When I first met my fiance (we were working at the same book publisher – ah!) before we started dating we used to swap books. Once when I expressed my love for the short story, he recommended that I read some Lorrie Moore, professing that she was one of his favourite writers (he is staunchly pro-American literature) and promptly delivered The Collected Stories to my desk. He’d removed the colourful dust jacket so all I was faced with was a dull grey case, complete with a coffee stain and a book far too heavy and large to fit in my handbag. So I’m ashamed to say it languished in my desk drawer, buried by magazines and tupperware until I returned it, unread. I can’t quite explain why it didn’t hold my attention; I attempted some of the stories, including his top recommendation, Agnes of Iowa, but I wasn’t drawn in. He told me that she wrote really well on everyday life, about the every man, the minutiae of living – a quality I adored in Virginia Woolf. But perhaps it was something to do with the fact that life for me, at the time, was not so great – I saw reading as an escape from my monotonous office job, my minimum-wage salary and my less-than-perfect living situation. I craved books that transported me – that took me on journeys to exotic lands and featured stories and characters that were aspirational and inspirational. I didn’t want to read about failing marriages, sick children, fractious families; miserable lives played out in some American backwater.
Anyway, 3 years into our relationship I was still getting grief for having overlooked Lorrie Moore so I decided to put it right. I booked us tickets to see her at The Southbank Centre (a rare appearance) hoping that hearing the woman herself would offer a way in. She had just released BARK, her first collection of stories in fifteen years. She chose to read Thank You For Having Me – a story taken from BARK about coming to terms with age, accepting people for who they are, forgiveness and letting go. She read the story in her beautiful languid Amercian drawl (a voice I could listen to for hours), stressing certain sentences, pausing for effect (and laughter) and really giving shape and meaning to a story which could have been quite flat on the page. She then moved to discussing the collection with Erica Wagner former Literary Editor at The Times), her body of work as a whole and her role as a Creative Writing Tutor in Nashville (formerly Wisconsin).
She came across very well – she is incredibly funny and wry, verging on the cynical, but also very modest and entirely without pretention. I warmed to her instantly, as did the rest of the audience from the amount of laughs and knowing smiles she elicited. She spoke at length about the craft of short story writing; saying that it has a definite structure, a common format and is therefore much easier to write than a novel which ‘can be anything.’ However she did say that the format shines the spotlight brightly on language:
“When you’re writing a short story it’s akin to poetry; you have to be careful with every line”
And her own aim with every story;
“You want to capture something, somehow, that it’s important to say”
She spoke fondly of her current creative writing intake, saying that her students are not angry enough – they all had comfortable upbringings, they are financially sound, they get on well with their parents, which led her to say
“Can there be literature with all this good mental health?”
“It’s your job as a writer to do some socially unacceptable things.”
As you can tell, she is as ready with the great one-liners as any character in her stories. During the Q&A at the end, she offered some nuggets of wisdom to those looking to pursue a career as a writer. She spoke of the importance of not putting pressure on your writing; she suggested that you should ‘give it room’ and
“be kind to your writing, and let some other thing pay the bills for a while…”
She also had some welcome advice for the readers in the audience, including the gentleman who asked about ‘classics’:
“Read what you want to read, not what you think you should read.”
Sage and very welcome advice. I will think of it when I am undertaking my ‘once-a-year-Russian-novel’ exercise in self discipline (why oh why!)
I came away feeling fired up and ready to tackle the stories that had defeated me. I started with BIRDS OF AMERICA which I was reliably told was the best collection – I set myself the task of reading 1 story per night, just before bed. I think these stories should be read individually, savoured, given time to breathe and turn over in your head for a while, allowing the characters to develop a little more, perhaps allowing them to form a new narrative in your mind. Lorrie Moore’s strength lies in her ability to sum up an entire person, a life, an atmosphere or a place in a few short sentences; a skill that few living writers possess. James Salter is an absolute master of it, as was Virginia Woolf. Her characters are also very subversive – but only in their thoughts. Often, their outward behaviour is fairly conservative and seemingly ‘normal’ but we learn through their internal monologue that this is contrived – what they are really thinking is too outrageous or unacceptable to mention.
The standout story for me was People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk which follows a mother as she struggles to come to terms with fact that her baby has cancer and is set predominantly in the pediatric oncology unit of a hospital. Not the most cheering of stories – it’s actually terrifying and will definitely stick in my mind for some time. However, its genius lies in the internal monologue of the mother and her seemingly trivial concerns which arise out of the absolute horror she is faced with. As a stylish New Yorker, she finds herself worrying if she will have to start wearing sweatpants like all the other mothers passing through ‘peed onk’
The Mother does not know how to be one of these other mothers, with their blond hair and sweatpants and sneakers and determined pleasantness. She does not think that she can be anything similar. She does not feel remotely like them. She knows, for instance, too many people in Greenwich Village. She mail-orders oysters and tiramisu from a shop in SoHo. She is close friends with four actual homosexuals.
Where do these women get their sweatpants? She will find out.
She will start, perhaps, with the costume and work from there.
In her desperation, she is seeking anything that will help her to understand what is happening, to assimilate herself to those parents also living through the nightmare of serious childhood illness.
Other favourites include WILLING (the opener), about an ageing actress seeking a meaningful relationship, and AGNES OF IOWA, the story of young woman who sets out to establish a glamorous and cultural New York life but winds up living in Iowa, teaching a night-class in literature, bored senseless by her uneventful, child-free marriage. This story features my all-time favourite Lorrie Moore line (or 3 lines, to be precise) which simply and perfectly sum up Agnes’ twenties, and the twenties of many a city dweller (myself included!)
That had been Agnes’s mishmash decade, after college. She had lived improvisationally then, getting this job or that, in restaurants or offices, taking a class or two, not thinking too far ahead, negotiating the precariousness and subway flus and scrimping for an occasional manicure or a play. Such a life required much exaggerated self-esteem. It engaged gross quantities of hope and despair and set them wildly side by side, like a Third World country of the heart.
Just go back and read that again. It’s so simply put, so obvious somehow, but captures and distills the essence of an entire decade.
After this, I moved onto BARK, her most recent offering which consists of 8 short stories, several of which have already been featured in The Collected Stories (a lot of readers felt this was a bit of cash-in, particularly as the book is a hardback retailing at £20). As Lorrie Moore has got older, so have her characters. Whereas Birds of America dealt with people in their 30s and 40s, establishing careers and having (or not having) families, this collection deals with fifty-something divorcees returning to the dating scene, coping with illness and attending weddings with their teenage daughters. In this there are two stand out stories – DEBARKING and THANK YOU FOR HAVING ME. The remainder of the collection left me a little cold – this book certainly doesn’t feature as many big hitters as Birds of America.
So to close, I am glad I gave Lorrie Moore a second chance – now I am older, and perhaps wiser, the stories have more bearing on my life and they have definitely been illuminated by seeing her read and knowing what she is like. Now when I read the stories I can almost hear her voice saying some of the words. However I do find the stories very hit and miss, some I adore and will no doubt return to, but others I found real struggle (even at only 5 pages!) and instantly forgettable. In the spirit of persistence though, I am keen to try out one of the novels so watch this space.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations on Lorrie Moore – please leave me a comment below 🙂