Satire, Horror, and Humor… Oh My!

An Interview with Christopher Moore
By Karen Hertzberg (From Fiction Fix - a magazine for writers)

Christopher Moore

Okay, raise your hand if you enjoy zany, satirical, laugh-your-ass-off-funny stories with a supernatural twist. Yeah, me too. And if that sort of writing grabs you, it’s likely you’ve heard of Christopher Moore, whose first novel, PRACTICAL DEMONKEEPING, went on to launch a career that earned him a loyal and rabid (no pun intended) readership.

You really can’t miss Moore’s novels, nor can you forget them once you’ve read his work. His latest release, THE LUST LIZARD OF MELANCHOLY COVE, is about a lonely sea monster named Steve who rises from his slumber in the deep to feed. His quarry? The depressed and wacked-out residents of a small coastal town in Northern California. It seems Steve is drawn to brainwaves generated by the clinically depressed and — miracle of miracles — Pine Cove’s resident psychiatrist has just decided to take all her bummed-out patients off medication and dose them with placebos in a secretive and not-too-aboveboard experiment.

It was while reading one of Christopher Moore’s novels that I laughed so hard I literally fell out of bed, so you might see why he’s a bit of a hero to me. Moore is currently working on his sixth novel, but I managed to snare him in a vulnerable moment and drag him away from his writing to get an interview for Fiction Fix.

FICTION FIX: In a previous interview you said, "Ideas are cheap and easy [to find]. Telling a good story once you get an idea is hard." It seems every writer has an epiphany of sorts where it occurs to them that good writing is about good storytelling. How did you discover the art of telling a story?

CHRISTOPHER MOORE: I think I got it through osmosis, early in life. I was an only child and a voracious reader from a very young age. Being exposed to so many great stories, I think the process of storytelling just became a part of who I am. I find, even now, that no matter how pretty the writing, I have a very hard time staying interested in a book that doesn’t tell a good story. (Movies strike me the same way, actually.)

FF: You manage to make blending humor, satire and the supernatural look deceptively simple, yet I get the feeling a lot of research and thought goes into the planning stages of your novels. Tell us about that process.

CM: I use research as a means to generate ideas rather than attain some sort of accuracy. Although I think it’s important for the background aspects of the books to "seem" real, because I will be asking the reader to believe so much improbable stuff, I will change facts to fit what I need. On the other hand, having crucial and vivid details about a place or culture can go a long way to creating reality in the reader’s mind, so I will go to a place and live there for a while — as in the case of COYOTE BLUE and ISLAND OF THE SEQUINED LOVE NUN – so I can get a feeling for the point of view a native would have, while observing those things that are foreign with "new eyes."

I’m not big on putting in a lot of detail, just vivid and interesting detail, and to get that, one needs to observe things first-hand. Same thing goes for picking up the speech patterns of people in various areas — you have to go there. I always do a fair amount of "academic" research, but it’s the travel and first-hand observation that give the stories life.

FF: Your style has been compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams. What authors influenced your writing?

CM: Certainly those two guys — although I don’t think I write much like them, I really like both of their work. I remember when I was writing my first book, PRACTICAL DEMONKEEPING, saying to a friend, "I want to do for horror with this book what Douglas Adams did for science fiction with THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY." How arrogant is that? I was a waiter, for Chrissake. Anyway, I don’t think I pulled that off, but I’ve been at least trying to put myself on the map, so to speak.

As for real influences on my writing, I’d have to go with Steinbeck. Although, again, I don’t think anyone would ever mistake my stuff for his, he has a kindness and benevolence toward humanity that I aspire to in my own work. Whenever I’m totally lost on a book I grab my dog-eared copy of CANNERY ROW and start reading. Then I think, "This is how it’s supposed to be done."

As a kid, Mad Magazine, Jules Verne, Ian Fleming, and Ray Bradbury probably had more to do with me wanting to be a writer than any other influences.

FF: What comes first for you — character or plot? Do you believe plot is derived from strong characterization, or vice versa?

CM: Yes. Next Question. (Just kidding.)

Actually, I start with "story," which isn’t the same as plot. Then I work characters. I think that strong characters can carry and, in fact, make a strong story, but it doesn’t work quite as well in reverse. Plot is merely the mechanics, the logistics of telling the story. Plot is like finding the unknowns in an equation–very mathematical, logical, linear. It’s much easier to plot, and certainly to write dialog, if you have strong characters with distinct personalities. I spend less time worrying about my character’s past than I do about how they speak and how they think. I had a great teacher who used to say that the most important thing you had to know about a character is "What does he want and what is he willing to do to get it?" That axiom has served me better than any single piece of advice on the craft.

FF: Tell us something you know about writing NOW that you wish you’d known when you were writing your first novel.

CM: Hmmmm. I actually got a number of things right on [the first novel]. I learned discipline, and that it was a must for a novelist, but I had suspected that before I started.

As far as the craft, most of what I’ve learned since DEMONKEEPING seems tacit, like autopilot working in the background. I remember having a tremendously hard time dealing with time and transition in that book, but since then, those things come automatically (or nearly so). I’m not sure I really know anything now that I didn’t know then about writing, only now I know it practically rather than academically.

FF: Does the Internet affect your writing?

CM: I’m not very good at looking at the industry as a whole. I see different aspects of it, but my perspective comes mostly as a reader or a writer, not as a businessperson. I think the web has obviously changed things for the book-buying public. In some ways, I think the big Internet booksellers have put another nail in the independent bookstores’ coffins, but on the other hand, that might just be the natural selection of the book business. As an author, you do what you can to help out the independents, but you can’t ignore the sheer gorilla numbers of a Barnes & Nobles or a Borders. The same thing goes for Amazon and other online booksellers.

I live in a rather remote area of California, so when I first discovered Amazon.com I was ecstatic, and I still buy a ton of books from them. I’m nearly forty miles from the nearest bookstore with any sort of selection, and for most so my research needs, they still have to order my books. So for me, as a reader, the web has been great. Likewise for my readers who can’t find my books in their local stores. I was one of the first non-technical writers to include my email address on a book jacket, and right from the beginning I got letters from people who couldn’t find all of my books. With Amazon and the other web-sellers, I always know I can get a book into the hands of someone who wants to read it.

Of course, copyright protection is another matter altogether. This is my living, and this is how many of your readers would like to make their living. You can’t dilute the book market like you can the software industry. By that, I mean, if Microsoft loses, say, 10% of their sales to piracy in a year (and I’d guess it’s probably higher than that), they will survive. They can still prosper. An average midlist author may only sell five to fifteen thousand hardcovers total. To lose a large percentage of these sales would be devastating. And forgive the pun, but books have a longer "shelf life" than software. I won’t be releasing COYOTE BLUE 3.1 any time soon, or BLOODSUCKING FIENDS 2000. Once you have the book, you have it. So unauthorized copying would be an issue. Then on the other hand, people can always get a book at the library, or borrow it from a friend.

FF: Can you give us any hints about when we can expect the next book, or is talking about that novel-in-progress just plain bad juju?

CM: Not so much bad juju — normally you can’t shut me up about what I’m working on — but this particular project could be pretty easily torpedoed by a bad B-movie rendition, so I’m under orders to stay quiet about it. What I can tell you is that this next one will be my first novel written in first person, that it will have a historical setting, that I’m overwhelmed with the research it’s required so far, and that it will most certainly piss people off more than anything I’ve written previously.

FF: Anything you’d like to add?

CM: Sure, send more questions. As long as I’m answering these questions I have a great excuse for not writing.