Tom Hopkins on the Lorrie Moore/Chang-Rae Lee reading

Last year I saw ZZ Packer and Lorrie Moore read. Despite, or perhaps because of, my longtime adulation of Moore, I was disappointed by her delivery. (Packer was great.)

When Tom Hopkins mentioned in email last week that he had tickets to the New Yorker Festival’s Chang-Rae Lee/Lorrie Moore reading at Satalla, I asked him to let me know how he liked it. His dispatch, posted below, is a good counterpoint to my disappointment. (And if you’re looking for more New Yorker Festival coverage, Emily Gordon of Emdashes has been covering it for the past week. Here’s her wrap-up pop quiz.)

Apologies in advance for both the inaccuracy of quotes tipsily scrawled in the dark on index cards, and for my enormous crush on Ms. Moore, rivaled only by my adoration of Judy Budnitz and Aimee Bender.

Both readers were introduced by New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. Chang-Rae Lee read first, which seemed sensible, as Lorrie Moore is a hard act to follow. Lee read part of the novel he’s working on now, a section about a woman dealing with the physical and emotional detritus from a shared life, after the death of her husband. (He said that although he never writes short stories, he wished he did, exactly for occasions like this.)

Moore read “The Juniper Tree” (a ghost story of sorts, set in a college town), which was published in this year’s January 17 issue of The New Yorker. My friend Nicole had hoped to hear something new and unfamiliar (like the section of the novel-in-progress she read at the AWP conference in Chicago in 2004), but I was charmed to see someone read not from manuscript pages, or from a bound book, but from an old copy of the magazine itself. When she got to these lines:

Every woman I knew here drank — nightly. In rejecting the lives of our mothers, we found ourselves looking for stray volts of mother-love in the very places they would never be found: gin, men, the college, our own mothers, and one another.

She said, “I just left my gin on the table over there, actually.”

Treisman, I think (it was hard to see from my vantage point), offered to bring Moore her glass.

“No, it’s okay,” she said, and continued reading. When she got to this line, a little while later — “‘Maybe we all drink too much gin,’ I said,” — she raised an eyebrow and got a laugh. (Moore’s sense of humor as a writer, for my money, is only amplified as she reads her own work, with a sublime mix of languorous vowels and effortlessly nailed punchlines, combined with this kind of occasional running commentary.) And she’s brave on stage; when she reached the part where her narrator sings “The Star-Spangled Banner” “slowly,” and “not without a little twang,” she did exactly that with the lyrics quoted in the story (“I’m actually going to do this,” she said). She got one whoop at the high note, and one person clapped briskly at the end of the song (“You’re too kind,” Moore said).

After her story, Lee and Treisman came back up on stage for the Q&A. Someone asked how one maintains a balance between writing and teaching. “The trick is to be content to do everything badly,” Moore said.

There was a question about the process of writing — about the difference between loving what you’ve written and grappling with it. “Those aren’t mutually exclusive conditions,” Moore said; she made a comparison between the long and difficult work of writing and that of marriage. Plus, “loving what you’ve written is probably a bad sign,” she said. Treisman added that for some of the fiction writers she works with, there’s an urgency to keep the writing the same, untouched—but that that’s quite different from love.

The authors were asked what they’re reading now. Lee said Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad is good. Moore said Hermione Lee essays, and also Alice Munro’s The Moons of Jupiter, as she’s writing a new introduction to the collection that’s due soon.

There was a question about how much they think, as writers, about the business of writing. “Isn’t that the job of the agent?” Lee asked. “You don’t think about it when you’re working, certainly,” he said. He added that the business side of things is, at least for him, a humbling experience. “A lot of people assume that many people read my books — but very many people don’t,” he said, which got a laugh from the audience.

After another question that I couldn’t make out, Lee told the story of how he began as a writer, how at his first job out of college, on Wall Street, he was surrounded by people who talked about writing “the great American novel,” but never did anything about it. He didn’t want to be that way, he said. After a year there, he quit, and wrote “a big, hairy book,” which he thought was clever, although “people hated it.” But he kept at it, began again — which, I believe, is how his first published novel, Native Speaker, came about. [Interjection from Maud: good book.]

Someone asked whether the writers derive their inspiration from solitude or society; Moore said it’s both, and then there are the “things that just happen at your desk.” Lee said, “I think I’m a good observer, but I don’t think I make a practice of it.” He said that however he gets his stories, since he only writes a few every ten years, the important thing is that he feel “super connected” to them.

My friend Nicole asked the last question, about writing short stories in the second person, and if Moore ever worried that she’d unleashed a monster. Moore talked about how she’d originally derived the inspiration for the second-person stories in Self-Help from poetry, where the voice is more common than in fiction.

It’s a “very addicting kind of voice,” she said; she’d only meant to write one story like that, then she wrote six. She said she certainly wasn’t the only writer to use the voice — she mentioned Junot Diaz and Michael Cunningham, among others — but writing instructors blame her personally for its continued popularity in the workshop setting.

She once told an angry professor that she, as a teacher herself, gets those stories too, and he replied, “you should get them all.”

But “I haven’t written one in twenty years,” Moore said.


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