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November 5, 2015

Musician Ben Arthur Interviews Author Rick Moody

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Rick Moody is an author, his new novel Hotels of North America will be published next Tuesday, November 10th.

Ben Arthur is a singer-songwriter. His forthcoming album is Call and Response, "a collection of 'answer songs' responding to other artists' work, including short stories and songs."

On November 10th, WNYC's GreeneSpace will host an edition of Ben Arthur's Answer Songs, alive reading and music performance, featuring Rick Moody.

Author Rick Moody interviews Ben Arthur:

Ben Arthur: You've said that music and literature have a lot in common because they're both aural traditions – what's the most important advantage literature has over music, and what's the most important thing music has over lit?

Rick Moody: There's a passage in Levi Strauss, the French anthropologist, about the power of music's abstraction. What's singular about music is that it can get to feelings without having to name them. I think there's something to that.  Some of what makes music powerful has to do with the way melody works on the limbic system.

BA: It gets up under the ribs.

RM: It sort of attaches to emotional experience, memory, desire, in ways that are unlike other media, for me.

BA: It's more direct?

RM: It's more direct. But there are things that literature can do—attaching language to experience—that are better at describing what consciousness feels like, what actual perceptual capability feels like. There's some ways that a torrent of language can talk about human life…

BA: "Torrent" is the key for me. It's about that form. Popular song can't really go beyond a certain length without pissing people off. And that has to do with weird anomalies like what could fit on a wax cylinder…

RM: Or a player piano roll.

BA: And yet…that form stuck. Whereas the novel has the room, the breadth, that we as songwriters can only hope to compress into a suggestive facsimile.

RM: What's amazing is when a song can manage to encompass both of those things in its foreshortened space, both the strengths of abstract music and the strengths of narrative art. Like "Eleanor Rigby." Or recently I was listening to "She's Leaving Home," and thinking, "What an amazing fusion of lyrics and music."

BA: And dark. That's a dark story.

RM: Even as a kid that song cut me to ribbons.

BA: And they were young men, writing at least half, if not more, from the perspective of the parents. Looking back, that's the thing that strikes me. As a middle-aged guy with two kids, that perspective is now a natural place for me. But that came with time. Now, watching certain movies, I find myself seeing it from the adult's perspective, not the kid's. They did an amazing job (those Beatles, they were all right!) writing from the heartbroken perspective, instead of the kid's perspective, which would have theoretically been the natural place for them.

RM: For them "popular" meant you appealed to all the age groups. Now it means maybe you'll appeal to the R n' B audience and the pop audience. The Beatles wanted the 64 year-olds and the 4 year-olds.

BA: 64! [Laughs.]

RM: It's so ambitious and wise.

BA: In your upcoming novel, Hotels of North America, you eschewed a standard first or third person narrative in favor of telling your story through a series of Internet reviews of hotels by an anonymous character called Reginald Morse – what drew you to that particular form? Did the story, the character arc, come first? Did you try other ways at the story that didn't work for you?

RM: I was trying to write a more conventional novel at one point.  Not about Reginald Morse. But rather what I imagined was a bid for Great American Novelhood. I got partway in, and the work I was doing felt in no way expressive of my life, nor of the world as I was experiencing it. It became increasingly difficult for me to keep grinding the gears. At the same time Laurel [Moody's wife, the artist Laurel Nakadate] and I were in Bergen, Norway – she had a show in Bergen – and we'd been put up in a hotel by this arts institution which just happened to be a miraculously horrible hotel. Everything about it was awful. For example – and you'll know why this is particularly awful – there was this shitty bar in the hotel and on the weekends they'd have rave nights, so all you could hear anywhere through the hotel was this [Moody beatboxes monotonous techno drums].

BA: Four on the floor is not good for sleep.

RM: Four on the floor is the slayer of sleep. And when it wasn't a rave, it was a sports bar with World Cup qualifying games on at all hours, so they were all in there smoking and screaming. A horrible, horrible hotel. And Laurel said, "We should review this hotel!" and it had never occurred to me to do that before. So I wrote this review, which never got published (it got left out of the book). But it got me so excited about this whole world. I think because I myself am subject to online reviews, I assiduously avoid reading that kind of stuff. I just tossed out the whole apparatus of online reviewing.  Until we stayed in this shitty hotel. And then I realized these reviews can be really fun. Edifying.

BA: So you wrote that first review…you appear in the book as yourself, hired to write the afterword, and you described becoming obsessed with the narrator – was the description of your bewilderment and confusion with R. E. Morse at all true to your experience as a writer in wrestling with the character?

RM: Hotels of North America in some ways is a cri de coeur about my divorce, and the pain of that time. So the hotel review apparatus is a way to talk about that without being embarrassed, without having to be confessional. It's an apparatus to allow me to have a screen over my own life, to give it some privacy, while still working out some stuff.

BA: Which is interesting. Because Hotels focuses on regret and core-level uncertainty, two states that I associate with middle age – do you feel like the art you're making today reflects your interior as clearly as something like Garden State, which you've said is your most "naked" work, or is there an element of comfortable obscurity in Hotels?

RM: My argument, which garners howls of derision from some quarters, is that all art to some degree is autobiographical. Even very abstruse novels that seem like they're about window blinds, are autobiographical in some fashion.  I think it's probably a dialectic, where there are things that are relatively imagination-heavy and then there are things that are relatively confessional; the pendulum is always swinging back and forth between the two. But I'm at a point where the autobiographical stuff so wanted to come out that there was no way to inhibit it. Given that was the case, it was really fun to come up with a formalist conceit that would appear to be the least autobiographical imaginable, that is to say a sequence of hotel reviews. And once I came up with that frame, I felt pretty good about oscillating between long, tedious descriptions of hotel interiors and the wounded confessional passages about missing a child, or the horror of how married couples share the bed.

BA: On social media I noticed you've been talking about Reginald as an actual person.  But you're talking very clearly as the author of the book in this conversation. Have you figured out how to bridge the gap between the performance art of him being a real person, and talking about your work as a writer?

RM: I haven't figured it out.  In a way it's because this conversation is early in the curve of talking about the book, I haven't settled on a slick approach. I think I will have to yield at a certain point and admit the Reg is not a real person. But I will say that of all the people I have imagined into being over the years, he feels most like a real person to me. His obsessive-compulsive fulminations on subjects, I mean, I feel like I sort of know the guy, so it's easy to elaborate on that conceit that he is real.

BA: And I don't mean to suggest that there's any contradiction here. I think you could both speak publicly about your work as a writer, while still inhabiting him as a person via social media. Is that where you maybe will land?

RM: For today!

BA: Because performance art is something Laurel does to some degree – is that something that pulls you, that interests you? Or does it embarrass you? Because it embarrasses me. (Not your performance, but mine.) Anything…pretension is something I both deeply admire and personally can't abide. As an example, in my neighborhood I often walk past a young man who dresses, gorgeously, boldly, very flamboyantly, in women's clothing. I recently went to the gym and I had forgotten to bring white socks, so I wore my black socks with shorts and sneakers. It made me uncomfortable for a solid hour. That absurdly tiny transgression. That's how ruled I am by convention. There was not a single person in the gym, other than me, who could give one fuck about the color of my socks, yet…it bothered me the whole time I was there. Where are you on that spectrum?

RM: I'm probably closer to your side. If I felt at all comfortable as a performer maybe I would have played more music than I have played, but I sort of feel there's a writer-versus-performer dialectic out there, much like the dialectic that opposed imagination and confession. The really amazing singer-songwriters and writers are right there smack in the middle of that divide; they can do each thing.

BA: I feel like it's a challenge to live in both of those worlds.

RM: I didn't answer your question. Let me put it this way: Laurel thinks about performance, and she is an adept art interpreter as regards ways in which certain art is performative. What I think I did in this book, and what I have done recently in my work is more conceptual than performative. I think Hotels is conceptual writing of a kind. Because it's saying I can make the novel exist as a sequence of hotel reviews. Which in most people's book would be a sub-literary form, the hotel review. So the goal is to take what is not literary and try to make it appear literary in some way.

BA: It's populist.

RM: Anti-literary. Whether or not Reg is a real person is of some minor interest. But what is interesting to me is the part of the book that says, "Let's take this thing that's supposed to be populist and blunt and irate and try to find common ground between it and the literary novel."

BA: In your lifetime and mine, the job of being an artist now includes what is for all intents and purposes public performance art. Promoting art these days has a nearly-obligatory social element – where, between indignant nostalgia and bemused acceptance, do you reside?

RM: I don't tweet. It's great if you're an Iranian in the middle of a burgeoning revolution. But by and large for me Twitter is just a sequence of short press releases. And I don't want to write press releases for myself. 140 characters is not adequate for the world of writing I am interested in, and it never will be. There are some forms that are inevitably reductive, and that's one of them. I'm not going to do it, and no one can make me.

BA: And now we've got emojis, and you have to wonder, "What could be more reductive? Surely this is the lowest level." I spend more time than I like to admit wondering what way of communicating human emotion could be more reductive than tiny pictures of poop, a birthday candle, and a thumbs up…surely that's it.

RM: I feel that on the occasion when I have unaccountably let the phone discharge to empty, and I'm wandering around with my daughter, and we're just walking and we're not subject to the digital slings and arrows of life … those moments are beautiful moments. I never regret when the Internet and its froth are not quite at hand.

BA: Although a lot of my freedom to be out, in the daytime particularly, is based on that secure conduit.

RM: I'm trying not to be a Luddite about it. But I do feel like intimate communication between human beings in a real space, there's something about it that's precious. Like this conversation!

BA: Agreed!

You can see Rick and Ben in (semi-)intimate conversation and performance at WNYC's Greene Space on November 10th.  Ben and Xenia Rubinos will play "answer songs" inspired by Hotels of North America, WNYC's John Schaefer will moderate a conversation about inspiration, and artist Michael Arthur will draw a piece inspired by the event, live.

Rick Moody links:

Rick Moody's website

Ben Arthur links:

Ben Arthur's website

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)

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