An Interview with Rick Moody, by Maria Gagliano
November 4, 2013
If you’re at all familiar with Rick Moody’s writing, you know only one thing is certain: he is predictably unpredictable. His early novels Garden State, The Ice Storm, and Purple America epitomized suburban gothic literature, revealing the dark side of family life that so many relate to, but don’t have the courage to talk about. Just as readers might have settled in for another novel on suburban family life, his next book switched gears to an entirely different style and focus. These days, while the theme of family is still a mainstay in his work, you can find him waxing erudite about the powers of music in his essay collection On Celestial Music or in his monthly “Swinging Modern Sounds” column for The Rumpus. He even moonlights as a musician in his band, The Wingdale Community Singers. Despite the unpredictable shifts throughout Moody’s body of work, he can always be counted on to challenge readers with unexpected twists in his writing style and form. I caught up with Moody as he was working on his latest novel—a book he’s writing in 500- word bursts. I was lucky enough to hear about his early days working in book publishing, his iTunes “Recently Played” list, and his take on the allure of American suburbia.
You’ve spent most of your career as a novelist, except for a brief stint working in book publishing. Did that glimpse into the inside of the industry affect your approach to writing in any way?
It’s funny, no one in many years has asked me about my time in book publishing. It’s over two decades since I left. The business, obviously, has changed a great deal since then. When I worked in book publishing, people still worked on actual manuscripts with a red pencil and carted them home and back in tote bags. They communicated with one another on small pieces of paper that traveled around in interoffice envelopes. And the second half of my voyage through the biz was at Farrar, Straus and Giroux where I was lucky to be. Mr. Giroux was still alive (with his wall-sized James Thurber drawing hanging on one wall of his corner office), and Roger Straus roamed the corridors wearing an ascot.
Excepting the fact that I had no killer instinct at all for selling books, and even though it was sort of an embarrassment, the obligation to sell books, I was an incredibly happy person in publishing. Never before in my life had I had a job where I didn’t count the minutes. Reading, working on manuscripts, learning about contracts and rights, these were some of the great days of my life.
I’m glad I learned all of that, and I knew about what constituted a good first novel in those days, because I saw them every day. So I felt my time there was more than useful to my writing career. However, it’s also true that I disliked being told what to do, had a tendency to detest my immediate superiors in secret, and felt that the social Darwinism of the workplace was somehow the worst that human consciousness had to offer. So I was not a long-term prospect.
You’re writing in a different publishing landscape today compared to when you left two decades ago. How would you say the industry has changed for writers in that time?
The industry, most of the time, is unconcerned with its effect on writers. The workers therein say it’s not true, but at the end of the day, they have to have an eye on profit at the expense of writers, lest the publishing house fail to meet its sales targets. It has always been thus. I thought I knew all about the dance of interdepen- dence between editors and authors, but still I have managed to have my heart broken as a writer, as indeed so has every writer of my acquaintance. Writers who have survived a couple of decades are writers who have suffered.
Meanwhile, the obvious difference now is this e-book part of the story. I dislike e-book readers, and though I have one it is clunky and dusty and has not recently been turned on. Not only do the e-book contracts favor the publishers in unreasonable ways (surprise!), but I dislike the idea that they are reading manuscripts on the e-book readers, because I think the process self-selects for preformatted e-book material. In the same way that Skrillex, for example, is the perfect musician for a Spotify world (that is, you would be crazy to listen to an album by Skrillex, because you would exhibit physical symptoms of ennui), eventually you get writers—I’m not going to name names of writers—whose primary feature is how good they will look on a Nook, or whatever competing model.
There will be kinds of material that are natural in that form (heavily plot driven, with lots of bells and whistles). But what I love are books. I love this history of literature. And I think the industry, whose sales are driven by the physical book, should continue to think along the lines of the physical book and its august tradition. (They will, in the future, pry a book from my cold, dead hands, and I will be happily deceased in this way.) Because of this e-book phenomenon, and because of a lot of economic retrench- ment and risk aversion caused by the Great Recession and the years following, it’s a hard time to be a professional writer. I notice this among friends, far and wide.
The theme for this issue is The unknown, which re- minds me of your incredible talent for revealing aspects of the unknown in the everyday lives of your characters. This is especially true for the suburban families in your early novels—particularly Garden State, The Ice Storm, and Purple America. You show us the dark sides that so many of us relate to but don’t have the courage to share. What is it about suburban families that often ignites your muse?
I think since 1997 I have mostly left behind suburban families, or, at least, they are now part of the mix but not exclusively so, and I worked hard not to get pigeonholed in that way, lest I should be merely one type of writer. My motto is: infiltrate and double cross. This makes for a hard career in some ways. Having said this, though, I would observe that nearly anything you could want to say in the novel you could say in a family setting, especially if you close in on what families refuse to speak of.
In the United States of America, where the very defi- nition of family is a subject for political debate, family is a fraught and potent dynamic in which to situate drama. I have tried to make sure that I return to this issue now and again (there is a family in The Diviners, for example, and even some distantly important family material in The Four Fingers of Death), because of how rich and powerful it is. At the time of The Ice Storm, I wrote about families in the suburbs primarily because I had grown up in one, so I thought I knew the material well. But there’s a lot to say about family, more than you can say in one book.
With a literary career spanning decades, it’s amazing to see how your work has grown over the years. Your novels have ranged from literary family dramas to dark humor set in the future in The Four Fingers of Death. Looking back, how would you say your journey as a writer has evolved since your wrote your first book?
I just try not to be bored, really, and that’s the reason for all the movement in style and form. I can get frustrated if I feel I have an obligation to do one kind of work, and it’s far more exciting for me to try to come up with something significantly implausible each time out. So I am always reaching. The book I’m working on now is perhaps the least expectable, after Four Fingers, and that is as it should be. I imagine the journey of my writing, to people who are not me, looks a bit erratic, or at least surprising, and that’s all right with me. I don’t want to wake up having a reputation for mining just one vein, the vein of, for instance, suburban gothic.
Can you tell us more about the book you’re working on now? What new directions are you exploring with this one?
It’s actually a parody of just what I’ve been describing, the light, insignificant, antiliterary contours of online reading. And it has an aggrieved, broken first-person narrator, who is a distant relative of the guy who narrates the frame story in Four Fingers. Also, it is written in fragments because my life seems to dictate fragments these days. I have a four-year-old daughter for whom I am the primary custodian half the week. This occupies me fully. And so I write in 500-word bursts right now. The novel reflects this fragmentary existence.
It seems your passion for writing is only rivaled by your love for music. your essay collection On Celestial Music is proof of the power that music has had on your life, and how deeply connected literature and music are. is there one piece of music or one artist that you could say has influenced your life more than any other?
There are so many pieces of music that have influenced me, and they range from pretty obvious to pretty arcane. I wrote a great portion of my novel Purple America to Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan, which I am on record as calling the greatest album ever made (of the rock and roll era, anyhow). That is a slightly facetious claim, but I’ll let it stand. But there have been many other records that have proven useful to me as a writer: In a Silent Way by Miles Davis, Music for Airports by Brian Eno, Horses by Patti Smith, Dub Housing by Pere Ubu, almost anything by John Coltrane, Dolmen Music by Meredith Monk, and, lately, A Crimson Grail by Rhys Chatham. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, The Velvet Underground, Sun Ra. This is just a list this morning, June 20, at nine a.m. It would be different tomorrow.
What have you been listening to as you write the new book? Has it affected your writing in any specific ways?
The “Recently Played“ iTunes list indicates a phenomenal amount of Lux by Brian Eno, which is a new record I really adore, as well as an old one also by him called On Land (a very great album too), and a lot of other environmental-ish instrumental music: Cheap Imitation by John Cage; Duane Pitre, an experimental guitarist I have recently discovered; Stars of the Lid; the great Australian minimalist jazz band The Necks, and also some solo material by their pianist Chris Abrahams; La Monte Young’s “The Well-Tuned Piano,” which you can only hear on YouTube. Seems like minimalism is the mode right now, although there are also some songs on that list, too, by Neko Case, Van Morrison, the Felice Brothers, Red House Painters, Juana Molina, Mavis Staples, and so on. The effect of this music, or the intended effect, is that I should be emotionally available to my work, open to sentiment.
This interview is an excerpt from issue 13. To purchase a copy and read the full interview, click here.
Rick Moody’s acclaimed and prizewinning books include the novels Garden State, The Ice Storm, Purple America, The Diviners, and The Four Fingers of Death. He has received the PEN/Martha Albrand Award, the Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Brooklyn.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, and business director of Slice Literary. Her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, BUST magazine, Salon, Brooklyn Based, and Edible Brooklyn. When she’s not doing things with words, she’s teaching herself to sew, garden, pickle, preserve, and cook like her Sicilian par- ents. She shares her (mis)adventures at pomatorevival.com.