Novelist Rick Moody & Songwriter Ben Arthur Shatter Your Perception of Reliable Narrators

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Having given the literary world The Ice Storm, The Diviners, The Four Fingers of Death and so many more, Rick Moody’s unique style, voice, and inventiveness are unmistakable. Plus, once you get this guy talking, you’ll feel like you’ve barely scratched the surfaces of what his books are about at all. Recently, I sat down with Moody and songwriter Ben Arthur at the Electric Literature offices to discuss not only Moody’s new novel Hotels of North America (Little, Brown and Company 2015), but also Arthur’s series of “answer songs,” which he has written in response to works of literature, including Moody’s. Because the novel is presented as a series of online hotel reviews “discovered” by a publisher, the narrative tricks of voice and perspective are coolly complex already, even before you throw an “answer song” into the mix! In talking to Moody and Arthur, I attempted to uncover if we can ever trust the narrator of a novel, short story, or song, at all. What’s real? Am I real? Is Rick Moody real?

Ryan Britt: (To Moody) My favorite book of yours prior to this was The Four Fingers of Death, because I think I like that sort of delusional narrator character. Here, with Reginald Edward Morse in Hotels of North America, we’ve got someone who seems overconfident, but who reveals his insecurities. I’m wondering what the attraction is to those kinds of narrative voices?

…I love slippery, somewhat untrustworthy narrators with stories full of holes.

Rick Moody: I can’t stand the first person in certain ways. (Laughs) I hate that in writing school there’s this idea that the first person could be a reasonable trustworthy, likeable or confessional voice. I never believed that. I always want to resist the first person. In the case of Holden Caufield or Huck Finn, I’m sort of against them from the outset for some reason. But I love slippery, somewhat untrustworthy narrators with stories full of holes. Like you get in Nabakov. Pale Fire was a touchstone for this book. I’m trying to do a book where the manifest content is running obversely to a completely different sub-stratum of facts.

Ben Arthur: It’s funny too, because anytime I read a first person, my first assumption is —

Moody: He’s full of shit.

Arthur: Yeah, they’ve got to be lying! I mean third person has a certain authority, but any time I read a first person, I wonder, therefore, what this person is lying about.

Britt: But it’s such a skill to build that in without winking too much. To make that [unreliability] genuine. This actually leads me to what I wanted to ask Ben about. In writing these songs that respond to literary work. I remember hearing Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields say that he wrote all his songs “in character,” that there was never a straightforward idea of him singing. It was always a character that he imagined. I wonder if you could speak to that, since what you’re doing is responding to this character Rick has created. What way do you approach narrative voice when you’re writing these “answer songs?”

The narrative is untrue, but the heart is true.

Arthur: Again, my assumption is whenever “someone” is talking, they’re lying. (Laughs) That’s true with most artists. In fact, I’m always surprised when I hear musicians and songwriters…or narrative writers say that they’re writing the truth, that they’re trying to reflect their actual story. Particularly songwriters. When they say “this is what I did, this is who I met,” I don’t get them. Really. Honestly, I feel bad for them. It must be exhausting to come up with a new angle. So for me, I welcome an opportunity to take on a new perspective and really I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anything in all the work I’ve done that is…true. But! There is a duality. The narrative is untrue, but the heart is true. And I think you see that a lot in Rick’s writing, too: this framework [Reginald’s online hotel reviews] was a way of getting at a truer interior, rather than directly saying “Yeah, I went through a painful divorce.”

Britt: That brings me to a question I had for you, Rick. The afterward of the book is masterful! There’s this great fictional version of “Ricky Moody.” This gives us three narrative voices: a cheerful “editor” at the beginning, Reginald himself, and then “you,” at the end of the book. You play with the idea in this epilogue that we might not have “known” Reginald at all. Is the takeaway here that we can only know an artist better through their work? That their actual lives aren’t the important thing?

Moody: Wow! That’s a heavy question. This is actually my first interview about this novel, so I don’t have my slick lines down yet. Gosh. I mean — for good or ill — if you were to pigeonhole me, I’d say I probably feel like I’m a post-modernist. By training at any rate. In the same way I feel like the first person is inherently full of holes, I feel the idea of a transparent narrative that allows us to understand a person without formal gimmickry or an apparatus to create the possibility for expression…I feel that approach is…naïve in a way. So, the afterward, intends to suggest — as I said to my editor — it’s a bunch of lies. It’s a tissue of lies! So, that the idea that something comes through all that; this heartbreak of a guy who is longing for some kind of connection, and not exactly getting there, is paradoxical, and noble considering the amount things that are arrayed against this book appearing to be “naturalistic.” It’s not naturalism.

Britt: Getting to the collaboration and the call-and-response work both of you have done, there’s this great Etgar Keret line [from Suddenly a Knock on the Door] about “creating something out of something.” I was wondering your process, Ben. When you’re responding to other people’s work, what is it like to be taking something else and creating a completely new piece of art from it?

Staring at a blank page is terribly frightening…[T]his is a way of pouring some gasoline on the floor and throwing a couple matches down.

Arthur: It’s not new! Is any of our work new? Calling something an “answer song” is just putting a clearer name to it. We’re all just a collection of our responses to things. And the position of our responses is what our art is. So, I feel like it’s a relief! It’s easier than starting from scratch. Staring at a blank page is terribly frightening. Ideas come every once in a while, but this is a way of pouring some gasoline on the floor and throwing a couple matches down. Particularly when you’re working with the raw stuff of such talent. There are so many great angles to take at any of these words. It makes my job so much easier across the board.

Britt: It doesn’t sound easy!

Moody: That answer was so good, Ben. I’m just going to use that for my slick answer from now on!

Arthur: I think it would be only fair if you stole that answer.

Britt: I was reading earlier this week about heavy metal bands responding to the work of R.W. Chambers. But you, Ben, are responding to the work of authors who are alive. Can you both speak to the idea of being influenced by artists who are alive versus artists who aren’t?

…for me, the influence often comes from a completely different direction, and that’s a way of allowing in ideas without being shipwrecked by them…

Moody: What’s interesting about that question is I’m often more influenced by contemporary music than I am by contemporary literature. If you were to ask me questions about a novel of the past five years that has influenced me, I would be hard-pressed to come up with an answer. BUT. I listen to his [Ben’s] medium assiduously. I’ll often feel that the new Brian Eno album has influenced me. So for me, the influence often comes from a completely different direction, and that’s a way of allowing in ideas without being shipwrecked by them, without feeling slavishly imitative or unable to process them in a way that lets me emerge feeling whole. My understanding of what you [Ben] do, is similar — colliding with other media, media that aren’t musical, in order to keep the music fresh.

Arthur: Yeah, it’s an easier translation in a way. I’ve done some answer songs to songs, but in many ways responding to a different medium is easier. As far as my feeling of contemporary versus older, I’m a slutty thief. Which is to say, anything I run into that I don’t take something from is probably something that I didn’t really like. You know that phrase “I really got something out of that”? That’s very literal for me. It might not be good, but there’s no temporal limits to willingness to steal from other people.

Britt: Speaking to that, Ben, can you talk a little bit about the creation of this particular answer song?

Arthur: I found this to be a challenge. Because Morse is an absence in many ways; in fact he may not even exist. I tried to write something that would reflect the heartbreak to show him torn apart and reassembled. BUT, I ended up in this very “pop” place and when the melody gods strike you with something you are unwise to look that gift horse in the mouth. [Laughs]

Britt: You know, Rick, you say you’re post-modern, but there’s something very old fashioned about the narrative frame here, almost like a Victorian novel where the whole thing is posited as a bunch of letters. Obviously that isn’t anything new, BUT, having this novel be “online reviews,” which are then put back into print, did seem really new! Not only was this super fun from a sheer entertainment perspective, but it was also disquieting. What was the change you imagined from moving something from an online medium (like hotel reviews) to a book?

The conception amounted to saying: how can I find the humanism that lurks in the trollery of the Internet?

Moody: It’s funny, because I gave this impassioned speech to my students at NYU in which I pounded on the table and I said “the Internet is dead! It’s against humanism! There’s no humanism on the Internet!” Then one of the students goes “when’s your book debuting again?” [Laughs] On the one hand, I believe in what I said — slightly facetiously — that the Internet occludes the warm, fuzzy human stuff from sneaking through. That being said, I got interested in writing this book because I read some hotel reviews and I found them hilarious; and the more scurrilous and ill-behaved they were, the more hilarious I found them. The conception amounted to saying: how can I find the humanism that lurks in the trollery of the Internet? Believing it to be there, but wanting to find a frame that would allow it to overspill the container a little bit. The idea of putting it back into a book is sort of a shuck and jive about the temporariness of the Internet or our conception of it being temporary. I tried to take that “trash language” and elevate it.

Check out Ben Arthur’s “An Amazon Review of Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America.”

You can catch more from Rick Moody & Ben Arthur at The Green Space in NYC, Tuesday November 10th at 7pm. Moody will read from Hotels of North America; Arthur will perform along with vocalist Xenia Rubinos, while artist Michael Arthur creates drawings.

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