I have been asked “What are you reading?” most often when I have a Christopher Moore book in my hand. Usually this is due to the fact that I am laughing at the book. Loudly. In public. Moore’s brand of zaniness is like Looney Tunes come to life, if Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were slacker vampires, or the best friend of Jesus Christ, or the randy fool from King Lear (all characters from Moore’s oeuvre in the last twenty-three years). In the midst of all the shenanigans, it often surprises first-time Moore readers to discover that his novels tackle the meaning of death, grief, faith, love, and art with a deft sleight-of-hand that would make some of his more “literary” contemporaries envious. When I spoke to him, that warmth and humor made it feel as though I was catching up with an old friend instead of an author I’ve idolized since I was fifteen.
Moore’s latest book is Secondhand Souls, a sequel to A Dirty Job, which centers around Charlie Asher, a self-described “beta male” and all-around nice guy who has been chosen as a Death Merchant—someone who collects people’s souls attached to significant objects they made or owned after they die and sells those “soul objects” to keep the circle of life going. He’s also trying to raise his daughter, Sophie, singlehandedly, a task made more complicated when he discovers she is the Illuminatus (the Great Big Death). He’s also making time to spend with his new Buddhist nun girlfriend who has created her own army of en-souled creatures made of spare animal parts (the Squirrel People). And he’s fighting off the rising forces of the underworld (the Morrigan) that have come to destroy San Francisco. If it sounds complicated, it is, but Moore layers it all with sharp wit, genuine despair, absurdist humor, and a deep, abiding love for San Francisco.
The Rumpus: Secondhand Souls is a sequel to A Dirty Job, which came out in 2006, so what was it like kind of stepping back into this world after so long away?
Christopher Moore: Well, the world was fun, I always liked the characters and the reason I did another one was a lot of readers really liked the characters, too, and they wanted to see more of them. What was a surprise, and sort of tough, was that I spent almost four hundred pages in A Dirty Job getting this whole mythology up in the air, and establishing it, and with this one, it was all already going. All those balls were already in the air, and it was like “Wow, there’s a lot of stuff to handle.” So that whole aspect of it, it wasn’t so much hard to visit it, ’cause I live in the same neighborhood where Charlie lives in the book and so all of that was sort of easy. What was tough was the pace that was gonna be demanded by having so many elements that I took so long to establish already established, and you just go, “Oh, okay, go.” And it was a juggling act that was a little more difficult than I thought it was gonna be.
Rumpus: So did you have in the back of your mind when you were writing A Dirty Job that you might want to do a sequel? I know this isn’t your first sequel that you’ve done. Did you always plan to continue this as a series, like the vampire books, or was that a surprise?
Moore: No, no, you know it’s funny you should say that because I really did plan on doing a sequel to the vampire book and it was twelve years before I was able to because my publisher at the time sort of tanked the first book and you can’t do a sequel to a book that’s done horribly. But with Dirty Job, I thought it stood alone because I wrote it out of—I had experience with family members dying and helping care for them, and I thought “Oh I have something to say about death and dying,” and so that, I wrote A Dirty Job, but I thought, “Well that’s all I have to say about that for now,” and I sort of wrapped it up. So I didn’t plan it. This was basically by request. It was just sort of reader demand that they kept asking for it and kept asking for it and I thought, “Well, you know, maybe I should do it, it sounds like it’s something that people want.”
Rumpus: I was one of those readers, so I’m very glad that I got to see more of where these characters went on their journey. And I guess my next question is do you think that you would want to revisit these characters again?
Moore: I’m not close to it. I mean, I would want a little time to pass, and to be able to come at it a different way. I really have tried, even though I have another couple of sequels, and even committed a trilogy, I don’t, I’ve never really wanted to write the same book twice. And so I would want to come at this—and that’s why Secondhand Souls has so many elements that the first book didn’t have, like the whole ghosts on the bridge and all of that. So yeah, I’m not close to it at all, but I would need some time to sort of let it percolate and think about it and figure out how I could come back to it and make it a completely different kind of story, maybe set in that same world with the same characters. And I always like the idea that a little bit of time has passed. Either you start the story the minute after the other one ends, which is sort of what I did with the vampire books, or the characters’ lives go on, as they have in this, and so we come back and revisit them when a new sort of status quo has been established, when a new normal has been established, which is what happened with this one. But, so the short answer is sure, I’d do it again, but not right away.
Rumpus: You mentioned the ghosts on the bridge, and I really enjoyed that aspect of the novel. I thought that that was a really interesting way to kind of open up the supernatural world beyond what we had already seen so far. And I wondered how many of those stories were based on real people? I saw in the acknowledgments that Concepción and her lover, that was a real story. How much of that was based in real history, and how much of that was just from you?
Moore: Well, the Concepción and Count Rezanov, that’s based on a true story, including the fact that they brought his soil from his grave over to Venetia where she’s buried and reunited them after one hundred seventy years and the whole thing where she became a nun and waited for him, all of that was true. And it’s such a massive tragic romance, of a Romeo and Juliet sort of level that I—I don’t want to write a whole book about that, but I thought “That’s a piece of San Francisco history that really needs to be written.”
And I got to talk about San Francisco and Northern California when it was a part of Spain. The ghost stories were really to sort of illustrate the permanence of place, and this place between places, and place between time, which was the bridge. So that was true, and the Friends of Dorothy is based on a true story. Naval intelligence actually sent a guy to San Francisco to find Dorothy. It wasn’t in World War II, it was in the 1980s but that’s a real thing, they really were worried that there was somebody named Dorothy, like an insurgent. And the silliness, you know, that shows you what George Carlin used to say was the oxymoron, military intelligence. The fact that they sent somebody out to find Dorothy, ’cause they were worried about who these Friends of Dorothy were—
Rumpus: —and what she was planning, yeah.
Moore: Right, and so that was based in reality, and allowed me to kind of show what San Francisco was like during the 1940s, during the war years and how it had already started to sort of become an island of safety for the gay and lesbian community, you know? I mean it was still illegal to be gay, but there was this underground that had started in the city and you can’t write about San Francisco without acknowledging that community. So that was the way to do it and to show a historical background to it.
And also both of those, the baseball story and that story were—I like to write dialect, and I like to write in the vernacular and that allowed me to sort of play around with language a little bit, whereas in modern stories, I’ve been writing these Shakespeare-based stories where I get to play with language a lot, and I didn’t get to do that as much because people talk like we do. And so those allowed me to write in a sort of Damon Runyon-esque vernacular that goes out of time, that goes back to the mid-century and so forth.
Rumpus: Yeah. So I wanna kind of touch back on, you talked about the permanence of place and the history of San Francisco, and how that’s obviously so important to this book, and this book is your fifth that’s set in San Francisco, and I feel like in so many of your stories, that the city is such an important part of the characters’ lives and of the plots and there’s a lot of love that you can tell is there for the city, so how do you think that living in San Francisco has changed you as a writer, especially as the city has changed?
Moore: Well I think that, the bridge is there because I love the bridge. It’s my bridge, and you guys can use it if you want. (Laughs) But when I walk to the top of the hill now to look at it, it always makes me smile.
Driving across it is always like going to an art gallery, you know? It’s such a great piece of art and it’s iconic. But San Francisco’s a gorgeous city. Especially as United States cities go. ’Cause I grew up in the rust belt in Ohio, so cities were like Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and not Cleveland and Pittsburgh like they are now, where they’ve sort of got nice river zones or nice lake zones and so forth—they were like factories with a lot of dark soot.
And San Francisco’s not like that. A lot of light gets to the streets in San Francisco, and it’s pretty, and there’s vistas everywhere. Living here is—you get used to it, you get spoiled. I again would use the analogy of being in a museum or an art gallery, because everywhere you look it’s picture-perfect. Especially, I’m lucky enough to live on Russian Hill, so you look out over North Beach and the Bay Bridge or you look out over the Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of Fine Arts, which is this giant Parthenon-like structure that was from the Exposition of 1915 and so forth.
So I think that that just infuses your experience. If you’re not sheltered like I am by doing well enough that you can live above the poverty line, it’s not an easy place, and no city is an easy place to be if you’re poor, and there’s certainly that element in San Francisco, and I portrayed that in my books, but I’ve always liked the city. I was writing about it long before I lived here. But there’s an appreciation that comes out of sort of knowing the subtleties of the neighborhoods and the subtleties of life.
That’s what living in the city has done, it’s allowed me to, rather than just the big haunts of “it’s pretty and the weather is nice” and that sort of thing, it’s allowed me to sort of see how the city works and the underlying, very multiracial, international city. Much more so than the cities I grew up in.
Rumpus: And I think that’s definitely reflected in the book, too. One of the things that I like so much, especially I think about your San Francisco books, is that we get to see all those different layers of the city, and different neighborhoods, and different experiences, like reading about where Lily lives is entirely different than reading about where Charlie lives, and things like that. And I think that it helps us, you know, inform our opinions of the characters and how they’re bouncing off of each other. So yes, I’m very interested.
Moore: Well good, yeah it’s interesting because it’s trying, and again you don’t want to stop the action and describe a neighborhood and say why it’s this way. But what I hope comes through is like, “wow, this city doesn’t even have the same weather from one neighborhood to the next.” It doesn’t. The neighborhood that’s over by the ocean, which is not more than a mile from where I am right now can be twenty degrees cooler and have a forty mile an hour wind coming off the ocean, and I’ll be in sunshine. In fact we have friends that, we used to go up on the roof of our house and we could see their house shrouded in fog, and we would call them and tease them. “How are you enjoying your sunny day today? We’re laying in the sun!” So that’s an element that I—you don’t want to stop the action, but you hope that it comes through, that you get “Wow, that’s different, that’s not like my experience with, you know, Tulsa or wherever you happen to live.”
Rumpus: That’s funny, cause that’s where I’m from, actually.
Moore: Is it really? I’d seen in the appointment that you were from Oklahoma, that was just—pick a city.
Rumpus: I mean, that’s a safe bet, it’s either Tulsa or Oklahoma City, so yeah you hit gold. So, okay, kind of shifting gears a little bit away from just this book in particular. All of your books have been sold for film, and none of them have been made yet, and you’ve spoken before about maybe this is because of the complex nature of the plots, and it might make it difficult to film, but I’m curious, if you had to choose one that you’d like to see made, which one do you think that you think you would choose? Do any of them feel more cinematic to you than others?
Moore: I would love to see A Dirty Job get made. And Universal cable is working on a TV series now, I don’t know if anything will happen with it. And that’s just, I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve written, and I like the characters, and I want to see hellhounds. I think that would be awesome. And there’s ones I don’t want—I really don’t want to see Lamb made into a film. There’s one that I just don’t think that it could do anything but make people say, “Well it wasn’t as good as the book.”
But I think A Dirty Job would be my number one choice. I wouldn’t mind seeing Fluke, just because it’s kind of my only science fiction and it’s so big, in the way, visually. It’s just this big story set under the ocean, and I think that would be cool. Also again to see what somebody else did with it. Not like I would have control, but what would somebody like you know, James Cameron or Ridley Scott or one of these great directors—god help us, not Michael Bay—who make these big movies. What would they do with something like that? I don’t think that’s gonna happen but I would like to see it.
Rumpus: If it was Michael Bay, all the whales would just explode at the end.
Moore: (Laughs) There’d be so many whales onscreen, you couldn’t follow ’em.
Rumpus: So I know that you’re going on tour for this book, and you’re kind of in the midst of promo stuff right now, but after the dust settles on that, what upcoming projects are you working on, or do you have in mind at least?
Moore: I’m doing a noir set in 1947 San Francisco.
Rumpus: Very cool.
Moore: Yeah, and it’s sort of—the baseball story and the Friends of Dorothy story that are in Secondhand Souls made me realize I like writing in that sort of snappy dialect. Even though the baseball story supposedly takes place in the ’90s, the guys don’t really talk like anybody did in the ’90s. And the other story does take place in midcentury. And I really liked writing that sort of Damon Runyon type dialect, and that sort of drew me into to going, “Well maybe I’ll do another story set in San Francisco.” And I’ve never done a crime sort of genre story, and I have to do something different with it. There’s a lot of really talented crime writers out there, and I don’t know if I want to jump into the pool with them. So I have to bring my own take to it. So that’s my next project.
Rumpus: Interesting. Is it gonna feature any characters that we’ve seen before?
Moore: I haven’t decided. A lot of times that stuff happens by accident. I get to a point and I go, “Wait a minute, this guy would fit perfectly.” I mean, Minty Fresh ended up in A Dirty Job simply because I was describing the character, and I went, “This is exactly, he looks exactly like a character from Coyote Blue,” that I had written many years before. And I go, “Well there’s really—and you kind of backtrack and go, well where would he be now?” And you go, “Oh there’s no reason why he couldn’t be this character.”
Rumpus: Gotcha. So kind of on that same sort of idea, you have written lots of different things, I know you said you don’t like to write the same book twice. And you’ve tackled everything from marine biology and the beginning of Christianity and Shakespeare and vampires, so with that comes a wide and varied fanbase. You know, elderly English teachers love you and goth teenagers love you, so do you feel pressure from such a wide group of people to try and please them all? Or does that variety make it easier to tackle a brand new thing? Or does it make it scary?
Moore: You can’t really, you just—for me it’s not a problem. Because I basically, what I have to deliver is something that’s funny. My readers that have been with me, the Shakespeare people will go, “Oh, okay, I’ve never wanted to read a vampire book, but maybe I’ll read this because he wrote it.” And what they’ll find there is, “Oh wow, this is funny.”
And sort of along the line, along each thing, and I think the one that was the biggest jump for most people was Sacré Bleu because it’s about painters, about artists. And everybody was skeptical about it. Particularly the people who read my stuff as sort of funny horror stuff, like the vampire books and Dirty Job. So the pressure I feel is that it has to be funny. And they’re just gonna have to trust me. And some people, they’re not gonna like this book, or they’re not gonna like that book, but I’m—I can’t tailor everything and try and please everyone, but what I think they have a right to expect is that it will be funny and that it will have maybe a take on the subject I’m writing about that they haven’t thought of before. So that’s the pressure of having a wide group. I don’t think people expect me to write the same book over and over again. Whereas some writers, all people want to know is what’s the next one in the alphabet or the number or whatever series it is. I don’t have to do that. People will go, “Well that’ll be weird.” And so yes, there is a pressure, but I think the pressure is, I just have to make it funny and then maybe—if it’s entertaining enough they’ll trust me to take them into impressionist art or marine biology or whatever. And that makes it interesting for me, too, because I didn’t know anything about either one of those things until I was writing books about them. So it keeps the work interesting for me, it’s not just me sitting in a room looking at a screen. I have to go out in the world and find stuff out.
Rumpus: Yeah, speaking of your research, it seems like you tend to kind of alternate between the more research-intense projects, like I know Lamb, and Fool, and Sacré Bleu all had a lot of that research that went into them, and then the stories that are about your completely original characters, kind of like Secondhand Souls, or any of the books that are set in Pine Cove. So I am curious about how the writing process is different for you when there’s more research involved versus when the characters are completely created by you.
Moore: That’s the reason I’ll do the stories set in Pine Cove or San Francisco is because I don’t have to do the research. And I love doing the research, and it allows me to actually have a life beyond a room with a screen in it.
But a lot of that is just to conform to what people expect in a time frame of a popular fiction writer. I mean that’s sort of what I have become, or what I am, and so I can’t take four years to do every book. Sacré Bleu took four years to research and I wrote Bite Me while I was researching Sacré Bleu. And Lamb I think took four years to research and write. And yet my publisher wants a book a year, which they’re not going to get, but that’s what they’d like, but it averages out to about every eighteen months. So if I’m under a time constraint, I don’t have time to go learn a whole new subject like, I did go to England and tour medieval sites in England and France for Fool, and spend time in Venice and that area of the Mediterranean for Serpent of Venice. I just don’t have time for that. And Serpent of Venice didn’t take as long as Fool did, because most of that research was in just—those are sort of academic intensity, because it’s studying Shakespeare, and trying to distill what I can take out of Shakespeare and make it more palatable for my audience.
But that’s, a lot of it has to do with timing. A lot of it has to do with, “Okay, if I take three years to do this book, I have to write something I can write much more quickly the next time.” And that tends to be why the subjects go far afield. If it were just me not having to consider a release schedule and keeping my audience entertained, I might just keep picking really diverse, strange things and never revisit a location. But I feel like I kind of need to put a book out every couple of years just to keep people interested. And my publisher certainly feels that way. (Laughs) A lot of publishers put their mystery writers on two books a year, which I can’t even fathom trying to do that.
I don’t want to spend, you know, three or four years of my life researching something I don’t care about or I’m not interested in. So a lot of it, I’ll decide to write a book because I’m interested in the subject, and that certainly was the case with Fluke and certainly was the case with Sacré Bleu, where it was like, “I’ve been looking at art now when I’m on book tour for fifteen years, maybe I should write a book about art.” And the same thing with Fluke, it’s like, “Well I’ve been scuba diving and playing in the ocean for fifteen years, maybe I should write a book about stuff that’s underwater.”
Rumpus: So for you, is it the subject that comes first, like you think, “I am interested in the ocean, and you know, stuff that goes on underwater” and then the characters come later?
Moore: Yeah, usually. With a few exceptions, with a few exceptions. With the vampire books, the characters came first. With Lamb, obviously, the characters came first.
Rumpus: Yeah, that makes sense.
Moore: And Fool, because that derives from another work, because it derives from Shakespeare, that was a little bit different. There was a certain amount of historical research I had to do and then immediately throw out because Shakespeare’s history is crap (laughs) especially in that play. And so that was a completely, if I just go from my part of it, that was completely character-based. That was, “I want to tell King Lear from the point of view of the fool.
In some of the books, it comes from the subject first, certainly Sacré Bleu and Fluke are the ones that come to mind. Island of the Sequined Love Nun was, I wanted to write about cargo cults and Pacific islands, and that’s where that started. The Pine Cove books started in the fact that I lived in a little town in central California and couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. So, setting, sometimes, the subject I’m interested in sometimes, and then the characters sometimes, and it’s about evenly balanced I think.
Moore: I think that you can expect it to be funny, and to not overthink it. Don’t try to hammer it into some other formula. I think if you just go at it open-minded. Secondhand Souls is I think the first real sequel, and I would let you judge, rather than me, is whether it stands—I don’t know if it stands on its own. I haven’t talked to anybody who hasn’t read Dirty Job who’s read Secondhand Souls, so I don’t know how—it seems like it would be really weird to come to it fresh.
Rumpus: Yeah, I would agree. I had to do a fair bit of skimming of A Dirty Job before I started Secondhand Souls to make sure that I remembered everything. Because it is a fairly complicated world that we are kind of thrust into, and there is a lot of things going on and a lot of characters to keep track of and I feel like it would be pretty difficult to just jump into it without having the context of the first one.
Moore: That’s a really horrible way to sell a book. (Laughs)
Rumpus: (Laughs) No, it sells two books!
Moore: I would just say to go at it open-minded and maybe you want to read A Dirty Job before you read it.
Rumpus: I think that A Dirty Job would only enhance the way that you would feel about Secondhand Souls, especially for the relationships. Because I think that’s the core of the book is the relationships.
Moore: Well said. I think that you should just make up a really good quote.
Rumpus: And attribute it to you. (Laughs)
Moore: Yeah, sure. Just make me sound smart.
Rumpus: I don’t think that will be that difficult to do.
Moore: Okay, well thank you, I appreciate it.