portrait Rick Moody

interviewed by Camille Renshaw

Published in Issue No. 50 ~ July, 2001

Rick Moody was declared by The New Yorker to be one of the
most talented American writers under forty at the turn of the
century. His first novel, Garden State (1992), won the
Pushcart Press Editor’s Choice
Award. Two years later, he published The Ice Storm, which
became an award-winning film directed by Ang Lee. His other work
includes: The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven (1995),
Purple America (1997), Joyful Noise (co-edited with
Darcey Steinke, 1999), and Demonology (2001). The Black
, a “non-fiction novel,” is due out next year. Our
interview was conducted via email during April 2001.

Camille Renshaw: Last year in an
, Courtney Love suggested that new technologies, like
Napster and Gnutella, are a major boon for artists, that they can
“serve the artist and serve the public.” How does technology – new
audio and video mediums, dotcom magazines, the ability to reach
millions internationally instead of a focused thousand – affect your
ideas of what it means to be connected to an audience?

Rick Moody: Just the way the question is phrased makes clear
that most of the innovation is not on the literary front. It’s
obvious that file-sharing software, Napster, Gnutella, are more
focused on populist media right now. The reason they are so popular is
that they arise from a really keen philosophical predicament. Internet
users are experiencing something like a collective consciousness, in
the course of being on the Net, and file-sharing is just a natural
outgrowth of that experience. Copyright seems like an infringement on
a group experience: “Hey, are you digging the new _____ song as much
as I am?” Etc. The inside of your skull becomes a living room into
which you invite your friends, and an intervention on the collectivity
of that consciousness seems like an affront.

But something different happens when you read a book. Reading, by its
nature, is a retreat from collectivity. It’s an intimate act,
conjoining a single writer and reader. This is why writing on the Net,
at any great length, seems a little tiresome, whereas the book, that
old-fashioned data storage technology, can still be VERY LONG and
enticing at the same time. What I’m saying is that I don’t
see new media as necessary or useful by its nature. I see it as useful
according to philosophical needs. The lie of the bull market was that
every technological innovation was necessary. Or that any creative act
that used a digital technology was innovative by its nature.

Meanwhile, I don’t think about the audience aspect of new media
at all. I try to avoid thinking about audience. People can read my
stuff or not read it as suits them. I hope the work is its own
attraction, but I do no pre-formatting in terms of audience. Those may
come who wish to come to the books.

CR: What does “no pre-formatting” mean?

RM: Means pretty much what it looks like it means. I
don’t ask who the reader is, I don’t ask what he or she
wants. I don’t ask whether she is Chilean or he is
wheelchair-bound. I don’t ask whether the reader’s dream
gets broken if I use footnotes, although I might ask whether I can use
them differently from David Wallace. But that’s an aesthetic
question, not focus group sort of a question. I like Don
DeLillo’s answer to this line of inquiry: “I don’t have an
ideal reader, I have a set of standards.” I want to do better at what
I do, for my own satisfaction and self-respect. I’m conscious of
not wanting to completely eliminate the reader from the equation, in
the way that some abstract “experimental” fiction seems to do, but by
the same token, I just don’t worry about them most of the time.
Out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. And they are never in
sight, unless I’m doing a reading someplace.

CR: Blake (who revived the illuminated manuscript in the 1700s)
believed that “the Satanic Mills” of the industrial revolution had
denigrated art into a mass commodity. The jarring experience of modern
readers as they read more on screens and less on paper is similar to
the transition made in the 1400s from reading illuminated texts –
quite personal and revealing – to generic printing press texts.
What’s been your experience reading electronically?

RM: I like your metaphor. My experience of reading
electronically has been confined to Web-related reading, excepting a
few CD-ROM artifacts. As I said before, I find the experience really
trying and not satisfying, but I don’t think it has to do with
the “mass commodity” aspect of the Web. Books, after all, are already
mass commodities (as Walter Benjamin has pointed out, among others).
My problem has to do with LCD screens, etc., and whether they are
effective in the matter of text retrieval. My surmise is that they
are, but only in amounts up to about 500 words. After that, I get
bored immediately. Since I imagine that civilization as a whole is
terrified of the long-range stability of writing, this is not a
surprise: that the collectivity of the Web would favor ephemera and
instantaneity over deep, prolonged investigation.

CR: When reading electronically, are you conscious of any
disconnect between yourself and the manuscript/ author?

RM: I feel a little more distant from the author somehow.
That’s merely an intuitive response, however.

CR: My favorite story in Demonology reminds me a bit of
hypertext – maybe that’s why I’ve reread it so many
times. “The Drawer” uses inchworm phrasing to build and build the
story, in a manner both cyclical and seductive in its cryptic style.
Where did this story come from?

RM: Some stuff is almost impossible to qualify, and “Drawer” is
a good example. All I can say about it is that Esquire was
running stories that had to be less than 650 words, and they asked me
to do one, so I did one that was exactly 650 words, including title
(although I think I messed up the number slightly when it was in
galleys for the book). It was all about just taking a word and
performing a sort of archeology on it, which is an exercise very
central to The Black Veil, my next book. Taking words and
figuring out how we use them and what they mean when we do. This
tactic is consistent with the opening of Purple America, in
rhythm and music. But The Black Veil, which is mostly finished,
is all about the word “veil,” what it means, how it gets used, why it
turns up so frequently in English language prose. Like a lot of
writers, I’m fascinated by trying to take words and restore them
to their initial glory as really beautiful names of things. “Veil” is
particularly good since it’s about disclosing and concealing at
the same time. I did the same thing with an essay on “cool” a couple
of years back. Really dug in under the surface to see what was behind
this overused word of youth culture.

I don’t see how this is like hypertext, especially since I was
just reading one of the classics of the form, Patchwork Girl,
by Shelley Jackson. I don’t see any resemblance at all. Although
I find the idea of hypertext very fascinating, and although I really
love Shelley’s work, I still don’t find the actual thing
that compelling.

CR: Is this your first hypertext? What was your experience with
this very different approach to authorial control?

RM: This was the first CD-ROM hypertext novel I’ve read.
Shelley Jackson also has a very interesting piece on the Web, and I
have read other Web-based hypertexts, although some of them were
multi-media. I frankly think the medium favors multi-media. But my
argument has always been that for fiction, hypertext is redundant,
because fiction is already reader-controlled. That’s what
interpretation is. So, while it appears to be a different kind of
authorial control (a more vast, attenuated kind of control), it ends
up, in my view, being the symbolic made actual, and not in a terribly
interesting kind of way. Maybe it will improve in the future, as
people work more with it. But I doubt it. There’s something
about old-fashioned storytelling that makes it simple, flexible, and
attractive, in whichever medium. Hypertext clutters up this narrative
impulse needlessly.

CR: Do you think the heightened influence of technology on our
lives is shaping literature in any significant way?

RM: I can give some concrete examples in my own case. My
tendency to italicize, which is considered one of my very individual
tropes, derives from the moment I first got a word processor. I was
always drawn to italics, but it was a lot harder to do on typewriters.
It required extra movements (holding down the shift key while you
typed, etc.) on the Selectric II, which was my pre-word-processor
tool. So I suppose you could say that the flexibility of MS-Word is
responsible for that, ditto that story of mine “Primary Sources,” the
annotated bibliography. It was made much easier to manage with the
advent of word processing software. I had a discussion with friends
about the cut-and-paste functions in MS-Word, with others arguing that
it makes changes too easy. But I think you just have to build in
reflective time between drafts to account for this. Probably the human
and the technological have been married since writing was first carved
into rock. The first impulse is human, and will always be, but there
are tools that are required, and they are reflected in the work.