The other day a friend
who had just finished reading Rick Moodys 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 years frighteningly
good Demonology), the 40-year-old Moody has written
one of the most inventive books in recent memory.
The Black Veil deals
with Moodys 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
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.
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 books 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
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.
Hes of interest aside
from the fact that he was a notable eccentric of York,
Maine, because Hawthorne wrote the story called "The Ministers
Black Veil" that seems to use the Handkerchief Moody story
as its leaping-off point.
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 thats back before my line
and his line at some point. But its 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, Ive been trying
to reconstruct exactly when I decided I was going to make
a book out of it, and Im 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 werent 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
novelhe 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 didnt think that I
could write another novel. So I sort of felt like: What
have I been really wanting to do that Ive 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. Im finding now that
Im doing it, now that Im on tour and I really
am out there in this way that its pretty heavy.
I like to feel like if I want to write a thing that I
dont have to worry about the practical ramifications,
that Im free to write about whatever I want. Because
if I start silencing myself out of pragmatic worries then
I just dont work. So I wrote the book really kind
of putting on blinders about what the publication process
would be like. Thats probably the only way I could
have written it.
Now its done and
it is, indeed, a fearsome thing. On the one hand I have
to be as open as the book is while Im out there
answering questions and talking to people, and then on
the other hand Im that open when the reviews start
coming in. Which is not how you want to feel. Its
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
I normally dont 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
Have you read
I read a tiny bit of [The
New York Times Michiko] Kakutani. [Kakutanis
was also a negative review.] Thats it. Thats
all Ive read.
[The book] is
being misunderstood, you think?
Thats an understatement.
I dont want to go on at great length because it
sounds like Im complaining.
sort of prodded you here.
Well, what I would say
is that I dont think either of those reviewers at
any rate have tried to read the book that actually is
between the covers. Theyve 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 theyre 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, its
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 didnt work with
him so much as hand over some lyrics to him and sort of
set the words to music. This is something that Ive
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. [Rolls new album, Inhabiting
the Ball, was recently released by Telegraph Company
is music to you? Its something you reference often
in your books, and theres obviously a lyrical quality
to your sentences. What role does music play in the creative
Its really important
You know, I would say [music] is as important
to me in some ways as literature. Its always in
my life and theres always five new records that
Im trying to learn about and think about. It does
play a part in composition, too, because when Im
writing first drafts I kind of need to have headphones
on and stuff turned up really loud so that I dont
get too cerebral on what Im 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?
Ive got some short
stories going. Im beginning a new novel, but the
touring makes the kind of concentration you need for a
Can you talk about
what you expect the novel to be?
Hopefully, if Im
able, its going to have a lot more narrative than
some of my other stuff. I want to try and make a narrative-driven
book thats emotionally accessible and set in New
In what era?
In the year 2001.
You got a title
The working title is Mini-Series.
When will we see
Its [scheduled] to
be handed in January of 2007, but well see.