Liz Moore

Liz Moore is from Framingham, Massachusetts, attended Barnard College, received her MFA from Hunter College in 2009 (where we met), and now lives in Philadelphia where she is a professor at Holy Family University. Her first novel The Words of Every Song was published by Broadway in 2009. Heft was recently released by W.W. Norton and has been acclaimed by O Magazine, People, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and The New Yorker.

An afternoon of tea and cookies with Ms. Moore is a gift, not only because she is the best kind of friend, and sitting across from her is a joy that comes along far too infrequently, but because she’s the sort of writer who experiences no struggle in talking about writing. Her opinions are as prudent and well-maintained as an English garden. Liz is sensible, which seems to be an underrated virtue in writers, but is precisely what makes listening to her talk so affecting. Recently, I saw her in conversation with Mary Gordon and was struck once again by the notion that she’s the least flippant writer I’ve ever met. She was a favorite in workshop: steady, articulate, kind. This groundedness is equally evident in her writing, which seems in moments to hark from a different time—not in terms of content, but style. There’s a certain stateliness to her work, or grace perhaps, a restraint that feels somehow anachronistic, a far cry from the frantic bustle of blogs and Twitter. But do follow her on Twitter @LizMooreBooks nonetheless. She’s a joy there, as well. —Jessica Soffer


 

INTERVIEWER

You’re a musician, as well as a writer. In your first book, The Words of Every Song, music was at the forefront. But there are more subtle ways, of course, for music to feature into a text. What role does music play in your writing, in Heft?

 

LIZ MOORE

You’re a gentleman, as well as a scholar. I miss music. My guitar is sitting in my basement. I have nightmares sometimes that it has cracked in five places because it’s dry down there due to the furnace, but I’m too scared to check on it.

Maybe one day I’ll go back to music and get up a lot of courage and energy and play shows again. For the time being, I am content to be a writer and teacher—but yes, my history of playing music has infected my approach to both.

Writing-wise: I suppose every writer does this to a certain extent, but I am obsessed with the rhythm of my sentences—especially the rhythm of their endings. Sometimes I’ll get the cadence of a sentence in my ear before the words have come; when this happens, I find myself actively searching for words with the required number of syllables and the required stress pattern. For example, the opening sentence of Heft is “The first thing you must know about me is that I am colossally fat.” I like this sentence because of the number of short dull monotonous words at its start, none of which is stressed, followed by the long word “colossally,” followed by the thud of “FAT.” It could not be “The first thing you must know about me is that I am very fat,” nor could it be “The first thing you must know about me is that I am colossally obese.”

Teaching-wise: at times I feel like I’m performing, as I did when I played music. Standing in front of a group of people and trying to get them to pay attention and trying to convey something that’s important to you…there’s a similarity, there. Maybe my years of honing my stage banter have helped me in some way. Maybe not.

 

INTERVIEWER

Is that how your characters evolve from you, take on a life of their own—through the music of their voices?

 

LIZ MOORE

I suppose in a way it is. I began by trying to write Heft in the third person, alternating close-third-person voices between lots of different characters: Arthur, Kel, Charlene, and Yolanda. I pretty quickly felt that it wasn’t working, but I persevered, until one day I found I had nearly a complete draft, that still wasn’t working. And then I cried.

However, not too long thereafter, I found Arthur’s voice (and jotted down that first sentence) and began to frantically re-write his entire story with him doing the telling. It was only then that I felt things were working, and the same thing happened with Kel a bit later. So yes, it took finding their voices to feel that the thing would work. And now I wonder if I can ever go back to third person (as in The Words of Every Song). I love lots of books written in the third person, but it feels so unnatural to me now.

 

INTERVIEWER

Tell me a bit more about the crying, not because I like when you’re sad but because you’re such a fighter, and crying, or even a whimper, is such a last resort for you. Tell me about the jaw-clenching, hives-inducing, cuticle-ravaging, maddening parts of writing for you, if they exist to such extents, and how you move past them towards the more pastel parts.

 

LIZ MOORE

I am absolutely delighted to be called a fighter because I don’t think of myself as a fighter and yet I yearn to be one. I think of myself as a complainer. You have made my day.

I love this question because so much of writing is frustration, for me—maybe for everyone, I don’t know. The feeling of fraudulence or falsehood. The alternating feelings that you are not trying hard enough and that you are trying too hard (to be someone else or write like someone else, usually). The feeling that you are writing something that’s already been written. The feeling that you are writing something that will never be read. The feeling that you are not intelligent enough, not erudite enough, not intellectual enough, not well-read, not bright, not funny enough. The feeling that you don’t have enough of a vocabulary, that there are perfect words outside your grasp. Or that you are lazy. Perhaps the biggest thing of all. That everyone else is reading much more than you and writing much more than you. That if you had only read so-and-so when you were growing up, you’d be better. And finally that you have lost sight of what’s important: you have lost whatever impulse drove you to write in the first place, you are too consumed by what others think of you, you are vain in this way….and then the cycle begins again.

There, that felt good.

 

INTERVIEWER

I think self-doubt is crucial to good writing. I wonder about doubt though, in terms of your characters in Heft—particularly in terms of the parents who could use with some self-scrutiny.

 

LIZ MOORE

You know, I think there must be something incredibly gratifying about writing a truly evil character, a Dickens-style character whose role is just to be Bad. I have fantasies of one day naming a character Mrs. Evilbatch or Dr. Mustardface and just letting them wreak absolute havoc on the rest of the characters in a book of mine.

But so far I haven’t been able to see any of the characters I’ve ever written as “bad guys.” Yes, there are lots of bad parents in Heft. But I see every one of them as struggling in some way, and when somebody is struggling I can’t think of him as bad, in writing or in life. Never being able to fully write people off causes personal problems for me from time to time, as you can imagine. But I think in my fiction it allows me to completely inhabit even the characters whose primary function is to do wrong. (It has just occurred to me that Arthur’s father might be the solitary exception to this rule. What a schmuck, right?)

 

INTERVIEWER

Where’s the line for you between writing and life? I’m sure it’s a sketchy one, and vagrant. But you have a full-time, demanding job that involves lots of earnest attention, a dress code, and administrative meetings. Is writing a neat and tidy process for you by choice or innately or neither?

 

LIZ MOORE

I very much admire writers who schedule their writing time strictly and don’t deviate from it or allow for distractions—like Norman Mailer or Philip Roth or Mary Gordon or Anne Lamott. I preach this method to my students and I still have every intention to be this kind of writer, someday. But so far I’m not. Excuses for this would sound like, “I just bought a house and am busy with house stuff! My teaching-related workload varies wildly from week to week! I have a new book out and therefore am busy with getting people to buy it! I’m in the beginning, exploratory stages of my next writing project, so I’m still feeling it out!” But really all of these excuses are faulty. For the past month I’ve been doing actual writing for maybe 3-5 hours a week, and that’s just not enough—I feel slightly off-kilter when I don’t write more than that. It’s like not exercising. I feel sluggish and guilty. So once again, I’ll say that one of my most ardent wishes is to have more self-discipline when it comes to writing, and continue to work toward that as a goal.

 

INTERVIEWER

Heft is very much a book about loneliness. And you explore two distinct kinds so beautifully: the isolated, enduring kind (Arthur and Charlene) and the kind that implies yearning, desperation for something specific (Kel, Yolanda regarding her parents). Was Heft a particular homage to loneliness or is loneliness a theme that sprouts up again and again in your work?

 

LIZ MOORE

That’s nicely phrased. Yes, in some ways Heft is an homage to loneliness. I am interested in people who live in the shadows of society, who have sort of “checked out.” I think of Arthur as a hermit in almost a holy sense. Someone who is a student of his own loneliness, who has made an executive decision to be lonely. I have a collection of memories of people I’ve encountered in my life who I think must be really lonely, and lacking a way to fix it. I can’t forget them (nor do I want to). I was raised Episcopalian and as a child I went to church regularly and was always fascinated by the prayers specifically pertaining to loneliness in the Book of Common Prayer. I’ve always wanted to write about a character who is deeply isolated, who has gone to a place that I’m afraid of. With Kel, I was interested in the idea that it must also be very lonely to be granted a number of somewhat superficial gifts (beauty, athleticism, popularity) without being given a support system, or a good way to use them, or anyone to point out that you are worthy in other ways.

I have a (perhaps not-so-unique) theory that most of our writerly obsessions come out of our early childhoods, and my early childhood was spent trying to deconstruct the social codes that the other kids around me seemed to effortlessly understand. Rather than just being “myself,” whatever that was, I tried to make rules for myself to follow in order to gain acceptance and popularity. I dreaded recess or lunch or any unmonitored free time where I wasn’t being told what to do and how to act. I just didn’t get it, and I think the kids around me could sense that. I spent a lot of time being alone, not by choice. Therefore, as you might imagine, I relate much more to Arthur than Kel. But I wrote Kel in part because I wanted to try to empathize with, or come to terms with, the kids who seemed to me to have it all, or have it easy. As I have gotten older I’ve realized that the problems burdening some of these kids may have been, in many ways, more serious than my own.

 

INTERVIEWER

I have a feeling that books were an important part of your childhood? And journal-writing. When did that begin?

 

LIZ MOORE

Yes, books were an enormous part of my childhood, even much more so than they are now. I still remember the incredible luxury of leaving the library with a stack of them, and feeling very rich. It was delicious to feel like you wanted to read them all right away and you could barely decide which to read first. I read a lot of the standards for kids of my generation—Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, the Babysitters Club series (to my mother’s chagrin—but I loved them)—and also some classics like The Wind in the Willows, the Lord of the Rings series, and some Dickens. And Jane Eyre when I was in fifth grade, mainly to show off, I think. I doubt I understood it well. As for journaling: I wrote in one sporadically as a young kid (those entries are funny: “corn for dinner. Jessica is babysitting me!”), and then very dedicatedly as a teenager and through my college and post-college years. Not so much anymore. But I still have all of them, and I vacillate

between thinking, “I hope these get destroyed if I die” and “I hope someone reads these one day and GETS me.” They are incredibly embarrassing in retrospect but also incredibly honest. In some ways I feel like they’re better than anything else I’ve written, and altogether they consist of hundreds or thousands of pages, and it’s funny and sad in a way to think that no one will ever read them but me.

 

INTERVIEWER

At what point did you start thinking about such freakish terms as “themes” (which was my word, I know) in writing Heft? Or never until you were asked about them? What I’m trying to ask too is about your notion of audience. Do you imagine one while writing? And if so, to what end?

 

LIZ MOORE

Truthfully: I only began to think of the “themes” in Heft when other people asked me about them after reading the finished work. Which isn’t to say I didn’t know what Heft was “about” while I was writing it—I wrote a few long, abstract, tangential passages all about loneliness and an oversoul of loneliness and a snake eating its tail that didn’t end up making the final cut because they were too indulgent—but the use of that word, “theme,” isn’t part of the writing process for me. The characters rule the story; they have to occupy a position of primacy or else I feel like I’m writing a parable, and that’s no good because everyone can predict the ending in a parable. We’re meant to be able to; it’s part of the pleasure.

 

INTERVIEWER

And the next project: what will be the same for you as a writer, and what will be different?

 

LIZ MOORE

The same will be the difficulty, and the difference will be the type of difficulty. I think I’ll feel more assured, somehow, that if I keep at it, SOMETHING will happen—maybe not the something I expected, but something else, maybe something better. That’s the feeling I was missing when writing Heft. I thought so many times that I had to throw it out the window—it felt more like a gamble to stick with it than to give up. Now I know that the difficulty, even the extreme difficulty, is just part of the process.

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2 comments

  1. Sarah Eggers

    I love this interview! Why can’t all writers be so honest and humble about their work and how damned hard writing is!

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