SPEAKER: Lorrie Moore is the author of seven books-- the novels Anagrams, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, and A Gate at the Stairs, and the story collections Self-Help, Like Life, Birds of America, and 2014's brilliant Bark. Working on this introduction, I had these books piled up next to my laptop, and it occurred to me that Lorrie's ouvre constitutes perhaps the most intense and rich 10 cubic inches of darkly comic writing an American writer has ever produced.
Those of us in the creative writing program are proud that Lorrie's early published stories were written here at Cornell. If you're the curious, you can find the thesis version of Self-Help in Kroch and Uris libraries. You probably don't want them to do that, though.
LORRIE MOORE: [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER: Everyone's MFA thesis is in the library.
LORRIE MOORE: Mine's not?
SPEAKER: It is. I'm encouraging them to go check it out.
LORRIE MOORE: Nobody told me this [INAUDIBLE].
SPEAKER: All right.
LORRIE MOORE: [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER: I don't know, but you're supposed to be able to find it there. Anyway, these early stories give us a Lorrie Moore already staking out the territory she would inhabit for decades to come. It's hard to be a funny writer. Any hack can bum you out, but to make a reader laugh requires perfect timing and laser-like focus. Only the boldest writers devote their careers to it, and of them, only the reckless few risk undermining themselves with misery.
It's upon this cramped and weedy patch that Lorrie has managed to build her extraordinary body of work. In her celebrated '80s story, "You're Ugly, Too," published in the New Yorker and later Life Like, a Midwestern college professor, Zoe, is forced repeatedly to assert her authority as a teacher, woman, and human being while facing the possibility of death. It remains for me the funniest sad story ever written, and it contains the line I've probably quoted more at work than any other-- the bit of dialogue from a student who complains to Zoe, "You act like your opinion is worth more than everybody else's in the class."
Years later, Lorrie would write the saddest funny story ever, the 1997 classic "People Like That Are the Only People Here," about a woman's experience of her child's cancer. Humor in Lorrie Moore's fiction is not decorative or whimsical. It's the bedrock upon which the tragedy of being alive is built.
In 30 years, Lorrie Moore has probably filled me with more pleasurably contradictory emotions than any other writer. Her work inhabits a rarefied space that, in my mind, is otherwise packed with Russians, Chekov and Dostoevsky foremost among them, but also Nabokav, a Russian who became the most American of American writers, and who wrote some of his best books, including the greatest campus novel and one of the best sad comedies of all time, Pnin, while living in Ithaca and teaching at Cornell.
Indeed, my favorite recent story of Lorrie's is her deft and slyly referential cover of Nabokav's Signs and Symbols, appropriately called, "Referential." I asked my undergraduates to read Nabokov's story alongside it, and one student responded, "Wait. You can do that?"
This is the reaction that all great writing should evoke from those of us who write, and everything that Lorrie Moore has written has made me say, wait, you can do that?
She's quietly performed audacious, formal experiments that would later earn lavish praise for writers under her influence. I don't think we could have George Saunders or Sam Lipsyte or Juno Diaz without her, and we certainly wouldn't have me.
Lorrie Moore's honors include anthologizations too many to count, numerous prize nominations and fellowships, and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. Today, though, we're most grateful for her years here at Cornell. Her association with the MFA program continues to lure to Ithaca some of the funniest and most brilliant young writers in the world, a few of whom are in the audience today. And so let me invite them and all of you to help me welcome Lorrie Moore.
LORRIE MOORE: That was so sweet. Is that right? So this doesn't work at all. This is just a fake.
I did-- I often tell people I did once read an entire story into what I thought was a microphone, and it was a reading lamp.
So now sometimes I look at microphones and I think, oh, this is a reading lamp. But no, there's no light. So are we OK now? But this is a useless thing, or this-- it's just decorative? Decorative microphone. OK. I'm going [INAUDIBLE]--
SPEAKER 2: We can make it louder.
LORRIE MOORE: Really? Maybe it's not decorative. Maybe.
SPEAKER 3: Can I help visually?
LORRIE MOORE: Oh, visually, it needs to be down?
SPEAKER 3: Well, so I can see your face.
LORRIE MOORE: Oh, because you're the photographer. That's--
Is that-- that's better?
LORRIE MOORE: OK. All right. That sounds really loud. That's just to me. It might send you all running from the room. I'm going to read a story, and then I'll open things up for questions, if you have any questions. It's really a thrill to be back here. I haven't been here in about 10 years, I think, and I was here as a student from '80 to '82, and then I continued for two more years as a lecturer. And I had Allison [? Lurie ?] and Lamar [? Herron ?] and Jim McConkey and Dan McCall as my teachers, and they were fantastic. And it was here that I became a writer, for better or worse. The world has Cornell to blame. At any rate-- and it's beautiful to be back. Everything is so spruced up since I was a student.
The name of the story is "Thank You for Having Me," and that's how I feel. The day following Michael Jackson's death, I was constructing my own memorial for him. I played his videos on YouTube and sat in the kitchen at night with the iPod light at the table center the only source of illumination. I listened to "Man in the Mirror" and "Ben," my favorite, even if it was about a killer rat. I tried not to think about its being about a rat, as it was also the name of an old beau, who had emailed me from Istanbul upon hearing of Jackson's death. Apparently, there was no one in Turkey to talk about it with.
"When I heard the news of Jackson's death, I thought of you," the ex-beau had written, "and that sweet, loose-limbed dance you used to do to one of his uptempo numbers."
I tried to think positively. "Well, at least Whitney Houston didn't die," I said to someone on the phone.
Every minute that ticked by in life contained very little information until suddenly, it contained too much.
"Mom, what are you doing?" asked my 15-year-old daughter, Nicky. "You look like a crazy lady sitting in the kitchen like this."
"I'm just listening to some music," I said.
"But like this?"
"I didn't want to disturb you," I said.
"You are so totally disturbing me," she said.
Nikki had lately announced a desire to have her own reality show so that the world could see what she had to put up with.
I pulled out the ear buds. "What are you wearing tomorrow?"
"Whatever," she said. "I mean, it-- does it matter?"
"Uh, no, not really."
Nikki sauntered out of the room. Of course it did not matter what young people wore. They were already amazing-looking without really knowing it, which was also part of their beauty. I was going to be Nikki's date at the wedding of Maria, her former babysitter, and Nikki was going to be mine. The person who needed to be careful what she wore was me.
It was a wedding in the country, a half-hour drive. And we arrived on time, but somehow, we seemed the last ones there. Guests milled about semi-purposefully. Maria, an attractive, restless Brazilian was marrying a local farm boy-- for the second time, a second farm boy on a second farm.
The previous farm boy she had married, Ian, was present as well. He had been hired to play music, and the guests-- as the guests floated by with their plastic cups of wine, Ian sat there playing a low, melancholic version of "I Want You Back," except he didn't seem to want her back. He was smiling and nodding at everyone and seemed happy to be part of this sendoff. He was the entertainment. He wore a T-shirt that read "thank you for having me." This seemed remarkably sanguine and useful, as well as a little beautiful. I wondered how it was done. I myself had never done anything remotely similar.
"Marriage is one long conversation," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Of course, he had died when he was 44, so he had no idea how long the conversation could really get to be.
"I can't believe you wore that," Nikki whispered to me in her mauve eyelet sundress.
"I know. It was probably a mistake," I said. I was wearing a synthetic, leopard print sheath. I admired camouflage. A leopard's markings, I'd imagined, existed because a leopard's habitat had once been alive with snakes, and blending in was required. Leopards were frightened of snakes, and also of chimpanzees who were in turn frightened of leopards, a standoff between predator and prey, since there was a confusion as to which was which. This was also a scene in the wilds of my closet. Perhaps I'd watched too many nature documentaries.
"Maybe you could get Ian some lemonade," I said to Nikki. I'd already grabbed some wine from a passing black, plastic tray.
"Yes. Maybe I could," she said, and loped across the yard. I watched her broad, tan back and her confident gait. She was a gorgeous giantess. I was in awe to have such a daughter, also in fear, as in fearful for my life.
"It's good you and Maria have stayed friends," I said to Ian. Ian's father, who had one of those embarrassing father-in-law crushes on his son's departing wife, was not taking it so well. One could see him, misty-eyed, treading the edge of the property with some iced gin, keeping his eye out for Maria, waiting for her to come out of the house, waiting for an opening when she might be free of others so he could rush up and embrace her.
"Yes," Ian smiled. Ian sighed, and for a fleeting moment, everything felt completely fucked up. And then everything righted itself again. It felt important, spiritually, to go to weddings, to give balance to the wakes and memorial services. People shouldn't have been set in motion on this planet only to grieve losses. And without weddings, there were only funerals.
I had seen a soccer mom become a rhododendron with a plaque next to the soccer field parking lot, as if it had been watching all those matches that had killed her. I had seen a brilliant young student become a creative writing contest, as if it were all that writing that had been the thing to do him in. And I had seen the public defender become a justice fund, as if one paid for fairness with one's very life.
I had seen a dozen people become hunks of rock, with their names engraved so shockingly perfectly upon the surface, it looked as if they had indeed turned to stone and given a new life the way the moon has given it, through some lighting tricks and a face-like font. I had turned 100 Rolodex cards around to their blank sides.
So let a babysitter become a bride again. Let her marry over and over. So much urgent and life-like love went rumbling around underground and died there, never got expressed at all. So let some errant, inconvenient attraction have its way. There was so little time.
"There are a bazillion Brazilians here," said Nikki, arriving with two lemonades.
"What did you expect?" I said. I took one of the lemonades for Ian and put my arm around her. She was silent for a while.
"Do you ever think of Dad?" she asked.
"You mean Daddy?" The weekend her father left-- left the house, the town, the country, everything, packing so lightly I believed he would come back.
He had said, "You can raise Nikki by yourself. You'll be good at it."
And I had said, "Are you on crack?"
And he had replied, continuing to fold a blue twill jacket, "Yes, a little."
"Dadder, as in badder," Niki said now. She sometimes claimed to friends that her father had died, and when she was asked how, she would gaze bereavedly into the distance and say, "A really, really serious game of hangman."
Mothers and their only children of divorce were a skewed family dynamic, if they were families at all. Perhaps they were more like cruddy buddy movies, and the dialogue between them was unrecognizable as filial or parental. It contained more sibling banter than it should.
Still, I preferred the whole thing to being a lonely old spinster, the fate I had once thought I was most genetically destined for. If you were alone when you were born, alone when you were dying, really, absolutely alone when you were dead, why learn to be alone in between? If you had forgotten, it would quickly come back to you.
Aloneness was like riding a bike at gunpoint, with a gun in your own hand. Aloneness was the air in your tires, the wind in your hair. You didn't have to go looking for it with open arms. With open arms, you fell off the bike. I was drinking my wine too quickly.
Maria came out of the house in her beautiful, shoulder-less wedding dress, which was white as could be.
"What a fantastic costume," said Nikki archly. She was fearless. I felt paralyzed beside her, and the love I had for her was lust for this new, spiky Nikki, then for the old spiky one, which was still inside her somewhere, though it was a matter of faith to think so. Surely that was why faith had been d to raise teenagers without dying. Although, of course, it was also why death was invented-- to escape teenagers altogether.
"I can't believe Maria's wearing white," said Nikki.
I shrugged. "What color should she wear?"
"Gray," Nikki said immediately, "to acknowledge having a brain, a little gray matter."
"Actually," I said, "I saw something on PBS recently that said only the outer part of the brain-- and it does look like bark-- is gray. Apparently, the other half of the brain has a lot of white matter for connectivity."
Nikki snorted, as she often did when I uttered the letters P-B-S. "Then she should wear gray in acknowledgment of having half a brain."
I nodded. "I get your point," I said.
Guests were eating canopes on paper plates and having their pictures taken with the bride, not so much with Maria's new groom, a boy named Hank, which was short not for Henry, but for Johannes, and who was not wearing sunglasses like everyone else but was sort of squinting at Maria in pride and disbelief. Hank was also a musician, though he mostly repaired banjos and guitars, restrung and varnished them, and that was how he, Maria, and Ian had all met.
Now the air was filled with the old, silver jewelry smell of oncoming rain. I edged toward Ian, who was looking for the next song idly strumming, trying not to watch his father eye Maria.
"Whatcha got? 'I'll Be There?'" I asked cheerfully. Ian smiled and began to sing "I Will Always Love You," sounding oddly like Bob Dylan, but without the sneer. "You are a saint," I said when he finished. He was a sweet boy, and when Nikki was little, he had often come over and played soccer in the yard with her and Maria.
"Oh, no. I'm just a deposed king of corn," he said. "She bought the farm. I mean, I sold it to her. And then she flipped it and bought this one instead." He motioned toward the endless field beyond the tent, where the corn was [INAUDIBLE] and standing in mud, June not having been hot enough to evaporate the puddles. The tomatoes and the marijuana would not do well this year.
"Last night," he said, "I had a dream that I was in 'West Side Story,' and I'd forgotten all the words to 'I Like to be in America.' Doesn't take a genius to figure that one out."
"No," I said, "I guess not."
"Jesus, what is my dad doing?" he said, looking down and away. Ian's father was still prowling the perimeter a little drunkenly, not taking his eyes off the bride.
"The older generation," I said, shaking my head as if it didn't include me. "They can't take any change. There's too much missingness that has already accumulated. They can't take anymore."
"Jeez," Ian said, glancing up and over again. "I wish my dad would just get over her."
I swallowed more wine while holding Ian's lemonade. Over by the apple tree, there were three squirrels. A threesome of squirrels looked ominous, like a plague.
"What other songs you got?" I asked him. Nikki was off talking to Johannes-- Hank.
"I have to save a couple for the actual ceremony," he said.
"There's going to be an actual ceremony?"
"Sort of. Maybe not actual-actual. They have things they want to recite to each other."
"Oh, yes. That," I said.
"They're going to walk up together from the canopy toward the house, say whatever, and then people get to eat," he said. Everyone had brought food, and it was spread out on a long table between the house and the barn. I had brought two large roaster chickens, cooked accidentally unclean while I was listening to Michael Jackson o my iPod.
I actually got a query from the copy editor when the book was in page proofs. They said, "We don't think this is possible."
I said, "Uh, yeah, actually, it is."
But the chickens had looked OK, I thought, hanging off the bone a bit, but otherwise fine, even if not as fine as when they had started-- when they had started and had been Amish and air-chilled and a fortune, when I bought them the day before at Whole Foods and gasped at the total on my receipt. The cashier had said, "Yes, some people know how to shop here, and some people don't."
"$33.33," I said. "Perhaps that's good luck."
"Yep. It's about as lucky as two dead birds get to be," said the cashier.
"Is there a priest or anything? Will the marriage be legal?" I now asked Ian.
Ian smiled and shrugged. "They're going to say 'you do' after the other one says 'I do.' Double indemnity."
I put his lemonade down on a nearby table and gave him a soft chuck on the shoulder. We were both looking across the yard at Hank, who was wearing a tie made of yellow pot beads that formed themselves into the shape of an ear of corn. It had ingeniousness and tackiness both, like so much else created by people.
"That's a lot to dos," I said.
"I know," he said, "but I'm not making a beeline for the jokes."
"The doosey one, the doo-doo one. I'm not going to make any of them."
"Why would you make jokes?" I asked. "It's not like you're the best man." Ian looked down and twisted his mouth a little. "Oh, dear. You are?" I said. I squinted at him. When young, I had practiced doing the upside-down wink of a bird.
"Don't ask," he said.
"Hey, look." I put my arm around him. "George Harrison did it, and no one thought twice. Well, no one thought more than twice."
Nikki approached me quickly from across the grass. "Mom, your chickens looked disgusting. It's like they were hit by a truck."
The wedding party had started to line up, except Ian, who had to play. They were going to get the ceremony over with quickly, before the storm clouds to the west drifted near and made things worse. The bridesmaids began stepping first, a short trajectory from the canopy to the rosebushes, where the I do's would be said. Ian played "Here Comes the Bride."
The bridesmaids were in pastels, one the light peach of baby aspirin, one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam, the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam. What a idea to have the look of big pharma at your wedding. Why hadn't I thought of that? Why hadn't I thought of that until now?
"I take thee, dear Maria." They were uttering these promises themselves, just as Ian said they would. Hank said "I do" and Maria said "you do," then vise versa. At least Maria had taken off her sunglasses. "Young people," I tried not to say out loud with a sigh. Time went slowly, then stood still, then became undetectable. So who knew how long all this was taking?
A loud noise like mechanized thunder was coming from the highway. Strangely, it was not a storm. A group of motorcyclists boomed up the road, and instead of roaring by us, slowed, then turned right in at the driveway, a dozen of them, all on Harleys. I really didn't know motorcycles, but I knew every biker from Platteville to [INAUDIBLE] owned a Harley. That was just a regional fact.
They switched off their engines. None of the riders wore a helmet. They wore bandanas, except for the leader, who wore a football helmet with some Plush Puppy ears, which had been snipped from some child's stuffed animal, then glued on either side. He took out a hand gun and fired it three times into the air. Several guests screamed. I could make no sound at all. The biker with the gun and the puppy ears began to shout.
"I have a firearms license, and those were blanks, and this is self-defense because our group here has an easement that extends just this far into the driveway. Also, we were abused as children and as adults, and moreover, we have been eating a hell of a lot of Twinkies. Also, we are actually very peaceful people. We just know that life can get quite startling in its switches of channels, that there is a river and sea figure of speech as well as a TV one, which is why as life moves rudely past, you have to give it room. We understand that.
An occasion like this means no more forks in the road. All mistakes are behind you, and that means it's no longer really possible to make one-- not a big one. You already done that. I need to speak first, here, to the bride."
He looked around, but no one moved. He cleared his throat a bit. "Ahem. The errors a person already made can step forward and announce themselves and then freeze themselves into a charming little sculpture garden that can no longer hurt you, like a cemetery. And like a cemetery, it is the kind of freedom that is the opposite of free."
He looked in a positive way across the property toward Maria. "It's the flickering quantum zone of gun and none, got and not." He shifted uncomfortably, as if the phrase "flickering quantum zone" had taken a lot out of him.
"As I said, now I need to speak to the bride. Would that be you?" Maria shouted at him in Portuguese. Her bridesmaids joined in.
"What are they saying?" I murmured to Nikki.
"I forgot all my Portuguese," she said. "My whole childhood, I only remember Maria saying 'good job' to everything I did, so I now think of that as Portuguese."
"Yes," I murmured. "So do I."
"Good job!" Nikki shouted belligerently at the biker. "Good job being an asshole and interrupting a wedding."
"Nikki, leave this to the grownups," I whispered, but the guests just stood there, paralyzed, except Ian, who seemingly, very far off on the horizon, slowly stood, placing his guitar on the ground. He then took his white, collapsible chair in both hands and raised it over his head.
"Are you Caitlin?" the puppy-eared biker continued to address Maria, and she continued to curse, waving her sprigs of mint and sparia at him. She gave him the finger and when Hank tried to calm her, she gave Hank the finger.
The cyclist looked around with an expression that suggested he believed he might have the wrong country wedding. He took out his cell phone, took off his helmet, pressed someone on speed dial, then turned to speak into it. "Yo, Joe. I didn't-- I don't think you gave me the right address. Yeah. No, no, you don't get it. This ain't Caitlin's place. What? No, listen, what I'm saying is wrong [INAUDIBLE]. This ain't it. No speak easy English here."
He slammed the phone shut. He put his helmet back on, but Ian was moving slowly toward him with the chair over his head, crying the yelping cry of anyone who was trying to be a hero at his ex-wife's wedding.
"Sorry, people," the biker said. He gave the approaching Ian only a quick, unfazed double-take. He flicked one of his puppy ears at him and hurried to straddle his bike. "Wrong address, everybody."
Then his whole too-stoned-to-be-menacing gang started up their engines and rode away in a roar, kicking up dust from the driveway gravel. It was a relief to see them go. Ian continued to run down the road after them, howling, chair overhead, though the motorcycles were quickly out of sight.
"Should we follow Ian?" asked Nikki. Someone near us was phoning the police.
"Let Ian get it out of his system," I said.
"Yeah," she said, and now made a beeline for Maria. "Good job," I could hear Nikki say to Maria. "Good job getting married." And then Nikki threw her arms around her former caretaker and began, hunched and heaving, to weep on her shoulder. I couldn't bear to watch. There was a big, black zigzag across my heart.
I could hear Maria say, "Thank you for coming, Nikki. You and your mother are my heroes." Ian had not returned, and no one had gone looking for him. He would be back in time for the rain.
There was a rented disc jockey who started to put on some music, which blared from the speakers. Michael Jackson again. Every day there was something new to mourn and something old to celebrate. Civilization had learned this long ago and continued to remind us. Was that what the biker had meant? I moved toward the buffet table.
"You know, when you're hungry, there's nothing better than food," I said to a perfect stranger. I cut a small chunk of ham. I placed a deviled egg in my mouth and resisted the temptation to position it in front of my teeth and smile scarily the way we had done as children.
"Oh, look at those sad chickens," I said ambiguously and with my mouth full. There were rumors that the wedding cake was being frosted and that it would take a while. A few people were starting to dance before the dark clouds burst opened and ruined everything.
Next to the food table was a smaller one displaying a variety of insect repellents, aerosols and creams as if it were the vanity corner of a posh ladies' room, except with discrete constellations of nets. Guests were spraying themselves a little too closely to the food, and the smells of citronella and imminent rain combined in the air.
The biker was right. You had to unfreeze your feet, take blind steps backward, risk a loss of balance, risk an endless fall in order to give life room. Was that what he had said? Who knew?
People were shaking their bodies to Michael Jackson's "Shake Your Body." I wanted this song played at my funeral. Also, the Doobie Brothers' "Take It to the Streets." Also, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," just to fuck with people.
I put down my paper plate and plastic wine glass. I looked over at Ian's dad, who was once again brooding off by himself. "Come dance with someone your own age," I called to him. And because he did not say "that is so not going to happen," I approached him from across the lawn. As I got closer, I could see that since the days he would sometimes come to our house to pick up Maria and drive her home himself in the silver sports car of the recently single, he had had some eye work done, a lift to remove the puff and bloat. He would rather look startled and insane than look 56.
I grabbed both his hands and reeled him around.
"Whoa," he said with something like a smile, and he let go with one hand to raise it over his head and flutter it in a jokey, jazz razzmatazz. In sign language, it was the sign for applause. I needed my breath for dancing, so I tried not to laugh. Instead, I fixed my face into a grin, and ah, for a second, the sun came out to light up the side of the red and spinning barn. Thank you very much.
SPEAKER: OK, so--
LORRIE MOORE: Oh.
SPEAKER: Yeah, I guess I'm supposed to instruct people [INAUDIBLE]-- I'm sorry. I was very moved by your story, and now I have to say things.
LORRIE MOORE: Oh, you do?
SPEAKER: Yeah, I just have to say if you'd like to ask a question, please come on down and-- to the closest microphone and--
LORRIE MOORE: Oh, I don't think we even need the microphones if they're intimidating, because I don't-- this one doesn't even work, you know? I can probably hear you and repeat the question, but maybe not. We'll see. But if you want to cooperate with the room setup, you can just raise your hand in your seat and I'll call on you. I might call on you even if you don't raise your hand. Yes? Oh, arm wrestle.
AUDIENCE: John alluded to this in his introduction, the balance between a sadness and humor in your work. I wonder, as you're writing your story and your novels, how much of a back and forth is there as you're going along, trying to find the right balance between the darkness and also the humor? Sometimes the humor alleviates the darkness, but a lot of the times, it just amplifies it.
LORRIE MOORE: Yeah. I mean, most of the stories that I'm writing-- did you hear his question? Yes. OK. You have a good, booming voice. Most of the stories I'm writing, I think, are sad stories. I just love a good sad story. And then I start to write them, and the texture of life is very complicated and kind of amusing, and things start to creep in.
And also people-- when they talk to each other, always say funny things in horrible, horrible situations. It's just true. And so if you pay attention to that, and then if you're just alert to what your characters would be thinking and doing, the humor will just get in there.
It's also part of the submerged tension in the story that things erupt into humor, but it's just how the world is and how life works. I've just started a novel that I think of as being so, so completely dark and bleak, and I think this will be the first one that won't have a funny moment in there. This is-- this is way down there.
But you go very far down, there's more jokes down there. So there's starting to be a little bit of humor. I thought, get out. It's not supposed to be there, but you know, that's just life. That is just like if you're paying attention. That is-- you know, right? You don't go through a day without one funny thing happening, right? Prob-- no?
At any rate, it's really how the absurd human contours of existence-- it's just how they are in my mind. But I think if you don't include humor, you might not be telling the truth. Yes?
AUDIENCE: I'm wondering how long ago you wrote this story that you just read, how long it took you to write, and did you choose it because you feel it's very typical of your work or for another reason, or at random?
LORRIE MOORE: Did I choose it to read because-- no, I don't know. I don't know what's typical of my work, but I know that I'm moving this toward you as I speak.
SPEAKER: Why don't you repeat his question?
LORRIE MOORE: OK. Oh, the question was how long ago I wrote the story, how long it took, and why the heck did I read it. Right? Does that--
AUDIENCE: Do you think it--
LORRIE MOORE: Do I think it's typical of my work? I don't know what's typical. I have a writer friend who always says, "Well, this is just like a Lorrie Moore story." I said, "I have no idea what that means. I wish you'd stop saying that. I don't know what that means."
How long ago I wrote it? I don't-- maybe-- the book came out last spring, so I was probably still tinkering with it in the fall? So the fall of Septem-- the fall of 2013. Does that sound right? I don't know. Does it sound right to me? Sounds perfectly plausible to me.
And how long it took? I can't tell you. I don't know, except in 2006, I guess, is when Michael Jackson died. And I did go-- in June, and I did go to a June wedding in Wisconsin in 2006, the weekend Michael Jackson died. But I don't have a daughter, so I didn't go with my daughter, you and it was-- this is a fictional version completely, but I thought the occasion was interesting.
And I was thinking about that occasion as I was winding up my time in Wisconsin, although it still hasn't come to a close. So in some ways, this is my farewell story to Wisconsin, even though it's set in 2006. It was completed in 2013, published in 2014. I still have my house in Wisconsin. I no longer have a job there. I am teaching in Nashville.
But there is a kind of slight farewell, affectionate farewell with the red barn spinning at the end. I thought, "This is kind of like everything I find amusing and absurd about Wisconsin." The Harleys, the motorcycle gangs-- there's no helmet law in Wisconsin, so they ride around in the summertime without helmets. Everybody's growing marijuana in their farms-- at their farms. And that June was rather wet, so people were complaining. Anyway, so there's lots of things I was thinking about when I wrote that.
But how long it takes to write a story-- it just varies. I've written a story in a week, and I've written a story in a year and a half. It just depends. It depends on how long the story is. It depends on whether you really understand the complete story from the start or whether you have to discover some things as you go. And then there's all the rewriting. So that will take a long time. So I can't quite precisely say, but I was still making corrections in the-- right up to the end.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
LORRIE MOORE: OK. Yes?
AUDIENCE: I noticed during your reading that you seemed to laugh along with the [INAUDIBLE].
LORRIE MOORE: Oh, dear. I hate it when writers do that.
AUDIENCE: I love it it when writers do that.
LORRIE MOORE: Really?
LORRIE MOORE: No.
But I do find some things amusing, I guess. I don't know. Or maybe I have no self-control. I remember seeing Roseanne Barr when she first appeared on Johnny Carson, and she was very nervous. She's from Salt Lake City. She talked a lot about being Jewish in Salt Lake City, and she was really hilarious, but she was so nervous on Johnny Carson that she laughed after every joke, just guffawed at her own jokes. And I thought it was sort of endearing, but I also made a mental note-- never do that. Don't do that. So I don't know.
On the other hand, you end up thinking-- you put things in, I suppose, because you find them funny, or you leave them in because you find them funny. And so then you're reading along and you discover they're still there, that the printer didn't leave them out.
I don't know. I hope I wasn't laughing too loudly. You want to hear about Cornell-- you know stories about Cornell?
LORRIE MOORE: Well, I don't have any stories, but ask me questions and then I can answer. I just came from my undergraduate alma mater, and a former classmate of mine is now the president of the university. And he did take me aside at the dinner. He said, "Don't tell anyone what this place was like in the '70s." He was kind of nervous.
I said, "You were president of something, though, weren't you?" He said yes, and he was president of his fraternity, and he was president of the worst fraternity on campus. And I thought, God, no wonder he's nervous.
But he said, "Let's keep everything a secret about the '70s." I said OK. But I was here in the '80s at Cornell, and it was beautiful. But I mostly had my head in books and was trying to read and educate myself and write. So-- but if you have specific questions, I can try to answer them. Yes, Stephanie?
AUDIENCE: OK, so--
LORRIE MOORE: I remember-- by the way, I do remember Stephanie's job interview reading.
AUDIENCE: Oh, dear.
LORRIE MOORE: Which was during a snowstorm.
AUDIENCE: Two feet.
LORRIE MOORE: Three feet of snow. It was fantastic.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] the reading that I stopped halfway through.
LORRIE MOORE: You did. You stopped halfway through. It was in the temple of Zeus, and someone else continued it.
AUDIENCE: But they hired me anyway.
LORRIE MOORE: They were very smart. It was awesome.
AUDIENCE: But Lorrie, tell us, what were they doing in the workshops with people like Dan McCall? Were people drinking wine and smoking marijuana, or was everything very sedate and polite? Did people-- you can tell us now.
LORRIE MOORE: With Dan?
AUDIENCE: Decades have passed.
LORRIE MOORE: Dan-- no, we didn't drink with Dan because Dan didn't drink.
LORRIE MOORE: No, he was-- no, because he was really just on the wagon. He was on the wagon-- at least that semester he was on the wagon. He didn't drink. He said we were all a bunch of babies. He was excitingly irritable. He was excitingly rude, and everyone else would find a very kind and [? supple ?] way to put a criticism forward. But Dan was like, "What the heck is this?"
He didn't go as far as to sort of shoot the manuscripts with a gun or set them on fire. You hear about those stories. But he was mesmerizingly disrespectful of our work, which kind of caused us to work harder because he wasn't going to be easy to please. So I think we all worked very hard in that semester, but we didn't have-- we didn't have cars. We all had come from places where-- mostly cities-- and he was from California.
And he didn't understand, and he had the workshop in his house, and he didn't understand why we didn't have cars to get to his house. So that irked him. "You're all a bunch of babies. You don't have cars." That's what I remember the most.
But he was funny. He was very funny. He was very proud of his son. His name-- I've forgotten.
LORRIE MOORE: Steven. Yeah. I think Steven was only about 12 at the time, but he was very proud of his son. And I don't know. He was fun and interesting and didn't spare anyone's feelings.
So it was good to have a semester like that. If all of them had been like that, it would have been very discouraging to us all, but it was good to have one where a little bracing and get smacked around a little bit.
So you're curious what it was to-- yeah, we weren't drinking with Dan. Now, maybe that happened later and before, but not--
AUDIENCE: I think it happened later and before.
LORRIE MOORE: Yeah, could be. Could be, but not when I was here. Yeah. Oh, go ahead, because-- oh, you've heard stories. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: So do you read while you're writing, or are you somebody who doesn't like to read while you're writing? Or do you have any habit like that?
LORRIE MOORE: I try to read all the time, and if I-- and I try to write all the time. So if I said, well, I can't read when I write and I can't write when I read, that I wouldn't get anything done, I don't think. There are times when I feel that I've been teaching so much and reading so much student work that I have to take a break between that and my own writing and take in some prose that isn't apprentice prose. And so I will go on a reading binge, just sort of refresh my brain a little bit.
So the teaching life is-- I didn't even know-- I don't know. I didn't even know I'd become a teacher until last year. I opened up the New York Times and it said there was-- Chip McGrath had come to Nashville to do a little piece, and it said-- he said, "She is also well-known as a teacher." I thought, "I am?" And I thought, "Oh my God, that wasn't the plan."
I didn't know how that happened. I felt like I was reading my own obituary. And it was a little bit like that character in the Alice Munro story who falls in love with somebody and is writing him letters and then waiting for the letters to come back. And she's just there when the postman brings the mail and the letters never come, and she ends up getting married to the postman. Do you know that story in her first book?
So I feel like that when you're combining a writing life and a teaching life, there is that fear that you're going to end getting married to the postman. But there are worse things. There are worse things, but I do sometimes have to clear out the student-- I have great students. I have great students, but sometimes you just have to-- I'm thinking about their writing right now because I had to pack a couple of student theses in my suitcase.
AUDIENCE: Are you really nice to them? Or what's your--
LORRIE MOORE: Do I smack them around?
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] shoot their stories with your guns and--
LORRIE MOORE: Do I set them on fire? No. No, but I have to say, I've made two students cry. But I said very-- I spoke in a soft voice. But making them cry was something that caused them to-- the next thing they wrote was so great. So I thought, well, it worked. They were clearly struggling with something.
I did say to one student-- I said, you know, you have done all you can with this particular story. It has failed you. And she just burst into tears, but she went on. She's published three books now.
There was another student. I said, you know, you've told me so many interesting things about your life. I don't know why you're writing about this. Now, that's a very personal thing to say, and you would never say that to a graduate-- you never would say it to an undergrad. But at the graduate student level, you have to be writing. Finding your voice is one thing, but also finding the right subject is another thing.
And sometimes students are really-- they have their backs slightly turned on the most interesting things they know. And so you have to shuffle them a little bit, and it hurts. And then they come back with really good stuff. So both those students I made cry. They both published books very quickly.
So it was-- it was just-- but mostly, I don't make students cry.
SPEAKER: Lorrie, could we do one more?
LORRIE MOORE: Yes, one more. Yes?
AUDIENCE: When you see reviews of your work or when you meet readers of your work, do you feel like they're getting out of your stories what you're trying to put into them, or--
LORRIE MOORE: Oh, no. No. Say your question again. I'm sorry.
AUDIENCE: No, I was wondering--
LORRIE MOORE: Do readers--
AUDIENCE: When you write the story, you have some picture of what you're trying to put into it. And then, when you meet people who've read it and you talk to them, do they seem to get out of the story what you were trying to put into it?
LORRIE MOORE: Well, in theory, when you're working in literary fiction, what you're writing is complicated and complex enough that people can come at it from different angles and see different things. So if everyone had the exact same response, that would not be good. If they had the exact same response that I would have, that might not be good.
But there are times where-- sure, there are times when people have completely misunderstood something, including the gender of the narrator and things like that. And so there are some times where I think, wow, people are just misreading everything in America. People don't know how to read anymore.
But mostly, there's a lot of different interpretations available. There are a lot of different feelings available. My mother, when she reads my work, is always going--
"Why did that mother have to die?" Or "I just felt so sorry for that young woman." She'll always-- "I felt so sorry for the daughter figure," she'll say. Or she'll just say things that are not really the point of the story, but she's reading a certain way. She's a bright woman.
Everybody can have their own response unless it's completely off the deep end and really wrong. But you can't supervise it, so-- but that's part and parcel of writing literature, that it's going to be complex and people are going to have different responses.
And you'll have a different response at different times in your life. As you know when you read great literature-- I mean, not mine, but when you read Melville or James, you go back to-- or Nabokov-- you go back to it, and you can have a completely different response and notice completely different things at different ages. The text stays the same. It's you, the reader, has changed, and you notice different things. But OK. Thank you very much for coming.
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Lorrie Moore MFA '82 reads "Thank You For Having Me," as part of Cornell's Sesquicentennial celebration, April 24-27, 2015. Moore is the author of three novels and four story collections the most recent of which is Bark (2014), a finalist for the Story Prize.