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Interview With Lisa Moore

Interview With Lisa Moore

The author of the short story "All Zoos," from our Summer issue, talks about evolution and the joy and peril of the writing process.

Writers intent on finding themselves through their craft may want to take a cue from Canadian author Lisa Moore and get lost instead. “When I am in the midst of writing, I never know what I am doing,” she says. “I am hardly present at all. I really feel like I am lost in the world of the fiction.”

The worlds Moore creates speak to this sense of loss, blurring the lines between then and now. Her story, “All Zoos,” which appeared in the summer issue of Maisonneuve, embodies Moore’s interest in “the elasticity of time: how the main character experiences time, all of time, ever, since the birth of humankind. I thought to myself, I'll try to put all of that in a story, and see what happens.”

Moore published her first collection of short stories, Degrees of Nakedness (Anansi), in 1995. In 2006, her first novel, Alligator, was nominated for the Giller Prize and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Caribbean and Canada region). Most recently, her 2010 novel, February, was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. The Selected Short Fiction of Lisa Moore, featuring old and new stories, is forthcoming this fall. 

Erica Ruth Kelly: You’re both an accomplished short story writer and novelist. How does creating the universe of a novel differ from creating the universe of a short story?

Lisa Moore: I approach both forms the same way when I begin. I try to capture scenes that show my characters speaking, moving, acting. I also want them to experiencing the world they are in through their senses. I want the world of the story or the novel to be alive with smells and images and sounds and textures. The way a character experiences the physical world tells the reader who the character is. This is true for novels and stories both. I have a vague sense that a short story allows for subtler connections, less plot, a more delicate construction; perhaps it is more graceful. And a novel demands support beams and iron girders and math and sledge hammers. But I am guessing at this. Some of the most beautiful novels are delicately constructed...And some short stories are as dense and rich and full of history and social nuance and political satire and humour and heartache as any novel.

ERK: In an interview with Prism, you said that "everything about writing a story has to be learned over and over, each time I sit down to write a story." Does writing a story remain a process in which you still feel as though you're figuring out how it works from the beginning? Or do you no longer feel like you're starting from scratch each time?

LM: Still starting from scratch. I had the great fortune of teaching the short story at UBC's online Creative Writing program over the last few years, and when I saw how fantastic the stories of my students were I became even more scared to start. I kept thinking, How are they doing it? What I love about writing short stories is how intense the experience is. How deeply I get lost in it, how much it matters to me, how much the world of the story matters while I am writing, how real it becomes, and then, pouff, it's over. A novel has to be grappled with and pushed around and made to work.

ERK: In "Melody," from Open, your collection of short stories, there is a passage that refers to memory: "...for the rest of my life, while washing dishes, jiggling drops of rain hanging on the points of every maple leaf in the window, or in a meeting when someone writes on a flowchart and the room fills with the smell of felt-tip marker—during those liminal non-moments fertile with emptiness—I will be overtaken by swift collages of memory." This notion of supposedly innocuous events happening in the present while events from the past creep in repeatedly make its way into your work. Does this point to your understanding of how memory functions? Does your background in visual arts influence the development of this "collage"?

LM: I think it's the way memory works, but it's also the way fiction works, I think. Meaning accrues as the scenes accrue and float over each other in the reader's memory. I think it's one of the ways we create meaning. I studied painting and I still paint. It requires looking hard at an object and trying to discover what makes it what it is. Why it caught my attention in the first place. What makes it, say, an apple. What elements of appleness are essential? How ambiguous can an apple be? What if the most essential characteristic of an apple were its colour? Would a slash of red paint capture it? Capture it better, say, than a photograph that might contain extraneous information obscuring its appleness?… These kinds of questions somehow help me when I am writing, or at least I think they do. I think they are concerns that translate into narrative too. What about this character is most essential? Is it the print of her teeth in a piece of French bread when she bites off a hunk? Is it the reflections of houses and telephone poles on the passenger car window sliding over her own reflection, when she is a child, going away from home for the first time? I have to believe as a fiction writer that images, smells, and textures and sounds, voices, contain some kind of meaning that makes stories. 

ERK: "All Zoos" is also strongly connected to memory, since the story is based on a video you saw of a gorilla that had escaped from the Rotterdam zoo. How did your memory of the video infuse itself into the development of the story? How does memory work within the story?

LM: What was most important to me about the experience of the video was the dead time in it, when nothing happened. The stillness, in which intense suspense accrued. It seemed to me that the stillness must be such a huge part of being attacked by a wild animal… since the actual attack would be very quick.

ERK: In “All Zoos”, Harry, the narrator, muses that "People mistake evolution for cosmic design, but it's actually pure accident. It was not that man stood up because it would help him survive, but that the standing men were able to step to the side when the glaciers rumbled through"? To what extent do you agree with Harry? Do you think our being here is somewhat accidental?

LM: I am not sure, but I guess so. Another way to say it is that we are just lucky to be here. But this passage also points to the kind of man Harry will turn out to be. It is a shadow of the him to come. Is he the kind of guy who just steps out of the way when trouble rumbles through, or does he act? Does he stand up? Stand up to the ape, stand up and be responsible?

ERK: I noticed that while Harry knows about many things about the world, like philosophy or the tourist attractions of every city he stays in, he doesn't seem to trust his own sense perception. For example, when he saw the gorilla, "he thought he could smell it"; when the gorilla kisses the glass after a teenage girl puts her mouth to it, "Harry heard the teeth clink against the glass, or thought he heard." Is this a comment on the way some of us are disconnected from our sensual understanding of the world, to the point where we do not fully trust it? Perhaps to the point where what we've experienced intellectually supersedes that which our bodies are experiencing in the present tense?

LM: This is a good way to read it. Very insightful. I think I also meant to suggest a distrust of notions of truth: what is true, what is actually happening. Harry is a bit of an unreliable narrator in that he is unsure of his surroundings. Or, perhaps that makes him more reliable. Perhaps he is being honest by questioning his experience. Maybe that is the central conflict of this story. Is Harry reliable? Will he pull through, overcome his selfish life and behave like a hero, or like a human being, at least an ordinary human being. And do the right thing. Has he evolved? Can he overcome the ape in himself?

To read Lisa Moore's story "All Zoos," pick up a copy of Maisonneuve Issue 44 (Summer 2012) or order it online