It’s been 15 years since Madison author Lorrie Moore’s last novel. It takes only five pages into her new book, “A Gate at the Stairs,” to cherish her return.
Told from the perspective of Tassie, a small-town student attending a major university (UW, Madison and south-central Wisconsin are never named but easily identified), “A Gate at the Stairs” follows the young woman through a tumultuous year. The beauty of Moore’s writing, aside from stinging plot twists, is in the details: character quirks and abundant wit.
In one skillfully lengthy sentence on page 5, Moore deftly shifts the book’s time frame to the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 with this remarkable spin:
“My roommate, Murph – a nose-pierced, hinky-toothed blonde from Dubuque, who used black soap and black dental floss and whose quick opinions were impressively harsh (she pronounced Dubuque ‘Du-ba-cue’) and who once terrified her English teachers by saying the character she admired most in all of literature was Dick Hickock in ‘In Cold Blood’ – had met her boyfriend on September tenth and when she woke up at his place, she’d phone me, in horror and happiness, the television blaring.”
Yes, one of literary fiction’s most acclaimed writers is back with bite. Sitting at Brasserie V on Monroe Street and close to her Near West Side home, UW creative writing prof Moore, 52 and modest to a fault, unraveled the veil about herself.
Q: You’re a mystery. You’ve always kept a private profile despite living in Madison since 1984. This interview is oddly intimidating.
Moore: (surprised) I’m not intimidating. You’ll see, I’m really not.
Q: How did you feel when you finished “A Gate at the Stairs”? Relief?
Moore: Not relief. I still wanted to be with (Tassie). I was reluctant. At some point, you get diminishing returns. I felt sad. Then facing its publication – I’m terrified to see it in stores and I’m terrified if I don’t see it in stores.
(laughs) It’s a lose-lose proposition.
Q: Your last book was 1998’s short story collection “Birds of America,” all previously published work. Your last novel – “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” – was 15 years ago.
Moore: When you say 15 years ago was my last novel, my reaction is, “Wow, time really flies.” If I drag my feet a little bit, it doesn’t bother me. It only started to bother my publisher about two years ago. Up until two years ago, they were very patient. Suddenly, they said, “What is going on here? You’ve got to bear down.” Before that, they said, “Don’t worry about it. We know you’re going to turn in something good. Take your time.”
Q: But you didn’t sit still. You continued to teach at UW, where you’ve been for 25 years. Four of your short stories popped up in New Yorker. You edited the book “Best American Short Stories 2004.”
Moore: I was teaching. I got divorced (in 2001). I was a single parent raising my kid alone. Look out in the world, find a woman who is teaching, is single, raising a kid and writing books and book reviews. When you find that person, I want to drink her blood.
Q: Was “A Gate at the Stairs” intended as a short story that became a novel?
Moore: This was always intended to be a novel. I had Tassie’s voice in 2000 and 2001. The story evolved about when it takes place. I had 70 pages done by 2004. I walked around with it in my head. … It’s meant to capture, almost symbolically, the tragedy that can happen when you sit by while somebody makes a bad decision. There was the whole year in our country where we watched the Bush administration (decide to invade Iraq) and people stood by and let it happen.
Q: The book also focuses on the hardship of biracial families with a white couple adopting a black child. You create a bleak picture of those difficulties.
Moore: It’s not meant to generalize in any way. It’s not, “Here’s what can work and what can’t.” A biracial family puts the races in contact in a very intimate way.
(She smiled to lighten the mood.) All families are driving down the road hitting bumps.
Q: How much personal experience is in the book? You adopted a black child in his infancy, who is now a high school sophomore.
Moore: I explore it with my imagination. I’m not interested in writing down my personal experience because it’s too boring. I wouldn’t be creating something new. Sure, some of the things in the book were sparked or prompted by things in my life. But then the story and the narrative are different. It has to be different.
Q: Your son (Benjamin Borns-Moore) is a soccer star. Last year, he was the first Madison-area player to be named to the U.S. national team for players 14 and under.
Moore: I’m introduced as his mother all the time.
Q: Lorrie Moore, soccer mom?
Moore: It’s a fascinating sport. In 2006, I was glued to the TV watching the World Cup. I’m obsessed with all the goalies. They seem the odd man out. They’re tall and gangly and chewing gum and the pressure is on them in this weird way. They stand there doing nothing then suddenly they have to do everything. The goalie to me is like a very interesting character in the narrative.
Q: In the book, the husband and wife have a tense relationship from the start …
Moore: Is my divorce in the novel? No, no. I have to admit a couple of short stories have been about what it means to suddenly be divorced.
Q: Certainly Tassie is a composite of your many UW students over the years, right?
Moore: You would think that would be true, but she isn’t. There isn’t any part of her that comes from any of my students. That’s not to say I haven’t learned some things from my students. But Tassie is this kind of invented female consciousness. She is someone from a small town who comes to this university town and finds it very glamorous, cosmopolitan, strange and heartbreaking all at once.
Q: It’s odd that none of your short stories or novels have been made into films. Is there any interest in “A Gate at the Stairs”?
Moore: Not yet. (Her voice changes to darker tone.) Not yet. My books and short stories have not gone to the movies. People say nice things, “It’s because your writing is its own exquisite thing. We couldn’t possibly ruin your writing by putting it on the screen.” I say, “Well, try!”
What the critics say:
— “Moore may be the most irresistible contemporary American writer: brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily Tomlin-funny.” – New York Times Book Review
— “The ending of the book is a miracle of lyric force, beautiful and beautifully constructed, with a comic touch that transforms itself to a kind of harrowing precision.” – O, The Oprah Magazine
— “A fiction writer with as fine a bead on contemporary life and relationships and absurdity as anyone writing today … startling, painful, funny.” – Elle magazine
A Gate at the Stairs (novel), in stores on Tuesday
Birds of America (short stories), 1998
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (novel), 1994
Like Life (short stories), 1990
Anagrams (novel), 1986
Self-Help (short stories), 1985
— O. Henry Award for the Short Story (“People Like That are the Only People Here,” 1998, published in The New Yorker).
— Included in the anthology “Stories of the Century,” 1999.
— Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2006.