Thursday, February 9, 2012

Interview with Marshall Moore, author of The Infernal Republic

Marshall Moore is the author of The Concrete Sky (2003), Black Shapes in a Darkened Room (2003, 2009), An Ideal for Living (2010), and his most recent release, the story collection The Infernal Republic.

We're pleased to present this interview we had with him in January of 2012 as his most recent collection of short stories is being released.

Q:  Can you give everyone a few words about The Infernal Republic? How did this collection come about, and what can readers expect from it?

MM: This is my second collection, following 2004's Black Shapes in a Darkened Room. (I can't believe 8 years have passed since then!) Most of the stories have been published in various journals, although several are unique to this book. It's funny: this collection was accepted for publication by one small press in the States in... 2008, I think. That publisher was overwhelmed, juggling his day job and his publishing commitments, and opted to drop it. He tried to help me find another press, but that didn't work out. Then another one (which I had found on my own) said yes. Without being unduly negative, let's just say that there were some gigantic red flags; I chose not to ignore them andwithdrew the book. These experiences were a couple of the factors that prompted me to found Signal 8 Press, so I really can't complain: as the publisher, I know the book's in very good hands!

Q: In "Urban Reef," the opening story, two acquaintances view and ponder over a man teetering on a building ledge in Portland. In this and other stories, setting wonderfully contributes to characters' emotions. How would you describe the diverse range of settings in this collection, which spans from Hong Kong to Hell?

MM: That's me being Southern, and one hallmark of Southern writing is the importance of place. Although I don't set my work there, and haven't lived in the South in almost 20 years (15 if you include Washington DC), I am a part of that literary tradition. I grew up with a strong sense of regional identity, and I think that manifests in my work. I tend to write about places I have lived or visited (although I haven't been to Hell in the literal sense!). I travel a lot, or used to, and have lived in a number of interesting cities, so it's inevitable that I'd use them in my work. Although I don't consciously choose setting as a compliment or contrast to the characters' emotions, the relationship's there, regardless. You can see this in "The Blue Bridge," which starts out in Seattle on a fairly dark note and ends in a much more cheerful place, Amsterdam. There's a fine line though: I don't want the stories to rest on common stereotypes about certain cities.

Q: In other stories, such as "Everything Has Been Arranged," "Marble Forest, Karstic Heart" and "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living," readers can enjoy surreal, sometimes dreamlike fiction. How does the element of the "strange" (meant here in that good sense a lot of successful fiction possesses) work in your writing?

MM: There's no single universe with a single set of laws or principles that guide how the weird stuff works. Although I admire writers like Stephen King who have assembled a body of fiction within a universe they have created, I haven't gotten there yet: I haven't written enough to have developed an overarching mythos of my own. The makings of one are there, and in the fullness of time -- if I am fortunate enough to have a long career, a readership, and a smidgen of relevance -- I hope that this is something I'll be able to create. I have to say, though: a story with an element of the supernatural is far more intriguing to me than one without. I don't think I could write a work of regular hysterical realism (which is where fiction seems to be these days) if I tried!

Q: Could you give readers insight into your writing process toward short stories? How is a story born, and when--if ever--does it feel "done"?

MM: This has changed over the years. It used to be that the whole thing would materialize in my head, more or less intact. I could plunge in and start writing. I'd finish one short story and dive right into another. When I look back on that time (roughly a decade ago), I am amazed by my output. I'm much busier now. Generally the seed of the idea appears in my head, and I have to wait until it is ready. This is instinctive: I'm not sure how to articulate it. It's like waiting until the tumor is big enough that you can have surgery. I think David Cronenberg said that. I do a lot of polishing after I get to the end, and at some point it feels ready, and I can send it out. Earlier on, I used to submit stories way too early in the process, and I think that has a lot to do with the rejections I racked up. Now, well, my output has slowed down a lot. It's okay, though, because I'm not in such a hurry to get published; with four books now, a fifth in the pipeline, and dozens of short stories in print, I can take my time and make sure I'm satisfied with each piece.

Q: What's next for you and your work?

MM: I have another novel in the pipeline, titled Bitter Orange. It'll be published sometime in 2013, probably in the spring. I wrote it while I lived in Korea. The book came about because of something completely random: I had an idea about a guy who would go out to do his Friday crimes. The phrase Friday crimes (which does not figure into the finished version of the book at all) stuck in my head. Being a Western expat in homogeneous Korea made me think a lot about visibility and invisibility: people there would often openly stare at me, because they didn't see white folks very often. I often felt invisible, despite all the gawking: invisible, but not really. Bitter Orange came out of the two things: what if somebody was invisible, but not in the conventional sense? The idea evolved: what if a guy could turn invisible but not in a superhero sense -- it only happened when he was doing something he knew to be wrong? This brought up interesting (to me, anyway) questions about the ethics of self-defense, revenge, and retaliation against corporations. Even though I wrote the book several years ago, it turns out that it's quite timely: there's a very strong anti-corporate sentiment in it. Ultimately, I think the book is about corruption and the extent to which you either reject it or make your peace with it.

After that, we'll see. I'm hoping to have enough short fiction finished for a third collection, but that's still quite a ways off!

Thanks for your time, Marshall, and this insight into your work.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Please Insert Title Here, Please: A Fantasy

Sometimes, I conduct imaginary writing conferences in my head. I’m the keynote speaker of course (my openers ranging from T.C. Boyle to Alice Munro to, if she’s lucky, the ghost of Flannery O’ Connor) and it doesn’t matter where we meet—the Met, Madison Square Garden, or, most recently, the Hollywood Bowl—because the point of the exercise is that I like to imagine what I would say at such an event, what wisdom I would impart in regards to the craft of fiction. It usually varies, depending on many things. Just last week, for example, after reading three separate novels and an essay that all included the exact same phrase, I might’ve advised young writers to forever banish from their tool kits the words “shock of (whatever color) hair”—truly the Kim Kardashian of figurative language, as it’s everywhere, means little, and I don’t like it.

Of course, I’m a young writer—youngish, anyway—but at the Hollywood Bowl, see, I get to be a seasoned veteran, which is what makes it so much fun. And in my most recent dream sequence, I found myself giving advice on titles. I’ve been thinking about titles lately, and there’s a reason for this. Last month, a short story of mine was published in the Indiana Review. And I liked it. I mean, I liked it okay. But what I really liked about the piece—what didn’t make me cringe upon revisit, all those months later—was the title. I thought to myself, If anything, you will have the best title.

Well. I was wrong. Trumped easily by one Mary Hamilton, who, no, I do not know from the ghost of Flannery O’Connor, except to say that the strength of her piece doesn’t end at one of the best titles I’ve come across in recent memory.
            But wait. Forget that. This is my fantasy. I’m the one headlining the Hollywood Bowl. I’m the one shouting for John Irving to fetch me a glass of cold, but not too cold water (did I mention the old wrestler is my personal assistant?) And so, following this thread, using my knowledge of nothing, I’ve compiled a survey for young writers everywhere (see: me), a survey that may have nothing to do with pleasing your woman, or man, but everything to do with coming up with that perfect title—that “Bullet to the Brain”, that “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”, that “Long Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” that “Good Country People”—that, you know, thing above your story that won’t have us humble readers running for the hills, pulling out our hair in…shocks.  

Here’s the thing: answer YES to any of these questions and the buzzer sounds, you’ve lost, and will be promptly shown out of the Hollywood Bowl, the writing profession, my fantasy, and left alone in the void of space where bad titles, like luggage, circle the earth in one endless orbit.
(Did I mention I’ve failed, and will continue to fail, my own survey?)

Does Your Title Suck?
A Not So Serious Survey for Me Other Fiction Writers

    1. Could your title pass for a fragrance by Calvin Klein?

Oops! Did you just submit “Drops of Chance” to the Atlantic? “Ocean Dreams” to The New Yorker? “Desertscape Horizon” to The Paris Review? Well, unless you’re this guy, go ahead and rethink that stinker.

  2.     Does your title shamelessly answer the question, What is the overall theme of this story?

The problem is, if your masterpiece—and it might very well be a masterpiece—“Love Conquers All”, or “Endurace Always Wins”, or “The Pain of Loss”, or “Money Does Not Necessarily Equate Happiness, People,” is one day assigned to students across the globe, then they won’t need to look beyond the first page to answer 99% of all test questions. And you want them, typically, to look beyond the first page.

Speaking of tests…

  3.    Could a 6th grade English teacher in Anywheresville, USA use your title as a multiple choice question in which the answer is c.) Simile?

I’ll admit, I’m a huge offender of this one. But never shall the world be punished to read my high school portfolio, which includes such gems as “Eyes Like Stone”, “Sadness Heavy as Thunder”, “That One Thing That Was Like That Other Thing I Saw Once”, and of course, “Anything (and I Mean Anything) Like Blood”.

  4.   Do prepositions constitute 75% or more of your title?

A quick tidbit from the most recent issue of Scientific American: Reading aloud titles such as “Of Where From Which We Came Before”, “With and Within the Before and Beneath”, “Nothing Besides About”, “Regarding That Which is Regarded” is one of the major causes of externally-induced seizures, second only to strobe lighting.  

  5.    Might Don Draper slap your title across a vehicle and market it as the new family sedan?

I suppose there’s a wee bit of intrigue to that 20,000-word “Cronata”, sitting in the bowels of your hard drive. Or “Illustra.” Or “Enamora” (could it be a character? a place? a curious feeling?); but the only story for which I’m willing to make an exception and actually read is the one simply titled, “Ford Focus”.

  6.   Does your title include a colon, followed by a not-so-subtle reference to genre?

“…: A Love Story”; “…: A Horrific Tale of Horror”; “…: Coming of Age”; “…: A Mysterious Mystery of Mysterious Events of a Quasi-Mysterious Nature”—whatever the case, the only person who will be thanking you is the dude who has to shelve this stuff at Barnes and Noble. But now he has nothing to do. And five hours left in his shift. Thanks a lot.

  7.    Does your title make it painfully clear that you’ve just finished reading anything by Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore, or Raymond Carver?

Again, guilty as charged. And I wish I could promise you that I won’t hammer out a few more, “The Abridged and Marvelous Life of Roscoe Wow”, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Things and Such”, and “How to Do Anything You Might Not Have Previously Thought Required Instructions”, but I can’t. Call it an homage. And then roll it up and slap me across the head.

  8.    Could your title pass as anything showing on Cinemax beyond 10 PM?

Or more specifically, am I shoving “The Awakening of Terra” beneath the sofa cushion when my mom passes through the living room?

  9.    Can you feasibly imagine your title lit up across a giant marquee, followed by the words: STARRING ADAM SANDLER?

I’m looking at you, “Mr. Tom Can’t Lose”, “Townies 4 Hire”, “Plunky McGee Gets Lucky”, “CivilWar Land in Bad Decline”, “Haba Dabba Doo Doo” (though I’m sure Mr. Sandler pays a lot better than The Timbuktu Review).

And the worst of the worst.

  10.     Is there a pun in your title?

In which case, forget the literary journals…send that sucker to Hollywood and make some real money. I look forward to seeing you-know-who in the film adaptation of “Receding Heir”. 

Of course, I could be wrong. Titles, like this one, have turned on me overnight. Brilliance has corroded into pretension, melodrama, absolute ridiculousness. The important thing being, if you have a title, you have a finished piece. And in this writing game, that’s all you can ask for. To finish anything is to hang off that doomed ocean liner in the middle of your own over-budgeted fantasy and inform the world that you are, in fact, the king of it. Which brings me to my next survery: Do your characters say stupid things?

Twitter: @StevenLRamirez

Friday, February 3, 2012

Marshall Moore *The Infernal Republic* Signal 8 Press

Marshall Moore, author of the novel The Concrete Sky (2003), Black Shapes in a Darkened Room (2003, 2009), An Ideal for Living (2010), recently released a new collection, The Infernal Republic.

The Infernal Republic is an electric, eclectic collection of stories with topics ranging from Portland suicides to hell-dwelling demons.

In "Urban Reef," the opening story, a suicide bonds two lonely acquaintances in Portland, while "Everything Has Been Arranged" delivers a surreal, somber house-moving that hints at the diverse range of styles and subjects in the collection.

The surreal continues in other stories, such as "Marble Forest," about insomnia, family curses, and art-- "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living" describes a psychic connection a psychologist shares with a shark.

Other wonderful experiences, such as embodying architecture in "215" and witnessing graduating levels of punishment in "Flesh, Blood, and Some of the Parts," give way to stories of relationships, such as in "Town of Thorns," about a gay man who, after being bashed, alters in troubling ways, and in "Toast, Belladonna, and the Heat Death of the Universe," in which a wonderful exchange of dialogue leads to attempted gunfire in a crowded restaurant.

These and so many other stories showcase Moore's craft.

Check it out: The Infernal Republic.