“I want my work to save lives”: An interview with Rick Moody
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Earlier this year, Dylan Greif conducted interviews with Rick Moody and Craig Mod for his MFA thesis at RISD. His work explores the design of new writing systems for the digital age. We’re delighted to present the first of those interviews today. (Check in for the Mod interview next week.)
The conversation with Moody (whose story ‘Some Contemporary Characters’ was published by Electric Literature in 2009) occurred over a period of about two weeks via email, with an exchange almost every day. Moody discussed his work and thoughts on writing tools and where literature is heading in the digital age. We edited the interview into a more traditional Q&A format for your reading convenience. Enjoy.
Dylan Greif: What do you consider your essential writing tools?
Rick Moody: I’m not sure any tool is essential, or, to put it another way, every time I assume a certain tool is essential a situation presents itself in which I have to make do without. This reminds me of something John Cheever says in an interview about writers and their offices. How the more ornate office often corresponds to the less productive writer, etc. I have written things in appalling circumstances. In the worst motels, on scraps of paper and envelopes. And oftentimes the reduced circumstance takes me to creative places I wouldn’t go otherwise. So I have no tool that I rely on permanently and without variation. I would perhaps — being reductive and honest to a partial degree — have said Microsoft Word was an essential tool, at least I would have said it a few years ago. Because Word made possible instant italics and other formatting capabilities that created the high Rick Moody style of 1995–2000. But I have been mired in identity-theft-related computer problems recently, and so I have made do with Open Office lately, and that seems acceptable, if homely. I used to be a PC guy, but I am typing these lines on a Powerbook, and I would say I was a laptop guy except that I have written things on my iPod lately. And if I had a smartphone (I don’t), I’m betting I would write things on there too. Also: I have been writing songs a lot, recently, on the Voice Memo program on my iPod, and some lyrics that way besides. And I have been dictating ideas on there as well. So of course this means: technology helps. But I also think: an excess of reliance on technology hinders, and that it is useful to let go of technology and see where that gets you. I would write on birch bark, by hand, if I didn’t think my handwriting had a tendency to conceal mistakes. There is no one place I write (I’m in my girlfriend’s apartment right now), there is no one style in which I write, there is no one tool I use to write, and there is no one form in which I write, and it’s not even a guarantee, on any given day, that my work will be constituted in writing. Which means: that I want to be open to surprise, to change, to adaptation, to novelty.
DG: I understand you enjoy writing with certain limitations. In composing ‘Boys’, every sentence required the word ‘boys’ if not the full phrase ‘boys enter the house’. ‘The Double Zero’ and ‘Pan’s Fair Throng’ were written on assignment. What do you gain from limitations like these?
RM: Yes, limitations, somewhat haphazardly imposed, are a great thing. You know the famous remark of Robert Frost about free-verse? That it’s like playing tennis with the net down? For me, the limitations you are referring to are playing tennis with the net up. If you erect one of these impediments to progress, you have to come up with a work- around, and the work-around often causes you to think in new ways about your subject. In a way, the impediments cause metaphor to happen, and I often suddenly think anew when I am forced into metaphor and analogy to say what I was going to say in a more direct way. And metaphor is where all the beauty takes place, right? I don’t know, yet, if an iPod causes the same systemization of metaphor yet. I have not used the iPod to try to write anything long. But you may know that I wrote a story in Twitter posts a couple of years back. I didn’t actually use Twitter then, and I still don’t, but I loved the 140- character box, and once I started using it, for a while, I couldn’t stop. I suppose these limitations are a variation on the kinds of games that the Oulipians played in France in the seventies, but in my case the limitations are imposed in order to generate story. The whole thing falls to pieces if narration is impossible. So the goal in “Boys” is to tell the story of the boys, not just to compile variations on the sentence “Boys enter the house.” That assignment would be too easy.
DG: In ‘Some Contemporary Characters’, what led you to shift person and point-of-view with each post?
RM: That’s a good question. There are three points of view in the Twitter story, but one of them, the narrator’s point-of-view, is confined to the first line, sort of in the way that Henry James would occasionally erupt into view in otherwise third-person novels of his own construction. After line one, it’s all he-said-she-said, with occasional and impulsive eruptions of he-said-in-the-first-person and she-said-in-the-third-person. I was trying to capture the slangy way that people use social media, and the kind of sloppy English that results from that instantaneity. But: it’s also true that point-of-view feels less secure in the fragmentary historical present, wherein consciousness is constantly assaulted by the signal noise that surrounds us all every day. Fragmentation, to me, does feel like the way forward. And reflecting that fragmentary consciousness is simply reflecting what is happening in the world every day.
DG: Aside from the 140 character count, Twitter tends to be an arena for social interaction. The literary reading and writing experience, on the other hand, is traditionally associated with the individual’s isolation. Do you think social interaction as a structure can have a place in the process of fiction and narrative writing?
RM: Writing is mostly an isolating experience. I sort of resist kinds of literature that limit this — I resist writers who spend most of their time blogging or tweeting. They are distracting from their major work, not adding to their major work. Because I think the time in isolation is reflective time, and reflection is good for fiction writing. It may be good for creativity in general. Silence, exile, and cunning, as James Joyce had it. On the other hand, one reason I play music is to be involved with other people a little bit. The two things probably have to happen in tandem. If you are not reflective in some way — if you don’t a step back from the signal noise — you can’t possibly create well. But if you are in total isolation from the world then you have nothing to write about. There’s no fuel in the tank. So this dialectical movement — in the world, out of the world — seems central to the life of the artist. (In my case, anyway.)
DG: Of your published work, do you have a favorite book design?
RM: Probably Demonology, or The Black Veil. I liked the galley of The Diviners, but the publishers panicked, as they often do with innovation, and then they ruined the design in attempting to redo it. The Four Fingers of Death jacket is not bad, and was largely my idea (as was The Diviners originally). But I guess, in the end, the one that really has a spectacular unity of purpose to it, design-wise, is Demonology.
DG: Book covers are often employed as marketing tools. I’m curious what you think its role is, however, in the reading experience. A book cover introduces the story. Unlike a title page, however, it doesn’t disappear as the reader reads on. It reappears (bearing the visuals, the author’s name, and sometimes the publisher) every time the reader opens, closes, or crosses paths with the book. This constant re-engagement with the cover is lost on the e-reader experience. What do you think are the implications, if any, of cover vs no cover on the reader’s reception of the text?
RM: I have had many responses to this question over the years. On the one hand, who gives a shit? I have seen many horrible jackets. And still liked the books. And many jackets (like, say, everything by Dalkey Archive) that have no promotional aspect to them at all. I honestly stop looking at jackets, the same way I stop looking at the tattoos on my friends. That e-readers disrupt the flow of jacket art is not to their detriment, as far as I’m concerned. And that’s one of the few things I am willing to say on the positive side of the ledger, as regards e-readers. I like a good jacket, but I am not wedded to the jacket. And I say that while acknowledging that the Demonology jacket went a long way to organizing that book’s very disparate material.
DG: Is the traditional experience of the book-as-sacred-object distinct from, and not essential to, the actual experience of a fictional story? Or does the book’s unique physicality truly impact the reader’s interpretation of the text?
RM: I love the book as a material object, and feel incredibly attached to that aspect of what a book is. And I cannot get that experience from an e-book, though I have used them on occasion when the convenience factor is really important (when I am abroad, when I need to have twenty volumes of the classics in one place and can’t otherwise carry them all). I love the physicality of the book. But those French books that all have uniform jackets, Editions du Seuil, and so on? I understand the thinking behind uniform type jackets. It should be the book itself that you love, not some image of the book. Thus my comments about jackets. This dislike of frippery in book publication, however, does not extend to preferring an e-book, and comments to that extent, by the CEO of Amazon, etc., that the book is a thing of the past, seem loathsome to me. They will, in fact, have to pry the book from my cold, dead hands.
DG: In Book Two of ‘The Four Fingers of Death’, the protagonist, Montese Crandall, suggests in a footnote that the reader can customize the book structure by lopping off the first half, switching Book One and Two, or extracting only the author’s narrative. Do you see sequence customization as a potential way forward in literature?
RM: Not exactly, because I believe customization is already built in. That is, any experience of the book is reader-centered. You are free to use it any way you want to use it, and that freedom of the reader is very satisfying to me, personally, both as writer and reader. I come by the theory, qua theory, from my days as student of continental philosophy. There’s a passage in Derrida’s Positions, which I can’t reconstruct exactly from this vantage point (the vantage point of insomnia), wherein he says you might fold the first half of Of Grammatology into certain spot in Dissemination, the second half of which really belongs as an essay in Writing and Difference, etc. And then there’s the moment in Pale Fire in which Charles Kinbote recommends that you buy multiple copies of that book to make the flipping back and forth less onerous. I imagined that Montese’s footnote was along those lines. Or derived therefrom. The earlier Derrida pieces I’ve alluded to go back to 1968, and even earlier in some cases, and Pale Fire is probably a decade or so earlier. Well, actually, it’s from 1962 (I checked). (PS, Pale Fire got a lot of bad reviews! I’ve just learned! Amazing! Can you imagine disliking Pale Fire?) All of which implies, if you discount Tristram Shandy or Don Quixote, that the history of auto-fragmentary texts is at least fifty years old. And none of these works is literally fragmentary (for which we would have to turn to the Beckett Trilogy, or Robert Pinget, or Alain Robbe-Grillet, or Nathalie Sarraute, or some such). The actual de-centered, digitally (or technologically enhanced) fragmented text requires the years of hypertext (the early nineties), and the web, to appear. But all of this technology, as I have been attempting to imply, does nothing but make apparent what is always liminal, that the reader consumes in fragments, and assembles meaning according to her will, which is a very distracted, piecemeal kind of will. It is an illusion fomented by genre narratives and by certain charmingly antique naturalistic works that the hurtling plot conveys a unitary and tightly controlled point-of-view, or even the intention of an allegedly motivated author who is himself/herself one person, and not a society of ambitions, colonized by a language or languages, and/or the history or histories of literary form. I could probably only write an answer like this at 4:50 AM.
DG: To temporarily switch gears: The Wingdale Community Singers. What is it you enjoy about singing alongside others, in harmony, or before an audience?
RM: I don’t exactly enjoy doing it before an audience. I tolerate the performance part, and am trying to get better at it. I really just like singing with other people, in almost any circumstance. The harmony singing thing. It’s sublime, for me. I sang a lot as a kid, and did madrigal singing and chorus and so on, in high school, and it’s just one of those things that make parts of my brain light up that don’t otherwise light up. Not only because I’m with other people, when more often alone while working, but also because I just have to work really hard at it, and the effort makes me smarter and more supple as a listener. Listening is good for prose writing. Brian Eno, you may have heard, has a weekly singing group, whose only stated requirement is that you agree never to perform for an audience, and never to record. I sort of think that would be better for me, as a singer, but I am trying to get better at performance, so I continue to try to do it live, even though that’s not really a goal for me as much.
DG: I recently saw Wingdale Community Singer Nina Katchadourian speak about her Flemish-style airplane lavatory self-portraits. I found it a nice example of metaphor by limitation. Have you two shared discussions on the topic?
RM: She left the band, to our eternal regret, to go make her art, and apparently you have seen the fruits of it more recently than I. And so: we have not discussed. I do think she and I see similarly on limitation, however.
DG: Another side project of yours is ‘Rick Moody, Life Coach’, a section on your website that invites people to ask for advice about their life problems. Your fictional stories also often center around individuals in troubled circumstances. How do you see the written exchanges of ‘Rick Moody, Life Coach’ in the context of your literary work?
RM: Well, oddly enough, before I embarked on the Life Coach stuff I wrote two stories, one called “Stories With Advice,” and another called “Stories With Advice II: Back From the Dead,” both of which are parodistic stories about advice columnists in which I used “actual” advice questions from friends (I solicited my friends). This impulse, I suppose, became the Life Coach column. I very much like the Life Coach column, and would do more of them, except that they do not self-generate well, and Little, Brown is slow about posting them, and they are also emotionally exhausting. I imagine, however, that I will make some kind of a book out of them someday, if there are enough. (One begins, after a while, to think in books.) How they fit into the context of my “literary” work is this: I think books, like pop songs, often have a register in which they act as advice. Which is why “Stories With Advice” is an amusing title. At least to me. As I said earlier in my life: I want my work to save lives. With the Life Coach stuff I am probably closer than I have ever been to realizing that ideal. I would just like to make sure I do it in a way where I don’t sacrifice my voice.
DG: In a 2001 Paris Review Interview, you said that each genre, ‘fiction’ and ‘nonfiction’, is a release from the other, yet both are derived from the same tendency. You seemed to be making a general statement about the classifications of genres. As a musician, would you make the same argument about writing versus music?
RM: The classifications of genres are always haphazard. In fact, the whole Aristotelian approach has a certain amount of violence about its enterprise. Certainly, if one is describing literature it’s self-evident, at least to me, that there is a gulf of largely uncolonized space between what is fiction and what is poetry. The question of what, for example, is a prose-poem and what is a short-short story, demonstrates this, and though there have been many clever and articulate attempts to answer this question, which is which, anyone thinking clearly would realize that the supposed border between the two is porous indeed. And if this holds true for the alleged genres of literary writing, that it is impossible to distinguish each from each in all cases, why does it not hold true with respect to all kinds of writing (is “literary” fiction truly distinct, in all cases, from “genre” fiction), and if it’s true for all kinds of writing, that the basis for distinction is provisional, then why not between, say, writing and painting? I heard Susan Howe, the poet, read the other day. Here’s the interesting thing about Susan Howe. She began as a painter. As I have heard it recounted, her paintings began to have words in them (perhaps somewhat influenced by the fact that her sister is also a poet: Fanny Howe), and then, before long, she gave up the “actual” painting part, and began just working with the words. But what of the middle period? The period in which she was both? And of the period after, the alleged end of the “painting,” can it be said in all cases that no “painting” occurred? It might be said that no paint was applied to canvas, but is it certain in all later work by Susan Howe that no “painting” occurred?
You were asking about parallel practice though. It is true, if we believe that the genres actually exist, that the one (music) can be a relief from the other (literature), and that one may apply oneself to each in order to refresh. That is true as far as it goes. But maybe the more pertinent or supervening argument would be that creativity, in the end, knows no bounds, and any attempt to coral it into one genre is doomed, if one is being honest, to failure. I would say this: that capitalism wants genre, because capitalism needs to market, and marketing requires genre in order to sell things. This is especially true in bookstores (as I have said many times). There is genre in literature primarily because how else would anyone FIND a particular book. This tendency is always self- generating in a capitalist economy, I think, and it proceeds, without respite, into subdivision, and ever finer gradations of hair-splitting. But it has nothing to do with what it actually feels like to make things. One just wants to create, and to go wherever the creativity wants to go, and that intoxication of creativity is thrilling. So why just do the one thing?
DG: What advice would you give to the next generation of aspiring writers? Writers who value print literature, yet are likely to grow up more in tune to the patterns of new technology?
RM: I think people should just follow their own inclinations — honestly, ambitiously — without paying any attention to what’s happening in the market. The market trails the form itself. It’s not the other way around. And as long as younger writers are interested in language and the history of the form first (not the delivery systems, whatever they may be) then it’s all going to be fine. I believe in literature and I believe in the people who believe in it. It’s okay if the larger culture goes off and does whatever it wants to do, dopes itself, expends all its energy on frivolities. There will always be readers and writers.