July 2006

John McGlothlin

features

An Interview with Jeffrey Moore

In March, Bookslut brought Jeffrey Moore to its monthly reading series event to discuss The Memory Artists, released in America in March. Following the reading a glob of attendees, including Jeff and myself, went to a bar, and by night’s end I had learned three important things about Jeff Moore. First, he’s Canadian. Second, his hair is not quite as impressive as it appears in the photo on his website. There’s still a lot of volume there, plenty of lift, but in reality it’s not the overflowing mane it seems in the picture. Finally, Jeff is extremely wry. He’s straight-faced to boot, and consequently picking his opinions apart from his jokes is often a bit difficult. He’d probably be an excellent poker player.

Not surprisingly, Moore’s laconic humor makes an appearance in his writing. Indeed, The Memory Artists, his second novel after Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain (1999), winner of the 2000 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book, is at times remarkably funny. Arsonists get arrows shot into their nasal cavities, and one character sells products such as the Whizzinator 3000 and Doggie Paxil out of shoe boxes. Use your imagination as to what the Whizzinator is for.

To simply call the book humorous, however, is a bit of an injustice. The Memory Artists is a complicated brew, simultaneously tragic, absurd, hopeful, and surreal. It utilizes equal parts fiction, research paper, and fairy tale to address a bevy of topics and push along a plotline which is at times rather complicated. As the title suggests, though, the diverse characters and narratives are tied together by the common theme of memory, its functioning, disorders, and diseases.

I talked to Jeff from his home in Montreal near the end of April.

Noel, the main character in The Memory Artists, has both synesthesia (he sees and hears words as colors) and hypermnesia (he is unable to forget). What caused you to write about these mental conditions?

An accident. While doing research on amnesia I stumbled upon its opposite, hypermnesia, and the case of “S” from the 1930s, a Russian named Solomon Shereshevskii. He had this stupendously vivid and persistent visual memory -- caused or heightened by his synesthesia. He once described Sergei Eisenstein’s voice, for example, as an “orange flame with protruding fibers.” So it was at that point that I got the idea for Noel, a synesthete with a troublingly exact memory, as a foil to the other main character with a faltering memory, his mother Stella.

How did you decide on the manner in which Noel’s memory would operate? Is he largely based off of recorded cases, or is his mind primarily your own invention?

The inspiration came from A.R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist, which describes Sheresheveskii’s colored hearing and, more interesting to me, his difficulties in understanding and adapting to the world around him. From there, I tried to imagine what it would be like to meet people and be distracted by the colors and shapes of their voices. And what it would be like to retain everything, how confusing and bewildering that might be over time. But this confusion, along with Noel’s alienation from large segments of the population, was derived from my own personal experiences.

Stella has Alzheimer’s, the disease from which both of your parents died. At the novel’s end, though, Noel finds a cure and she largely recovers her memory. Was the writing of this book thus something of a catharsis for you?

You’ve just given away the ending. I hope you’re satisfied. This discovery of a memory pill -- the “Viagra for the mind” -- was obviously wishful thinking on my part: an attempt to rearchitect the past and save my parents’ lives. But it was also based on a belief that a cure is near. As more and more baby-boom scientists, or their parents, begin to suffer from memory loss, research and funding will grow apace. It’s now a cachet field -- a Nobel and planetary celebrity await the discoverer of a cure.

As far as catharsis is concerned, I certainly hoped writing the novel would have this effect, but I’m far from certain it did. It dragged me back into a painful period -- there were times when I was totally blocked, paralyzed, almost afraid to dredge up the past, to resurrect feelings of sadness and loss. There were days -- weeks -- when all I could do was sit in front of the TV and blankly watch game shows or such riveting sports as ladies’ darts. It was only after taking a couple months off for other projects that I was able to confront my demons.

I thought it interesting that Noel’s cure is derived partly from scientific experimentation, partly from the ingredients of witch spells left by his Scottish grandmother, and partly from alternative medicine. Is this meant to be a rub at contemporary medicine? Or is your message more about going around conventional wisdom?

I certainly take my shots at contemporary medicine, and especially the big drug companies. Dr. Vorta, for instance, the novel’s celebrated neurologist, is accused of a variety of things: insider trading, taking kickbacks from companies sponsoring mnemonic research, pressuring government officials to greenlight or fast-track drug approval, deliberately inducing Alzheimer’s in animals and humans, and so on.

And as you suggest, the novel is also about going beyond conventional wisdom, or at least beyond a hyper-rational, purely scientific approach, to a kind of marriage between art and science. Hence the book’s title. Most of the world’s great scientists wouldn’t have made their discoveries without inherently creative or intuitive or “irrational” leaps.

But as for today’s alternative medicine, it can hardly be considered an example of this ideal marriage between art and science. It has too much pseudo-science, too much quackery, for that. It’s unregulated, untested -- and as dishonest about its products as Big Pharma.

Perhaps your most memorable, or at least most eccentric, character is JJ Yelle, the peppy alternative-medicine pusher who lives in a cemetery gatehouse. What or who went in to making JJ?

With such a gloomy theme, the novel needed some comic relief. Like me, JJ has a fatal weakness for puns and cornballisms that he resurrects from his childhood, a seemingly boundless supplier of happy memories. As my childhood is. I honestly don’t know where JJ came from…

Norval, another character, gives this writing advice: “Don’t recount your dreams, don’t puke up your diary.” You must be a bit tongue-in-cheek here, as The Memory Artists includes sections from the diaries of several characters and an extended dream, as well as newspaper clippings and a chapter from Norval’s novel. Why this “cut-and-paste” mode of story-telling?

I’m so glad you said “tongue-in-cheek.” One Montreal critic, semi-literate at best, actually pounced on this as a great contradiction in the book. You know, along the lines of, “how could Moore give this advice and then do the opposite?” I hardly need say that he’s confusing the author with one of his characters, not to mention being obtuse to such notions as self-parody or irony. As for the “cut-and-paste” method, it was not done for any mischievous or shit-disturbing postmodernist purposes. It was done -- without a word of a lie -- because I couldn’t think of any other way of telling the story convincingly. The story didn’t really jell until I switched from third person and gave Stella a first-person voice. In third person, descriptions of what she was going through sounded either too clinical or too maudlin. Same thing with Noel, her long-suffering caregiver. And I found that newspaper clippings are a much more realistic way of conveying scientific or criminological details than trying to wedge everything artificially into conversations or the body of the narrative. And if one character is a novelist -- in this case Norval -- why not include a chapter of his novel to show what kind of writer he is?

Shifting gears a bit, what’s the hardest part about writing a novel for you?

The Big D. Discipline. No one cracking the whip. No screaming alarm clock. Too many magnets pulling me this way and that, away from my keyboard. Writing is for grown-ups, responsible and self-disciplined types. One day I hope to join them.

Do you have a favorite contemporary author?

William Trevor is probably the best living writer of the short story. I once said that to Alice Munro, a strong candidate for the title, and she agreed entirely. As for novelists, the ones that instantly come to mind are Saul Bellow, Nabokov, Martin Amis, Annie Proulx, Tim Parks… and David Mitchell, who is brilliant, one of the best around.

You have a blurb by David Mitchell on the front cover of the American edition of The Memory Artists (he calls your book “almost absurdly inventive”), and Mitchell, I’m told, notoriously does not write blurbs. I also heard that you two met. How did this all come about?

It wasn’t a blurb. He wrote about the novel in his “Books of the Year” round-up for London’s Daily Telegraph. Don’t ask me what drugs he was on when he chose it. We met in Hamilton, Ontario, where we did a reading together just after he lost out on the Booker Prize. Most readings are dreary affairs, but this one was anything but.

I heard about a movie deal being in the works for The Memory Artists. What’s the status on that?

It’s been optioned by Little Bird, a British company that produced Bridget Jones’ Diary. Johnny Depp as Norval, Tobey Maguire as Noel, Meryl Streep as Stella, Jack Black as JJ -- these are some of the names floating around in rumor ether that I have no right to drop. And Plan B, Brad Pitt’s company recently called regarding film rights, so I’m hoping the two companies can work together. My role, by the way, would be “script consultant,” which means that I would offer comments on the script that the director would then ignore.

That seems about right: the injustice that is a film of a book. Are you a movie buff yourself? Any personal favorites, or films you really hate?

I wasn’t implying that the director would be wrong to ignore my comments. Novelists are often poor screenwriters, and perhaps too close to their books to be able to adapt them properly. Do you remember, for example, when Stephen King wrote a TV-movie screenplay for The Shining? He hated Kubrick’s version (a masterpiece) so wrote one himself, which was abysmal.

When asked if I wanted to write the screenplay for The Memory Artists, I said “no” and the producer said “good.” He knows about novelists and films. I wrote a screenplay for my first book, Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain -- quickly, in six weeks -- and although it was infinitely better than two others written by nameless morons, it was not really filmable. Too many words, not enough images.

As for favorite films, I tend to like smart comedies the most, which tend to be underrated. They rarely win Academy Awards, in any case. Films like Withnail and I, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Groundhog Day, The Brothers McMullen… I like most films by Woody Allen, Kevin Smith, Steve Martin. And Albert Brooks -- if you’ve not seen Lost in America or Defending Your Life, go and rent them now.

Films I hate? I’d need more space than this interview allows. But among the films that everyone seemed to love, I disliked High Fidelity (the novel was so much better) and Lost in Translation (absurdly overrated). And I generally loathe any film starring Robin Williams.

Are you currently working on a new novel? Any other projects in the pipe?

I’m struggling to write a novel called The Extinction Club, which will focus on the theme of hunting -- the hunting not only of animals, but of a demonic poacher in the forests of Quebec, a man whose acts of cruelty have become part of village lore. It will explore a number of linked themes: man’s relationship with animals, the philosophical notion of extinction, the personal ramifications of childlessness. And Canadian-American biases and stereotypes, since the protagonist, the man “hunting the hunter,” is an American expatriate from New Jersey.

What biases and stereotypes are you referring to?

Canadians are conditioned to dislike Americans. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of Americans to dislike. But every nation has its share of assholes, political and religious. Canada is hardly an exception.

 

John McGlothlin is one of the Americans that Canadians dislike. He lives in Chicago and can be reached at johnjmcglothlin@gmail.com.