Interview: Rick Moody

by Zett Aguado

photo: Mathieu Bourgois

Rick Moody is the author of four novels, three collections of stories, and a memoir, THE BLACK VEIL. Earlier this year, he and his wife welcomed their daughter, Hazel. This interview focuses on how he juggles writer, teacher, musician and parent.

NT: When I discovered you had recently become a father, I asked myself what sort of changes occured within you in that place from which comes your art. How did this affect your writing? Did you view things through modified vision? In short: What happened? And if there were struggles, how did you deal with them—differently, if at all—in order to work through the situation?

RM: Well, I am thoroughly middle-aged, that's the first thing to say about all of this, and because I am thoroughly middle-aged I didn't arrive becoming a father hastily. Just the opposite (as I'm sure my parents and family might say): I took my own "sweet time". So in some ways, nothing about the process has been completely unforeseen. Not the months of my wife's pregnancy, at any rate. I kind of knew what to expect. We became parents because we really wanted to. For my part, to grossly generalize, I have done most of what I set out to do in my life, if not considerably MORE than I set out to do. I wanted to write some books, I wrote some books. I wanted to make a bit of an impact. I think I did so, for good or ill. Still, despite these modest accomplishments, when you have been through some of the other things I have been through in life (I'm thinking of my sister's death here), you realize that there's an emptiness, and a selfishness, about professional life. Accordingly, I have spent a lot of the last ten years growing into a role as a very devoted uncle (of my late sister's two kids, and my brother's three kids), and a godfather (four godchildren and counting), but over the years it became obvious to me that I needed to do more along these lines.

I'll give an even more dramatic example: though I was really nervous through the first few months of my wife's pregnancy (worried about the impact of all this, especially on my writing), I was as I say, not surprised, not until we got the sonogram confirming the child's gender (daughter!) in October of last year. I had missed the earlier sonograms, though I was carrying around a wallet-sized printout to show off proudly. But I went along in October to a quiet, dimly-lit cave somewhere in the St.Vincent's Hospital complex. The tech barely spoke English and was a man of few words anyway, and he sort of busied himself with some dazzling array of constantly morphing images that looked more like meat loaf swimming in a hot tray than it look like a fetus, and then suddenly he hit on something and saved it, and Hazel's tiny boney facade came startlingly into view. And I thought: for twenty years I have been a coward. By which I mean for twenty years I could have done this and been a part of this journey, and I didn't do it because I thought I was supposed to make my art, and because I thought that books were my gift to civilization. But even though I love writing and it is part of me and will always be part of me it's a completely different scale of sacrifice. It's a comfortable sacrifice. Parenting is a lot more than that. It's an overwhelming level of sacrifice. So: I was a coward for twenty years, but now I am old enough and wise enough (just barely) to commit to this level of participation in life. The level in which you watch something flourish ex nihilo. Which, it turns out, is an incredible thing. Just learning, that day, that Hazel was a girl (I hadn't known how much I wanted her to be a girl until then) was enough to bring me to tears. The irony is that I am finishing a novel, not starting one, and by the time this book is published, next year, it will be a book from a former incarnation of me. It's big, comic, sloppy, slightly outrageous, and recklessly out of control on purpose, and thus sort of consistent with the edition of my work that produced THE DIVINERS and RIGHT LIVELIHOODS, but not with the edition of me whose more recent work is a five-week old blob of flesh presently sleeping next to me on the living room carpet with her hands in the air like she has come to give a spastic benediction to humankind. I have some ideas about what work might come after this (well, I am going to publish essays on music after this, but after THAT, I have some ideas), and it's a completely different direction. No jokes, for example, or fewer jokes. By the time I start that work, however, Hazel will be, what, two? Three? And who knows what life will be like then. I will be racing around after a toddler, in my early fifties. I guess the short answer, to be more direct, is that I can't identify ALL the changes that have occurred yet, because they are still making themselves manifest. I am certainly writing LESS than before, I should add, but it is the one thing I'm doing when I'm not looking after Hazel. I almost immediately start writing when she's napping or when I get a turn away. With great enthusiasm.

NT: Your work is and is known to be engaging and humorous, so it is interesting that you've stated there will be fewer jokes in your future work. Why?

RM: I'm so much still going through the transition of becoming a father (even though I'm already one) that I feel like it's stupid to try to talk sensibly about that as yet. I don't know, that is, what effect emotionally it's going to have on what I do. In some ways, I don't feel changed at all. I have not been stricken with incurable sentimentality, for example. (I make up little songs for Hazel every day, e.g., and they are all horribly violent: Little baby, little baby, why do you cry? Must be the stick in your eye.) But I know from an aesthetic angle that I have gone as far with the comic/maximalist thing as I can go on this new novel, and it's time to head off in a new direction. There are people, of course, who think that the more realistic writing is the best writing I've ever done, and I don't agree with that, but I am not above taking a hard right turn to experiment with a more restrained palette of realism once in a while, just to see if I can do it. So I have an idea along those lines, and I aim to tackle it at some point in the next five years. I think it's important always to be trying something new. I guess that is probably an obvious thing for me to say.

NT: You've also stated that you want to write with the inital enthusiasm you once had. Could this be in direct correlation with you writing for a living and all of the brittle edges any job brings?

RM: Maybe. I worked in publishing for a while in my twenties and early thirties, and a casualty of that time was that I knew too much about everyone writing and the circumstances in which they came to be published. This made me sick to my stomach. It took a good ten years to unlearn all of that. But I still have to work hard to stay pure and avoid the hype and rumor of the publishing business. Lately I have given up reading magazines (I read only three: The New York Review of Books, The Believer, and Bookforum), because I decided magazines, besides being mediocre, were eating into my book-reading time, and it is books that I really love. That passion for reading is what got me interested in writing myself, and I want to maintain that enthusiasm. At all costs. I don't care if I am in the dark about the new story in the New Yorker, or who got review in the Sunday Times. I used to care, when I was young. But now I am much more excited by an experience of something new out there among the books being published by the world. That kind of thing motivates work.

NT: Let's talk about your newest novel. Unless you are superstitious, could you talk about what it is about and how long you've been working on it?

RM: Not superstitious, really, but it's a hard book to talk about. It began in two ways: 1) I really love bad, old horror movies, the b-film variety, the drive-in variety, especially from the late fifties and early sixties, which was the period of horror films that I watched a lot as a kid. I just loved them. In this novel, I wanted to try to make my own one of these films, so I picked a particularly embarrassing example, THE CRAWLING HAND (1963), and began adapting it. 2) Meanwhile, I wanted to write a book about the desert, because I have been spending a lot of time in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona in the last ten years. Or, if not a book ABOUT the desert, at least a book LOCATED in the desert. Then (3) if those things weren't enough, I allowed a name from my book to be auctioned off by a first-amendment-related charity in California. The winner, he who paid the top dollar, got to have his name in my book. The winner was one Montese Crandall. Upon having control of this name, which I loved so much, I had to create a context for him in the novel, so he became the narrator and controlling intelligence thereof. In ways that will become clear when you see it. Well, there's another factor, too. (4) I wanted to write a novel in the style of the novels I first loved when I was a teenager, viz.,Vonnegut/Brautigan/Robbins/Pynchon/Dick/Heinlein. It's a sub-literary genre in some cases, but I never care about that sort of thing. I want write into the condition of my early enthusiasm, you know? Anyway, the result is a 900 page comic novel about a disembodied arm set in the desert in 2026.

NT: When is it set for release and how is it entitled?

RM: Spring 2010, in the USA, if I manage to turn it in soon. The working title is THE FOUR FINGERS OF DEATH, though no one likes that title as much as I do.

NT: Why did you want to write a book set in the Sonoran desert?

RM: It just calls in the one way, which is the way of the siren call because it's big, empty (excepting the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas), merciless, heartbroken, and inimical to human life. And it has the saguaro cactus.

NT: Another one of your callings is music. How did you begin in music? You form part of The Wingdale Community Singers. How did the band get started?

RM: I sang as a kid. My mom sings and plays piano. My sister sang. My brother plays guitar. We all listened to a lot of music. It was something the family agreed upon. I was a boy soprano and took some voice lessons back then, and also several years of piano lessons. I was a lousy student, but a keen listener. I sang in chorus and madigral groups in high school. In college, I sort of undertook to teach myself the guitar and to convert myself to guitar-playing, even as I had a couple of bands in which I sand and/or played keyboards. I began writing songs then too. Let me say here that even though I wrote lots of lyrics, the important part for me was not the lyrics, but the music. I always asipred to be a genuine musician, though I have never quite reached the mark. I can read a tiny bit of music--I can read the melody lines in the hymnal, for example. But I have never had enough theory. Still, the songwriting has been a part of my life just as long as prose writing has. I was in two bands in college, one in grad school, and then I mostly played by myself for ten or fifteen years. After which I made the acquaintance of an amazing songwriter, Hannah Marcus, in 2002 or so. The Wingdale Community Singers were formed out of that friendship. The constituency shifts, but the band always includes Hannah and me, and it always has a lot of singing and harmony involved. We made one record in 2005, and have another finished, which, God willing, will be released in the fall.

NT: How (if at all) did writing your newest novel affect your music making? Or, rather, how does that balance work?

RM: The writing doesn't much affect music-making. It's usually the other way around. Music makes me want to write a certain way. I think the energy flows in that direction. I borrow from other media, and funnel the energy into stories and novels and essays. The balance is constantly shifting, in terms of time, but with the understanding that when it is all said and done I am a writer, and everything else is just to maintain a diversity of influences.

NT: Has your music making suffered any degree of neglect due to your writing of your newest novel and/or during the transformative process of becoming a father?

RM: The blessing and curse of music-making, for me, is that it's largely collaborative. I do it, in the main, to get away from working alone all the time. If I wanted to do work alone, I'd just write. While it's true I did make a "solo album" last year (not released yet, partly because for me "solo" is a synonym for "not very good"), most of the time I want to make music with others. Chiefly, this means I like to sing harmonies. If I were to try to boil down all of my hobby to one essential gesture, it would be this. Harmony singing. Most of my harmony singing has been in the context of my band, The Wingdale Community Singers, who were having some trouble even before the baby appeared. The Wingdales are composed of four extremely creative people, all of whom do other things, and it's hard to get them in one room on a good day. My feeling is that though I am the worst musician in the band, I am sort of the glue. I am not very sticky, however, and even less so now. I have not played my guitar once since March 6th, the birthday of young Hazel. I have sung (I am doing a fair amount of singing with my writer/musician friend Wesley Stace/John Wesley Harding), but not as much as I'd like. Although I have been writing little song fragments for the girl child. It would be accurate to say, though, that right now there is enough room in life for the two things: Hazel and my novel. Barely. Everything else is on the back burner.

NT: By everything else, does that also include teaching?

RM: I have taught on and off for a long time (since 1991). Rarely full time. That is, I have never made my income primarily from teaching. I have always survived mainly from writing. I would like to try to continue to do the same. When I have taught a lot, I have often become a little burnt out from it. Partly because I do try to give and to be available to the students in a way that I felt I often was NOT when I was a writing student. My grad school experience, especially, was not great, and I am powerfully motivated to try to expunge the miserly teaching of my professors from that time. But more importantly I have a theory that the workshop is not a great methodology for the instruction in creative writing, and, as a result, I have tried to come up with some alternative solutions. One of the solutions is this: I work with people individually. The application procedure is rigorous. I have to have time and I have to really like your work and you have to have at least a year, and you have to be willing to rewrite endlessly. Because I will work on one story for four or five months, doing ten or twelve drafts, until I think I have it somewhere where you are making progress/learning. Mainly, I do this for thesis students. Right now I have two students, one of whom is about to graduate. I think this amounts to a really good teaching ratio. One to two. By the way, the students pay what they can pay. When I can't do this, the tutorial model, I very occasionally will teach a workshop in revision. I have sketched out some precepts for revision (there are thirteen rules, according to me), and so when I do a workshop now (as I have done annually at Skidmore College in the summer since 2005 or so) I primarily try to work on the subject of revision. I don't care if you have a novel excerpt, I don't care if you want to get an agent or are trying to market a book. I am going to attempt to teach you how to make a better paragraph. And that is where we will meet. I don't know how fatherhood will affect this yet. My teaching. I still am committed to getting one student through her thesis and one other on an open-ended basis. And I am teaching this summer up north again. For two weeks in July. I will do these things as I have done in the past, as though it is possible to believe in teaching.

NT: You mention you have 13 rules of revision. What are they?

RM: Actually there are fourteen. As shown here:

1. Omit Needless Words
2. Sacrifice Your Modifiers
3. Consider the Rhythm
4. Replace "To Be" and "To Have"
5. Simplify Tenses
6. Avoid Alliteration
7. Rethink Abstraction
8. Spill Your Parentheses
9. Use Figurative Language Sparingly
10. Engage All Five Senses
11. Cut the Last Sentence*
12. Read the Passage Aloud
13. Put the Draft Away
14. Do The Above Fifteen to Thirty Times

NT: Could you give your reasons for number eleven? It is controversial!

RM: Number eleven IS controversial. But you don't realize what good advice it is, till you start using it. I challenge you, in fact, to cut the last sentence of this interview, no matter what it is. The problem is that if you really do 15 drafts and cut the last sentence every time, then you end up cutting 15 sentences. That's taking me too literally.

NT: 15 drafts of a book! What are your thoughts on novels written in record time?

RM: Some dead writers really got good at writing quickly. I am not one of them.

NT: One last question: How are you able to work on your numerous projects after satisfying the demands of a newborn?

RM: I'm not doing so great at it (it's 4:21 AM right now). But I think the work reflects where we are, not where we want to be, and I'm trying to chip away at it despite my reduced circumstances. I am who I am. And I'm willing to write literature as that guy, not as some imaginary more competent better-rested guy.

*note to the reader: The interviewer has cut the last line of the above interview.