The Rumpus Book Club chats with Rick Moody about his new book Hotels of North America, unreliable narrators, hotel porn, how titles are uncopyrightable, and Internet comment sections.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
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This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Rick Moody: Hey you guys, I am here. And I just want to say to those of you in California, or those who have been watching the news today, I feel for all of you. It has been a strange, awful day. When Sandy Hook Elementary happened, I felt great additional horror, because I grew up in CT, and my brother lives on the other end of the Newtown Turnpike, and that these things happen is shameful and supremely upsetting, but then somehow it’s even worse when it’s nearby. Though what the present indicates is that if it hasn’t been nearby yet, it will be. Anyway, it has all been much on my mind today. California, you are in my thoughts.
Brian S: Hi Rick! Thanks for that kind note.
Where are you joining us from tonight? Are you at home or on the road in a hotel room deserving of a review?
Rick Moody: I am at home. Not in a hotel. Thank god!
Brian S: The closest I’ve been to a mass shooting was when I was in grad school—first day of my second year. A troubled grad student shot a professor in his office while I was right down the hall. It changed my attitude toward guns immediately.
Molly: I was flattered that you included Regina in the book, as that is where I live—you know us insecure Canadians!
Rick Moody: I visited Regina while writing the book. Fascinating and strange. The countryside was sort of not to be believed!
Molly: What time of year did you visit Saskatchewan?
Rick Moody: July.
Jordan K: I’m here in LA about 40 miles from San Bernadino. Downtown LA was tense today.
Rick Moody: I bet LA was tense.
Molly: The best time of year to see the Prairies—my real name is Chris Pepin, although maybe I should always intro myself with a question—I asked it because I felt both sympathy and disgust for Mr. Moore. Having ambivalent feelings for a main character is probably the sign of a strong story, I would guess
Rick Moody: I suppose that is how I think about people I know. Or, maybe, I suppose that the sympathetic/unsympathetic debate about characters sometimes feels to me like a misstatement of purpose. I always think of truly complex characters are falling between the cracks in that debate.
Brian S: I was ambivalent towards him at times, pitied him in others, saw myself in him when he described his body. It was a journey.
Rick Moody: Also: I think first-person narrators should be complex, because otherwise the first-person is too shallow and predictable. I like a first-person narrator who can’t totally be trusted.
Molly: You are right—sometimes we have the most negative feelings towards what we see as faults in those closest to us…
So is R.E. Morse in any way a real person? I was not sure whether or not to take the afterword as fiction or nonfiction.
I enjoy unreliable narrators
Jordan K: I felt like I doubly couldn’t trust R.E. Can you ever trust an online reviewer?
Brian S: This will be a weird question, I assume, but… you didn’t always include zip codes, but you did on Des Moines (which is where I live currently) which is why I noticed it and noticed that it’s not a zip code for around here. And so I googled it, because that’s what I do, and found that it’s not a zip code at all (not yet anyway). Did you do that sort of thing deliberately? Is it an Easter egg of sorts for the novel?
Rick Moody: Brian, I’m going to avoid the Des Moines question! My wife is from Iowa, and there are a couple of Iowa in-jokes tucked in.
Molly, you’re supposed to wonder about the afterword! But I would aver in this audience that the book is 100% imaginative work.
Molly: I enjoyed how you casually threw in now and then Reginald’s work history with CDOs—a sly comment on the financial crisis…
Jordan K: (alleged work history)
Molly: Jordan—good point—he could have been lying…
Rick Moody: It’s very intentional. In the sense that I see Reg as someone having fallen out of the economy.
Brian S: He struck me as someone who was just smart enough to get in the door for most any job, but unwilling to do what was needed to keep it. I’ve known lots of people like that in my life.
Molly: And so the North American Society of Hoteliers and Innkeepers guy is fiction as well? (Is that a real organization?)
Rick Moody: Totally made up.
Molly: I really valued Reg’s self-description of falling down economically, as that is happening to so many Canadians and Americans today. Perhaps our suspicion of Reg is supposed to make us question our tendency to blame financial problems only on irresponsibility, etc. (BTW, I am an economist.)
Rick Moody: I’m hoping you’re going to say that he really sounded like an actual hotel lobbyist.
Molly: Is that meant as a pun?
Brian S: You used the right number of exclamation points, that’s for sure.
Molly: Yeah, it did seem really believable! Maybe it’s because last month, we read Upright Beasts, and it had a totally nonfiction-like afterword on the font type, that was totally made up, but I am very into questioning what’s fiction and what’s fact at the moment in what I read 🙂
Rick Moody: I’m honored to have an economist in the room. Right. The Great Recession is not imaginary, and the effects loom large. There was an article in the NYT about the galloping death rate among white men in middle age right now. Higher than among any other demographic, etc. Mostly death by drugs, alcohol, or suicide. Many of them rural. My feeling is that it’s many people who haven’t been able to get back into the work force. Reg Morse is an example of the problem.
Brian S: This is more a process question—did the character of RE Morse come to you first, or did the structure of the novel, or what? How did this move from idea to novel?
Molly: We need novelists to emphasize these kinds of problems, because a lot of the people who become economists are narrative-impaired…
Rick Moody: Well, the idea to make hotel reviews the form of the novel came first. But I was very aware that I needed a person to make it stick. So then the idea was how to make that person? I thought about it the way Olivier thought about character: he needed to get into the clothes and make up. I needed to get into his clothes a bit. So I just started writing hotel reviews and tried to come up with a consistent voice. After a while I felt him in my head. I could hear him talking almost.
Brian S: Did you write online reviews and spar with commenters at all?
Okay, you answered the first part of that. 🙂
Molly: Do you dislike bed and breakfasts as well?
Rick Moody: You know I have sparred with commenters as a music writer (on The Rumpus, among other places, see e.g., my review about Taylor Swift), and that was plenty of training!
Molly: Have you been to many of these hotels? the B&B one was my favorite—it reminded me of the B&B skit on Portlandia. I also really dislike breakfast conversation, so I laughed at that part!!
Rick Moody: Yeah, I hate B&Bs. No thanks.
Brian S: RE Morse’s argument about B&B’s is pretty solid, I have to say.
Rick Moody: If I’m going to feel estranged and alienated and away from home I don’t want anyone interrupting it to debate which berries to have in their pancakes.
Jordan K: I loved his soliloquy on the idea of home. Really up until that point, I didn’t really feel he had a sense of it.
Rick Moody: Molly—my wife and I love Portland—we take Amtrak from North Dakota. We also love Portlandia…
Guest: Molly—the 90s song is going through my head as an earworm right now…
Rick Moody: What home is is maybe worked out as an absence, rather than a presence, till the home litany section.
Brian S: There were so many moments like that in the book. The part where one commenter deduces that RE Morse has no hands because he never mentions picking up his daughter hit me because I find myself swinging my babies around all the time.
The chapter on hotel porn is one that made me laugh out loud too, I have to admit.
Molly: *the dream of the 90s is alive* in Portland, Portland, Portland…
I am curious how you chose the sequencing. I noticed that it was not in chronological or geographical order. I’m guessing maybe it was an organic, narrative choice?
I too loved the porn section…
Rick Moody: Well, you can actually read it in two separate sequences if you want, which is why I made those laborious endpaper graphs in which the order is reconverted into chronological order. But the thing is: it’s sadder in chronological order. I tried to end it such that it seems a little bit like a love story. Or at least Reg thinks of it that way.
Molly: Ah, interesting. And I guess you could also read it in sections by relationships. His new relationship seemed pretty rocky from the start…
Rick Moody: At one point, there was a second graph that showed the chronology of WHEN he posted what he posted, which indicates there were gaps, because of his alcoholism.
One critic, Michael Silverblatt, read it in chronological order and said it was more bleak that way.
Molly: I loved the language arts professor.
Rick Moody: I’m glad.
Jordan K: It’s hard to trust him because it’s clear he was an early adapter of using the Internet for social purposes. (Ladyboy incident and meeting his wife on the net in ’99.)
Rick Moody: I wouldn’t trust him at all.
Brian S: The various ways of approaching the book make me wonder how much the e-book version could take advantage of that, like have it reorder the book automatically depending on how you wanted to read it.
Jordan K: But… he always was interested in being himself to those people.
Rick Moody: I wish! That would be a really plausible way of making the e-book. I really want to be able to make an e-book like that one day.
Brian S: There’s always a bit of fictionalizing in online personas, right? Even when you think you’re being honest, you’re still presenting a face to a public.
Molly: Maybe you could write a short story about the Filipino physics student/phone sex worker—he was intriguing.
Rick Moody: I don’t think Reg is a liar as much as he is just entirely inaccurate about what’s going on around him. Bad reality testing. Major theme of the book, from my point of view: what is persona, what is self, in the digital sphere, and/or what is the effect of it on self in a prolonged interaction.
Brian S: You know, that’s the kind of thing I really want e-books to do, as opposed to just recreating the paper book on a device. Take advantage of the format!
Rick Moody: I had a talk with the president of my publisher last night, and he averred that e-books are dropping off this year, rather steeply. So I wonder if the potential advantages are really going to happen as quickly as they ought.
Molly: People likely expect really cheap e-books; but it still takes (say) two years to write a novel; and publishers need cash flow too…
Molly: Laptop sales are slowing just like household purchases of desktops. I am not sure how entertaining it is to read one 400-page novel on a smart phone…
Brian S: And something like 85% of the cost of publishing is still there for e-books, between editing and publicity, and so on. The printing and shipping of paper is not as large a factor as most people assume it is.
I think what’s likely to happen as far as people actually exploiting the e-book is that it’ll be a small press who shows what’s possible and then a big press runs with it.
Rick Moody: Totally agree about a small press. I think Dzanc was trying to get into it.
Brian S: I’m the exception, but I prefer reading longer novels on devices at this point. I get depressed by the weight of the book. I failed to read Ulysses four times and only succeeded when I read it on an iPad, because I didn’t feel the weight of all those pages left to get through.
Molly: In Canada lots of small presses get $ from the provincial and federal governments, but a lot of them still have problems finding large enough markets.
Rick Moody: I published a bunch of my older books in e-book format with Open Road, which is great and has tons of hard to find older books available there.
I read a lot of The Canterbury Tales on my phone last year, because I was cycling between three different editions, and I needed to have a middle-of-the-night edition for the insomniac reading.
Brian S: About how long did you work on this novel?
Rick Moody: Two years-ish. I started a different one, first, in 1999, and put it down. Seemed too old-fashioned somehow.
Molly: Science fiction seems to work in e-format, but the readers of this genre often love new technology.
A different book on a similar concept?
Rick Moody: No, a much more traditional form. And it just didn’t seem like it had anything to do with how we live now. I sort of hate the novel when it doesn’t push, restlessly, against the tradition and the traditional.
Molly: Would you turn this book into a movie—it seems the epistolary format could be reworked many ways into a script. (The Ice Storm remains one of my favorite films…)
Ah, interesting. I definitely enjoyed this form.
Rick Moody: It’s funny. I always feel I have made unfilmable books. I even felt that way about a book of mine that was later made into a movie. But my wife, who has made two films, thinks this one would make a very original film. I’m all for original films.
Jordan K: Garden State was a great film, I thought.
Better book though…
Rick Moody: Not my book however!
Mainly just stole the title!
Brian S: Does that happen a lot, the mistaken authorship?
Rick Moody: You mean that people think it’s my Garden State? The problem is that titles are uncopyrightable. You can write The Marriage Plot, again, if you want.
Jordan K: Ha!
Molly: Ah, I didn’t know that about titles and copyrights.
Brian S: Copyright is a confusing and terrifying area of the law, from what I’ve read.
What are you working on these days? Unless you’re one of the many authors who don’t talk about that before the pieces are done.
Rick Moody: A memoir. About marriage.
Jordan K: The Marriage Plot?
Brian S: Do you find it difficult to switch between memoir and fiction?
Rick Moody: Well, in general, each form is a relief from the other forms. I can’t write a novel after a novel. I just use up all the material each time, and I need to rest. Updike worked this way, and I just kinda borrowed it from him. So the memoir will be relief from novel writing for a moment. Though I do have a good idea for a next novel.
Molly: I also wanted to mention that I loved Reg’s vocabulary and way of saying things. Probably because I meditate, I picked up on the sensei’s description of viewing thoughts like billboard ads that you don’t call. I may quote that if I start teaching yoga.
Rick Moody: Ha! I would be honored.
Molly: Would you ever write a genre-specific novel, or would you consider any of your past books part of one?
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? Is there anything you’ve seen an advance of that we should keep an eye out for?
Rick Moody: I wrote a story called “The Albertine Notes” (it’s in a collection entitled Right Livelihoods from 2005) that was part of a genre assignment. I consider it pretty classically situated in an idea of sf/speculative fiction that dates to Philip K. Dick or J. G. Ballard.
I’m not the guy to ask about the most up to date stuff. I am excited by the new Charles Bock novel, which comes out in February, I think. And also the new novel by Samantha Hunt. She’s a writer I really admire a lot. I have been reading a new manuscript by Steve Erickson, Shadowbahn, (great title) that is immensely promising.
Brian S: Do you have a stack (like me) of books you’re always trying to catch up on?
Rick Moody: Totally. I am still reading stuff I swore I would read in the summer of 2014.
Molly: I will read as that I am a big Phil Dick fan—did you know that Ballard spent time in the 50s at an airbase in Moose Jaw, SK? That is apparently when he decided to try science fiction…
Brian S: You are well ahead of me on that count.
Rick Moody: Moose Jaw! So awesome!
Molly: 60 km west of Regina…
Rick Moody: Is it on the prairie?
Rick Moody: That prairie is amazing.
Brian S: Well thanks for joining us tonight and for letting us have this book. It was a fun read and a terrific conversation.
Michelle: This has been a wonderful discussion; one of the more lively ones we’ve had lately! Thank you, and thank you for the book!
Rick Moody: My pleasure!