Big Think Interview With Rick Moody

Question: Why do you think digital culture is unfriendly toward literature?

Rick Moody: Well there’s one reason above all others and that it that I think literature is about taking its time.  I mean the book as a form not only requires you to engage with it over a period of days or even weeks.  And I give an example; it’s canted in the direction of history as a form.  What’s interesting about Gutenberg’s Bibles, for example, that they’re still around 500 years later.  And when you compare that with digital storage mediums, paper and books just looks like the better deal in terms of history.  So on the one hand you have a foreign digital culture that’s really about haste and about getting to the meat of the subject as quickly as possible and then moving onto the next thing.  And on the other hand, with literary objects, literary cultural artifacts, you have a form that’s about taking its time and doing what it needs to do in a really prolonged and almost lazy way.  So, the two seem inimical to one another.

With the rise of the Internet, people read more text every day than before.  How does this affect the way fiction is written?

Rick Moody: I think it remains to be seen how it affects the way people are writing, but that it’s beginning to become clear.  And on the one hand, that’s evident with blogs.  A lot of writing in blogs is superficial and it’s not revised and so it’s got a lot of carelessness about it.  So that’s one example of how it happens.  

How it affects writers of literary fiction is sort of coming into view, but one way that I notice it is that books that were written primarily on a screen and never printed out and worked with by hand are now more numerous than they used to be.  And I imagine sometimes that I can kind of tell.  There are certain writers who work really quickly and the project goes straight from their screen to the editor to the copy editor to the printer—and it never got dealt with the way people used to deal with prose, which was to patiently revise.  And that period of time in which one patiently revises is a period of time in which you can make important decisions about whether that particular passage, or that entire idea, or even the book itself is really worthy or not.  And if you’re just sort of working fast and hitting "send," you miss out on that opportunity to think about what you’re doing.  

I think if people feel this pressure to sort of be instantaneous, we lose the kind of "longers" of thinking about what we’re doing and it may not be immediately apparent, but that’s happened.  But at some point we may wake up one day and realize that reflection has gone out of thinking entirely.  

Is the format of the story changing to fit our shorter attention spans?

Rick Moody:  The format of the story is changing if you think of online media as being a big part of the project now.  And a lot of literary magazines are online and that was never the case, but it’s a lot cheaper to do it that way.  And so now, especially poetry magazines and so forth, are as often online as they are in print form.  And I think insofar as work appears there, indeed it’s getting shorter.  I mean if you’re going to go pick a site that I like, like is a really good literary website right now.  You know, it’s a lot easier to write a story for Fictionaut that’s six pages than a story that’s 15 or 25 pages.  People are just less likely to read the 25-page story on the screen.  So the form itself selects for shorter stories.  

I think books that are being published in the old fashioned way, which is to say on paper, can still be kind of long.  My new book is longish, actually, but people are still willing to be patient with the old-fashioned kinds of books.  The problem starts to become evident when we’re pressured in the direction of publishing online.  

Question: Do young people read differently than they used to?

Rick Moody: I’ve been asking around a lot and particularly paying attention to the sort of under-12 set, and trying to figure out how they read and what they think about reading.  I mean they’re all playing the little video games all day long and so forth—and yet, in my engagement with younger people, the kids are reading still and they aren’t afraid of books on paper.  You know, we hear all this sort of conventional wisdom about college-age students and so on just being online, online, online all the time, and I think they are online a lot.  But I also think that the book, the old fashioned book, still has a lot to recommend it, and that many of these young people are still finding that there are things between covers that are seductive to them and so they’re still going there for those kinds of stories.  

And so I’m not willing to sign on to the idea that the book is dead and we should bury it now and move on to the next form.  I think there’s still the likelihood that a lot of people will go to the book for something they can’t get elsewhere.  

Question: We consume many more stories today than people did in the past. Is that changing what is being written?

Rick Moody: What I suspect, I mean, on the one hand, that strikes me as a really good thing... I’m glad there’s a lot of stories around. I think that psychologically, emotionally, there’s a need for what story can do and by that I mean a narrative that begins at point A and goes to point B that really travels somewhere and contains some kind of earthly wisdom in the fact that its transit.  That kind of story I think we’re sort of hardwired to find it valuable in a certain way.  And I’m sure that the proliferation of those stories has to do with the fact that we do find them valuable. 

That strikes me as great, the problem comes if the shape and manner of all those stories is identical. If every time we read a story we know exactly where the epiphany of the story is going to happen and what the payoff’s going to be and how we’re gonna feel.  In that circumstance they all become sentimental, or they all become melodramatic. They become degraded in a way.  What I imagine might happen and what would be most exciting to me is if that then suggested new ways of telling stories and a need to try to go further and to develop new story structures rather than relying on the tried-and-true in the same ways.  

I find that some of contemporary fiction, as it’s iterated in the slick magazines and so forth, does just what I’m saying. It hits the same moments, the same points, we react in the same ways, the prose feels identical not matter the writer.  And to me that’s tiring, but it also makes possible a lot of experimental approaches to thinking about story and that’s something to be optimistic about.  And it’s especially possible to be optimistic I think if we’re then also saying, "How can we use the abbreviated attention spans that adhere to the Web to our advantage, and try to come up with unusual story structures that thrive in that environment?"

Question: What do you think about MFA programs and the way that creative writing is taught today?

Rick Moody: The writing workshops that have proliferated in the last 20 or 30 years—and there have been so many of them in universities in America now—that this workshop culture makes it easy to talk about a story if it precedes in a way that demonstrably similar to stories past.  If it actually has sort of rising action, climax, emotional epiphany, satisfying humanist conclusion, then it’s really easy to talk about in a workshop and it’s easy to organize the workshop to talk about it.  That just means that the story sits right smack in a kind of demographic or intellectual mean.  It’s not challenging us in any way.  So the really great fiction and the really horrible fiction gets sort of pushed out to the margins in a workshop setting and it’s not easy for us to come up with a vocabulary to talk about them, nor to figure out how to fix them if they need fixing.  

So it seems to me, in that circumstance we’re doing a real disservice to our national literature with the workshop and it really is exactly like a test screening for a motion picture or a focus group to talk about a new car design or a new detergent or something.  And I don’t think that’s what we want to be doing with our art, you know?

The older model for writing was: read a lot, try to make the acquaintance of some great writer and ask him or her to read what you’re doing and respond to it.  And I think what we mean by that kind of model is a mentorship kind of model.  That mentorship model adheres much more to undergraduate education then it does to graduate schools.  Like the workshop is primarily a workshop is primarily a graduate school kind of model, whereas undergraduate school usually tends more towards a kind of mentorship approach.  At least for me, mentorship was much more effective.  It was more important for me to want to impress Angela Carter, who was one of my teachers at Brown when I was there, then it was to try to impress my classmates at Columbia, you know, who are all fighting with one another about trying to get agents and all that kind of stuff.  I think mentorship has an emotional component and artists and writers thrive where there are emotions at stake more readily, you know?

Now there are models springing up now that avoid some of the problems of the workshop.  One of these is the low-residency model in which most of what you are taught in writing workshop is done by correspondence.  Bennington has one, Warren Wilson College, Goddard College; these are springing up all over the place too.  If you get a great teacher in that low-residency setting, you’re in kind of good shape.  

Still, in all, there are writers in contemporary American fiction who never went to graduate school and to me they’re some of the most interesting writers.  They feel free to follow idiosyncrasy and they’re not worried, or they haven’t been worried about what those other 13 people around the table are going to say. And their singularity is not a bother to them.  So there is also a lot to be said for just doing it how they do it in Europe now, which is just read, read, read and go in that direction.

What is your writing process like?

Rick Moody: I never outline new projects, so that’s the first thing to say.  I sort of feel like structure is something you discover rather than superimpose and my idea there is that superimposition makes the writing process secondary to the drafting process, if you will, the sort of blueprint process.  And I don’t want to have to sit at the keyboard and act like a slave to some outline.  I think that that makes the work structurally manipulative in a way.  I can’t learn things about the characters.  I can’t discover aspects of them I didn’t know about earlier on if this character absolutely has to go to the shopping mall and pull out a submachine gun.  You know?  If I’ve already decided that’s the case, there’s nothing in the process that’s magical or surprising to me and I don’t want to be in that position.  

So usually in terms of structure, I have a character and I have a setting and it’s about improvisation and revision along those lines.  I sort of know what town it’s in and I know what the guy’s job is, but I want to meet him and get to know him and see what he has to say.  

Now, Nabokov is famous for having said, “They’re my slaves, they do whatever I tell them to do.”  And maybe that worked for him, although those later Nabokov novels were all written on index cards and they were very cubist in their structure.  You know, so I’m not certain slaves were not working toward their own liberation behind his back or something.  But for me it has to be about imagining that the fictional characters have their own volition in a way and are capable of proposing new ideas about how they want to live and how they want to interact. 

Do you write every day?

Rick Moody: I don’t work every day, I work in a sort of bingy way, so there’ll be a few months where I work a great deal, you know, 2,500 words a day for weeks at a time, and then periods where I’m just writing short stuff or I’m not really writing very much at all.  And though I have a desk, it’s not my exclusive workplace and I sort of think of desk fetishism as inhibitor rather than as a facilitator. So I’ll work at the library, I’ll work at the coffee shop.  That’s the good thing about the laptop is that everything’s on there now and I can take it wherever I need to go.

How do you maintain focus when you're working on a long novel?

Rick Moody: With novels, you have to try to keep the whole thing in your head a little bit and under those circumstances it is good to go somewhere really quiet and to work intensively for a while.  This may be why the sort of binge-oriented work style that I’m describing is useful to me because when I’m in one of the binges, I sort of do have the whole thing in my head.  And tomorrow’s writing... tomorrow’s writing session is pretty much like today’s writing session.  They were just separated by some sleep.  

So that’s the key for me to sort of try to have the whole thing in solution in my skull for a little while.

It’s really challenging to keep an entire novel in your head because you emotionally move and change over the course of working on it.  So oftentimes a scene that seemed incredibly poignant in one month, two weeks later seems mawkish and imprecise, and you have a completely different feeling about it, you know? The revision process then becomes some kind of compromise between your intention and your editorial impulse and the book becomes what remains after those two disparate impulses have worked their intentions out on one another.  So that’s why revision seems so important to me because my first impulse is so often somewhat undisciplined.  So the revision process enables me to kind of shear off the hangnails that I thought were so impressive at some earlier stage.  

Question: How has the recession affected literature?

Rick Moody:  I think the economy is changing the way people are writing and that writers are more desperate then at any time since I’ve been watching what’s been happening closely.  And I worked in publishing in the last big recession in the early 90’s, so I saw some of it at that time.  I think people are just really scared that they’re not going to get published at all, and as a result, they’re trying to shoehorn themselves into pretty rigidly formatted kinds of things.  One of those formats is conventional realistic contemporary fiction, which doesn’t necessarily... I mean, there are no dead bodies or no robots in that fiction at all.  It can still be done—you can try and write like George Elliot and you can potentially get published, but what worries me is you can no longer write like David Foster Wallace, perhaps.  That maybe there’s not a place for a first novelist who's experimental in that scale in the way that there was in the '90s.  

And indeed, my former students who are out there now trying to get published are having trouble on those lines.  It’s the crazy great ones, the kind of mad ones who are really struggling to find people to publish them.  And not because the projects don’t have merit, but just because everybody’s looking at Bookscan and they want certain numbers of units to ship and so on.  That is going to affect people going forward, not only because we miss out but because when we miss out we then forget that the opportunity exists for that kind of experimental work.

Question: Does the ease of self-publishing online help or hurt fiction writers?

Rick Moody: This is a great idea for me from a democratic point of view, but the thing that I worry about is sort of how we draw attention to those many tens of thousands of novels that are published in that way.  

There was a novel by Richard Brautigan in the late '60s called, "The Abortion" that’s about a library that will hold in its collection any manuscript given to them.  So it becomes this repository of all the kind of lost, desperate, forgotten manuscripts that people squirreled away in their desk drawers over the years.  And in the vast majority of cases, no one reads any of these books of course, but it’s the idea of collecting them that’s important.  

In a way, that’s the exact library that you’re describing, the sort of future library of publish-it-yourself-straight-onto-the-Kindle-style manuscripts.  The only thing that the big publishing houses have going for them in that environment is that they can editorially select for us, and they can attempt to draw our attention to things.  But they have to be willing to do it.  They have to be wiling to be more catholic, more polyglot in their interests and intentions.  And as long as they’re selling physical books and they’re really desperate and worried about selling enough physical books to meet their sales goals and so on, there’s not that much incentive for them to sort of publish the 400-page manuscript narrated by coffee.  You know? Or something with eight different points of view, or multi-generational saga that contains 10 generations.  I mean, they’re just not up to it right now.  

And I understand why it’s harder for them, but I’m not sure that just allowing all the writers to dump everything onto the kindle is going to solve the problem for us.

Why is there such a marked connection between creative people and depression?

Rick Moody: I think it’s in "Mourning and Melancholia" that Freud said something about melancholics having a unique perspective on civilization, but at what cost?  You know? And that’s sort of my experience too... that the unhappier parts of my career enabled me to say the more trenchant things perhaps, but I’m not satisfied with the sort of psychic economics of that because if I’m not happy enough to finish the book or too miserable to be able to want to do my job, it doesn’t matter what truths I’m capable of scaring up in my brain at that time.  

I don’t know why it is exactly that creativity and depression go hand in hand, but I’m sort of happy that they do insofar that there has to be someone who is able to stand enough outside of civilization to comment on it.  Maybe it’s just a kind of exile.  You know, when Joyce says, “Silence, exile and cunning are the ways to become great artists,” in "Portrait of the Artist as the Young Man"... I take the exile part to heart.  You need to be able to sit outside a little bit, to look clearly at what’s happening, but that also presupposes that you’re not in society and thus not part of its happy throngs.  

Have anti-depressant medications hurt our culture's creativity?

Rick Moody: I was talking to Mary Gaitskill about this, the novelist Mary Gaitskill, and we were particularly discussing the suppression of libido in contemporary anti-depressant medication.  And her theory was that, you had to be sad a little bit in order to have great sex.  So the two go hand in hand.  As you suppress the sadness, you also suppress the sexual impulse in some way and you sort of go contentedly along in life incapable of the most passionate moments, you know?  And it’s possible that something similar happens to art.  If you sort of have everybody operating at this contented mean, you don’t enable the sorts of outrage or the kinds of passionate enthusiasm that make important art happen.  

I mean I suspect, I’ve never been on Prozac or any of those kinds of medications, but I suspect that people who are still enjoy great art and are perfectly capable of liking a great novel no matter how challenging it is, you know? And they would say it’s not... that their medication is not interruptive of that experience. But then how does it work for the people who make it, you know?  

David Wallace is perhaps an example.  You know, I think his depression enabled him to be the great artist that he was.  It also was perhaps the thing that killed him, you know?  But it’s also true that he was unable to finish a novel after "Infinite Jest," and he was on medication for awhile.  So who knows, maybe there is some connection there.

Recorded July 28, 2010

Interviewed by David Hirschman

A conversation with the novelist.

Scientists claim the Bible is written in code that predicts future events

The controversy around the Torah codes gets a new life.

Michael Drosnin
Surprising Science
  • Mathematicians claim to see a predictive pattern in the ancient Torah texts.
  • The code is revealed by a method found with special computer software.
  • Some events described by reading the code took place after the code was written.
Keep reading Show less

Juice is terrible for children. Why do we keep giving it to them?

A glass of juice has as much sugar, ounce for ounce, as a full-calorie soda. And those vitamins do almost nothing.

Pixabay user Stocksnap

Quick: think back to childhood (if you've reached the scary clown you've gone too far). What did your parents or guardians give you to keep you quiet? If you're anything like most parents, it was juice. But here's the thing: juice is bad for you. 

Keep reading Show less

Orangutans exhibit awareness of the past

Orangutans join humans and bees in a very exclusive club

(Eugene Sim/Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • Orangutan mothers wait to sound a danger alarm to avoid tipping off predators to their location
  • It took a couple of researchers crawling around the Sumatran jungle to discover the phenomenon
  • This ability may come from a common ancestor
Keep reading Show less