Hate, Love, Chores: Lorrie Moore's Midwest Chronicle
MADISON, Wis. — Lorrie Moore had just begun working on what would become her new novel, "A Gate at the Stairs," when she told one interviewer that she was writing a book "about hate."
Later she recalled telling someone else that it was a novel about chores.
In May, speaking to a roomful of booksellers at BookExpo America, the publishing industry's annual convention, she said she had written a book — her first in 11 years — about a 20-year-old woman because she viewed 20 as "the universal age of passion."
And in a recent interview at a brasserie here, two blocks from her home in a neighborhood of colorful Victorian and prairie-style houses, Ms. Moore described the book as a meditation on "what it meant to be in this town in the Midwest in this particular time in contemporary America."
As it turns out, Ms. Moore's slippery characterizations of "A Gate at the Stairs," published on Tuesday by Alfred A. Knopf, are quite apt.
The novel takes place in the aftermath of 9/11, with the threat of terrorism and war hovering over a liberal university town described as "the Athens of the Midwest."
It also features a prickly couple, Sarah Brink and Edward Thornwood, whose marital relations sometimes veer toward something that looks like hate. Tassie Keltjin, the 20-year-old college student who narrates the novel, falls in love, for the first time, with a mysterious foreign student. Passion ensues.
And about those chores: during one of the book's most startling revelations, the housecleaner can be heard "at the back door, with his stabbing, fidgeting key in the lock and his clanking pails and mops."
Ms. Moore's fans — ardent, even cultish — have been waiting ever since "Birds of America," her last book, a story collection, was published in 1998. That book, widely praised, broke onto the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list for five weeks.
It also subjected Ms. Moore, who at 52 still seems girlish with her shoulder-length brown hair and voice that swoops from low to high registers, to the intruding curiosity of those who wanted to know more about her personal life after reading "People Like That Are the Only People Here," a short story about a baby with cancer that Ms. Moore acknowledged was somewhat autobiographical.
"The problem of course is you don't want everyone talking about your kid," Ms. Moore said, recalling the rounds of publicity. "And that was really hard to avoid."
This time around she is remaining circumspect about any autobiographical antecedents to "A Gate at the Stairs," her seventh book.
In one of the novel's central plotlines, Tassie takes a job as a baby sitter working for Sarah, the owner of a local restaurant, and Edward, a cancer researcher, as they adopt a part-black baby girl. As the girl's devoted caregiver, Tassie is exposed to both explicit and implicit racism. Ms. Moore's own teenage son is adopted and part African-American, but she would say only that some of the incidents in the novel may have happened to other children and parents she knew.
Instead she invoked "Madame Butterfly" and "Jane Eyre," works that feature themes of abandonment and orphanhood. "I'm interested in adoption because those kids become Jane Eyre," said Ms. Moore, alternately sipping from a cup of coffee and a small glass of pale Belgian beer. "Not to push the 'Jane Eyre' thing too much, but of course there is that racial aspect to it," she said, alluding to the Creole heritage of the Mrs. Rochester character. "And there's a racial component to 'Madame Butterfly,' so these were the Ur-texts hovering over my desk while I just barreled ahead and wrote a Midwestern story."
As one of the most nuanced writers working today, Ms. Moore is as likely to write about sweeping themes as she is to deliver sharp-witted and trenchant observations about life's small moments. Her career has been building since she sold her first story collection, "Self-Help," at 26, gaining instant literary credibility.
"Moore may be, exactly, the most irresistible contemporary American writer," the novelist Jonathan Lethem wrote in The New York Times Book Review on Sunday. "Brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily-Tomlin-funny. Most of all, Moore is capable of enlisting not just our sympathies but our sorrows."
And in her review last week in The Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote that "in this haunting novel, Ms. Moore gives us stark, melancholy glimpses into her characters' hearts."
In "A Gate at the Stairs" those sorrows and melancholy glimpses come in some brutally heart-rending scenes. "There are times when you feel like stepping into a dark dream, and you really want to travel to some very unhappy place," Ms. Moore said, "in order, in some ways, to close the book and step away from it."
Ms. Moore, who had recently had cataracts diagnosed and sometimes used prescription sunglasses to see inside, said that part of the reason it took her so long to finish the novel was that she could not bring herself to write those devastating passages.
"There were certain scenes that felt so heartbreaking to me that I didn't know how I was going to write them," she said. "I cried all the way through the writing of it."
Then there were the more practical constraints on her time. Since 1984 Ms. Moore has taught creative writing at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and eight years ago she divorced her husband (no, she doesn't want to talk about it) and is now raising her son as a single mother.
Ms. Moore sees such challenges falling disproportionately on women. "You look out into the world and you say, 'Who are the working — meaning you also have a job, not just writing novels — single moms who are writing novels that you want to read?' " she said.
Jayne Anne Phillips, a fellow writer and fan, said balancing a job and child-rearing with writing had shaped Ms. Moore's work. "The double edge of it is that I think any form of real spiritual surrender does inform one's work," Ms. Phillips said. "But the problem is that oftentimes one doesn't have time to write the work."
In "A Gate at the Stairs" Sarah struggles to juggle her fervent desire to be a mother with her all-consuming job as a restaurant owner. Writing about food allowed Ms. Moore to play with the terminology that was infiltrating menus around town. At one point Tassie reads a menu from Sarah's restaurant:
"There were ramps and fiddleheads, vinaigrettes and roux — summer had not yet taken these away."
And then, in a moment of pure Lorrie Moore-ness, Tassie observes, "Though only now did I realize that roux was not spelled rue, as surely it should be and would be soon."
Although she has spent a quarter-century in the Midwest, Ms. Moore, who commuted between New York and Madison for several years, maintains some of the arch distance of the outsider. Strolling by an Indian restaurant near the state capitol, she sniffed the air and noted: "You walk around and you get a whiff of garlic and you feel like you are in a real city."
But living far from the literary nerve center of New York, she said, has allowed some liberties.
"If you live in Madison, Wis., and teach creative writing, you've already made some decisions about what you're going to do as an artist, and you're quite free to do as you please," she said. "Some people get their books on the best-seller list and then they count the number of weeks, and I just never want to live that way. I already have been luckier than I ever dreamed that I could ever be."