Copyright © Don Lee
Lorrie Moore hasn't had a full night's sleep in three and a half years. It's not what you think, however. She has not, like one of her characters, fallen prey to love woes or obsessive-compulsive panic. If anything, Lorrie Moore is far tougher than most people would suspect. It's simply that she has a feisty three-and-a-half-year-old son. "This particular parenting experience has been like a large nuclear bomb on the small village of my life," she says.†
The author of two novels and two short story collections, with a third,
Birds of America, due out this fall, Moore has lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for the past fourteen years. Since 1984, she has been teaching at the University of Wisconsin, where she is now a professor of English. By all appearances, she has had a remarkably stable writing career. "I've rarely felt any pressure to publish," she concedes. "I really feel like I'm writing what I want, at a pace that is the natural one." Indeed, her biography reads like a model of serendipity, a guide to "How to Become a Writer" -- the title of one of Moore's earlier stories, which begins: "First, try to do something, anything else." The irony of that line speaks volumes of her literary and personal temperament. While success has come quickly and easily to her, she has worked hard for it. Like most writers, she runs through dozens of drafts before getting a story or a book right, going back and forth from longhand to the computer, revising and polishing. And while Moore's fiction is renowned for its wit and humor, filled
with repartee, pithy one-liners, and wisecracks, she considers the essence of her work to be sad.
Nicknamed "Lorrie" by her parents, she was born Marie Lorena Moore in 1957 in Glens Falls, New York, a small town in the Adirondacks. Her father was an insurance executive, her mother a former nurse turned housewife. Moore, the second of four children, remembers her parents as rather strict Protestants, politically minded, and culturally alert. A quiet, skinny kid, Moore fretted, quite literally, about her insubstantiality. "I felt completely shy, and so completely thin that I was afraid to walk over grates. I thought I would fall through them. Both my younger brother and I were so painfully skinny, it still haunts us. Here we are, sort of big, middle-aged adults, and we still think we're these thin children who are
going to fall down the slightest crevice and disappear."
Academically precocious, she skipped ahead in school, earned a Regents scholarship, and attended St. Lawrence University. There, as an English major, she was the editor of the literary journal and won, at nineteen,
Seventeen magazine's fiction contest. It was her first publication, and it unearthed some surprising facts about her parents. Her father revealed that he had had literary aspirations of his own. He'd been in a writing class with fellow students Evan S. Connell and Vincent Canby at Dartmouth; he brought down some stories from the attic that he'd once sent to
The New Yorker. Her mother, too, had wanted to be a journalist. Yet her parents' revelations did not necessarily strengthen Moore's resolve to become a writer.
Her expectations for herself were modest. Entering St. Lawrence, she hadn't been exactly bursting with ambition. "I think I probably went to college to fall in love," she laughs. "I had the same boyfriend from the second week of college until I was twenty-four.
I don't recommend it. But I have to tell you what it allowed -- it allowed me to study, and write, and have a very serious student life, whereas other people were still busy shopping around for boyfriends and girlfriends." After graduating, she moved to Manhattan and worked as a paralegal for two years, then in 1980 enrolled in Cornell's M.F.A. program, where she was in a class of five-two fiction writers and three poets -- who were thrown together with second-year students to make up a single workshop.
As she became more devoted to her writing, she found that music, her first love, was now a distraction. Like her father, she played the piano, and even had had a professional gig as a freshman, at a reception for Eugene McCarthy. (She'd been playing in a dormitory lounge, the dean of women students heard her, and she asked Moore to provide background tinkle for the reception the day after the next. She was paid fifteen dollars.) But at Cornell, she decided she had to give up music. "It was eating into similar energies," she says. "The typewriter and the piano were actually similar ideas, for my mind and for my hands. I was completely unaccomplished musically. Nonetheless, I was having ecstatic experiences in the practice room at Cornell and wasn't getting any writing done. So I had to choose." Slowly, the sacrifice began to redound, as her stories were accepted at magazines -- one by
Ms., for which they paid her but never ran, others by
Fiction International, John Gardner's
StoryQuarterly. The publications were encouraging, but she was still not convinced they would lead anywhere. "I remember thinking, rather naÔvely,† that I would give myself until I was thirty, and if I hadn't published a book by then, I would probably have to find something else to focus on, that I obviously just was completely deluded and I didn't know what I was doing."
In 1983, when she was twenty-six, Knopf bought her collection,
Self-Help, comprised almost entirely of stories from her master's thesis. One of Moore's teachers at Cornell, Alison Lurie, had mentioned that her agent, Melanie Jackson, was looking for clients. Neither Moore nor her classmates really knew what an agent was. "I sent her the collection, and she sent it to Knopf, and they took it. Now, I realize, that doesn't happen ordinarily," Moore says.
Self-Help, which was published in 1985, produced a flurry of attention, reviewers comparing her to everyone from Grace Paley to Woody Allen. Six of the nine stories are written in the second-person mock-imperative, ironically imitating self-help books for contemporary women, particularly in regard to romance. One story begins, "Understand that your cat is a whore and can't help you." Another, called "How to Be an Other Woman," starts, "Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night," then continues, "After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums, you sleep with him. It seems the right number of cultural events."
By this time, Moore had been hired at the University of Wisconsin, but Madison often proved too lonely for her, and, whenever she could, she returned to Manhattan. "It was all very difficult," she says. "I lived in Little Italy for the summer, then found an apartment in Hell's Kitchen. I kept moving back to New York to worse neighborhoods and paying more rent." Not incidentally, the predicaments of East Coast sophisticates landlocked in the Midwest became a motif in Moore's next two books.
Anagrams, her first novel, published in 1986, features Benna Carpenter and Gerard Maines, occasional lovers who live in Fitchville, U.S.A. The novel is structurally anagrammatic, the characters' relationships and occupations changing from chapter to chapter; Benna also has a daughter and a best friend who are, the book reveals, imaginary. "It got many bad reviews," Moore says. "I actually had to stop reading them. I just couldn't take it anymore."
Her next collection in 1990,
Like Life, received raves, the eight stories showing a growing narrative authority, accompanied by her distinctive wit and mordant observations about love in the modern age. In "You're Ugly, Too," ZoŽ Hendricks is languishing in Illinois, teaching college history. It's not that different from her last job in Minnesota, where her blond students assumed, because she is a brunette, that she is from Spain. She escapes to New York to visit her sister, who pairs her with a man at a party. ZoŽ braces herself for the initial conversation: "She had to learn not to be afraid of a man, the way, in your childhood, you learned not to be afraid of an earthworm or a bug. Often, when she spoke to men at parties, she rushed things in her mind. As the man politely blathered on, she would fall in love, marry, then find herself in a bitter custody battle with him for the kids and hoping for a reconciliation, so that despite all his betrayals she might no longer despise him, and in the few minutes remaining, learn,
perhaps, what his last name was, and what he did for a living, though probably there was already too much history between them."
"You're Ugly, Too" was the first of many of her stories to be published in
The New Yorker (and then to be reprinted, with regularity, in annuals such as
The O. Henry Awards and
The Best American Short Stories), but, in 1989, it was a controversial piece for the magazine. "All through the editing process, they said, 'Oooh, we're breaking so many rules with this.' " Robert Gottlieb had taken over as the editor, but the turgidity of his predecessor, William Shawn, still gripped the institution. "I could not say 'yellow light,' I had to say 'amber light,' " Moore remembers. "And that was the least of the vulgarities I'd committed."
In her next book, the short novel
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, which came out in 1994, Moore took a different tack and focused on adolescence. Lauded as her richest work, the novel has Berie Carr, a thirty-seven-year-old photography curator, in a childless, failing marriage. During the three weeks that she is in Paris with her husband, who is attending a medical research conference, Berie replays the summer of 1972, when she was fifteen. She worked as a cashier at an Adirondacks amusement park called Storyland, where her beautiful best friend, Silsby Chaussťe, was costumed as Cinderella.
Moore took the title for the book from a Nancy Mladenoff painting, which depicts two girls worriedly standing over a pair of bandaged frogs -- injured from too many kisses. The novel evokes the fairy-tale purity of Berie and Sils's love for each other, as well as their hopes for the future, beyond this fallow period when they have "no narrative": "it was liquid, like a song . . . It was just a space with some people in it." Yet, heartbreakingly, the novel is just as much about the end of possibility, the realization that the narrative -- all that waiting -- has arced prematurely into disillusionment: "By then my parents had moved from Horsehearts to the east coast of Florida with my grandmother, who, when I visited, stared at me with the staggering, arrogant stare of the dying, the wise vapidity of the already gone; she refused to occupy the features of her face. The living didn't interest her; she grew bored when anyone spoke. In her yawn I could see the black-and-white dice of her filled teeth, the quiet snap
of her spit, all gathered in a painting of departure. It is unacceptable, all the stunned and anxious missing a person is asked to endure in life. It is not to be endured, not really."
Birds of America, Moore's new book -- her fifth from Knopf with the same editor, Victoria Wilson -- is her longest yet. "Almost three hundred pages," she marvels. "Unbelievable. You could keep a small door open with this." Of late, Moore has become more interested in the novelistic terrains of place and time and memory. She also notes the inclusion of children in her most recent work. She realized after the fact that nearly all twelve of the stories in
Birds of America have a jeopardized child in them -- most of them written well before she herself became a mother.
Moore is taking the next year off from teaching to work on a new novel. "It's on my own nickel, so we'll see if we end up in a shelter," she says. "Having a child, you can start to feel money pressure, and if you get a bad review, you might think, How's my kid going to go to college?" The new novel will be a marked departure for her. "It's actually about hate. It's hard to get in the same room with it. It may not be a book that is possible for me to write."
Lorrie Moore claims her literary ambitions have become more prosaic than ever. "I used to stay up all night and write and read, and I was quite obsessive. But now it's a much more modest endeavor. When your life gets crazy and complicated, your hopes turn into 'I hope I get enough sleep so that I can get some writing done this year.' "