Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Become a Writer” begins: “First, try to be something, anything, else.” Fortunately, Moore did not take her own advice. Her humorous prose is filled with wisecracks and pithy one-liners, but it is always built on a core of sadness in her character’s lives.
Born Marie Lorena Moore in 1957, in Glens Falls, New York, she was nicknamed “Lorrie” by her parents. Moore remembers being painfully skinny child who always felt that she could “fall down the slightest crevice and disappear.” Academically ambitious, she skipped ahead in school, earned a Regents scholarship, and attended St. Lawrence University. There, as an English major, she was the editor of the literary journal and won, at nineteen, Seventeen magazine’s fiction contest.
After graduating, she moved to Manhattan and worked as a paralegal for two years, then in 1980 enrolled in Cornell’s M.F.A. program. At Cornell her stories were accepted at magazines—one by Ms., for which they paid her but never ran, others by Fiction International, John Gardner’s magazine, and StoryQuarterly. She felt encouraged by having her work published, but she was still not convinced it would lead anywhere. “I remember thinking, rather naïvely, that I would give myself until I was thirty, and if I hadn’t published a book by then, I would probably have to find something else to focus on, that I obviously just was completely deluded and I didn’t know what I was doing.”
In 1983, when she was twenty-six, Knopf bought her collection, Self-Help, comprised almost entirely of stories from her master’s thesis. One of Moore’s teachers at Cornell, Alison Lurie, had mentioned that her agent, Melanie Jackson, was looking for clients. Neither Moore nor her classmates really knew what an agent was. “I sent her the collection, and she sent it to Knopf, and they took it. Now, I realize, that doesn’t happen ordinarily,” Moore says.
The 1998 O’Henry Award winning story “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is a good example of how Moore handles tragic subject matter with witty prose. In the story, a writer and her husband discover a blood clot in their baby’s diaper. When baby is diagnosed with a kidney tumor, the husband urges his writer wife to “take notes” for a story to earn some extra money for hospital bills. “Sweetie, darling, I’m not that good,” she tells him. “I can do succinct descriptions of weather. I can do screwball outings with the family pet. But this? Our baby with cancer? I’m sorry. My stop was two stations back.”
Since 1984, Moore has taught English at the University of Wiconsin. She claims her literary ambitions have become more prosaic than ever. “I used to stay up all night and write and read, and I was quite obsessive. But now it’s a much more modest endeavor. When your life gets crazy and complicated, your hopes turn into ‘I hope I get enough sleep so that I can get some writing done this year.'”
Excerpt from Who Will Run the Frog Hospital (1994)
In Paris we eat brains every night. My husband likes the vaporous, fishy mousse of them. They are a kind of seafood, he thinks, locked tightly in the skull, like shelled creatures in the dark caves of the ocean, sprung suddenly free and killed by light; they’ve grown clammy with shelter, fortressed vulnerability, dreamy night. Me, I’m eating for a flashback.
“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence,” says Daniel, my husband, finger raised, as if the thought has just come to him via the cervelles.
“Remember the beast you eat. And it will remember you.”
I’m hoping for something Proustian, all that forgotten childhood. I mash them against the roof of my mouth, melt them, waiting for something to be triggered in my head, in empathy or chemistry or some other rush of protein. The tempest in the teacup, the typhoon in the trout; there is wine, and we drink lots of it.
We sit beside people who show us wallet pictures of their children. “Sont-ils si mignons!” I say. My husband constructs remarks in his own patois. We, us, have no little ones. He doesn’t know French. But he studied Spanish once, and now, with a sad robustness, speaks of our childlessness to the couple next to us. “But,” he adds, thinking fondly of our cat, “we do have a large gato at home.”
“Gâteau means ‘cake,'” I whisper. “You’ve just told them we have a large cake at home.” I don’t know why he always strikes up conversations with the people next to us. But he strikes them up, thinking it friendly and polite rather than oafish and irritating, which is what I think.
“What aggrandizement are we in again?” my husband asks.
“What ‘aggrandizement’?” I say. “I don’t know, but I think we’re in one of the biggies.” My husband pronounces tirez as if it were Spanish, père as if it were pier. The affectionate farce I make of him ignores the ways I feel his lack of love for me. But we are managing. We touch each other’s sleeves. We say, “Look at that!,” wanting our eyes to merge, our minds to be one. We are in Paris, with its impeccable marzipan and light, its whiffs of sewage and police state. With my sore hip and his fallen arches (“fallen archness,” Daniel calls it), we walk the quais, stand on all the bridges in the misty rain, and look out on this pretty place, secretly imagining being married to other people—right here in River City!—and sometimes not, sometimes simply wondering, silently or aloud, what will become of the world.
Birds of America (1998)
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)
Like Life (1990)
Self-Help: Stories (1985)