Comfortable with the uncomfortable

Novelist Susanna Moore confronts topics that make readers shiver while firing up their imaginations.
By Glen Duncan | Published: January 29, 2013


Susanna Moore c Denise Applewhite

Susanna Moore belongs to a small class of writers whose work performs the paradoxical miracle of giving solace by offering none. For all their sensuous engagement with the Hawaiian landscape of her childhood (which led to the myopic critical judgment that there was something restrictively “lush” going on), her first three novels, My Old Sweetheart, The Whiteness of Bones and Sleeping Beauties, contain alarming – and unalarmed – confrontations with cruelty, desire, violence, betrayal and death.

It took the controversial and nationally bestselling In the Cut to wake the dozing consensus to a writer whose imagination has always been informed by seared understanding and a shaming innocence, and to establish her reputation for not shirking the darkness.

She cares about getting it right at the level of the sentence, delivering scrupulous, unflinching prose without a single metaphor or simile readers will have seen before. If Martin Amis is right in characterizing quality fiction as a “war against cliché,” then Moore is making an inestimable and bloody contribution to the fight.

Her latest book, The Life of Objects, deals with the rise and fall of Nazism, seen through the eyes of an ambitious Irish ingénue – a choice of narrative viewpoint typical of the author’s seductive (and, frankly, enviable) knack for sidestepping the obvious without resorting to gimmick.

We spoke recently.

When did you first realize that you wanted to write fiction? Was there an epiphanic moment?
I was a voracious reader as a child, clearing out the local library (my mother had given me a letter for the librarian, attesting that the books that I borrowed were for her reading alone), and I began to write plays, usually starring myself, when I was 9 or 10. There were years of bad poetry. I was features editor of the Punahou school newspaper. But at no moment did I clearly decide that I was going to be a writer, nor did it feel as if I had always been one. I left home for the mainland (I grew up in Hawaii) when I was 17 with no money or education beyond Punahou and the books that I’d read, and knew that I had to earn my living. I had a fantasy that I’d be a reporter and was sent by an equally naïve friend to Walter Annenberg, the owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who promptly sent me to the classified ad room, where I became an ad-taker. I’ve always thought that it was very good training: A man would call to place an ad in the hope of selling his used bed, and I would have to write a convincing few sentences on his behalf. I later read scripts for Jack Nicholson and oddly enough had to do the same thing – condense a complicated proposal into a statement of a dozen words.

We’ve talked before about how feeling different from the people around us – “mutant” was the word you used – informs or underpins the burgeoning writer’s mentality. Could you expand on that?
By mutant, I mean that state in childhood and adolescence of isolation, sometimes blissful, often bewildering, when you realize that you have little in common with the people closest to you – not because you are superior in intelligence or sensitivity, but because you perceive the world in an utterly different way, which you assume to be a failing on your part. It was only through reading and discovering characters who shared that feeling that I realized when I was about 14 that I wasn’t insane. And yes, I think that the sensation, the awareness and then the conviction that your perception of the world is not what might be called conventional, is essential to the making of an artist. It is a little like speaking a different language from the people around you – it affords you solitude, but it also means that you are sometimes misunderstood.

Do you have set working parameters – a daily word-count, for example – and if not, can you ever imagine writing a novel under such strictures?
I’m embarrassed, especially now that I feel time slipping past with such rapidity that it makes me dizzy, to admit that there were 10 perfectly happy years between My Old Sweetheart, my first book, and my second book, The Whiteness of Bones. I would like to claim that I don’t experience what is called writer’s block, but those 10 years would indicate otherwise, except that I was not trying to write and did not suffer for it. I see great despair and frustration in my friends who experience writer’s block. I don’t set a schedule for myself, or insist upon a certain number of words each day, perhaps knowing that my contentious nature would rebel against such imposed discipline, even if it is I who am imposing it. I begin a book only when I feel that I have something to write. I know from experience that it is useless to force it; that has resulted in some very bad prose. I write in longhand in any notebook that is at hand, transcribing it the next day into a computer. I have to edit by hand as well, printing the pages I’ve written and then transferring my edits to the computer. I write, when I am writing, for four or five hours a day – sometimes in the morning, sometimes not. Sometimes at a desk, sometimes in bed. When my daughter was young, I wrote at night when she’d gone to sleep, wearing fingerless gloves as the heat had been turned off till morning.

A few years ago, I saw the original handwritten manuscript of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow in the British Library. The first couple of pages were very heavily rewritten – then it went on at great length without correction. How heavily do you rewrite, before an editor gets hold of the book? Do you ever find you’ve written long stretches that come out right the first time?
I begin each day’s work by editing the previous day’s work, which I find is a subtle way of tricking myself into writing. I rewrite a book perhaps a dozen times, which is exhausting (and the book itself becomes increasingly boring), but effective in achieving what I think of as “alright-ness.” I never think that my work is good – acceptable would be the farthest I would go. “I can leave this alone now” is the most that I allow myself. Which does not mean that I don’t rewrite it five more times. Sometimes there are long passages that don’t need much more work, and that is always a relief. When something is wrong in the writing, however, it tends to be wrong for a long time, particularly if one tries to solve it by moving commas or changing the point of view, or giving a character a new name. I’m always fascinated at the things that slip past me – a very bad sentence or even a completely illogical statement, or a fact that is simply wrong – even after many edits. How do those mistakes go unnoticed the third time through? Or the eighth time? I don’t know the answer; I just know that you don’t see it, don’t know it until you know it.

The Life of Objects is an altogether sensuous novel, but I was struck in particular by the number of images and scenes that came off the page with a very filmic or photographic quality. As a novelist, are you conscious of the book as a potential film? Does the dominant (and let’s face it, more lucrative) medium influence the writing?
Of course, it would be nice if one’s work were bought for the movies, but I’ve found it is impossible for me to set out to write a book that would attract that kind of attention. I’ve tried, and it has been a failure, as well as a good lesson. I’m not that kind of writer, unfortunately, as it would be nice not to have to find additional ways to earn money other than writing – always a counterproductive effort in that it takes me away from what I should be doing, which is writing books.

The market for literary fiction (if we believe publishers) is shrinking. Do you feel under pressure to find a commercial angle? To me, it feels as if one has to smuggle ideas in under the entertainment radar.
Sometimes my publisher will roll his eyes, usually after reading a draft of a new novel, and ask if I will ever find it in my heart to write something commercial. I know that he doesn’t really mean it – only a little bit does he mean it – but I don’t feel pressured, nor do I think that I could do it. I certainly don’t think that I could do it well.

The Life of Objects makes a bold decision: to report on the Holocaust without putting it center stage and to filter it through people far (in the main) from its most brutal actions. Was this the intention from the start, or did the peripheral viewpoint develop in the writing?
I was very certain that I did not want to write about the war from the perspective of a Jew, or a Nazi, or even a German. It would be presumptuous, given the history of the period. I knew that I had to approach it as an outsider, which I am, and that decision led me to the Irish girl, Beatrice, who is the first-person narrator of the book. The Holocaust is of such importance, such weight, and so much has been written about it that it seemed best to approach it from the side, from a distance, and through the eyes of a naive and ignorant character like Beatrice. It is thanks to writers like W. G. Sebald, who only in the last 20 years have made it possible for us to consider the lives of those not affected in the same way as were the inmates of the camps, or soldiers in the Wehrmacht, or Jews in hiding. I also felt it important not to write in what I call the “Napoleon, Emperor of the French” style – important not to be tendentious or didactic, although my views are obvious, as they would be in any novel.

Your writing has what I regard as gender inscrutability: I defy any of your readers to deduce the author’s sex from the narrative alone. Is this something you’re aware of or strive for? Given the volumes of anodyne chick lit, do you think this has contributed to your reputation for being “comfortable with the uncomfortable”?
I’m very flattered that you think this, particularly as I wrote In the Cut after realizing that I was seen as a woman’s writer, writing lyrically about flowers and children. A categorization that infuriated me. I don’t, unfortunately, believe that you are right. I do think that a reader will know, if only intuitively, that I am a woman. My reputation as someone who is comfortable with the uncomfortable comes more, I suspect, from my subject matter – incest, rape, suicide, murder, torture. This reputation persists in real life as well, not just in my work. I am often the one designated to kill the tarantula. This is not only a metaphor; I mean a real tarantula.

How has the process of writing and what it means to you to be a writer changed from the start of your career? I used to believe there would be no kind of fulfilling life for me if not the writing life, but increasingly I can imagine a time when it will feel less of an overwhelming imperative. Do you imagine writing novels until you drop?
I have never felt a compulsion to write, as do many of my friends who are writers (I am told that I shouldn’t admit this, especially as no one believes me). I began writing in part to support myself and my daughter. I have never kept a diary, don’t make notes on the backs of menus, don’t have files full of ideas for future books. I wish that I did. Were I to win the lottery, would I keep writing? I don’t know. Perhaps not. Writing is very difficult. As Flannery O’Connor said, “Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”

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Glen Duncan is the author of nine novels, most recently Talulla Rising. He lives in London.