Exposed, Vulnerable, Naked, and Bleeding
An interview with Rick Moody
By Kevin Canfield

The other day a friend who had just finished reading Rick Moody’s new book, The Black Veil: A Memoir with Digressions (Little, Brown, $24.95), described the author as an improv artist who seems capable of almost anything when it comes to sentences. That seems about right.

After much success as a novelist (Garden State, The Ice Storm, etc.) and short story writer (last year’s frighteningly good Demonology), the 40-year-old Moody has written one of the most inventive books in recent memory.

The Black Veil deals with Moody’s drugging and drinking and his short stay in a mental hospital during the ‘80s, but it is much more than a typical This-happened-then-that-happened memoir. Weaving together literary criticism, soulful self-examination and family history, the book makes for a revealing exploration of the self-fulfilling prophecies that genealogy can impose on us.

Speaking by phone from Seattle recently, Moody took time from his book tour to talk about the perils of memoir, the importance of music to the creative process and a few high-profile critics who have offered less than kind reviews of the new book.

Gadfly: You’re in the midst of a tour?

Moody: I am precisely in the midst of a tour.

Is [touring] invigorating or a drag or somewhere in between?

It seems to have peaks and troughs, but I will say that this one has had more than its share of troughs. Not for reasons that have anything to do with the book or with the audiences and so forth, but traveling is incredibly hard right now. Just being in airports every day is really unpleasant. So I do feel like The Black Veil is this book that wants me to be as exposed and vulnerable and naked and bleeding as possible, and that the tour in an odd way has sort of duplicated the book’s need for me to be vulnerable by canceling planes, fucking up my eardrum on the plane from Chicago to L.A. So it's been really a tour with many mishaps.

Explain, if you would, who Handkerchief Moody was and how that relates to the story you tell?

Handkerchief Moody, according to my grandfather, was a distant ancestral relation of my family who lived in the 18th century and was notable for the fact that he wore a veil in public in his adulthood. Many surmises as to the reason for that were ventured both contemporaneously when he was alive and after the fact. The theories have largely to do with either the fact that he shot and killed a friend when he was a boy or the death in childbirth of his wife.

He’s of interest aside from the fact that he was a notable eccentric of York, Maine, because Hawthorne wrote the story called "The Minister’s Black Veil" that seems to use the Handkerchief Moody story as its leaping-off point.

Handkerchief Moody was or was not a descendant of yours?

The extant information seems to suggest that the best I can claim is that we have a common ancestor that’s back before my line and his line at some point. But it’s not conclusive information and there are people who think that my line of Moodys connects up right near Handkerchief.

When and why did you decide to tell the story that became this book?

Well, I’ve been trying to reconstruct exactly when I decided I was going to make a book out of it, and I’m not really sure. I sort of venture a couple of hypotheses in the book. It was sometime in the middle ‘90s that I started feeling like eventually I was going to do it. It sort of was a two-part impetus, really. The first part of it is that I wanted to write about it ever since I started writing. In fact, I can remember pitching it to [the literary magazine] Grand Street in 1988 or something as an essay. They weren’t interested. So I was thinking about it even then.

But the second part of it is that Updike said this famous thing that early in his career he decided that every other book would be a novel—he would never write two novels in a row. And I certainly find novel writing so incredibly depleting of material and literary energy that after I finished Purple America I just didn’t think that I could write another novel. So I sort of felt like: What have I been really wanting to do that I’ve never felt that I had the courage to do? I figured this book would be that book.

How leery were you of putting yourself out there in this way?

I think that I was a little naïve about it, frankly. I’m finding now that I’m doing it, now that I’m on tour and I really am out there in this way that it’s pretty heavy. I like to feel like if I want to write a thing that I don’t have to worry about the practical ramifications, that I’m free to write about whatever I want. Because if I start silencing myself out of pragmatic worries then I just don’t work. So I wrote the book really kind of putting on blinders about what the publication process would be like. That’s probably the only way I could have written it.

Now it’s done and it is, indeed, a fearsome thing. On the one hand I have to be as open as the book is while I’m out there answering questions and talking to people, and then on the other hand I’m that open when the reviews start coming in. Which is not how you want to feel. It’s like having open-heart surgery where the amphitheater is crowded with people like Adam Begley. [Begley, the books editor of The New York Observer, recently gave The Black Veil a very negative review, saying it should be a contender for "worst book of 2002."]

So you are reading the reviews?

I normally don’t read them, but my fiance was so pissed off about something that Adam Begley said that she mentioned it to me, and I was pissed that she was pissed off. I felt like if she felt there was something in the review that hurt her feelings that made me really mad. And then I stupidly read the review.

Have you read others?

I read a tiny bit of [The New York Times’ Michiko] Kakutani. [Kakutani’s was also a negative review.] That’s it. That’s all I’ve read.

[The book] is being misunderstood, you think?

That’s an understatement. I don’t want to go on at great length because it sounds like I’m complaining.

But I’ve sort of prodded you here.

Well, what I would say is that I don’t think either of those reviewers at any rate have tried to read the book that actually is between the covers. They’ve wanted my book to be a different book. And in part I can say that I feel some remorse about the subtitle because I think the subtitle is giving some particularly unimaginative readers the wrong impression about what they’re going to get. I never thought of the book as a memoir. I thought of it as at best an extremely unconventional memoir. But more often I thought of it as a weird, haywire piece of Hawthorne criticism or an extended essay and meditation along Montaignesque lines. With that subtitle on it, it’s mystifying to me why people would expect it to have a conventional memoir shape.

The singer Jim Roll is someone you worked with recently. Can you tell me about that?

I didn’t work with him so much as hand over some lyrics to him and sort of set the words to music. This is something that I’ve done with other people, but Jim turns out to be an incredibly fertile songwriter and I think he made some pretty good songs out of the lyrics. [Roll’s new album, Inhabiting the Ball, was recently released by Telegraph Company Records.]

How important is music to you? It’s something you reference often in your books, and there’s obviously a lyrical quality to your sentences. What role does music play in the creative process?

It’s really important to me… You know, I would say [music] is as important to me in some ways as literature. It’s always in my life and there’s always five new records that I’m trying to learn about and think about. It does play a part in composition, too, because when I’m writing first drafts I kind of need to have headphones on and stuff turned up really loud so that I don’t get too cerebral on what I’m doing. I like to overwhelm cognition with music and just let words come out without worrying what they mean at first.

So the music helps you avoid the distraction of silence?

Yeah. Silence offers me too many options.

Are you able to work now on tour, or what were you working on before you took off on tour?

I’ve got some short stories going. I’m beginning a new novel, but the touring makes the kind of concentration you need for a novel difficult.

Can you talk about what you expect the novel to be?

Hopefully, if I’m able, it’s going to have a lot more narrative than some of my other stuff. I want to try and make a narrative-driven book that’s emotionally accessible and set in New York City.

In what era?

In the year 2001.

You got a title yet?

The working title is Mini-Series.

When will we see this?

It’s [scheduled] to be handed in January of 2007, but we’ll see.