Writer's Corner

Christopher Moore

December 5, 2007

Christopher Moore writes incredibly funny novels with the imagination most of us associate with the imbibing of too much absinthe. His first manuscript - Practical Demonkeeping - was bought by Disney before it was ever published as a book. As a matter of fact, all of his books have now been optioned or sold to producers, but as he likes to say, "none of them are in any danger of being made into a movie."

I first read Moore four years ago, long after then-AAR reviewer Mary Novak gave Bloodsucking Fiends Desert Isle Keeper status in 2001 (why I waited so long, I haven't a clue). When I saw that a sequel had been published in hardcover last year, I tried to hold out for a paperback release, and in order to stave off my impatience, picked up A Dirty Job at the end of this summer. Not only did it earn DIK status from me, I ran out right after turning the last page and paid hardcover price for that sequel, You Suck: A Love Story, set at approximately the same time as A Dirty Job (and weaves in and out some of the same characters). Before I'd even finished You Suck, I'd contacted the author about an interview. Over a period of about a week, he graciously answered all my questions, some of which were admittedly oddball.

My biggest quandry right now is which of Moore's other seven books to read next...will it be Practical Demonkeeping, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, or perhaps even The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove?

Interspersed with my questions are part of the Proust Questionnaire.

--Laurie Likes Books

 

What struck me when I read Bloodsucking Fiends was how well you captured Jody. Because the romance genre is mainly written by women, it’s always a joy to read a hero who actually seems to be a “guy”, and vice versa, when I read other fiction written by male writers, it’s always great to read a woman who seems like a woman. Can you talk about writing women…and does it help to be a Beta male?

Writing women isn't really any different from writing men characters, except that women tend to be more complicated. In real life, I mean. When a woman asks her man, "What are you thinking about?" and he says "Nothing," she assumes he's holding something back. Nope. That's how men are. Okay, maybe he was thinking about chips or breasts or chrome wheels, but essentially he wasn't having a complex inner dialogue about them, he was thinking, "would be nice." Women on the other hand, really do examine issues, and not always with the idea toward finding a course of action.

Of course, in fiction, you really don't have the luxury of going on with complex examination of all the aspects of people's feelings about an issue unless that's what your story is about, but you have to pay attention to that. In my second book, I wrote about a California new age blond who was gorgeous and a bit of an air head, and I was taken apart by critics for it. The funny thing was, that character was very closely based on a women I'd lived with for two years. To the point where I actually talked to her about what it was like to be beautiful and have it be a given that men would want her and she could get what she wanted just by looking good. She gave me some perspective on that, and much of what she said was a bit of a surprise. (Like "You just have to ignore all the wanting or it will drive you crazy," she said.) The point is, she was one of the most real characters I've written, but women hated her and I was accused of being a misogynist for portraying this air head blond. As if there's no such animal.

Since that book, I've tried to write women who were much more self-determined, even if they had some weaknesses. I think being a Beta Male helps simply because I define the imagination as the "big teeth" of the Beta Male, and imagination is what allows me to get into the head of these characters.

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I found myself laughing hysterically at the Yiddish that peppered A Dirty Job. Frankly, I found myself laughing hysterically through most of A Dirty Job. Please share the genesis of that book. I read somewhere that you had taken care of your mother while she was dying, and helped a girlfriend do the same. How do you get from such sadness to such laughter? I know that black humor is often what carries us through (we laughed like maniacs while picking out my dad’s coffin, of all things).

Well, I tend to write books on an every other basis. That is, every other one is theme-driven or plot-driven. I was ready to do a theme driven book, and I had been thinking for some time about the idea of a guy who was a hypochondriac getting the job of Death. Irony is a big stepping-off point for a lot of my stories.

Certainly caring for my mother and my girlfriend's mother while they were dying had a huge influence on what I wrote. I was able to see what worked and what didn't work when dealing with death and dying. One of the things that was evident right up to the end with both dying women, was that I could make them laugh, and I could make the family laugh, and it was like everyone got a two second vacation from carrying the weight of the world. When people are dying, you don't really talk about the future, and reminiscing can often lead to regrets, so as a survival mechanism you try to stay right there in the moment. You try to be present. In the moment. And laughter allows you to share a moment of joy with the dying and the grieving within the context of those moments. That's what I learned from going through the process, so putting that into the book was very natural.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? I have a pretty good imagination. I don't want to go there
To what faults do you feel most indulgent? All of them...caffeine addiction
Who are your favorite characters of fiction? Suzie in Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, Huck Finn, and Biff in my book Lamb
Who are your favorite characters in history? Ben Franklin, Benjamin Disraeli, and Leonardo
Who are your favorite heroes/heroines in real life? Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel
Who is your favorite musician? Bruce Springsteen
What is the quality you like most in a man...a woman? Kindness...humor
What is your most marked characteristic? My sense of humor

All romance readers are familiar with Alpha and Beta Heroes; we even have a special list at our site just for readers looking for Beta Heroes. A Dirty Job places an ordinary man in extraordinary situations, and the everyman becomes a hero because he must. He kind of reminds me of Bob Newhart in his Colonial Inn where everybody around him was nuts and he was relatively sane (albeit neurotic), reacting to the craziness around him. Charlie is certainly a more neurotic character than Dick Loudon, but he does spend most of his time reacting to the utter insanity occurring all around him. Is that how you wander around the world, or do you think it’s simply funnier to write that way?

Essentially, yes. It's funny to watch someone else freak out (in book form.) And Charlie became this comic voice, commenting on the action. It doesn't hurt that he's surrounded by smart-asses in the supporting cast. His sister Jane, Lily - the clerk in his store - and even the guy who teaches him to be Death, Minty Fresh, all are very sarcastic and have a lot of fun at his expense.

Your books zip by, whiz-bang, action-packed and filled with clever dialogue and situations. The only female writer I can think of who writes similarly is MaryJanice Davidson, who became famous for a series of Chick Lit/Vampire novels a few years ago (she also writes a mean werewolf). The biggest complaint about her books is that they lack substance; they’re all mile-a-minute and filled with clever dialogue. Personally, since her voice works for me, I’ve never minded. Are you ever criticized for being too funny at the detriment of substance, and, do you get into trouble for being blasphemous?

No, I don't get criticized for being too funny. I think people get what I do, and I take on some huge themes in some of my books (Death, Life of Christ, Faith). Writing funny stuff is what sets me apart from a hundred other novelists, so if I take criticism for it, I just have to own it. It's really the only reason I'm making a living at this. If people want something heavy, there's certainly no shortage of books that will bum you out.

You had several different types of job before being published. How did Practical Demonkeeping come to have been sold to the movies prior to its being published as a book?

[My] first sale was the movie rights to Disney. I hadn't sold Demonkeeping as a book in any other forum. I left my waiter job immediately because there were people who needed my shifts. Since I didn't get paid for six months, it turned out to be a mistake. I lived by kiting credit cards until I got the Disney money. Oh well.

Writers tend to live in their heads. Do you, and have you always? What were you like as a child, and what was your relationship with your parents?

I was an only child so I entertained myself a lot. I had no problem spending time by myself and still don't. I got along fine with my parents. I mean, they were strict but I didn't have anything to compare my life to. In my teens I fell out with my mother because, but I think that's fairly common with mothers and sons.

How disciplined are you as a writer? Do you outline carefully or simply go where your characters take you?

I'm as disciplined as I can be. When I'm working on a book I don't take days off and I try to limit the social engagements I have. I also don't book speaking engagements or tours if I can help it. That said, sometimes I get stuck for days at a time, so I get days off whether I want them or not. I didn't used to outline, but I do that more and more these last few years. First, because I write under deadline and I can't afford to get stuck because I don't know where the next scene is going, and also because I'm getting older and can't carry a whole book in my head the way I used to when I started. I literally used to be able to edit in my head when I was in the shower or waiting in line at the post office. Any more I can't remember what I wrote yesterday, let alone edit text in my head.

Your writing, though “zany”, is meticulous in terms of your word-smithing. How important is language to your writing in comparison to characterization and plot?

Language has to serve the material. Sometimes it's best to say things quickly and simply and get the hell out of the way, other times lyrical prose will really add to the readers experience. I sort of make decision on language based on what I'm doing. For instance, I have a couple of scenes in A Dirty Job where Charlie is walking through Chinatown. Nothing really happens, but I really wanted to convey the feeling of walking in a foreign land that is literally a block from his neighborhood, so I worked hard on the language and cadence in those scenes. But when demons from the underworld are attacking him, I just need to convey the images in the most concise language I can use, and any "color" I want in the writing has to be in the choice of the verbs, not in setting a mood or atmosphere.

I'm working on a book now that has deep Shakespearian influences right now, so as you'd guess, language is a big part of telling the story, so it's been a core focus to what I'm doing when I'm writing. Writing fiction is very much like juggling. You have to keep all the balls in the air. For me, those are character, action, humor, language, and theme. At any given time, too much focus on one of those elements will let the others fall too far, and you can lose your reader. I just try to keep all the balls in the air.

Readers often don’t realize how much research is involved in writing a book, even a funny one. It’s obvious that you studied death rituals for A Dirty Job, and that you are well-versed in vampire lore. Talk to us about research and how it impacts your writing process.

Each book calls for a different kind of research. For instance, I wrote a book called Lamb, which was about the life of Christ, and it was a huge, huge academic research project: history, theology, archeology, philosophy.... it went on and on. A book like that can take 18 months just to research. By contrast, my Christmas book, The Stupidest Angel, took almost no research. It was set in a town I'd written about before, and cast with characters I'd written about before. Mainly it was just telling the story.

Often I like to go to where I'm writing about and just observe people, eavesdrop. For Bloodsucking Fiends I went to the financial district in San Francisco and eavesdropped on secretaries at lunch - that's where I got much of the character for Jody, my vampire, who is a secretary at Transamerica when she is turned. For You Suck, which is the sequel, I already had the city and the Jody character down, but now I was introducing a sixteen year old Goth girl to the story, so I lurked on social networking sites for Goth kids and got the sense of how they spoke and how they thought. (Wildly more sophisticated and dark than anyone I knew at 16, by the way.) Abby Normal became a great character, but she's completely the product of research, and largely, I think she makes the book. In that case, I had to learn to not only write the point of view of a 16 year old girl, but I had to be funny in her voice as well. That sort of thing takes much more concentration than you might think reading a "light and funny" vampire story. Yet, if I do my work right, the work will be transparent, and light and funny is exactly what you'll experience.

What sort of humor attracts you? Are you a Three Stooges kind of guy, or an Oscar Wilde kind of guy…or both?

I tend more toward rhetorical humor - word-based humor, although I'm not a big fan of puns. When it comes to comedy in my books, I'll throw everything at the wall and hope something sticks. So I'll do word-play, set up characters and situations that will call for funny dialog, and I'm not above a camel or a monkey joke if they strike me funny. I had to learn to write physical humor in prose for my book Coyote Blue, which is about a Native American Trickster God who, unfortunately for me, is not the most eloquent character - most of the humor in the traditional tales came from almost slapstick situations, so I learned that was possible. But since that book I try to keep those kinds of scenes to a minimum, and if I do write physical humor, it's usually where a character is engaged in a completely bizarre situation and someone from the outside sort of steps into it and we see how silly it looks through that character's eyes. An example is when Charlie, in A Dirty Job, is being attacked by demons from the underworld that only he can see, and he is being observed by a homeless guy in the alley behind his shop. He appears to be a complete loon, of course. Hilarity ensues...

What do you most value in your friends? Consideration
What is your principle defect? Lack of discipline
What is your dream of happiness? I'm living it. Writing books that people love to read and being healthy
What to your mind would be the greatest of misfortunes? Catching on fire is right up there
What is it you most dislike? Cruelty
What historical figures do you most despise? George Bush, Dick Cheney, Torquemada
What natural gift would you like to possess? Brilliance

Where do you place yourself on the snark-meter?

I'm not very snarky at all. The rule I used to keep when writing comedy was "nothing mean-spirited". I've changed that rule since the Bush administration took power. Some people really earn the right to have vitriol rained down on them, and those evil bastards certainly qualify. But otherwise, I try to stay forgiving toward my characters. My characters, on the other hand, often go to 11 on the snark scale (like Abby Normal). In context, it works.

Tell us more about what you are working on now.

I'm working on a comedy set in Medieval England with tons of Shakespearian themes and references. It should be out next fall.

I'm loving You Suck, but do you need a Venn diagram to keep up with the characters who appear across your books?

Not really. I had to go back and read Bloodsucking Fiends before writing You Suck, obviously, because it had been 12 years since I'd written the first one, but mostly I have an idea of the character's personalities and I go from there.

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I realized Jody was the beautiful woman with the cigarette case who briefly appears in A Dirty Job. As for Lily being friends with Abby Normal...well, brilliant. Are you a fan of Young Frankenstein?

I am. Originally, when we met Abby Normal in A Dirty Job I had a line that talked about her taking her name from Mel Brooks' movie, but somewhere along the line it got cut.

I understand you wrote You Suck on behalf of readers. I know that when romance writers have done the same, the book has suffered. I don't see that at all in You Suck. Did you worry about that going in because it wasn't originally a story you were going to tell?

Not at all. People had been asking for a sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends for years, and I had wanted to do the sequel, but I had to get my career to a point where my name would carry a sequel. The original book was mispublished and didn't do well in hardcover, so it would have been a big career hole to write the sequel until I'd gotten my sales back up again.

 

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