Q and A with Hadley Moore about her debut story collection Not Dead Yet
1. Tell us a little about the stories in Not Dead Yet:
They are shot through with (my) existential dread! But many of them are also funny (that’s also me). I wrote and revised and published them in journals over a period of about ten years, during which time I also finished my MFA, wrote a novel and revised it several times, and started a third project. Until I’d drafted the last story—which became the title story—I didn’t really have an eye toward collecting them; rather than working on one large project, it felt like I had done nine smaller discreet ones. But then I noticed I had not only enough volume to make up a whole book, but also material that actually hung together, stories that could comment on one another and belonged in juxtaposition. In one sense, this should not be surprising—of course they go together; I wrote them all—but it was definitely not apparent until late in the process.
That’s the long answer. The short answer is that the stories are all about the uncertainties of loss and some of the more ignoble aspects of coping, with a good dose of gallows humor thrown in.
2. You definitely aren't writing the same story over and over - how do you find your characters and topics? Do they spring from news headlines (I remember reading years ago that T.C. Boyle won an O. Henry Prize for a story inspired by a headline about a teenage couple that abandoned their newborn), friends and neighbors, people you've worked with?
A poet once asked me whether I had tons of story ideas running through my head at all times. Um, no. I wish. But there’s a sort of resonance I’ve come to recognize when a promising story seed starts germinating. Sometimes these seeds truly do come seemingly out of nowhere, and sometimes I can trace them to some instigating thought or occurrence. For instance, the story “Baby True Tot” sprang from seeing a magazine ad for one of those porcelain baby dolls intended for adult collectors (so creepy). And the first line of “Ordinary Circumstances”: “My kid likes going to the doctor” came from hearing an acquaintance say her kids actually did like going to the doctor.
The stories really are different from one another in many ways; I’ve heard this before about my work, and I think it’s probably a good thing, but, as I said, one of the consequences is that it took me a while to understand I was writing an entire book, not just nine unrelated stories.
3. You must have done considerable research for your story "The Entomologist." What inspired you to write this story about a scientist who has spent her life studying termites? (I'm guessing insects don't make you squeamish like they do many of us.)
I love insects. I really do. I can’t explain it. I am fascinated by the strange intricacies of their small, exoskeletal bodies, and I love to look at magnified photos, like the ones you find in National Geographic. I also love arachnids and crustaceans.
I heard a story on NPR years ago about a widowed entomologist who dealt with his grief by getting lost in his study of termites, basically spending the rest of his life staring into their holes in the ground. My story veers significantly from this premise, but that was its seed.
I spent a lot of time reading about termites, first needing to determine what type would be found where my story is set—Portland, Oregon—and also how they behave, the processes of their destructive eating, what they look like (smooth bodies rather than segmented ones), what it’s like when they swarm, how people discover their homes are infested. It was all very interesting and I think it’s important to try to get such details right, but research like that is sometimes hard to tear myself from in order just to write the story.
4. Most of the stories in Not Dead Yet are written in third-person. Some writers--Jonathan Franzen comes readily to mind--only use first-person when it's absolutely unavoidable. Is this your feeling too?
I took some stats as I was ordering the collection—story length, verb tense, point of view—and they were revealing about my preferences and tendencies. It’s true that two thirds of the stories are written in third person, and I would say I’m more inclined that way—my novel manuscript is also third—but my current project so far is mostly first person, which seems most fitting to this new material.
So, I don’t have a stance; I’ve just noticed some of my patterns. There’s perhaps a more old-timey storytelling feel to third person and a more intimate one to first, but I think these are really only the broadest of strokes in describing their effects.
I do prefer to read aloud from third-person stories at events. There’s a weird tendency sometimes toward conflation between author and narrator that I don’t want to encourage, and it feels easier to avoid that in third person.
5. Your stories offer an unflinching view of people suffering--whether from grief or guilt or mental illness ("Mother and Child"! holy moly...). This is one way of saying yours aren't happy-go-lucky stories, but there are flashes of humor and sweetness throughout the collection. Who are your primary influences?
“Mother and Child” is the story I am most eager to remind readers is truly fiction, as it is about, well, child abuse—and perhaps Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
I never know what to say about influence. I have my favorite writers, and books I return to again and again, but is it too corny to say I’ve been influenced by every book I’ve ever read—as well as every movie I’ve seen or museum I’ve visited? I believe it’s true. There’s a sort of compost of the mind I think happens (I’m stealing from Natalie Goldberg here): you think and read and turn things over, and who knows what might come out of that. For example, I lived in Salt Lake City from 2000–2003, and I’m only now writing stories set in Utah.
I will say I am committed to honesty in fiction—to write unflinchingly is a good way to put it—and I am drawn most to such honesty in my reading life too. Often this means characters suffer. But suffering can be portrayed with compassion; I’m not interested in violence or grief for its own sake, or in the purely prurient or titillating.
6. You've written at least one novel that I know of--maybe more since we last corresponded about this. I'm wondering if your process differs when you're writing a novel, e.g. do you write an outline for a novel but not for a short story?
It doesn’t differ a lot. I wish in all instances that the process were more orderly. I am very much what we used to call “left-brained,” and so there is constant tension between my profound desire for order in all things and the messy, iterative creative process. It is really a struggle, and over time I have trained myself to be more accepting of this tension.
My basic process is really the same across projects: notice the seed of an idea and work it over in my mind for a little bit until I feel or have teased out that resonance I seek. Then I usually write a few initial notes by hand until I think I have enough of an idea of where this might be going to begin drafting, at which point I turn to my computer. I never draft by hand. When I get stuck I go back to my paper notebook and write a lot of notes about what should happen next. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
When a project is done I toss the notebook in the recycling. Otherwise I would have a mountain of them, and I have no interest in re-reading notes like “Stuck again. What should happen with this section? Who is the catalyst character here?” I feel no special tenderness toward my notebooks; they’re just tools.
7. What are you working on now?
My novel manuscript sits ever in a file; I like to think it’s not dead, it’s just resting. I did another big revision of it about a year and a half ago, then set it aside again.
My current project is shaping up to be thematically linked stories about the assassinations of the 1960s. So far, “about” the assassinations means there’s a point-of-view character with some particular fascination with them and with that period of American history, and this fascination interacts with other aspects of their lives. Besides that thematic link the stories (just three finished so far, and two partial) are quite different from each other. I can’t see the full shape of it now, but I’m interested in this project and its subject matter, and so I’m happy to keep following my thread.