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Austin Chronicle Moore Is Better

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  Most Sundays I set eyes on The New York Times bestseller list and I just want to scream about how pathetic we are and how rigged the whole thing is. Do not say the words "Celestine Prophecy" to me. Avoid also "Spiritual Abundance,"Madison County," and even "Jimmy Buffett." This is why, when Lorrie Moore's new short story collection, Birds of America (Alfred A. Knopf, $22.50 hard), hit the list a few weeks ago at number 14, it was one of the more heartening literary events of the year.

Lorrie Moore is on the bestseller list for the only right reasons: She is a viciously good writer with something important to say. She is funny, easy to read, and profound -- with this collection, more so than ever. A connoisseur of both silliness and pathos, her fondness for the potent pun is seen in this passage from the story "Real Estate," about a divorced man dating a younger woman:

Albert has been kinder, more delicate, in tone if not in substance. "Some people might consider your involvement with this girl a misuse of your charm," he said slowly.

"But I've worked hard for this charm," said Bill. "Believe me, I earned it from scratch. Can't I do with it what I want?"

Albert sized up Bill's weight loss and slight tan, the sprinkle of freckles like berry seeds across Bill's arms, the summer whites worn way past Labor Day in the law school's cavernous, crowded lecture halls, and he said, "Well then, some people might think it a mishandling of your position." He paused, put his arm around Bill. "But hey, I think it has made you look very tennisy."

Bill shoved his hands in his pockets. "You mean the whole kindness of strangers thing?"

Albert took his arm back. "What are you talking about?" he asked, and then his face fell in a kind of melting, concerned way. "Oh, you poor thing," he said. "You poor poor thing."

Moore has been adored by fans for effects like this ("tennisy" for "Tennessee," as in Williams) since her first collection, Self Help. What is new in Birds of America is a change in magnitude, in heft, in the size and weight of the stories. The best-known piece in the collection, "People Like This Are the Only People Here," is a stunning, heart-wrenching story about a mother who finds a blood clot in her baby's diaper: about the circle of hell known as the Pediatric Oncology Ward, and about the process of writing about one's own tragedies. When it was first published last year in the New Yorker, three people tried to fax me the whole thing in one day. I went on to fax it to several others. So when I had the chance to talk to Lorrie Moore -- who is married to an attorney and is the mother of a little boy now four years old -- I had to ask her about it.

Austin Chronicle: I guess everyone wants to know if "People Like This" is autobiographical, despite the fact that it appeared in the New Yorker with a banner saying "FICTION" across the top. But the character called the Mother is a writer, and Father keeps urging her to make money for Baby's treatment by "taking notes," by writing about their situation.

Lorrie Moore: Well, everyone knows you can't make money writing short stories, so that proves it's fiction right there. But you're right: They ask. With fiction, if you have any questions, you refer to the story, while with nonfiction there's an invitation to inquire further. This piece of fiction talks about itself as being autobiographical -- but in fact, it's a work of fiction concerning, among other things, the subject of the transformation of life materials into fiction.

People have always had the tendency to read autobiographically. It's a natural thing. A vulgarity we all commit. I do it myself, even though I'm opposed to it when it happens to me. I think you have to accept that even if some details are autobiographical, some are not, and if you tried to guess which are which you'd probably be wrong. The point is that the writer has successfully imagined the situation onto the page. If the art of narrative isn't there, you can't even make real life seem real.

I came up with this story in the course of a year when I was helpless before its subject matter. It is not "emotion recollected in tranquility." The rawness, bitterness, and anger are about a woman who is ostensibly resisting writing about it, and in the end it's revealed that she has done so, in a bitter and helpless way.

AC: Do you think it has something to do with being a woman? People don't read a Robert Stone story, for example, and say, "Oh that poor man, his child fell through the ice while skating and died."

LM: I've heard women say the death of a child is something they could never explore in fiction, so maybe there's a perception that you would only do it if you had to. Perhaps men are seen as having more freedom with that subject matter. But right here in Wisconsin, we have Jacquelyn Mitchard and Jane Hamilton, both of whom have written novels about the loss of children.

AC: What about this so-called resurgence of the short story?

LM: I think the form is in constant renaissance, constantly coming back to life. While the novel is constantly being proclaimed dead. Actually, sometime between Henry James and the dawn of television, the story had a brief moment of viability with writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and ever since then people have decided to declare their renewed interest.

As a form, it is less cluttered with commercial endeavors, stronger artistically. It's a beautiful genre: the shape, rhythm, and boundaries of it. It's where writers learn their craft.

AC: Have you visited Austin before?

LM: Yes, last time I was down, the weather had just turned chilly for the first time, and coming from Wisconsin I was quite charmed by the look of ecstasy and delight people had on their faces just about digging out a sweater.

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