Monday, February 20, 2012 posted by Jen at 2/20/2012 08:50:00 AM
The first thing you must know about me is that I am colossally fat,” Arthur Opp confesses in the story’s very first line. Arthur estimates his weight as somewhere between five and six hundred pounds, and confesses that he eats “whatever and whenever he wants,” feasts of “Chinese food, the greased and glowing kind, unnaturally orange chicken with sesame seeds nestled in its crevices, white rice in buttery clumps that come apart wonderfully in the mouth; potstickers, ridged and hard at the seam and soft at the belly; crab rangoons, a crunch followed by lush bland creaminess; chocolate cake – nothing Chinese about it, but the best dessert for a meal of this kind, the sweet bitterness an antidote & a compliment to all that salt.”.
When we meet him, Arthur hasn't been out of the house in a decade -- not since 9-11. The lovely Brooklyn brownstone he inherited was once “very lovely inside and out, decorated very nicely, O this when I was a small boy. But now I fear I have allowed it to fall into a sort of haunted disrepair.” He’s a disgraced former professor, hopelessly longing for a former student whom he dated a handful of times decades ago. His word is confined to the first floor of his house, his television set, and the deliverymen who bring him whatever he needs from the outside world. “I made sure to choose the after 5 p.m option when I joined, which pleases me I like to think the deliveryman might believe I work all day and am just getting home. I’m very silly in this way!”
Arthur’s carefully-constructed life starts to crack open when he makes his first human connections in years. He meets Yolanda, the housekeeper he hires to get his house in order in the belief that Charlene might come back, and, eventually, the reader meets a teenage baseball prodigy Kel Keller, Charlene’s son. Kel, handsome and athletically gifted, is also a misfit, also trapped, imprisoned by poverty, by place and circumstance and the burdens of an ill and addicted mother. He lives in a rough part of Yonkers, attends school in a posh neighboring suburb, and keeps his mother’s secrets, caring for her even as he’s furious with her for failing him so profoundly.
Liz Moore is neither a six-hundred-pound professor or an unhappy, too-cool teenage jock. Tall and willowy, with a thoughtful manner and Julia Roberts masses of wavy brown hair, Moore grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts, the oldest of two sisters, in a “very happy family.” Her mother was an English professor, her father was a research physicist who specialized in nuclear medicine, and Moore was an avid reader of everything from Beverly Cleary to Madeline L’Engle to “The Babysitters Club, which my mom was not happy about.”
Living in a soccer-mad suburb, Moore recalled wishing that her mother spoke with more of a Boston accent. “All I wanted to do was be like all the other kids I knew. I remember trying to be someone I wasn’t.”
She played soccer: “Not well. And I would have traded everything to have been really good at it.” When she was sixteen, she took up the guitar, playing “Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Phoebe Snow, all of those ladies.” She learned “a bunch of their songs first.” After arriving at Barnard (she followed the path of a beloved high-school teacher), Moore started writing her own songs. She worked weekends at the famed Matt Umanov Guitars in the Village, where she perfected her playing, and formed the Liz Moore Band.
At Barnard, she studied fiction with Mary Gordon and Roddy Doyle. By the time she graduated in 2005, she had a manuscript, a collection of short stories about the lives of musicians in New York City called THE WORDS OF EVERY SONG. Shortly thereafter, she had a book deal. Her first book was published in 2007, the same year her first album, called Backyards, came out.
“That book was almost luck. I had a manuscript, based on classwork I’d done.” She met an agent, a Barnard alumna, at a conference. “Two weeks later, the book was edited, and on submission, and Broadway Books bought it.” She was twenty-two years old, and thinking, “this will never, ever happen again.” Telling her parents was almost anticlimactic, Moore recalled. “I think all of us were, like, ‘What?’ We weren’t as excited as we should have been!”
THE WORDS OF EVERY SONG was praised by Kirkus Reviews as “sweet, wistful, artfully arranged: like the best mix tape anyone ever made for you.”
But instead of getting a quick start on her next project, Moore went back to school. She got a job at the Morgan Library, and enrolled in a Masters of Fine Arts program at Hunter College. Her plans was to use the advance from the first collection to learn the craft of writing. “I would never have given myself permission to get an MFA without having published a book.”
Of course, entering a graduate program in creative writing with a book already on shelves seems like a guarantee of toxic envy. Didn’t her classmates want to beat her up in the girls’ room? Moore laughs. “Well, you’d have to ask them. But some of my closest friends came out of the program.”
The grand tradition of first novels is for the young novelist to write what he or she knows – hence the shelves stuffed with tales of Brooklyn slackers with self-doub and Prozac prescriptions, or twentysomething magazine writers coping with bad boyfriends and body angst.
How did Moore decide to populate her first novel with two main characters with whom she had so little in common?
“I knew that, whatever I wrote, people would automatically assume it was me. Writing Arthur let me write sentences I would have felt self-conscious about writing, if I was writing a young-ish woman. It was safer to make him older, and a man, and different from me.”
Arthur’s passion for food – the tastes, the textures, the comfort of knowing there’s something good to cook in the kitchen, a feast waiting to happen – and his shame and horror at what that passion has done to his body, and his life, will feel familiar to every woman who’s ever had, even briefly or peripherally, a vexed relationship with eating. Which is to say, Moore says with a laugh, every woman in America.
But writing about a male character with body issues felt safe. The danger of being a young woman and writing about a young female protagonist is this: not only will readers assume that the woman on the page is the woman behind it, there is also a tendency to take works by young women about young women less seriously.
In a 2008 review of Kaui Hart Hemmings’ THE DESCENDANTS, the critic Joanna Kavenna wondered if Hemmings, along with young female authors Nicole Krauss and Zadie Smith, wrote about men “as a form of homage to writers like Roth, Updike and Bellow,” and also whether male protagonists might “betray a certain anxiety of seriousness: that up-and-coming and even established female authors, fearful of their work being ghettoized as “women’s writing,” place male characters at the center of their work.
HEFT has gotten a decent share of critical acclaim, perhaps because Moore put male characters who couldn’t be less like her front and center, while the women in HEFT take traditional supporting roles: the troubled mother, the supportive girlfriend, the cleaning-lady-with-a-heart-of-gold who helps tug Arthur back to the world of the living.
Moore acknowledges the issue. The female characters “occupy the roles we’re used to seeing women in. But those roles do occur in life. There are cleaning ladies in the world.”
“It’s important to write good books about women as a political action,” she says. “I’d like to write about women. The thing I’m working on – the protagonist is a young woman. It feels more like home.”
Arthur Opp was born in 2006. “I wrote a short story right out of college, about Arthur. And then it just sort of sat there. Like Arthur. But he, as a character, stuck with me.” In graduate school, Moore began writing about Arthur as the central character of a novel. “I knew I had to complicate things for Arthur. Kel was the complicating factor.”
Getting HEFT published was a more traditional process then selling that first collection. Moore started working with a famous agent at the beginning of her MFA studies. Two years later, after she delivered the finished manuscript, the agent decided that it wasn’t for her, and summarily dropped Moore as a client. Moore spent another six months finding her current agent, Seth Fishman. When HEFT finally went on submission, it sold to W.W. Norton within a month.
Moore moved to Philadelphia in 2009, for a yearlong fellowship at the Kelly Writer House at the University of Pennsylvania. She taught writing at Penn and Holy Family University and, when Holy Family offered her a full-time position, she and her long-term boyfriend (he’s a consultant) decided to stay.
“I love teaching. I really do. Whatever happens – if I become hugely successful – I think I’d always want to teach one class every semester. It keeps me sharp, and engaged with the world.”
So how does it feel to be twenty-eight with two published books, and a job teaching writing? Did Liz Moore get to be what she wanted to be when she grew up? “I would never articulate the desire to be a writer, because it felt so stupid. I didn’t believe I could do it until I was actually doing it…but now that I’m doing it, it’s a very exciting thing."
Welcome to A Moment of Jen, author Jennifer Weiner's constantly-updated take on books, baby, and news of the world. Email me at jen (a) jenniferweiner.com.