CHRISTOPHER MOORE'S BOOKSHELF
Christopher Moore has been called a cult author for 15 years now, even though his latest books have all appeared on The New York Times bestseller list. He resolves this conundrum with a characteristic quip: "I'm just working on getting a really giant cult. We're saving up for a compound."
This eccentric comment isn't unusual for Moore. Carl Hiaasen calls him "A very sick man in the very best sense of the word."
Moore, 49, is currently writing his 11th humor novel. Although he thought about pursuing a writing career when he was a teenager, he discounted the idea until his early 30s. He was working as a waiter when Disney bought the film rights to his first novel, Practical Demonkeeping, before he even had a publishing deal.
We spoke just as Moore was heading out to tour for his 10th novel, You Suck: A Love Story, which is a sequel to his third novel, Bloodsucking Fiends. Moore intended to write You Suck immediately following Bloodsucking Fiends, but at the time, sales didn't command a sequel.
"The publisher mispublished Bloodsucking Fiends, and I know probably every author thinks that, but this was really an unprecedented dropping of the ball," Moore says. "I wanted to keep my career in an upward vector. I had to try something else. You Suck is what I thought I'd write 10 years ago. I'm finally at a point where I can do that."
Moore has unconventionally achieved this flexibility by writing absurdist fiction. And his intelligent combination of horror and humor has been something of a genre-bender. Entertainment Weekly writes: "Picking up where he left off in 1995's Bloodsucking Fiends, Christopher Moore returns with his now-trademark genre fiction, a style we'll call Supernatural San Francisco Pop." And The Denver Post writes: "Christopher Moore is rapidly becoming the cult author of today, filling a post last held by Kurt Vonnegut." Read on to find out Moore's take on talking bats, avoiding negative reviews and making horror hilarious.
WAS PRACTICAL DEMONKEEPINGTHE FIRST BOOK YOU WROTE OR JUST THE FIRST YOU SOLD?
The first I finished. I had started a number of books and written one or two chapters and given up.
HOW MUCH PLANNING AND OUTLINING DO YOU DO BEFORE BEGINNING A NEW STORY?
In my first four or five books, I did almost none. I would stay about five scenes ahead of where I was working, but as I went on under tighter deadlines, I had to start outlining because I couldn't afford to lose a day of work not knowing where the book was going. When I get into that situation, I stop and outline and do nothing but plot for a day or two.
YOU'RE VERY APPROACHABLE AS AN AUTHOR, BOTH IN PERSON AND ONLINE. DO YOU FEEL LIKE READERS GIVE YOU VALUABLE FEEDBACK, OR IS IT MORE OF A SOCIAL OUTLET?
It's a little of both. One thing that's really delightful is my books tend to attract people who are funny, so I get the benefit of people writing me with things that crack me up.
As much as I encourage communication with my readers, I don't want reviews from them, simply because I don't need to be hamstrung in the middle of working on something. I don't read reviews if I know in advance they're negative, because I can't have my confidence undermined when I'm writing. Where the feedback helps is people saying what they like and what they want to see more of, so when I go to the next book, it's not just, "This book worked because it sold X number of copies." It worked because people like this character, or the silliness. Writers work in a vacuum. We make an enormous number of decisions every day about how to have a character behave and what to have him say. And when I have specific feedback from a reader who says, "I loved when the fruit bat talked," I think, OK, that risk worked. I can do that again.
CRITICS COMPARE YOU TO HUMORISTS SUCH AS DOUGLAS ADAMS, JONATHAN SWIFT, TOM ROBBINS AND KURT VONNEGUT. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THAT?
I admire most of those guys, so I have no problem being compared to them. Some of them were my heroes when I was learning my craft—certainly Vonnegut and Robbins were models. What Adams got away with in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was an inspiration for me. I was trying to do the same thing with horror that he'd done with science fiction.
YOU HAVE A CARL HIAASEN BLURB ON YOUR WEBSITE. HOW HAS HE AFFECTED YOUR CAREER?
Carl started publishing books around the late 1980s, when I was coming into my own craft-wise, and I thought, He's getting away with it. Frankly, there weren't many people who were. Writers like Hiaasen hardened me to the fact that you can get away with writing fiction that bridges thriller and humor.
When I teach seminars, I tell people, "Your stuff has to look like something that's out there, because otherwise nobody will take a chance on you." That sounds sad, but it's true. If your stuff doesn't look like anything that's already out there, you're either an enormous genius (in which case you won't get published), or you're missing the mark (in which case you won't get published).
HOW DO YOU MARRY THE GENRES OF HUMOR AND HORROR?
They actually work together much easier than one would think. You just have to learn to establish a mood, then break it. It's like the classic juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane, the sublime and the silly—properly done, it's almost always funny.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF SOMETHING IS WORKING AS HUMOR?
It's just a sense. If I think it's funny, usually my readers will, as well. Sometimes the humor doesn't resonate with everyone. I don't think it's something that can be taught. You can learn comic timing, but you have to just "know" what's funny.
When I'm on tour, I can hone the timing or the delivery of a line to how the audience reacts, but even with that kind of immediate feedback, the line that killed them in San Diego may fall flat 20 miles away in La Jolla. What works works. What doesn't doesn't. It's very difficult to quantify.
WHEN YOU STARTED WRITING, YOU DIDN'T WRITE FROM HOME, BUT YOU DO NOW. WHY?
I wrote my first three books in cafes. At the time, I smoked, and they outlawed smoking in restaurants. That's why I had to move back home.
Working in cafes was about establishing discipline—I would get up, get dressed, drive to this little cafe not far from my house, and sit at the counter for two hours and write. It gave the illusion of going to work, which is something I needed. At the time, I lived in a friend's basement in a tiny room that didn't have room for a desk, so I didn't have a place to work at home, anyway. But rather than being the clichéd tragic artist, let's say I made the choice to alter my work habits.
I wrote much of my sixth novel, Lamb, in a hotel room because they were building houses on either side of my house, and there was just pounding and sawing all day long. I checked into a hotel in Big Sur that didn't even have television or phones, so I was in no danger of being on the Internet every seven minutes.
SO NOW THAT YOU DO HAVE A HOME OFFICE, IS IT NEAT OR MESSY?
It's a complete disaster. I get bigger and bigger desks, and they fill up with more and more crap. I have two aircraft carrier desks, and there's not an inch of wood showing. There are two monitors sticking up like two aliens have invaded a junkyard.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TRYING TO SELL A NOVEL AS A NEW WRITER AND DOING SO AS AN ESTABLISHED AUTHOR? DO YOU HAVE FREE REIN TO WRITE WHATEVER YOU WANT NOW?
I send in proposals that are about five pages long, and I try to keep my editor informed. I had breakfast with my editor in New York recently, and I said, "I think this is the book I want to do next." We talked about what direction to take it, so it's now an approved idea going forward.
So do I get to write anything I want? Yes—but I want my editor's input. I've had friends who have written 500-page books and had to throw out everything but 36 pages. The way you don't get in that position is to communicate with your editor. I'll typically send her the first 100 pages and say, "This is rough, but this is where it's going. What do you think?" That way, if she feels it doesn't work, it's fixable. I don't have middle-of-the-night discussions about the subject matter, though. I know some authors who are on the phone with their editors all the time working out plot points.
DO YOU EDIT AS YOU GO ALONG?
I do a lot of composing in which I type something, look at it and back it out. But I don't go through and edit yesterday's work before I work today. As I said, I'd written a lot of Chapter 1s and 2s. It was because I was stopping to edit those that I never got to Chapter 3, 4 and 5 and finished the book. So I wrote the first book, beginning to end without editing a single paragraph because I knew I could write Chapter 1 or 2, but I didn't know if I could write a book.
I tell students, "Don't rewrite until you're finished," because otherwise you'll end up with a perfectly polished Chapter 1 and never anything more.
WHEN DOES YOUR WRITERLY ANXIETY START—WHEN YOU'RE STARTING A NEW BOOK, HALFWAY THROUGH OR WHEN YOU TURN IT IN?
It peaks when I have the idea and stays pretty consistent until the book is out for about six months.
EVEN AFTER IT HITS THE BESTSELLER LISTS?
Even then, I think, It's a fluke; I can't believe I pulled it off. Being an author is a complete cycle of "I'm a piece of crap/I'm the king of the universe" that oscillates on a minute-by-minute basis. Anybody who writes fiction knows that. I think I have my biggest crises of confidence two-thirds of the way through the book, and I get this feeling that this was just a stupid idea.
My girlfriend of almost 13 years—who I've decided to call my mistress because it sounds more exotic—says, "You say this every time you get to this point." And I say, "No, it's different this time." Well, I keep a journal as a warm-up. Every day to start, I open up a file and type a couple of paragraphs of self-doubt, and I look back to that point in previous books and sure enough, I was writing, "This is a complete crap idea, and I can't believe I came up with it. I'll never be able to pull this off."
I always write in journals when I start a book and it's not because I need to keep track of how many pages a day I do...they basically are chronicles of whining. I look back and think, I need to make sure these are destroyed when I die. It's getting out all those "I have no business doing this—I'm going to end up penniless and alone living in a cardboard box in Tijuana" thoughts—you get them out of your system.
WHAT'S YOUR BAROMETER FOR SUCCESS?
I'm always just trying to write a good book. I try to pick projects I haven't done before, and if I pull it off, I'm amazed and ecstatic. Whether someone will pay me a ton of money for it is a whole different thing; some-times I want to ask publishers, "Are you out of your mind?" but I'm under orders from my agent never to do that.
For years, I'd been trying to get on The New York Times bestseller list, and I thought, There's the list and there's not the list, and those are the only two categories there are. Well, that's not true. Once you make the list, there's the top five, and not the top five, and how many weeks you stay on it. Then you have to make it to a higher number than you did last time. But that was certainly a milestone. Now I have the potential to be a has-been. Up to that point, I could have just been a nobody's- ever-heard-of-him.
SO IS TOURING WORTH IT?
The travel is extraordinarily hard, but meeting and talking to the readers is great. Being in front of your readers and making them laugh allows you to know whether the material works right then instead of 18 months after you had the idea.
The signings have gone from me and four people who work for the bookstore to 200 or 300 people, and that's real satisfying.
HOW DO YOU AVOID BECOMING AN EGOMANIAC?
What touring does is make you think everybody is paying attention to everything you say. So when I get home, my mistress is like, "Chris, I don't care what you had for lunch." You start answering everything like you've been asked by Larry King.
You become this public, sort of "on" person, and it takes a week to not be "on" anymore and get back to being a real person. You become a PR machine. When you get back to life, nobody cares what kind of paper or computer programs you use.
ANY PARTING ADVICE FOR WRITERS STARTING OUT?
Learn discipline and don't worry about finding an agent until you have something to sell. I get a lot of writers who jump the gun. They ask, "How do you find an agent?" "Do you have a book?" I ask. "No," they say. "Well, start at 'Once upon a time,' go for 300 pages until you write 'The End,' then look for an agent."