Christopher Moore, Interviewed by Don Eminizer: Read on if you want to gain insight into the twisted, hilarious mind of best-selling author Christopher Moore, author of the likes of Bloodsucking Fiends, Bite Me, Coyote Blue, Lamb, You Suck, Sacré Bleu and The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove. He’s working on a new book, a must read for sure. You can learn about his views on writing right here!
For those of you out there unfamiliar with Christopher Moore’s work, and both of you best crawl out from beneath that rock, stop whatever nasty stuff you’re doing down there and join the 21st Century, Chris has authored 11 books, 5 of which have achieved best-seller status. He’s even co-authored a graphic novel in his spare time, The Griff, with Ian Corson.
If you haven’t had a chance to read any of his work, I’d strongly recommend that you do so as soon as possible. Don’t just take my word for it. The Onion has called him “The thinking man’s Dave Barry or the impatient man’s Tom Robbins…” He has been compared to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) by The Denver Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. USA Today has deemed his work to be “Habit-forming zaniness.”
Personally, I’ve read much of Vonnegut and all of Adams’ work, not to mention countless others, and while I think comparisons are nice, I don’t think they do Christopher Moore much justice. He is a unique, accomplished writer who has a very distinguished skill, the ability to make you laugh uproariously on one page, only to introduce you to the depths and nuances of tragedy on the next, then make you spit your drink out your nose as you laugh unexpectedly on the following page.
To put it simply, Christopher Moore is Christopher Moore, there are no others like him. He is a fantastic, distinctly American writer whose characters can be related to by most anyone. Even though he is an American writer, he has quite an International following, not an easy feat in this day and age. On top of that, he is quite gracious, and open to sharing his experiences and views with fledgling writers. To that end, he has granted us an interview here at Litmocracy while working on his latest novel.
Now turn down that Jerry Springer re-run on the boob tube and pay attention!
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Me: With an exceptional, imaginative mind, one that has dared to tackle King Lear (through his Black Fool), Jesus Christ’s imaginary best friend Biff, the (undead) Parrots of Telegraph Hill, talking fruit bats, and a shaved, dastardly vampire cat that you described as perhaps the ungodly coupling of Dobby the House Elf and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, how do you go about getting into the mood to write? I can’t imagine that you simply brew a cup of chamomile and crank up the Wagner to set the mood. What is the writing process of someone who is so creative, they aren’t remotely afraid of tackling Shakespeare and King James? Something you did with exquisite skill and great success. If you had a muse, you’d probably make it dress like a Nun and drink tequila, then make it get up at the crack of dawn and go to work for an accountant for your own enjoyment. So what drives you and how do you tackle the creative process?
Chris Moore: Actually I think your projected answer is probably more interesting than my real one. Although I really like the whole mythology and double-edged quality of a muse (something I wrote a whole book about, basically, in Sacré Bleu), I don’t feel that kind of presence in my own work. I once took a physics course in a photography school that didn’t use any math. But they had to teach us some science if they were going to give us a BA, even though they knew that most of us didn’t know any math except exposure times and film speeds. So it was very abstract physics. Well my work is sort of mathematical in process, but only if you accept that you’re starting with an absurd answer and working your way backward.
Me: Your physics angle is quite intriguing as an approach to writing. Working backwards from a principle or axiom, I mean, and I sense that you delve or get sidetracked into other ideas and potential theorems along the way. Perhaps that is why your stories are so full of life, because you find hidden treasures as you figure out the equation, so working backwards from an incomplete axiom makes total sense. After all, how many places are there to go in the literary castle? They say there are only 7 basic plots, 7 stories or floors to work with, but I suppose they all have hidden closets on each floor which must be explored.
Chris Moore: What I was going for is an analogy for filling in the “unknowns” in a quadratic equation, but in a logical, not a mathematical way. In other words, knowing the answer first, now going back and finding what you need to get there. That is, I’ll start with a nearly impossible or at least absurd premise — “What if Jesus had a best friend who was a smart ass, who witnessed the “training” of a messiah, and thought it was an awesome way to get girls. Go.” (Lamb)
Or, “What if King Lear was told from the point of view of the Fool, the least powerful character on stage, and, in fact, he (the Fool) was pulling all the strings.” (Fool)
It goes on like that. “What if you took a whole village off antidepressants at the same time?” (The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove)
Now, the challenge for me is to make that happen in a context that’s entertaining and believable enough to bring the reader along. So, essentially, much of the comedy and shenanigans are all cobbled together to meet that original challenge, to make that premise work. And believe me, with most of my books, I’m not sure that it WILL work. I approach the task very seriously, and I try to bring all of my skill to solve each problem, even if the problem is simply getting a vampire cat to eat a stoner who works a night crew at a grocery store. So rather than it being a huge inspiration, it usually starts with one huge, goofy thought, then it’s the process of seeing if I can make that work. The idea can come from anywhere. From something I’m interested in, like Post-Impressionist art (Sacré Bleu), to something I want to do, like get in the water with singing whales. (Fluke)
Me: Much like Bukowski, you’re quite prolific and quite easy to read, yet you manage to weave a message through everything you write. You seem to have a much better view of life than Bukowski, though, and your work is quite, quite different. You make your characters learn, as well as suffer, along the way, while pushing them through a cascade of obstacles. I found it interesting that you sent Christ and Biff to the Far East for Buddhist training, for instance, before coming back to face the Crucifixion. What is your general philosophy, and how do you rectify that or utilize that in your work? All of your characters, from Flood and the Animals, angst riddled youth who encounter and become the Undead themselves, to Theophilus Crowe, the hippie, dope smoking constable of Pine Cove, are quirky characters who are still down to Earth, even when facing fantastic circumstances. While Buk wrote about himself, an easy topic to crank out a dozen or so novels on, you create entire universes, or invade existing universes with an entirely unique perspective. Obviously, some of these characters have to represent a part of you. How do you bring these characters to life? How do you keep them down to Earth, even in surreal situations? How do you separate yourself from them so you can put them through things like the Crucifixion, Zombie invasions at Christmas and the threat of a 60 foot horny lizard?
Chris Moore: I don’t think it’s really a fair comparison, although I can see how you’d get there.
Me: I simply meant in the ability to crank out quality literary material, in quantity, not in content. You’re definitely worlds apart from any other writer I’ve seen in content.
Chris Moore: I like Bukowski’s work a lot, as well as Richard Brautigan’s work, and they were both influences on me, somewhat, but beyond their ambition, which I think was much more pure than my own, they continued to wrap self-destruction and creation up with their work, while I hit a wall around the same time I hit bottom as an alcoholic. I drank a lot, and wrote some self-indulgent stuff, and “suffered for my art”, but by 30, I had a pretty self-destructive drinking habit and I’d never finished a book. I knew I had some talent, but I’m just not smart enough to write and drink, so I stopped drinking and I started writing. When you bottom out, you admit that you’ve more or less been deluding yourself for a long time about your own importance in the scheme of things, you come to the page with a sense of forgiveness and humility, and that allows you, or it allowed me, anyway, to create characters that were flawed, but intelligent, resourceful, and likable. Something I think I learned from John Steinbeck. I also didn’t care about glorifying or dramatizing my own life. I’d been there and I just didn’t think it was that interesting, but I could write some fantastic stories and put guys like me in those stories, maybe show that they could redeem themselves. So it’s not coincidental that Practical Demonkeeping and Island of the Sequined Love Nun have characters who are going off the rails because of alcohol, or that Theo Crowe has a problem with pot and crazy girlfriends, but they do stuff, they are more than those problems. I think comparing and contrasting me to Bukowski is sort of unfair to both of us, and I don’t say that to be mean. I think he lived his life and wrote the best stuff he could in that context. I’m doing the same thing.
Me: Often you cross characters over from book to book. Stephen King is exceptional at interweaving his characters and making it work. You, too, have written a number of exceptional books, such as The Stupidest Angel, A Dirty Job, and You Suck, where characters from different books interact with each other. Do you take joy in the fact that fans pick up on these interactions, or is this as much for your own enjoyment? Is your universe so entertaining for you that you want to see what happens when they meet, or do you enjoy pleasing readers who follow your work by giving them a bonus? It is quite often hilarious and ingenious, but isn’t exactly easy to pull off. I guess the question is, do you do it because it makes you laugh your ass off, because you think your readers will like it, because you like to push yourself and make yourself work harder so you never sleep, or all of the above?
Chris Moore: I definitely do it for the readers who have been with me and have stayed with me. I may have picked that up from Stephen King or maybe Shakespeare, but probably Stephen King. It’s such a cool feeling to be on the inside of one of the crossovers that I like the idea of giving that to the reader. On the other hand, it makes doing movie deals a nightmare, because each company wants exclusive rights to all the characters in a book, and you have to convince them that they can’t have this guy because he walked through another story that you sold twenty years ago to another company. I’ve actually done it by request, too, where it didn’t make any sense. After my book, Island of the Sequined Love Nun, readers kept asking for more Roberto the Fruitbat. I didn’t see myself writing another book set in Micronesia, but I thought, “Hell, I’m writing a Christmas book, nothing says Christmas like a giant Micronesian fruit bat on the coast of California for the holidays,” so he’s in that book. I’ve done that a couple of times.
Me: Do you own stock in Red Bull? If not, perhaps you should think about buying some. Very few authors have ever written this much quality material in such a short period of time as you. Do you ever sleep? How do you GET AWAY from your work?
Chris Moore: I’m actually not that prolific. I write about half the speed of an average (average speed, not quality) thriller writer. That is, on average, I write a book about every 18 months. Most thriller writers write a book every nine months and some, like Michael Connelly and Jodi Picoult are starting to put one out every six months. I’m talking about those who still write their own books. Now those people can’t have that much free time, but me, I have plenty of time to goof off. I can say, “I’m going to sit down and write eight pages a day” and do it. What I can’t do is say, “I’m going to sit down and write eight funny pages today” and do it. I might write eight pages, but if seven of them aren’t funny, then I haven’t done what my readers expect of me. My job, as I see it, is to entertain people, make them laugh, or at least smile, so I’m always working toward that. It really torks me off, too, when I’m posting something funny to Facebook or Twitter and someone tells me to get back to work. What the fuck do you think I’m doing? THIS is my job!
Me: Good answer. Now get back to work. Ahem… so how did you get your start, and I don’t mean, did you pick up a piece of paper and write down some dream you had. How did you get your break? Did you pester literary agents? Were you discovered? Did you get a break from a magazine? Did you hide in Steinbeck’s sons’ closet (and if so, wasn’t that uncomfortable)? What made you think you could make it as a writer, and how did you go about making that idea a reality? You obviously have exceptional skill, but that doesn’t always translate to becoming a best seller, somewhere along the way, you earned a break and you took advantage of it. How did that happen?
Chris Moore: I’d written my first book and I was marketing it the way everyone else does, by sending query letters to agents.
Me: You mean Practical Demonkeeping?
Chris Moore: Yes, Practical Demonkeeping.One of my roommates was from Los Angeles, and her best friend worked in TV development for one of the networks. A D-person’s job, basically, is to read scripts, so I asked her if she would read it and just give me her opinion on it, as a professional reader. She had it for months and finally I got a call, and she said she’d given it to a bunch of agents and a number of them wanted to represent me, and oh yeah, she liked it. So I had an agent in Hollywood and I got an agent in New York through the same person, then they sold the book to the movies and all over the world. Interesting thing is, the first agent who agreed to take me on wanted me to do major changes on the book if he was going to rep me and I turned him down. I was waiting tables at the time, so turning down an agent was not the most pro-survival thing I’ve ever done, but I just didn’t think he was right about the book. I was incredibly lucky. If you talk to almost any successful writer, artist, or musician, they’ll tell you that luck plays a huge part in success. You have to work hard and you have to have talent to participate in the luck, but luck is always a huge part of it.
Me: You couldn’t ask for much more as a writer. You’ve had best sellers. You have written books that should and I believe will stand the test of time. Your characters aren’t only real, and they aren’t simply in entertaining stories, they grow within your plots. They adapt. They learn. As you said, they are often average people who redeem themselves. They are real enough to relate to, while at the same time they are larger than life. That’s like the ultimate Jedi mind trick for a writer, to create a character that is funny and endearing, who at the same time gets swallowed by a whale, yet you still buy the story, and you’ve done it numerous times. More importantly, you can go from funny to tragic to scary to funny again in a few pages. That is a serious, and I’m sure, a hard earned skill. Since it’s impossible to teach other writers how to do that, can you tell them what you would accomplish, as an author, that you haven’t accomplished yet? What goals haven’t you reached. What advice do you have for those looking to at least come near the success you’ve gained?
Chris Moore: You just have to keep getting better, trying to get better anyway. I know what it’s like to not know how good you are, to need affirmation, and writers’ conferences are good for that, were good for me that way, but you have to have some sense of where you stand, where you have to go. Since so, so much of success as far as popularity or fame is concerned depends on luck, it’s not really realistic to have goals in that realm. Initially my goal, from the start, was to be able to make a living as a writer of fiction. Well, once you quit your day job, you have to keep making a living as a writer of fiction. If you can raise the stakes, you do, but getting paid to do something you like to do, and you’re pretty good at, that’s an admirable goal, and frankly, I can’t talk to writing students who don’t have that goal. I don’t think I have anything to teach them. I’ve had them, too. I was teaching a masters’ seminar in fiction at a writers’ conference, and one of my students said, “I love Marcel Proust. I want to write like Proust.” And I said, “That’s an admirable goal, but I don’t know if I can help you. You already know how to write like Proust, you have Proust to look at as a model, but I don’t know if you can sell a book that is written like Proust.” I wasn’t being mean. I think that’s a very pure goal, like being a poet, but I don’t understand it. If you want to write, write. If you want to write well, get better, learn to recognize what you admire and strive to write that well, but if you’re writing, you’re there. You win. Game over. And there’s an enormous gratification in writing something that you know just rings. The best moments in my career haven’t been professional moments, but pushing back from the page and going, “nailed it.” Knowing you nailed it. Nothing is better. It doesn’t happen often. In fact, it happens so seldom that I can’t see enduring the difficulty of learning your craft if you don’t have a “what now” to follow it with– thus, the professional thing, the making a living thing. But speaking of professional goals, I mean, I’ve had five NY Times best-sellers, but I haven’t had a number one. I’d like to have a number one. It really means nothing. I might release a book when there’s a weak list, or some book in a series that has been really hot might come out at the same time and foil my hopes, so really, it’s a silly goal. I want to just keep writing interesting and fun books. Each challenge is something I want to try to do as a writer, not as a writer of best-sellers. That is, set a goal like, “I want to see if I can write a book about the color blue, and in the process tell the story of the Impressionist movement. And oh yeah, it has to be funny.” That’s a hard thing to do, I know, I’ve done it, but it’s not a boring thing to do. It’s exciting and crazy-making and there were a dozen times, more than a dozen times, when I was writing Sacré Bleu, that I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I used to want one of my books to get made into a movie but I’m less and less interested in that as time goes on because it occurred to me that someone could make one of my stories into a really bad movie, and then it would slam the door on a lot of new readers.
Me: I sense a taste of the Beats in your work, and not because Flood visits City Lights, along with some Steinbeck, some Fitzgerald, and perhaps a touch of South Park in your wicked sense of humor. Who are your influences? Who do you tip your cap to? If you had one chance to go sit down and have a drink with one author, discuss literature with one writer, who would it be and what would you ask them?
Chris Moore: The Beats are something you get over, I think. I like Ginsberg more than the others, but I’m not a scholar of them. With Kerouac you have that roman à clef bit, with all the drama and suffering of life on the edge, but then what? I’ve read them. And Hunter Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, and so on and so on. Southpark came along a little late to be an influence on me and I haven’t seen many of them, although I think those guys are terribly talented. Same with the Simpsons. I recognize the talent, but it’s not influential. Definitely Steinbeck, stylistically, more than any other writer. That great sense of forgiveness toward flawed characters he has. Tom Robbins for the playfulness, Kurt Vonnegut for the ideas, the straightforwardness of the wit, Douglas Adams for the over the top silliness along with the constant state of emergency that pervades most of the Hitchhikers’ Guide. Shakespeare, strangely enough, for the turn of phrase, the diction somewhat. He just said things more succinctly and lyrically than anyone else. Not always. There are some plays where the characters are just running off at the mouth — Will enjoying the sound of the words in his head, the feel of the quill on the paper, like Rosalind in As You Like It, but often he distills an amazing amount of human emotion and experience into a phrase. The speeches in Romeo and Juliet made to and about one another are stunning in their grandeur, in the absolute giantness of the love in a fourteen-year old’s heart.
Me: I see the Vonnegut influence, and understand the late nature of South Park and The Simpson’s, so that they weren’t an influence, perhaps more of a kindred spirit. But what of Monty Python? Hell, the 3 Stooges?? Bobcat Goldthwait??? Some entity, other than literature, must have sharpened that acerbic, dead on wit? Yes, The Taming Of The Shrew and Voltaire and Ben Franklin were humorous, and even Kafka (I’m sorry, turning into a bug and facing your boss, a jury and family is downright funny to me) had his moments, but you have uncanny, pound the fist with the Ninja Granny LOL moments.
Chris Moore: Well, definitely Python, the sort of outrageous understatement of a dead parrot shows up in my stuff even before Fool, which, I think, has a lot of Pythonesce moments. And a number of comedians influenced me — their timing — in the cases of Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, especially Eddie. George Carlin, of course. The first album I owned wasn’t The Who or Led Zeppelin, like most of my contemporaries, it was George Carlin’s Class Clown. Robin Williams’ off the wall stuff was inspiring, although that sort of manic energy is hard to corral in fiction. I tell students, “I can’t teach you to be funny, but you can learn comic timing, and you learn that from comedians.” I often hear comedic timing in my mind’s ear like a stand up comic when I’m writing a comic line.
Me: Last but not least, what are you working on now? We can’t wait! Where and when can we get it? Will it come with a scratch-n-sniff reptile or a shot of some exotic liquor? One can always hope.
Chris Moore: I’m working on another Shakespeare-based book, sending my Fool from Fool to Venice, to interact with the characters from two other Shakespeare plays. Currently, I’d describe it as a Huge Lyrical Clusterfuck of a story that I’ll never find my way out of, but that’s how I usually feel about a book at this point, so I’m probably okay.
Me: Thank you Mr. Moore, very much, for sharing your precious time with us. If you want to purchase any of Christopher Moore’s wonderful books and taste his exotic literary cuisine, please click on any of the links in this article, or click this Amazon link to access any title or foreign translation of his work. I warn you, though, it’s addictive. If you have any further questions you want to ask Mr. Moore himself, he’s been kind enough to include his e-mail address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and says that he always responds. I’ve also added a link to his website, and his hilarious Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Until next time, Don