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Plenty of Light and Shadow within which to Seduce the Reader: Interview with Lisa Moore
by Eva Tihanyi

Lisa Moore was born in 1964 in St. John's, Newfoundland, where she lives with her husband, stepdaughter (19), daughter (12), and son (3). She is the author of two story collections, Degrees of Nakedness (The Mercury Press, 1995) and Open (House of Anansi, 2002). She sums up her various other careers thus: "I've worked teaching, writing art criticism, a teensy bit of TV and some radio. I've done some work animating, and for a while I worked with youth who were wards of the state, helping them set up their own apartments, teaching life them life skills, as they are called."

The film maker Robert Bresson once said: "Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen." Moore does exactly this, and does it superbly.

The following interview was conducted via e-mail in August 2002.

Eva Tihanyi: What excites you most about writing?

Lisa Moore: I enjoy the wickedness involved in putting a character in absolute moral peril. Asking what's the worst mistake this character could make, and then fashioning the plot that will allow her to make it.

Sometimes I write with my fingers instead of my brain. As if my fingers are possessed. Sort of like the delay in an overseas phone call¨something has been said, but there's a beat before you hear it. So it exists, but where? Or like dTja vu¨the illusion that you're experiencing something that's already happened and you're catching up to it. My fingers have to gallop to get the sentence down before it evaporates. I love having no idea what's coming next. That's the thrill of writing. That kind of thing only lasts for a few minutes, a paragraph or two. But it fills me with adrenaline when it does.

ET: How did you find writing¨or, perhaps, how did it find you?

LM: My father used to make up stories when he put my sister and me to bed. Heart-wrenching, emotionally exhausting homemade fairy tales with joyous endings. I have a great nostalgia for the kind of absorption I felt when reading as a child. Why is that complete giving over to the alternate reality of a book so profoundly pleasurable?

I went to art school to study painting, but I was always frustrated by the fact that a painting is so un-narrative. Even the most narrative painting is just a slice of a story, one point, one frame¨so not narrative at all¨which ends up being the magic of that medium: the absolute refusal to be anything but visual. But I found myself always saying, And then?

Sometimes I read a book that speaks to me so clearly I can't shake the feeling that I wrote it myself. I actually feel satisfied, as if I'd put in a good day's work. Most of Virginia Woolf, I wrote. I wrote a few Faulkners. Harriet the Spy. I'm starting to realize all readers are writing at least half the book they are reading. Maybe when I write I am responding to that childhood experience of reading, that unequivocal, sensuous absorption. I guess I found writing through reading.

ET: How does a story start for you?

LM: Usually, there is an image or brief moment in experience that seems saturated with significance, bursting. I want to articulate some emotion: jealousy, loss, fear. And the way sunlight strikes a bottle of bakeapple jam, say, might seem undeniably related to the jealousy I feel, or the love. I don't think about structure at all when I'm beginning. I just write scenes and images that often don't seem to have anything to do with each other until the story is a complete draft. Then I recognize patterns emerging. Sometimes life boings forward, as with a pop-up storybook and everything is ultra-bright or slyly gleaming. I start there. That's about as un-vague as I can be about my haphazard process. I'm not sure how well this method will work for a novel, but I have my fingers crossed.

ET: There is a poetic quality to your work, especially in your use of startling imagery. Have you ever been tempted to write poetry?

LM: I love reading poetry. I love the abstraction and ambiguity. Poetry is the genre with the most bravado. Perhaps of all the genres, it allows the reader the most creative license. I love the way poetry demands every single watt of the reader's imaginative power. But, as with painting, poetry doesn't satisfy my craving for narrative. I can't overcome the urge to spill the beans. I often think how arbitrary a notion length is. Ultimately, it is length that separates the poem from the short story, and the short story from the novel. And yet, size doesn't matter. The only imperative, with each genre, is that every thought, sentence, word¨be unexpected. But, to answer your question, no. Though I hold as a fundamental belief that everyone can write poetry, I must sadly admit that my poetry is like my singing. Passionate, but ű

ET: I understand you're working on a novel. What do you find most different about going from the short story genre to the novel genre? Do you see your novel as an extension of your two story collections?

LM: I was seriously stymied for a while there. I thought perhaps one needs to employ a different method to write a novel. But I only have one method, so I've had to proceed with that. I'm writing the novel the same way I write stories. So in terms of form, I guess there will be similarities. Recently, I read a beautiful book by James Salter called A Sport and a Pastime. Completely elegant and ephemeral, but haunting. The moods of that book swing over me while I'm washing the dishes. These are the things I'd like my novel to be. Ephemeral, elegant, haunting.

ET: Is there pressure, do you think, on writers of short fiction to write novels?

LM: Everybody talks about the pressure to write a novel as though it exists, but truthfully, nobody has ever said to me, ŠCould you forget stories and write a novel.' I wonder if it's ever been said to anyone? I want to write a novel because I want to create characters who become more complex over time. I'm interested in how things change over time. I'm interested in the elasticity of time¨how an hour can take a hundred pages or a sentence. I want a chance to develop the moral dilemmas these characters walk into like a house of cards. Easy, easy, there. And there. Each card, until someone in a distant room opens a door and the whole thing flies into the air. I want my characters' downfalls to be completely inevitable and thoroughly unexpected. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee does that so well. Blindness by Saramago. Any character in a Flannery O'Connor¨she's absolutely ruthless. I want to be delicate and ruthless. I'm just determining what I want. I think to achieve that sort of delicacy and depth I'm going to need to try a novel.

ET: Were you born and raised in Newfoundland? What's it like being a writer in St. John's these days, especially since Newfoundland writers have been getting a lot of attention?

LM: I was born and raised in Newfoundland, as were my parents and grandparents. But I'm a post-television townie so there's a whole package of cultural riches that is associated with being a Newfoundlander that I have missed out on. I'm an ersatz Newfoundlander. I've never been on the sea in a dory. I've had fish and brewis twice in my life, never Screech. I don't know any stories about fairies carting off youngsters. Although I once heard a great story about a priest on the Southern Shore exorcizing a church bell he believed to be possessed because it would toll of its own accord in the middle of the night. The priest, in his pajamas, at three in the morning tore down to the centre of the village, ranting Latin, and flung a bucket of holy water over the bell. This story was told to me by a folklorist. Newfoundlanders are becoming hyper aware of their Newfoundlandness¨and this, of course, changes what it is to be a Newfoundlander. We are agreed, we Newfoundlanders, I think, that there's definitely something to it though. But we don't know yet how we're morphing. I think it's an exciting time here, culturally, because we are changing. It's hard to get the lay of the land. Perhaps that's why Newfoundland writing is suddenly getting lots of attention. There have always been great writers here. Attention wantonly begets attention. It might create more readers everywhere, of everything.

ET: You belong to a writers' group. How do you find this helpful?

LM: We are the Burning Rock. Named after a ball of lightning that tore through a barn on Bell Island in the fifties. We met in a creative writing class at Memorial University taught by Larry Mathews. He is such an excellent teacher/writer/critic that we decided to keep the practice up even after the class was over. Going on fifteen years, in fact. We meet almost every two weeks, we drink beer, we eat, we read something fresh off the printer. At least five hundred words. The benefit of this¨besides the joy of carousing with people you love¨is that the response is immediate and specific. If something is supposed to be funny (and is successful), you hear laughter. You can feel people grow bored¨it's palpable. And you can feel when people are excited by what they're hearing. It makes writing a less lonely endeavor.

ET: Of all the stories you've published, do you have a favourite?

LM: I like them all. But probably "Grace" because it's the longest. Size does matter. If you're about to write your first novel, it's comforting to think you've written the odd longish piece.

ET: Reviewers keep mentioning your "distinctive prose style." What makes one of your stories a "Lisa Moore story"?

LM: I'm not sure if there is a distinctive prose style, but I know what I want. I want to transport the reader. I want her to surrender her immediate surroundings for whatever I've cooked up. In order to seduce like that, I have to try and create vivid, concrete worlds with lots of light and shadow. Smells. I also like the texture of words. Every word has the potential to be onomatopoeiac. I like that two-fold thing about language, that it is form and content. A sound, muscle action in tongue and throat, visual on the page¨and what it means¨and I like playing with the difference between those two things. I like making the reader expect a long sentence and writing a short one. I love knowing that it is absolutely impossible to put an actual smell in a book without a scratch-n-sniff, and then trying to put it there anyway.

ET: Open took you seven years to write. What kinds of leaps did you make between it and your first collection, Degrees of Nakedness?

LM: I became more interested in form. With my first book, I was struggling to render emotion as accurately as I could, while creating a unity or cohesion that could be called a story. With Open I was more conscious of the tools available to me. I played with switching point of view, the second person. There are short stories and longer ones. I was conscious of trying to make each story different, formally, from the last.

ET: You've said: "Children make me vulnerable. Ó And something about that kind of vulnerability is an important part of my writing." How do you see this vulnerability as being part of your writing?

LM: There is something about being responsible for a child that can floor one. I have been floored. It's an unspeakably huge responsibility¨it makes me quake sometimes. Naturally, I try not to think about it too often. I'm not sure what that feeling has to do with writing. But they feel related to me, distant cousins, but blood for sure. I feel that something has to be risked in writing. It's bad faith to start something that you already know how to do. I like being a bit scared.

ET: One reviewer articulated what I think of as one of your central themes. He noted that your characters "want the security of marriage or a stable relationship without smothering their individuality." This continual balancing act between partnership and independence, safety and risk, is what seems to lend many of your stories their dramatic tension. Do you agree?

LM: Yes, I think so. Any kind of growth involves an equation of risk and security. Always something must be stomach swirling, unknown, open. Yet we crave security. But it's the desire that's the dynamic part¨getting what you want, not having it.

ET: Sex, as once again a number of reviewers have already noted, is an integral part of many of your stories¨and you are not at all "coy" in how you approach the subject. Do you think that sex¨especially the totally engaged variety where the entire person is "there" is one of the few places in their lives where many people experience being fully in the moment?

LM: I've started to answer this question eight times and stopped. I'm asking myself why sex is in my books. Abandon comes to mind. There is something deliciously reckless about abandon, and I want that in my books. I'll have some of that please! I'm interested in the purpose of pleasure. Is the purpose of pleasure that it's completely purposeless. I want to say that the sex in my books is a metaphor for the transformative power of trust. But I'm not sure that's true. Maybe the sex is purposeless. Totally purposeless. Maybe it's there because people eat oranges, and brush tangles out of their children's hair, and get chinch bug in their lawns and have sex. I think one can be fully in the moment while peeling a carrot, but probably more people are fully in the moment while having sex, yes.

ET: What would you say is the greatest difference between women and men? In most of your stories, their sensibilities do seem different.

LM: I think I know women better. I have one sibling, a sister. My father died when I was sixteen, and that left just my mom and us girls. I went to Catholic girls' schools and hardly spoke to boys at all until after high school, except a few cousins or only in the most awkward of situations, like a high school dance. There's a kind of friendship that forms between girls in a girls' Catholic school that is tremendously close, almost telepathic. Men are more mysterious to me.

ET: With Open, the spotlight of literary attention is shining on you full force. Are you surprised? Has the book's success affected your life in any way?

LM: I am very surprised. I'm thrilled that people seem to be enjoying the book. It makes me excited about writing the next one. ˛

* I like that two-fold thing about language, that it is form and content. A sound, muscle action in tongue and throat, visual on the page¨and what it means¨and I like playing with the difference between those two things. *


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