When novelist Rick Moody decided to write a memoir more than four and half years ago, he knew he wanted the book to go beyond the standard "Rick Moody and his checkered past" routine. And that's fitting, since Moody admits he would never have been able to write that kind of book anyway.
"Even though I'm interested in writing about my own psychology and things I know about—I could never write just a kind of exhibitionistic narrative of the bad things that happened to me," he says.
Those "bad things" include drugs, alcohol, severe depression and a stay in a psychiatric hospital—all common memoir fare. His memoir, Moody decided, would be more than that. As a result, The Black Veil (Little, Brown, May) takes risks most writers would avoid and reinvigorates a form many in the publishing industry deem exhausted.
"Well, supposedly when I started [this book] the memoir boom was still happening, but I was just so slow I managed to miss the boat as usual," he says. "But, I frankly think that whenever a form looks exhausted, that's exactly the point at which you should swoop in and pry it apart and see what makes it tick."
For an author with Moody's literary repertoire, taking on this sort of challenge seemed like a natural next step in advancing his already esteemed body of work.
His first book, 1992's Garden State, received the 10th Annual Pushcart Press Editor's Book Award. His second, The Ice Storm, was released in 1994 and solidified Moody's status as literary tour de force. The book also went on to become an award-winning film. Since then, he's published several other novels and short story collections, including 2001's Demonology: Stories.
But having never before written an extended work of nonfiction, Moody admits writing his memoir proved more difficult than writing a novel.
"I thought that a memoir would use different muscles, and that I could sort of take time off from the hard work of imagining by using characters and situations that I knew a lot about because they were real," he says.
"But I really didn't know how to make nonfiction work in a book-length context. The most arduous problem really was figuring out how to make it all have a logical, coherent narrative flow."
What Moody came up with is a "collage-oriented" memoir that not only covers his life, but also incorporates his family history (he traced his lineage back to 1683 for the book). He also serves up some literary criticism of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Minister's Black Veil—it turns out Hawthorne actually makes mention of a veil-wearing Moody ancestor in the story's opening page.
While the Hawthorne criticism—and the academic tone Moody adopts for that particular chapter—does make The Black Veil distinctive among recent memoirs, it also brings up questions of readability.
"I know that I run a risk with that stuff," he says. "Even my editor at one point said, 'Be prepared for people to skip this chapter.' And my attitude is, 'That's fine. Skip the chapter if you like. If you want to get back to the more personal material, that's cool.' But, if you really want to know what this book is about, you have to take the whole ride."
Of course, there is another reason for Hawthorne's heavy presence: Some topics are just too difficult to approach directly. Hawthorne, Herman Melville and even Cotton Mather (the Boston minister best known for his involvement with the Salem witch trials) come together to help Moody find a metaphorical approach to unveiling his demons.
"Writing about my life proved so incredibly fearsome," he says. "The really oppressive emotional things—death or whatever the veil symbolizes in my book, for example—become difficult to entrap. You find yourself working around them and kind of trying to signal in the direction that they are, rather than pinning them on the mounting board."
Even if such topics weren't so difficult to articulate, language, too, has its limitations. For Moody, memories and truth, even in written form, bear the scars of time and prejudice: "It's usually taken as an article of faith that the process of casting memory in language is valid and important and useful. But as I was doing it, I kept feeling like memoir as a form is incredibly complicated and not as simple as that. As we think we're getting the truth, we're also getting refractions and distortions."
The Black Veil's distinctive nature, however, lies even beyond language, family histories and literary homages. As with much of his fiction, Moody's memoir offers bits of social commentary—again, something many of today's memoirs rarely do. Looking beyond his own story, the author seeks to explore how Western culture influences both society and individuals. It's this bold inclusion that Moody says may give some readers pause.
"I know that I'm going to take some shit for that last sentence," he says of the book's closing line, which essentially equates Americans with murderers. "I don't expect conservative commentators are going to smile upon it. In fact, certain family members who have read it have made it clear that they think the ending is just ... sort of hysterical in a way.
"But, I feel like if the book is about me in some ways, and it is—I mean, I'm the central organizing principle—then it's the right ending because that's my perception about how history—American history—got us where we are."
And it's through writing that Moody has gotten to where he is. Whether it's novels, short stories, memoirs, essays or, most recently, short-short stories, Moody says the creative process of writing assists him in keeping his own black veil of depression at bay.
"In a way, this book is an example of a kind of program, in my view, for maintaining an even keel in the face of having serious melancholy tendencies," he says. "Let creativity flower in your personality, and perhaps you can avoid the real scourge of this disease."
This article appeared in the July 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.