Moody is very much a musician––not a hobbyist, but one whose art crosses borders, finding expression beyond the page. He is a composer, a soloist, and a member of The Wingdale Community Singers, which he’s described as creating “slightly modernist folk music.”
Rick Moody came of age among a group of young male writers who would go on to achieve rock-star status in the field of literature. Alongside peers such as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Jeffrey Eugenides, Moody, with acclaimed books such as The Ice Storm and demonology, was a critical part of a writing tree that would shape literature. A stylistic virtuoso, Moody’s prose reflects the rhythm and beats of the lives of his characters, be it the suburban realism of Garden State or the futuristic satire of The Four Fingers of Death. One reviewer noted, “Moody’s characters are like word-chords... brutal experience set to the available music of language.”
In this interview, the subject is Moody’s music, and its connections to his writing. He was interviewed by Mount Hope’s Bradley Bermont.
Mount Hope: Were your interests in music and literature at odds during your early years? Which came first?
Rick Moody: These two interests came at about the same time. I was taking voice and piano lessons when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and that was also the period that I really started reading fiction for adults (instead of the pabulum that they give kids to read). Everyone in my family sang to one degree or another, so there was much music in the household. The radio in the car (the A.M. radio, in those days) was a locus of dispute. I can remember regularly refusing to get out of the car because I wanted to hear the end of a song. Of course, everyone read a lot in my family, as well. Both my parents are voracious readers.
MH: In 2009, you said in an interview that you feel “the way to describe the world is to get longer, not shorter.” As forms of storytelling, where do you see literature going? Do you have a similar view for music?
RM: I suppose I don’t need to describe what will happen in the future of literature so much as I need to describe what I personally want from literature. The world, these days, seems to prize brevity, and also to appreciate very conservative ideas of story structure. But I am not a fan of brevity or of conservative ideas of story structure. I like long, demanding, multifarious books, books that hop around in terms of time, locale, character. I like things that require significant outlays of attention. I like imagination. I am, I suppose, somewhat reactionary in this, if by reactionary you mean against the status quo. The novel has gotten where it has gotten by being a polyglot form. It is never just one thing. And every negation is, later, the site of an affirmation. So being reactionary, or stubborn, or iconoclastic, or temperamental, or howsoever you want to call it, is just being devoted to the form, to all the possibilities of the form. What I despise most is formula, because wherever there is a formula there is artifice.
MH: How is a reading performance different than a musical piece?
RM: Playing music live has made me a better reader, just as acting in college made me a better reader. I think it’s a mistake to get up there and read words on the page. You’re supposed to create an environment in which people are interested in the book, right? So a memorable reading will create some interest. I would say that I am a better reader than I am a musician right now, because I am always confident, or mostly confident, in reading situations. But I am getting better at music, and I enjoy the challenge of it. And I think this, in turn, helps me in literary performance.
MH: Do you find any aspects of musical composition that leaks into your writing process or vice versa?
RM: I asked this very question of a musician friend who is also a writer, recently, and he was a little peeved. He said one is like swimming and one is like climbing a mountain. I never did get it worked out which was which.
MH: People often say that “Boys” has a musicality to it. Did you see that as a piece of music?
RM: More like a prose poem, probably. (By which I do not mean that I think I am a poet, but that as a piece of fiction, “Boys” borrows from some formal tropes of poetry, anaphora, e.g.) But I was sort of thinking of jazz in those days, as an inspiration. Like those long Coltrane pieces, “India,” or “Impressions,” where he sort of can’t figure out how to stop. I think Miles Davis is reputed to have said to Coltrane: just take the horn out of your mouth.
MH: Is there any correlation between what you’re listening to and what you’re writing?
RM: Not really, although sometimes if something really moves me, you can tell in what I was writing that day.
MH: Many of the tracks on Spirit Duplicator have a very antique, folky feel to them. Which band members provide the array of influences present?
RM: The band, as a unit distinct from its individual members, has certain inclinations, and old folk music is very much among these inclinations, as is country and western, gospel, early singer-songwriter music. We all like this kind of material. We are, however, trying to move away from being pigeonholed as a folk band, and I think our future efforts will be a little more contemporary in some ways.
MH: Will you be releasing any more solo albums? Albums with The Wingdale Community Singers?
RM: The Wingdales are at work on album number three as we speak. It’s pretty far along. I am assembling songs for a potential solo album, and a spoken word album. Wesley Stace and I made an album as Authros, which is composed entirely of covers and sounds a bit like Simon and Garfunkel. And the community choir project in which I participate, We Are Your Friends, has made an album length cover of Kraftwerk’s Computer World, without instrumental backing of any kind. I have also composed a fair amount of computer music recently, including some soundtracks for video, and so on. There has been a lot of music in my life recently.
MH: Musically, how does the creative process differ in writing music within a group dynamic as opposed to solo pieces?
RM: The whole point for me, as a musician, to the extent that I am one, is to work with other people. It’s all about that process. I have plenty of time to be the sole arbiter of my fate as a writer. It’s a great blessing to put this aside and to work with others. And, in particular, to let go of the need to control the fate of The Wingdale Community Singers and just be part of the project. I have had my moments of wanting to be able to determine where the band is going, but lately I have just sort of given myself over to it, to allowing it to use me however it wishes. This is good. I am sometimes bored of myself and my interests. And bored of language, and fiction. Music, and especially the collaborative part of music, gives me a way out.
MH: The Four Fingers of Death was a departure from your more recognized works in its length, its language, and its overall tone. What spawned this? Are there any plans to continue in this style?
RM: The only way Four Fingers seems different to me is in its length. And even that doesn’t seem so different, because The Diviners, the novel that preceded it, was 600 manuscript pages, as well. I was already getting longer, five years earlier. In terms of its language, Four Fingers sounds like Rick Moody to me. And its overall tone, which is morbidly comic, is not far from the unrepentant satire of The Diviners. If you consider Right Livelihoods, my book of novellas, as a relation to these two, it makes clear that for eight or nine years, I wrote varieties of comic fiction. This I did because when I wrote a very serious memoir before that, I got my ass handed to me. So I wrote comic fiction for a while. I think I may now be finished with that, to some extent, and am embarked on something closer to the model of Purple America, my novel from 1997, which is to say a book that is dense, lyrical, domestic, and somewhat sad. We’ll see. I’ve only written a couple of hundred pages so far.§