Rick Moody is the author of the novels Purple America, The Ice Storm and Garden State, and the short story / novella collection The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven. He is the co-editor (with Darcey Steinke) of Joyful Noise, a collection of essays on the New Testament. He is currently working on a “non-fiction novel” called The Black Veil. The following interview was conducted via e-mail over the course of a couple weeks in May and June 1998.
Ryan Boudinot: What have you been working on lately?
Rick Moody: I’ve been on tour for three weeks, so I haven’t been working on anything, although I did have time to write a review of Richard Powers’ excellent new novel, Gain.
RB: So are you done with the 1998 O. HENRY AWARDS anthology? Have you noticed any overarching themes in the stories you’ve had to read for this project?
RM: Yes, it’s done, but I only had to read 20 stories. Another guy does all the raw sortage for it. The 20 I read I had to read blind (without author’s name attached) and interesting things happened as a result. I voted, in second place, for a story by a writer I never would have voted for, someone whose work I usually dislike. That was illuminating and fun. The Pushcart Prize, for which I have read a couple thousand stories in the last three years, gave me a sabbatical this year. I read thirty or forty stories for them and didn’t see anything I liked particularly well.
RB: Often it’s hard to approach certain writers’ work without preconceptions about where they’re coming from aesthetically or thematically. Cheever was typecast as the guy who wrote about the suburbs, Carver’s been called a minimalist, etc. Have you felt yourself become similarly pigeon-holed? If so, does this push you in any direction you wouldn’t normally go in order to defy categorization, or is it merely a pain in the ass you have to deal with?
RM: I have worked really hard to defy categorization, to break down a taxonomy whenever it comes my way. I hope it has worked to some degree. After The Ice Storm, I wrote Ring of Brightest Angels to defeat the “suburban writer” tag, and then made Purple America demanding enough that it wouldn’t fit comfortably in any preconception. I hope The Black Veil will further defy expectations. Also, Joyful Noise has done a lot to frustrate ideas about me: last week in Philadelphia a friend of mine was talking to editors of the local weekly paper there, and they asked her if I were really a born-again Christian.
RB: While I wouldn’t call you born-again, I do notice a certain thread of spiritual yearning running through your work. With The Black Veil, I’ve heard you’ve taken on a character-one of your ancestors-who was a clergyman and inspiration to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil.” Is this new novel in any way a continued exploration of themes, spiritual or otherwise, that interest you?
RM: The new book is not a novel, but a sort of non-fiction novel, in the Mailer-esque sense, with myself commenting liberally throughout. To be interested in the spiritual, and to be interested in critiquing the institutional power of the church, these are the furthest possible endeavors from being “born again” and even mentioning them in the same breath makes clear why Joyful Noise was a worthy idea. I am interested in discussions of the spiritual because this register of consciousness is a part of American life, and was, of course, really important for the foundation of our nation (we are a nation of religious Protestants, initially) and thus any writer who’s interested in this culture might take up similar issues. The Black Veil, the new project, takes up these questions of faith, sure, but it takes up a lot of other stuff as well.
RB: I was just reading an article this afternoon about Islamic fundamentalism’s dominance of Egyptian politics and how this has put Arab writers in physical, as well as intellectual, danger. I imagine the Islamic equivalent of Joyful Noise would guarantee the death sentence for all the writers involved. Has it become impossible to be blasphemous as an American writer? Is being mislabeled a Bible-thumper the worst fate imaginable for the American writer engaged in spiritual issues?
RM: No, I’m sure it’s still possible to blaspheme. I have felt the ominous possibility just off to the side on occasion. I had a born-again guy heckle me at a reading once. He then walked out and made a commotion doing so. It was a stunning moment for me, and I will never forget it. Still, it’s pretty hard to blaspheme among liberals, because death sentences are not politically correct (rightly so, to pile on a pun), but it can be done. In a way, I think Joyful Noise is just that, an example of liberal blasphemy, though of a mild sort, and that the response, labeling me born-again, is the sentence that would appropriately be handed down among liberals (among whom, I count myself, it should go without saying). American Psycho is blasphemy; Naked Lunch is still blasphemy (try rereading it, if you haven’t lately), etc. The Marquis de Sade still looks pretty good as blasphemy. I suppose I should say that I treasure blasphemy, as a faith of the highest order. Blasphemy hates piousness as deeply as piety loves God. And I like all sorts of strong feelings.
RB: I haven’t read Naked Lunch since my sophomore year of college. All I really remember is coprophagy, homo rape and neck-breaking and the overwhelming urge to take a shower once I finished it. I might argue, though, that Burroughs ceased to be blasphemous the moment he started hawking tennis shoes for Nike.
RM: To discount Burroughs for the Nike ad is precisely the kind of Thomas Frank-esque reasoning that I discount. Naked Lunch as a book no longer requires Burroughs for its assembly, and, in fact, Burroughs is irrelevant to the process at this date. It is a thing unto itself (a sequence of words) because you, Ryan, or me, or anyone else, brings our own interpretive skill to it. There is no right or wrong reading of Naked Lunch, though some readings are more common, and thus Burroughs’ commercial is not the issue. More important, perhaps, is whether or not you, Ryan, have done a commercial at the time you read the book.
RB: I know, I know. It’s the bullshit Bob-Dylan-sold-out-because-he-went-Christian argument. Naked Lunch doesn’t lose any of its authenticity retroactively, sure. I do think it’s ironic that Burroughs appeared in the Nike commercial, but that doesn’t make me discount his work so much as it performs a sort of mind-fuck on me. What I find disagreeable more than the Beat Generation being used as a ready-made system of icons readily appropriated by corporate America is when the whole aura of the Beats distracts from the power of particular works those guys produced. It was hard for me to read “Howl” for a long time without feeling-as you put it-like I was part of a commercial. In other words, the Beats as shorthand for coolness doesn’t interest me as much as what’s going on in their books, but it seems our culture has largely commodified the hep exterior without taking into account much of the spiritual vitality and hunger in their work. I read something in Time magazine awhile ago that summed all this up perfectly (I’ll paraphrase here): “It’s still impossible to understand Naked Lunch, but it’s still cool to be seen reading it.”
RM: You’re exactly right to say that the Beats emphasized personality over production. They allowed this to happen, and you can understand why, but it’s a shame, because the work is very important. Or some of it is anyway. And there was a revolution in style implicit in the early Beat work, and we still have not completely recovered from it. But Ginsberg and Burroughs both made a decision to make personality essential to their production later, with grim results.
RB: When Don DeLillo went on his speaking tour for Underworld, there was a lot of grumbling about him becoming a pitchman for his own novel, especially in light of the fact that so much of his work deals with the overabundance of commercial information. I got to see him speak here in Seattle and I must say it was the best reading I have ever been to. Have we gotten to a point where the commodification of personality has become so overbearing that it’s impossible for us to separate self-promotion from expression?
RM: I think about Don’s tour that he made a decision to play with the team on Underworld, never having much read or toured, that he has done far less of that than most people (less than I have, e.g.), and that his position is pretty clear. He doesn’t like doing it. Doing a little touring, however, avoids the backhanded, inadvertent commodification of Salinger/ Pynchon, and so there’s an argument for it there, too. Even Richard Powers is touring this year. I don’t think most reading tours are about “pitching” a book. I think they are about getting in touch with one’s readership, with the actual people who turn the pages. This is exciting and makes the business of writing less alienated. And touring therefore gets you around the publisher, for a change, into direct address with the book buyer. I think the real paradox here is that neither argument (1) that the writer is wholly commodified by a relation to the book distributor and (2) that commerce is free of meaning and merely distributes the product with judgement is capable of completely totalizing. The truth is somewhere between these two poles, and everyone, every writer, oscillates back and forth between these two arguments. You find yourself a comfortable spot in the middle. [David Foster] Wallace saying he will never appear on television in his promotion tour; Elizabeth Wurtzel appearing naked on the cover of her book jacket.
RB: Seems to me that being able to read to an audience is one of the more pure modes of literature, going back to the origins of storytelling. Awhile ago I was able to see Haruki Murakami read from his book The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. He performed half his reading in Japanese, then read the same passage in English. In each instance he electrified the room. Has your work been translated into other languages? I imagine something like The Ice Storm would be pretty popular in Japan. You have said you want to be an American, as opposed to a regional writer. Any thoughts on being a global writer?
RM: The Ice Storm, because of the movie, has had, or is to have, a vigorous life in other cultures. UK, Germany, France, Italy, Portugal, Brazil, Poland, Taiwan, Japan, Israel, Holland. It’s mostly lost on me what the nature of its effects are in these distant lands, because I don’t travel there (with the exception of the UK) and am not in touch with native speakers in most cases. It’s also true, however, that having conquered the regional writer ghetto, I am now intent on conquering the nationalist writer ghetto and moving out into the world more. I think I will always have an American flavor (how could I not), but I think as I go on, that the community of literature is precious and has no international boundaries, it’s one of those cultural productions that is lucky in this way (I once met a guy from Argentina who had followed intently the course of my comic strip in Details magazine) and so I could easily see moving further in this direction. Were I to give away any morsel of information about the novel that follows The Black Veil, this is the one it would be: it will be more global.
RB: You’ve got some roots planted in the comic book medium, with your strip and the Fantastic Four motif in The Ice Storm. Are you still a comic book fan?
RM: I love comic books and always did as a kid. I always wanted to write something illustrated, and the Details strip finally gave me the opportunity. My grandfather was a newspaper publisher and his paper had all the comics in NYC, so some of my earliest memories are of reading the family paper and heading straight for the comics insert. When I was writing The Ice Storm I went through a whole resurgence of comic book reading (I always have an obsession or two when I’m working on a book), and first it involved Marvel Comics, Fantastic Four, but also X-Men, which was really big then, but then I became involved with underground comics, especially Dirty Plotte by Julie Doucet, Peep Show by Joe Matt (I think that’s his name), and Stickboy. I read these for a long while, until, some years later, I was reading about physics for Purple America. Then I was done with comics. I’m sort of out of touch with the whole thing right now.
RB: What kind of research has The Black Veil involved and how did you become interested in this project?
RM: I have wanted to work with the imagery of The Black Veil for more than ten years. I proposed it to Grand Street (in essay form), after I finished my first ever piece of published non-fiction (about Stanley Elkin), for that magazine in 1988, I think. So the idea has been kicking around for a long time. Hopefully, I can be done with it now and move on to more fiction next. The sort of research it requires is massive and never-ending. I am in Boston right now, in fact, to do work at the New England Historical Genealogical Library, where I’m trying to finish up tracing my lineage back to the seventeenth century.
RB: Your characters seem to have pretty unfulfilling sex lives. Is this in response to how sexuality has been depicted in literature in the past?
RM: What would a fulfilling sex life mean? I actually think that they have excellent sex lives, in that it’s not a man-on-top-comes-in-fifteen-minutes sort of thing. If you mean they are sometimes unhappy during sex, I hope that this is simply realistic, and that the bias toward bodice-ripping, even in contemporary fiction, toward the earth-shaking, rockets-in-flight heterosexist orgasm is horse shit and needs to be dispensed with as rapidly as possible. Impotence, fetishism, bisexuality, and bondage are all facts of life, and our fiction should reflect that.