Sunday 18 February 2018

Moore the merrier

Ciara Dwyer

Lorrie Moore is one of America's finest writers, and is renowned for her daring, different and darkly funny tales -- which is why there is a fanfare for her new novel, about mixed-race adoption. And as in life itself, finds Ciara Dwyer, the author deals with tough subjects by maintaining that sense of humour

'Oh, there are days when I'm bitter and cranky," says American author Lorrie Moore, her brown eyes glinting with fun, "but I get over it."

Her words remind me of those Fifties-style fridge magnets with the sassy-attitude slogans. ("I'm moody but I'm cute." "I only have a kitchen because it came with the house." "I do yoga and meditation but I still want to hit someone.") There's an edge but it's all done with great humour.

She laughs, which is something she does a lot in my time with her. Moore knows that a sense of humour is one of the most crucial things in life. Even in tough times, you still need to laugh. This is one of the defining characteristics of her writing and, in turn, herself. She can be deadly serious but along the way her quirky comic observations lighten the load.

There is something very girlish about the 53-year-old. Her porcelain skin is smooth and unlined. With her shoulder-length brown hair, you'd almost swear that she was a student; certainly not a divorced mother of a 15-year-old son, teacher of creative writing at Wisconsin University for 26 years and the author of seven books, including her riveting latest one, A Gate at the Stairs, which was nominated for the Orange Prize.

Moore is one of America's finest writers. She is primarily known as a short-story writer. In her groundbreaking collection of short stories, Birds of America, she has a terrifying story called Terrific Mother. It about a childless woman who is asked to hold a baby and as she does so, coochy-cooing away, the bench on which she sits collapses, forcing the pair of them to fall backwards until the only sound is the child's skull fatally hitting the ground.

In another story, she writes of a writer whose baby is seriously ill in a hospital, something which she went through with her son. It details the hellish worry they endure and observes the other parents -- "People like that are the only people here." Moore's work is daring, different but also full of dark humour. No wonder there is a fanfare when she has a new novel out.

A Gate at the Stairs is about a white couple who adopt an African-American baby. The story is told from the viewpoint of a young student girl whom they hire as their babysitter. The novel deals with race and judgements which come from people seeing this white couple with a black baby. Politically correct attitudes are lampooned as the adoptive mother is worried about her child's racial identity. Also, there is the whole world of adoption -- the hopeful adoptive parents meet pregnant mothers, one complete with her parole officer, and there are questions raised, such as was the baby a result of rape or love?

Moore didn't have to go to the moon to find the subject for her novel. She and her husband adopted an African-American baby boy. He is now a 5ft 11in 15-year-old, while the marriage is no more. They are divorced.

"Did my own life lead me to be interested in this? Yes. But is it based on anything in my own life? No. When you have certain experiences you get interested in the general world that you've encountered and you think there are a lot of stories here that I didn't know about."

Why did they choose to adopt?

"It's a little personal," she says, recoiling. "I don't know anything about IVF and I don't want to criticise people who do IVF. People are allowed to do what they want. It's a very personal decision but I just felt there are children out there who need adopting, who need a home. That's really what we should do."

Becoming a mother was something she needed to do.

"I didn't want to get to 60 and say: 'Oh, I should have had children.' Although I was with a friend in Paris a while ago and we saw these little children on Easter Sunday at the boulangerie. We both have 15-year-old boys who we love and they're taller than we are now. But when we looked at these little children we said: 'We should have had more children.'"

She laughs.

"So there's always some concoctive regret you can have or make yourself have. Once your children are taller than you, you think, 'maybe my parenting days are done'."

In the book, the child's skin colour is a big issue. Did she and her husband chose to adopt an African-American baby on purpose?

"We weren't going to discriminate. No. When you say you're available to be a parent ... It's not like you're shopping for shoes."

She winces as I tell her of the case of the American woman who sent her adopted child back to Russia on the plane, with a note saying he was damaged, as if he were a product from a shop, and that she no longer wanted to be his parent.

"It happens," says Moore. "Adoption is full of stories. It's potentially a terrific place to go to set up different stories. I've heard so many -- good, bad, mixed. It's like bringing a child into a family anyway, it's a lot of commotion and drama and a lot of unknowns. Then adoption extends that even further. It is expensive and not everyone chooses to adopt because of the expense."

Moore was born in Upstate New York, the second of four children. Her father worked in insurance and her mother was a school nurse. When I ask her if it was a happy home, she is a little evasive.

"It wasn't an unhappy home. There's nothing really dramatic to say about it."

So, you're not emotionally scarred?

"Who knows? We're all emotionally scarred, probably."

Literature was not always going to be Moore's life. When she was 10 she had other plans.

"I wanted to be a rock 'n' roll singer," she says. "I was always singing to myself, but then I didn't get into the choir in college."

She toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher or a missionary nun but finally she decided to be a writer. In school she was a diligent but dreamy child.

"Most writers are like that," she says. "They're too busy observing everyone else in the classroom to cause much trouble."

The teachers praised her essays and with these kind words the dye was cast. She lived in a book-filled home where there was an appreciation of language and stories.

"Every Sunday night my father would read to us in the living room. He would read Sherlock Holmes usually. We would all sit still. It seems amazing to me now and very Victorian. He also read the Bible to us at the dinner table. We were Protestants. My father had been raised without much religion in his family but I think he wanted to give his own kids at least some knowledge of the Bible, so he would read it. We were better with Sherlock Holmes. He would choose the moment after we had eaten dinner but before the dessert. But it was more of a literary moment than a religious moment."

When Moore started to write, she set herself a goal.

"I thought, 'I'm going to write until I'm 30'. If I don't have anything published by then I'm going to find something else to do. It was a very stern deadline. But I had a book out when I was 28, so the deadline was met."

Then she tells me that she would never advise her students to adopt such an attitude.

"I say you can have a writing life but you may have to find some other way to pay for it. You write and you don't stop. You don't get discouraged and you have to be resilient. There's nothing more to it than that."

She had success with her first short story and then nothing for years. When she was blossoming with her first fiction success, she found out about her parents' buried dreams. Her mother had wanted to be a journalist but when they discovered that you didn't have to pay fees for a nurse training course, the journalism dream was ditched for a life tending to the sick. Her father handed her a box of his writings.

"A lot of them were about a young man who was interested in a woman but was too shy to approach her. I felt it was from a part of his life before he met my mother. He had set them aside but he hadn't thrown them away or burnt them."

No doubt seeing these stories encouraged Lorrie Moore to persevere. When she teaches her students, she notices that there are often problems with the relationships with their parents.

"The problem with this generation is their desire to please. They're very close to their parents and I think that can be silencing. You're not supposed to hold back in your writing because you're afraid of what your mother would think. That's not what literature is supposed to do. It's supposed to investigate and be dangerous and brave. It's not supposed to be pleasing. I say, pretend that your mother has been shipped off to Mars, now what would you write?"

Does that mean there's lots of sex in these writings?

"There might be a little or there might just be a mother who is closer to their own mother. A daughter might be a little braver about the tensions and dramas of family which they know about but they're sort of reluctant to explore imaginatively."

Moore finds it tricky getting a balance between raising her son, teaching and writing. She says you can do two of these things, but three isn't easy. Not that she's moaning.

"I feel lucky. This literary life is more than I thought I'd be able to have."

Her sense of humour keeps her buoyant. Sounding like a kid just out of graduate school, she tells me that she is still trying to work life out.

"Life is always a struggle," she says. "You're always kind of making it up as you go along. I haven't figured it out. I don't have any formula or recipe. Life keeps changing and your kid keeps getting older and just when you think you have your life worked out this way, the kid is suddenly not taking naps anymore and is doing something else in school, so you have to be on your feet and more nimble than you would probably like to be.

"And then you think you have your marriage and then you don't. That happens to women and to men. So you just have to roll with the punches and make it up as you go along and make the best of what you have."

When I ask if she has any ambitions, she doesn't hesitate with her reply.

"As I get older, I just want to stave off disaster," she says with a laugh.

Here's hoping she manages it. If not, she can put the drama of it in her fiction. Nothing is ever wasted.

'A Gate at the Stairs' by Lorrie Moore is published by Faber & Faber, €13.99

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