviews? What different registers or mindsets does criticism bring out for you?

LM

I recently wrote about the Beatles, and that was fun because I got to watch a lot of documentaries and read a couple of different books. Writing reviews offers you a little course on a topic.

JZ

You’ve talked a bit about the magic of cookbooks—does cooking inform your writing practice at all?

LM

No! But I wish it did. Sometimes I think writing is a substitute for cooking. I’m sure they have many things in common—an assortment of ingredients and a lot of improvisation.