Exclusive: Mini Interview with Lorrie Moore, Patron Saint of Our Bookshelf

Lorrie Moore is a writer’s writer. Though fellow author Jonathan Lethem attested in this week’s New York Times Book Review that he only knows one (“one”) reader who dislikes Lorrie Moore, we’ve recently discovered a good number of people — highly-educated urbanites all — who are unfamiliar with Moore’s work in its entirety. Judging from the maelstrom of press anticipation for Moore’s latest release, A Gate at the Stairs, we feel compelled to address precisely what makes Moore so worthy of the “great author” banner held aloft over Pynchon and other, customarily male, writers of her generation.

Moore’s Midwestern, primarily female protagonists are, as Aja Gabel describes in Virginia Quarterly Review, “stuck in the flat states, too smart to be loved, too sad to be kind, too jilted to be joyful.” But what could be painfully stereotypical depressives are elevated by her words to deeply drawn characters, chockablock with corny humor and canny perception of their microcosmic worlds. Though A Gate at the Stairs abandons the bedrooms and coffee shops of jaded adults for a liberal arts college inhabited by a naive 20-year-old, the Moorian themes still exist: wry humor at a universe outside of one’s control, the farce and fragility of human relationships, doomed love. There is something almost optimistic in tone at the end of our time with Tassie Keltjin, however. Whereas Anagrams, Moore’s experimental exercise in narrative fiction from 1987, left us feeling utterly screwed by the fate of our lead character, Tassie’s reflective temper – a bit wiser for the wear, but not overly authoritative – is spirited enough to make us believe that all hope is not lost.

The publicity machine has been working overtime to herald the arrival of Moore’s first book in over a decade (Birds of America, a seminal short story collection, a writing workshop mainstay, was published in 1998), as interviews with the famously reticent, serenely private author have cropped everywhere from ELLE to the Times to New York to Reader’s Digest. We emailed her some questions and – lucky for us! – Moore filled us in on two points of interest.

Flavorpill: Michiko Kakutani wrote last week that the novel’s title is pulled from a ditty Tassie composes: I’d climb up that staircase past lions and bears/ but it’s locked at the foot of the stairs. I actually assumed the title was taken from the Mary-Emma’s physical baby gate, which is mentioned several times in the book as she gains her footing (ha, ha) and it no longer inhibits her movement. Can you explain the true source of the title? And how symbolic or powerful is a title to you?

Lorrie Moore: A gate at the top or the foot of any stairs is a barricade, a block to ascension, a protective barrier but also something that in general obstructs the path of someone. It is, however, hinged, so it can open, so all is not lost. There is a baby gate in the novel but it is also in the lyrics of one of the songs Tassie writes, which includes a reference to a stairway to heaven. There is also a mention of a gate at the stairs when Tassie first goes to the Thornwood-Brinks for an interview: the gate is in slight disrepair, and she notes it. There is also a gate on the farm property which opens to a path terraced with tree roots, forming a kind of path. It is here Tassie and her brother have their talks. In other words? The title is scattered throughout the book and is meant to include every interpretation it touches on.

FP: Your puns are a source of great delight to faithful Moore readers, and the courses Tassie takes at her Midwestern liberal arts college are no exception. Are there any equivalents at University of Wisconsin-Madison? What are you currently teaching there?

LM: I teach creative writing. The courses Tassie takes are not actually taught here, I don’t think. At least not the last I looked. But such courses exist somewhere I’m sure, and well, they exist in the world of the book, which holds a mirror, though a wavy one, up to life.

Read an excerpt from A Gate at the Stairs, originally printed as short fiction “Childcare” in the New Yorker. The novel is available in hardback from Knopf as of September 1, 2009.