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Lorrie Moore | The Interview

Wry, young everywoman in 9/11 era

MOORE MOORE (Linda Nylind)
By Anna Mundow
September 6, 2009

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In Lorrie Moore’s breezy yet profound new novel, “A Gate at the Stairs,’’ the 20-year-old narrator concludes that “to ease the suffering of the listener, things had better be funny.’’ Viewed from Tassie Keltjin’s innocent yet ironic perspective, things are extremely funny - at first. Her farming family, her new student self, the couple that employs her as a nanny for the baby it seeks to adopt, all are vividly evoked in Tassie’s irresistible telling of a story that also incorporates personal tragedy and national folly. Moore’s previous books include the story collection “Birds of America’’ and the novel “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?’’ A professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, she responded via e-mail from her home in Madison, Wis.

Q: This is your first novel in over a decade. Did that fact weigh on you?

A: Maybe toward the end, when the years between books had gotten into double digits; at that point I started to realize that a lot of time had passed. I don’t think this had any bearing on the actual writing, however; although you may notice that the novel does speed up a little toward the end! But that’s just the way the narrator’s year came crashing down.

Q: Why did you choose the novel instead of the short-story form this time?

A: The collection of events and the handling of a year’s time required a longer narrative form. I did also write four short stories during this time. But they’re unrelated to the novel.

Q: Was writing those short stories a break from writing the novel?

A: Well, they were written because I had an idea for a short story. This happened with my last novel, too. One is working on a novel, but then there’s an unrelated story that comes to mind and so one ends up for brief spells with both things sitting on the desk at the same time.

Q: Here and in your previous work, your characters often seem to glance off each other, barely connecting. Do you agree?

A: I think the people who connect best, if briefly, in the book are Tassie and her brother, Tassie and her father, and Tassie and the baby, Mary-Emma. But all these are rather simple relationships. And based on a kind of automatic trust. Where the relationships are more complicated, the characters fall down a bit.

Q: Does that make those characters more interesting?

A:Well, as the author one has to be interested in ALL the characters, and I was, even when they were villainous or boring to others.

Q: Was Tassie the core of the novel from its inception?

A: Yes, she was.

Q: How did she materialize initially?

A: She was a voice and a sensibility - a kind of young everywoman, I believed, at least.

Q: Did you find it easy to sustain her voice?

A:Well, sustaining her voice, when she is the narrator, is simply writing the novel. And, of course, as with all novels there were good days and bad days. But mostly, once I got going, I felt I knew her pretty well and enjoyed spending time with her. I felt sad to leave her at the end, frankly.

Q: The nanny is a stock literary figure. Were you conscious of the pitfalls in creating such a heroine?

A:There are pitfalls? Uh-oh. Now you tell me! I think the nanny/governess is a kind of tried and true narrative device. And, of course, I wanted to allude to “Jane Eyre’’ a little bit while writing this. So I feel I was operating in a kind of tradition, rather than employing a stock character.

Q: Is the sense of place in the novel just as important as our sense of Tassie?

A: Almost. The sense of place is very important. But not more so than the protagonist herself.

Q: What did you want to convey about that corner of the Midwest?

A:I wanted to put out there the great variety of people and things that are here. That it is the place where food is grown and where soldiers are recruited. That there are jihadists and Amish and lots of wildflowers and amateur musicians. There is diversity of every sort, really. There is now, when you walk down the street, even garlic in the air, which there wasn’t 25 years ago.

Q: Did you consciously darken the novel’s tone as you wrote?

A: Well, I had some tragic events to include, and I knew they would be there and that the novel would have sad parts. I knew that from the beginning. What I didn’t know is that it was even remotely funny, which I guess it is a little, but that part I’d forgotten by the end.

Q: Were you wary of including such topics as Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan?

A: 9/11 is only referenced once. So it’s not really in the book at all. What I was trying to include, since the book is set in 2002, was not only the Afghanistan situation but the general buildup to the invasion of Iraq, which affected the Midwest as well as other parts of the country. That is lurking in the backdrop of the entire novel. I wanted to be true to the time and to the place.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Mass., is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached by e-mail at ama1668@hotmail.com.

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