Christopher Moore is in rare company in the funny business. How many novelists make a big splash with books that are not just witty but laugh-out-loud, tears-rolling-down-your-creeks funny? There’s Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck, Tim Sandlin and Carl Hiaasen on the American side, a short list indeed. On the other side of the Atlantic, there’s Douglas Adams, who inspired Moore’s first book, and a host of other funnymen like Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, and Terry Pratchett, among others.
The truth is that Christopher Moore is one of a kind, but it’s been a long, weird path to enlightenment and world domination.
He started writing full-bore at 30 on Practical Demonkeeping. With a desire to do for the horror novel what the brilliantly belated Douglas Adams had done for sci-fi with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Moore saddled his hero, the good-natured ex-seminarian Travis O’Hearn, with the ravenous demon, Catch. When they roll into the sleepy town of Pine Cove, California, things go to hell in a hurry, as per usual.
Moore was still working as a waiter near his home of Big Sur when he got the call from his agent that Disney had bought the film rights to Demonkeeping for a serious chunk of change. He couldn’t cope; table two needed water.
Eventually, someone managed to rake him down from the ceiling and he started writing full-time. His next book was Coyote Blue, an equally quirky book involving a young refugee from an Indian reservation in Montana and the trickster god Coyote. He stayed in California for Bloodsucking Fiends, a love story between a vampire newly created in San Francisco and the night manager of a local grocery store, and The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, which returns to Pine Cove for a week of fun of drugs, visions and sea monsters by the sea. He also took a quick jaunt to the South Pacific for Island of the Sequined Love Nun, an exotic tale of cannibals, cosmetics, an inspired talking fruit bat named Roberto and his bumbling life partner, Tucker Case.
Moore’s most inspired and far-reaching book has been Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. It takes all of the best elements of Moore’s work – sublime tolerance, deeply compassionate characters, the marvelous wonder of the world, and of course, big scary monsters – and combines them into a riotously funny tale bridging the gaps in Jesus’ upbringing with spiritual illumination, the Kama Sutra and Kung Fu.
More recently, Moore got to indulge his interests in marine biology with Fluke, Or I Know Why The Winged Whale Sings, in which the mighty Nate Quinn discovers a whale with “Bite Me” written on its tale, kicking off an adventure as absurd as anything this side of Doctor Seuss. He also delighted his growing legion of fans with The Stupidest Angel, a Christmas story that brings together Tucker and Roberto from Love Nun, Raziel the angel from Lamb, the denizens of Pine Cove, and several hundred annoyed zombies in a fun-filled holiday extravaganza.
His audiences may have gotten larger but Christopher Moore keeps pushing his unique vision forward, a comic genius preaching to his ravenous fans, decked out in his ubiquitous Hawaiian shirt. With his newest book, A Dirty Job, he applies his unique sense of humor to that natural subject for comedy, death. After that, he’ll return to the world of the undead to pick up where Bloodsucking Fiends left off with its sequel, You Suck: A Love Story.
So what’s behind this fiendish mind? Chris took time to talk about death, humor, religion and humanity with writer Clayton Moore, who isn’t related but would settle for second cousin if he were given the choice.
Clayton Moore: Tell us about your new book, A Dirty Job. Charlie Asher is terribly anxious about the birth of his daughter, a worry not helped when his wife Rachel dies during childbirth, seemingly because a very tall Black man dressed in mint green appears in her room. And then?
Christopher Moore: Well, I don’t want to ruin the book, but essentially those events set off the process of Charlie getting the job of being Death. The rest of the book is his trying to deal with his new job, while raising his baby daughter on his own, and basically keeping forces from the underworld from overtaking the planet.
A Dirty Job is about a heavy subject. How did you decide to jump on a book about death and dying?
I had been the primary caretaker from my mother when she was dying, and then on back-up when my girlfriend’s mother died a year or so later. I saw that part of the unpleasantness of death was caused by that fact that we deny it or sweep in under the carpet when it’s as much a part of life as marriage, child-birth, or any other rite of passage. I thought I had some things to say about it, and that it would be a challenge to write a funny book about death.
How do approach something so personal and still find the humor in it?
My default setting is humor. In other words, even in some pretty dire circumstances, I tend to react by making fun, looking at the absurd side of it. So even as I was attending to those very heavy events, my mind was going ninety miles an hour coming up with funny things to say – which most of the time I didn’t say, of course, but I thought them.
You’ve come back to San Francisco as a setting after being in the Middle East for Lamb and running with the whales for Fluke. What made you decide to come back to the city?
Well, for one, I really like San Francisco as a setting, especially the area where Charlie has his second-hand shop, right between North Beach, which is an Italian Neighborhood, Russian Hill, and Chinatown, and only blocks from the water. It’s a great place to be, and can go from being very bright and cheerful, to feeling very dark and foreboding very quickly when the fog comes in off the bay. It’s just a great place to set a horror story, and it gave me an opportunity to spend some time wandering the city, observing, taking pictures, talking to people.
You do a lot of research for each book. What did you learn from doing the background for A Dirty Job?
Funny thing is, most of the stuff I learned while doing the research for A Dirty Job I didn’t use. I studied death rituals and beliefs from all over the world, but in the end, I didn’t use them. They would have taken the story too far away from the characters, so I mainly depended on the observations I made while caring for the dying, as well as some of the conventions from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. There were some great personifications among the death myths, which I drew on, namely the Morrigan, which is a triumvirate of sisters, like the three graces, who take the form of Ravens and crows, and fly over the battlefields during the Middle Ages, killing, taking souls, driving warriors to frenzy. They ended up as characters in the book.
You’ve written about the many flavors of religion from Buddhism to Cargo Cults. Did spirituality play a part in your examination of death and dying?
Actually, it did. But not so much as any particular religion defines it. One of the things that you become acutely aware of when you’re around the dying is the immediacy of a moment, the inherent passion that lies in every moment of living, if you decide to take it. Whether you believe that a persons essence will end at death, will go on to some reward or punishment, or will move into another incarnation, the time they have here, now, with you, is limited, ending, and you become aware of the importance of that “right now”. If there was any direct spiritual influence, or epiphany in doing this book, it would certainly be the realization of the passion that resides in every moment of life.
Charlie is pretty wound up, and you’ve said before that sitting down to write makes you anxious. What’s your biggest worry?
I worry about writing badly. That’s a hydra with many heads. There are many, many ways to fail, and you can actually come up with whole new ways to fail. Generally, that’s the worry: That I’ll screw up in some new and exciting way.
You’ve described yourself as a Buddhist with Christian tendencies. What has your study of Buddhism taught you?
I’m not sure I can describe that. Anything I could say would sound trite, and probably not be accurate. In Buddhism there is a saying, “Trying to achieve enlightenment is like trying to bite the teeth.” Perhaps trying to describe what my study of Buddhism has brought me would be a similar thing. There’s nothing really spooky or mystical, just a sense of being more of a part of everything. Heightened awareness – does that make any sense?
You’ve said a few times that Lamb is your best work. How do you feel about that book now that you have a little distance from it?
I’m still very happy with it. There are some aspects of the book that were molded by the circumstances in which I wrote it – I finished it late, and was writing in a motel in Big Sur, so the end may be a little more hurried that it could have been, but on the other hand, there are parts of the book that I think are outrageously funny, that were written under that kind of pressure, so I can’t claim I was hamstrung. Overall, I’m happy that I was able to pull it off, and I’m overjoyed with the response people have had to it.
You’ve also done a lot of writing about religion in a time when all of them seem to have gone a little bit nuts. Can people not take a joke anymore?
I think that it’s obvious that people need to lighten up about their religions. You asked me before if Buddhism brought me anything, perhaps it’s a realization that faith does not necessarily have to be dire and dour – those aspects of religion that make it seem were imposed on it by men trying to control populations. One of the things I tried to do in Lamb was show that at the heart of every faith is the precept that we all share a divine spark, a holy ghost, a god within, and if we recognize that as what unites us in humanity, it’s more difficult to draw these phenomenally stupid lines in the sand over cartoons, or music, or evolution, or women’s rights. Either you believe that God is infinite, or you do not. The trouble comes when men try to put their god in a box. It is always an act of arrogance, of petty egoism, to do so.
What was it like moving on to a new self-contained story after doing The Stupidest Angel, which was a real love letter to the fans of your earlier books?
Actually, it was fun to work with characters and a setting I had used before, and a challenge to bring in characters from settings that were so far from the original books. I had to bring characters from Micronesia, and the Holy Land two-thousand years ago and get them all to this little village in Northern California at Christmastime to be attacked by zombies. It was hard, again because of deadlines, but overall it was a surprisingly satisfying book.
You’ve dropped a few “Easter Eggs” for fans into your books. Are there any in A Dirty Job?
There are a bunch of characters from previous books that walk through A Dirty Job. Some are named, some not. As always, I tried to make it so you wouldn’t lose anything by not having read the previous books – the story certainly stands on its own, and the lead characters are all unique to it, but I think that fans of my other books will have some fun moments when they see the repeat characters.
Speaking of your “Peeps,” you’ve had a longtime community of fans with whom you spend a lot of time interacting. What do your get out of that feedback?
A lot of reinforcement, as well as a sense of what my readers are like. I think a lot about my readers when I’m reading. All art is about communication, and knowing your audience is key to that, I think. I also have a lot of fun, too. People who gravitate toward my work tend to have great senses of humor and be pretty smart, so there’s more take on my part than give. My peeps crack me up a lot, and there’s a lot of value in that.
You’re enormously gracious to your fans. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at a book signing?
Five or six women with oven mitts taped to their hands, who wanted me to autograph the mitts. There’s a character in The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove who has become so compulsive about self-gratification that she has to tape oven mitts to her hands to keep from touching herself. When I saw those women standing in the signing line I totally cracked up.
You got a big boost when you were picked for The Today Show’s book club for Fluke. Did things change for you in any kind of Oprah-esque fashion?
Not in the least. I flew from Hawaii to New York, went on the show for six minutes, and was back in flip-flops working on my book twenty-four hours later. It was very generous of Nicholas Sparks to pick me for the club, and I’m sure that we sold a lot more books because of it, but it didn’t have anything near an Oprah effect. My friends yelled at me for wearing a tie on the air, when normally I wear aloha shirts at public appearances. I got razzed; that was my “Oprah” effect.
There are some horror elements to many of your books – Catch the Demon, who shows up regularly, the zombies in The Stupidest Angel, and of course the vampires of San Francisco in Bloodsucking Fiends – but you have enormous fun with the clichés. What appeals to you about creature features?
I don’t know. I’ve been into them since I was a kid, a little kid. I collected all the Frankenstein, Mummy, Dracula toys from the old movies, I watched the chiller features on Saturdays, went to all the horror movies when I was little by myself – I went to see Psycho by myself when I was six. I guess it imprinted on me.
Steinbeck writes of “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” in Cannery Row and you seem to share his affection for people. What have you gotten from your reading of his comic novels?
Just exactly that – his great affection for human beings as flawed creatures. In fact, I think he shows us that it is our flaws that make us human, that unite us in humanity. I have a friend who said, “Steinbeck writes like benevolent god.” I don’t think you can aspire to anything higher than that. I think before I discovered Steinbeck in my mid-twenties, then sort of had some pretty major failures in my own life, my satire was a little heartless, my humor could be mean-spirited. Steinbeck taught me that I could be better than that.
Your books are full of very likeable but flawed guys. What’s the secret to writing a believable human being?
I think perhaps that we are all defined by our desires and our fears. If you know what someone wants, and what they are afraid of, I think you know what drives them, what makes them get up in the morning or what makes them stay in bed. So that’s how I approach character, “What do they want, and what are they afraid of.”
What’s best about people?
They’re funny. Their capacity for compassion. What’s worst? Their capacity for cruelty and thoughtlessness.
You’re in pretty rare company in writing books with a humorous bent. There’s Steinbeck, Douglas Adams, Fry and Laurie and….well, Christopher Moore. Is this what you had in mind when you started writing funny books?
I certainly hoped I would join ranks with people like Douglas Adams, Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, people like that. They and Steinbeck were all inspirations for me, but I didn’t presume that I’d ever even get into print, let alone be spoken of in company with them. I had also just discovered Carl Hiaasen a few years before I started writing novels, and he was a great inspiration because I’d thought that maybe there weren’t going to be any more funny books put into print.
What else inspires you, be it books or video games or cheesy horror movies?
I think I’m inspired by books and movies. While I enjoy video games, they have a whole different way of interfacing with the imagination that is counter to story-telling. I don’t’ mean that some games don’t have great stories. Half-life 2, for instance, has great storytelling – you feel as if you’re in the middle of a big-budget movie, but they aren’t conducive to the mindset of telling the story. You’re sort of too engaged to think in tangents when you’re immersed in a video game. On the other hand, really cheesy horror movies beg to be made fun of, which is an inspiration in itself. And books – well, they’re a whole world, aren’t they?
Your experience with the movies ranges from extraordinary (Disney’s purchase of Practical Demonkeeping) to typical (all your books optioned, none produced). What makes you want to be involved with movies or television?
I’d love to see what creative people could do with some of the images I’ve only seen in my head, but honestly, it’s the exposure to a larger audience that pulls me toward movies and TV.
You’ve lived and written in some fairly isolated places like Big Sur and Hawaii. Is there a tradeoff between the peace and quiet of a small place and the inspiration that comes from being around people?
Absolutely. I have to go where there are people and culture to get inspiration, then I can go back to an isolated environment like Big Sur and let the ideas germinate, but too much time in a beautiful, but isolated paradise and I start to feel stupid – like I need more input.
Back to horror, you’ve resurrected Safeway night manager Tommy Flood and Jody, the accidental vampire, in the upcoming You Suck: A Love Story. What made you decide on a sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends?
I wrote the original book with the idea of a sequel in mind ten years ago, but my publisher at the time didn’t have the confidence in the first book to publish it well, so it languished. (Which is why I changed publishers.) Frankly, it’s taken me this long for my career to recover to a point where I could write a sequel to Fiends. This book should have been written ten years ago.
You Suck picks up right where Bloodsucking Fiends left off almost ten years ago. Was it challenging to pick up the story in a city that has changed since then?
It was, and I worried about that for some time, but then I sat in on a meeting of a book club in San Francisco who had just read Fiends. They knew the city and they knew the book, and although the city has changed, they suggested that I just ignore the change. Go forward as if it was the next day. So I did.
Vampire fiction has become big business. Were you ahead of your time?
No, not at all. Anne Rice was selling millions already when my book came out in 1995. In fact, I had a huge collection of vampire books, and a friend who was helping me move at the time said, “You have so many vampire books, if you every wanted to write one, you wouldn’t even have to do any research.”
You’ve considered and rejected some ideas for books (a blues novel, a tale about an African village). How does a guy who writes about Whaley Boys in Fluke and Jesus’ best pal decide something isn’t commercial enough?
Well, in those cases it was looking at my editor’s face or listening to my agent’s voice when I described the ideas. They both sounded like I’d killed their cat. That sort of resets your commercial barometer on an idea.
Why comic novels and not techno-thrillers or crime novels or any of the other million subgenres?
There was no choice about comic novels. I’ve tried to write straight fiction and always end up wise-cracking. It’s what I do. As for subgenre, I sort of get to try each of those, but in the comedy context. Lamb is a historical, Love Nun is a thriller, Coyote Blue is a modern fable, Fluke is sci-fi. The thing they have in common is that they’re funny.
What cracks you up these days?
I’ve been reading Mil Millington’s books, they crack me up. Reno 911. My Name is Earl. Some of Billy Collins’ poetry. The Daily Show. Eddie Izzard. Margaret Cho. Tom Burka’s blog: Opinions You Should Have. Scott Adams blog: The Dilbert Blog. I’m wide-open to laughter where I can find it.
You’ve gotten to write off diving with whales and trips to the South Pacific as book research. What do you want to experience that you haven’t gotten around to yet?
I’d like to ride an elephant. Spend some time in Europe, maybe live in England for a while – see if I can pick up the idiom. I feel as if the Brits invented rhetorical comedy, and there’s certainly a tradition of it there going back four-hundred years or more, I’d like to sort of immerse myself in it. I’d like do another whale book, maybe about killer whales. I’m not sure about the adventure travel aspect of research as much as I used to be. I think that there are people doing that really well right now, and writing well about it, and unless it’s going to really help inform a book, I’m not sure I need to go native in some remote locale in order to write well.
You’re pretty damn popular for someone who was once labeled a “cult author.” What happened?
I think I’m still a bit of a cult author, if only because people aren’t sure what I do. I think no matter how well I do on the best-seller lists, I’m always going to have a bit of the flavor of a cult author, or at least I hope so, in that I want my readers to feel as if they are on the inside of an inside joke. Kurt Vonnegut hit big on the best seller lists long ago, as did Tom Robbins, and I think they are both considered cult authors, despite what seems a contradiction of terms (best-selling cult author). I’d love to be in company with those guys.
What’s next in your plans for total world domination?
Who knows? I have to get a handle on this whole book thing before I go one to conquer the rest of the planet. My cult just has to get bigger. You know, a religion is just a cult that made it. Maybe I could be, comic Pope. (Some of my readers are starting to refer to themselves as Moorons. That would be a cool name for a church, right? The Church of Latter Day Smart Asses?) A guy has to have ambition.