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Archival Interview, or, I Just Couldn’t Read Rick Moody’s New Novel but This Old Q&A Is Still Pretty Good

When Dale Peck wrote that Rick Moody was “the worst writer of his generation”, we all knew that he was exaggerating—and I include Peck himself in that “we all.” And, unlike the famously caustic reviewer, I thought The Black Veil was pretty great. Having tried and failed to read The Diviners, though, I begin to think that maybe Peck was on to something.

As you probably know by now, the book begins with an 12-page paean to the dawn, beginning as the sun rises over Los Angeles and following the new day as it travels westward around the globe. Moody takes 2 whole pages to get from the Khyber Pass to Cyprus—this should give you some idea of the pace—but I stuck with him, as I much prefer an author who makes outrageous demands of his reader than one who assumes that his job is pretty much done as soon as he has my $25.95. This does not mean, however, that I don’t expect some kind of reward for my effort, and I was prepared for the story to begin in earnest as soon as the opening hymn was finished. I was not, then, prepared for what followed: a similarly exhaustive—and much more exhausting—litany of an old woman’s physical complaints rendered in singsong pidgin English. What really pissed me off, though, was this: After reading page after page of

Light upon the open sea, the Winslow Homer green of the North Atlantic, upon the blue whale, the right whale, the songs of North Atlantic whales, light upon the fish coming up to the surface, light upon the currents of this well-traveled sea, light upon the circulations of the Gulf Stream, the North Equatorial Current, clockwise, into the light now…

I turn to Chapter I to find the words, “Rosa Elisabetta Meandro, in insubstantial light...” [emphasis mine]. That’s just obnoxious.

The Black VeilAnyhow, I gave up on The Diviners at the top of page 17. It might get very, very good after that (not that the critical reaction thus far offers any indication of that), but I just don’t care. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart was on my nightstand, waiting for me, and I’ve moved on. I can, however, recommend the interview I did with Rick Moody in 2002. It remains smart and funny and interesting, and, if I try reading the author’s next novel, it will probably be because of this very pleasant conversation.

Reading The Black Veil was not unlike reading the King James Bible—all the italics, the sometimes very formal language. How did you decide to write in such a heightened, almost antique style?

Rick Moody: One of the subtexts of the book is the puritanical philosophical worldview of people like Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather—that stuff’s kicking around underneath the contemporary material. I’ve abused italics, certainly, in other books but it definitely reached a new crescendo in The Black Veil. I didn’t try to restrain it because, as I was doing research and getting acquainted with those early American writers, I realized that—especially in his sermons—Mather italicized like that. So, what began as a natural inclination for me—and, really, a result of using Microsoft Word for the first time because it makes italicizing so easy—became coincident with the material itself.

Visually and verbally, your style makes it clear that the reader is in for something a little out of the ordinary. Thomas Pynchon used a similar technique in Mason & Dixon, using capitalization in an explicitly archaic way.

RM: I wouldn’t object at all if it looks a little bit like the King James on the page. As for Pynchon, he took a lot of shit for the caps, but I feel like he was doing it in a reverential way—like he really knew that 17th-century material he was working with, like he wasn’t kidding around. There’s something genuine and enthusiastic about it, and I hope my italics come off as, you know, an homage to the works I was reading as I wrote.

By the end of your book you’ve decided that concealment is necessary to identity. You also point out that most fiction is at least semi-autobiographical, regardless of whether or not the author intends it. Why, as someone who writes fiction, did you decide to write this story as a memoir?

RM: I had this book of stories, called Demonology, which came out before The Black Veil. One of the stories in that book is a frankly autobiographical story about something really horrible that happened in my family: my sister’s death.

That story was anthologized both as a short story and as an essay in various places. I did nothing to stop that from happening, to define it either as fiction or as autobiography. In fact, I tried to capitalize on the generic ambiguity. I think it’s an interesting moment in American fiction: There’s a fair amount of work out there that’s really making use of the energy thrown off by the fusion of fiction and nonfiction. That’s true in European literature, but, in America we’re especially preoccupied, usually, by generic definitions, by the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

Anyway, I had written this story and it was extremely popular. It’s probably the most popular, most widely anthologized short story I ever wrote. When I was done with it, I sort of felt like novel writing was so hard—and it depletes you so terribly—that I didn’t know if I could write another novel. After Purple America, my last novel, I thought I needed a break. So, I thought, “I’m going to take this ambiguous literary style and see if I can inflate it into an entire book.”

You bring up an interesting point: the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. I think the American obsession with that distinction might stem from a Puritan zeal for “the truth.”

RM: Yeah. I like reading stuff that caters to that subliminal need of readers. I remember when John Cheever’s diary came out in the ‘80s in the New Yorker. I was in grad school then, and everyone was electrified by it. We had all read Cheever’s stories, and everybody liked Cheever’s stories. He was a great writer and people admired him. But then we read the diary and it was just, you know, like going from the third dimension to the fourth dimension. I like the risk associated with books that seem—suddenly—to be telling the truth. I like that stuff, so I guess I wanted to be a part of it. I mean, I’m not going to give up being a fiction writer—I’m starting a new novel now—but, you know, I wanted to be where the action is.

As memoirs go, yours very explicitly conceals as much as it reveals. At the very end of the book, you even have a list of all the things that you didn’t say about yourself. Do you think that readers can learn anything about you—anything essential—from The Black Veil that they can’t learn from your fiction?

RM: Oh, definitely. That section in the last chapter is meant really to be a critique of the memoir as a form—especially the kind of memoir that’s kind become relatively hip in the last five years, the triumph over adversity thing, or the literary equivalent of Behind the Music.

I mean, in that kind of memoir…. We’re really having the wool pulled over our eyes in those texts. Those writers are always concealing, in that they’re always trying to take the unshapely form of human life that we all live and jam it into some preexisting narrative structure. There’s a rudeness to doing that, the way they’re always cutting out stuff. I wanted to make it clear that I’m telling a story that’s really true about my time in the psychiatric hospital and all that. Most people don’t know that about me, and they don’t know that that experience informs my novels. So, readers are getting something true about my life—the kind of truth that people seem to find galvanizing in memoirs. But at the same time I also wanted to say, “Hey look, you’re getting this much, but don’t kid yourself.” There are huge amounts of material that didn’t get into this book, so it’s not an exhaustive account of my life by any means.

The list of what’s missing is interesting, too, because it includes things that are, presumably, very important, but also items that are personal without being intimate. You point out, for example, that you have chosen not to mention what kind of shampoo you use. There is an ironic, cool school of memoir that seems to suggest that a massive accumulation of minutiae and pop cultural references equals a life story.

RM: Yeah, I really wanted to avoid that. I’m so not interested the detached writer. My goal now as a writer is to make sure that at least a few people cry while reading my book. I’m just not satisfied with a breezy, light reading experience, you know, with several rock ‘n’ roll bands named. But, by the same token, I will say that I’m glad that, by saying the following things are not included in the book, I can actually include them. [Laughing.]

Since memoirs are kind of hot, it’s a tricky time to be writing one like yours. Publicists can mention drugs and alcohol and your time in the psychiatric hospital, because all that sounds sexy, but your book is so much more than sensational. I think that anybody reading The Black Veil for cheap thrills is going to be disappointed.

RM: I’ve already gotten some of that reaction. Some of the early reviews have been from readers who were expecting more along those lines. My attitude toward that readership, is, you know, “Tough shit.”

I know that there are people who will skip chapters in this book, and that’s all right. A friend of mine—one who’s a minor player in it—she read the book and said, “I skipped all the Hawthorne chapters.” My response was, “That’s okay. That’s what chapters are for.”

I think I would rather people have the deluxe experience of the book, the complete book, but…. If they’re only going to read half, I guess I would prefer they read half of each part of the book—the Hawthorne criticism and the more obviously biographical material. Whatever. That’s the thing about writing a book: When you finish writing it, you turn it over to the readers and then they’re the ones who enact the book, in a way. The book isn’t done until somebody reads it.

Interview © 2005 Borders, Inc. All rights reserved.

October 5, 2005 | Permalink

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