Home for the Holidays with Christopher Moore

All angels are not created equal. Raziel showed up ten years late for the birth of Jesus, remember. This is not the first time he’s underperformed. In The Stupidest Angel, God sends Raziel to cozy Pine Cove, California, to grant the Christmas wish of a child. Someone should have told him that kids can’t always be trusted.

Maybe you’re already one of the converted, awaiting each new installment in the canon of Christopher Moore with giddy anticipation. Or maybe you’re about to discover one of the funniest, uninhibited storytellers in America.

“The unhinged Hiaasen,” Janet Maslin called him in the New York Times. “He’s Daily Show-funny and willing to subvert anything.”

Dave: You’ve brought back characters from earlier novels before, but not in such abundance. What made you bring back so many for Christmas in Pine Cove?

Christopher Moore: I knew the book was going to be brief compared to a full novel — it was planned as a Christmas book, it had to be shorter — and bringing back the characters meant I wouldn’t have to do as much work to establish them. They had a history, and they had some dimension. Also, it was easier for me because I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I knew these people. And they already lived in Pine Cove.

The whole point of my Pine Cove books has been the interconnectedness of life in a small town. Christmas is a perfect microcosm of a small town, a compression of time.

Raziel the angel came back [from Lamb] because I wanted to do the whole angel-Christmas-wish fulfillment thing, and I wanted to screw it up. Raziel is not the brightest halo in the host.

The character from Island of the Sequined Love Nun — it doesn’t matter that he was in that to this book, but he was brought back by request. My readers kept writing and saying, “Bring Roberto the fruit bat back.” It’s not that easy to write a chatty fruit bat into any story, so I had to bring back Tucker Case, too, the pilot who belongs to Roberto. That was basically Total Request Live. He’s in the book because my readers wanted him in the book.

Dave: There’s a bit at the very beginning: “In another Christmas story, Dale Pearson… might be visited in the night by a series of ghosts who… would bring about in him a change to generosity, kindness, and a general warmth toward his fellowman. But this is not that kind of Christmas story.”

How would you describe the stories that you write?

Moore: I don’t know. I’ve sort of made a reputation by high-stepping my way out of genre. As soon as somebody says, “He does this,” I’m not standing there anymore.

The only thing that matters to me about my stories is that they’re entertaining and they’re funny. And I tend to get bored easily, so I generally throw something supernatural in. I would say they’re humorous novels that have a supernatural bent, but that’s as close as you’re going to get to fitting them all in the same basket.

Dave: In relation to television and movies, it seems like humor is underrepresented in fiction. There’s a demand for it, but there doesn’t seem to be the supply.

Moore: That’s true. There aren’t that many funny books out there. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s hard. Or maybe it requires a certain skill, and the people with that skill are working in television and movies.

Comedy eats up a lot of material pretty quickly, which is why you have a dozen guys writing sitcoms by committee. The reason I’m writing funny books is that I wish there were more. I’d go to the shelf and say, “Wait a minute. That’s not there.”

I encourage my readers to write me with suggestions. I’ll read it, and if I like it I’ll put it on my web site. I have a whole “Chris’s picks: Books to read while I’m finishing my next one (so you’ll quit yelling at me)” page. The reaction, not so much in numbers but in enthusiasm, of people who find my work and refer to other funny authors — Douglas Adams, Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, and people like that — they’re over the moon about these guys.

I wish I had an answer, and I wish that people who were looking for funny books knew that mine were out there. There certainly is more of a demand than there is a supply. Maybe doing this interview will fix that. Everybody will go, “Oh, that’s the new niche.”

Dave: On your web site, you list jobs you held before becoming a writer: a roofer, an insurance man, a DJ… What kind of music did you play?

Moore: Alternative rock and roll. This was in the late eighties. I had a soft spot for those British singers that sounded like British singers, for example Richard Butler from The Psychedelic Furs. And guys like Robbie Robertson and U2, album-oriented rock.

I worked at a non-programmed station. The goal was to get so obscure that no one would know… You’d do an album cut from a bootleg recorded in some guy’s garage. It became so incestuous among the DJs that someone would eventually shake us up and say, “No, we really need to play something somebody has heard before.”

I tended to be really downbeat as a radio personality. I would do the Miserable Monday show, but I would do it all week. I did a drive-time show but I preferred that it was at night, so I had piped-in darkness.

All my music was pretty high energy, pretty upbeat. People would call in requests: “My wife just left me. Would you play Neil Young ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’?” And I’d say, “No, I’m not playing that whiny shit for you. I’ll play ‘Into the Black’.” I specialized in upbeat music presented in a very cynical way.

Dave: Your novels often revolve around the characters’ occupations: pilots, prophets, marine biologists… What have been the more enjoyable jobs to research?

Moore: Certainly researching with the marine biologists was great. I wrote that book [Fluke] so I’d be able to hang out with guys who poke whales with sticks, to get in the water with humpback whales — stuff that people will let you do now that you have a pile of books.

They’ll let you do absurd stuff. Tom Clancy can blow up a whole country now that he’s got this big pile of books. Me, I get to hang out with marine biologists.

In the first three books, I used up all the occupations I had done personally. I ran out of life to write about. When I started to write my fourth book, where the main character is a pilot, I actually took some flying lessons. I hung out around pilots to learn how they talked and what their priorities were.

If I’m going to ask people to believe all this wild crap like islanders worshipping the ghost of a World War Two bomber pilot and talking fruit bats and all the rest, then the real stuff has to resonate. It has to feel real. You pick up salient details; that’s what makes the book real. It’s not the amount that you heap on people; it’s saying things like: pilots talk about a rough landing as being when all the overheads pop open and everybody’s gym bag falls out. Well, that’s how they really define a rough landing.

Definitely the marine biologists were the most fun to research. The pilot thing was kind of fun. I learned to fly a helicopter enough to get myself up in the air and crash, which it turns out is not that much in demand as a skill. My father was in law enforcement, so whenever I have a cop I can fall back on that.

I’ll also just talk to people. I did a book about taking the whole village of Pine Cove off their antidepressants at the same time [The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove]. A guy who used to go to the gym at the same time as I did was a diagnostician at a nearby hospital, so he knew a lot about psychotropic drugs. For forty-five minutes a day, I’d just grill him. “So what happens when you take them off their drugs?”

I got that information from him just because I could. Now, more and more people come to my events and offer. They think I’ll never call them, but I do. I had to learn how to steal a 747 for Island of the Sequined Love Nun. An airline pilot had been emailing me for a couple years, saying, “If you ever need to know anything about flying…” So I wrote him. I said, “I need to know how to steal a 747.” He said, “Do this, this, this, and this, and you’re good to go.” That’s exactly how I steal the 747 in the book. It was much less sensitive in those days. I don’t think they just email that out now, but at the time it seemed harmless.

Dave: When you’re planning a book and you have any number of ideas, how much does the nature of the research impact your willingness to take on a project? In Fluke, it sounds like, it drove you to the subject.

Moore: In some, it’s huge. With Fluke, it was the book: I wanted to write a whale book because I wanted to learn about the animals and the people who work with them.

With books like Lamb, which is really my only historical novel, it’s not about that. It’s more of a theme-driven concern. The research is just to give you whatever background I can get from going to Israel and looking at piles of rocks, which is what they have there. Also reading a lot of history and archeology, but that’s a different kind of book.

As an author, you spend a lot of time by yourself in a room making clicky noises. It gets pretty insulated. You realize pretty early on in your career that even if this goes well, you could spend all your life in a room alone. Unless you pick projects that are going to get you out doing things, you’re not going to actually live your life. You’re just going to write about life.

I can only go so long. This has been two years I’ve been sitting here thinking about stuff that happened two thousand years ago. I need to go do something. The whale book was a response to that.

I’d say at least half of the consideration for what I’m going to write about is what I’m going to get to do to learn about either the setting or the people that are in the book.

Dave: Part of your attraction to the story in Lamb must have been the fact that no one had written about it before. A big, blank canvas was staring you in the face.

Moore: Right. I had learned that from a PBS special called From Jesus to Christ. I wasn’t versed in the Bible more than most people — First Church of NFL was what I was brought up in — but when it was pointed out that nearly thirty years of Christ’s life hadn’t been written, I thought, Well, I don’t know anything about history or religion. I should write that.

Sometimes you’ve got to throw the gauntlet down and say, Can I pull this off? I thought, How audacious would it be to not only write the missing years but make it funny and credible? It was a big challenge, the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do.

Dave: Did you give yourself any particular guidelines to work with the material? It’s a fine line to walk.

Moore: I didn’t want to make it an attack book. I wanted to tell the story, make it funny and entertaining, but I didn’t want to change anybody’s mind or attack their faith.

I made the assumption that the Four Gospels are true. Jesus is who the Four Gospels say he is. It doesn’t matter whether I believe that; that’s how I defined the character. But a whole bunch of stuff is not explained or doesn’t make any sense, so I thought, I’ll make sense of that.

Even trying to make sense of those things is funny sometimes. Water into wine? Well, he’s hammered. That’s why you make a beer run, right? You ran out. You’ve been drinking.

I didn’t have an evangelical agenda. I just wanted to bring out the humanity of the story.

Dave: Once you had the idea to fill in the missing years, how did you decide how to approach the material? You tell the story from the point of view of Jesus’ best friend, Biff.

Moore: The book was set off by a scene in The Master and Margarita. The author, Bulgakov, writes the trial of Jesus from the point of view of Pontius Pilate — and Pilate has a migraine when he’s watching this event go on. It’s a story we’ve all heard a thousand times, but when I read that, I thought, This is so immediate. There’s this guy right here and I relate to him. I’ve had a headache and he has a headache. All of a sudden it took on a reality that it had never had for me before. That set off the idea. I thought, Maybe you could do the whole story that way, with a witness, who feels real.

I want you to feel the dirt — not in the literary way, use all five senses, make it real, but yes, that. I found out: what kind of house did they live in, what kind of floor did they have, what kind of day-to-day life did they lead?

And it’s a great story. Imagine the responsibility of being the son of God. Imagine the responsibility of being the best friend of the son of God. Biff had to have a pretty resilient personality in his own right.

Dave: I came away from the book liking Jesus, or “Joshua” as you call him, quite a bit. I wasn’t expecting that.

Moore: I just stuck to what he said and then made him human, which was supposed to be the whole point. His sacrifice didn’t mean anything if he was a god. It only meant something if he was human; you had to make him human. Once I became conversant with the Gospels, I thought, This is not the guy I’m being presented by the Republican Party or the guys on TV. What he’s saying is not what they’re saying.

I tried to be true to the spirit of his kindness and look at things logically. Why would there be a New Testament? Because there needed to be. Because the vengeful god of the Old Testament maybe got up one day and said, “Wow, I really shouldn’t behave that way. I’ve been kind of childish, smiting whole populations just to get the land to put these guys in so I could smite them next.”

Then learning about the Jews’ relationship with God, which is different from what Christians perceive. It’s a two-way street with Jews: He picked us, so he has some responsibility.

It was important to me to present these kids as Jewish, because they were. I was really concerned with this anti-Semitism that starts in the gospel of John and ends up with millions of people being killed under the justification of Christianity. I’m like, Hello? These people were all Jews. It was important for the reader to sympathize with them.

But all that wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t funny. We can talk about the high-mindedness of the themes and the rest, but it’s not accessible unless it’s funny.

Dave: Is there a subject that you’ve ducked or skirted, something you might have written about but decided you didn’t want to take on?

Moore: Politics, probably, more recently. I blog about it, but I don’t think I want to put it in a novel. It’s not my milieu. I don’t live there. I’m not Chris Buckley. I don’t live in Washington, and those aren’t the people I have lunch with. I live on a Pacific Island.

And I don’t want to preach to anybody. I always want to keep my eye on the idea that no matter what my message might be, if it’s not funny it’s not effective. If it’s not entertaining, it’s not effective.

Also, politics goes stale really quickly. My first book [Practical Demonkeeping] has been out around twelve years now and it’s still in print. The technology in it… Now you can carry a cell phone around in your back pocket; when I wrote that book they were the size of a suitcase. But politics goes stale in months. By the time you get a book out, it’s stale.

Dave: Soon after you published Practical Demonkeeping, Disney bought the film rights. When you were writing it, did you see it that way, acting out in front of you as the scenes evolved in your head?

Moore: I did. I do that a lot with the action scenes of my books. That one is particularly fantastic and has some images I hadn’t seen at the time.

A lot of times you see the scenes happen and you’re just transcribing them, particularly in the description. Then you rewind the tape because the characters will dictate, That’s not what I would say there or That’s not funny. Very often the action is the same. And it’s hard to write action. It’s harder to write things that are moving than things that are standing still.

If you envision it, all you have to do is tell what you see, but if you try to write action then it’s as if you’re holding strings — you have to move this guy’s hand over here and that guy’s hand over there. It’s much harder.

As comic timing becomes more and more important in my later books, you have whole pages of nothing but dialogue. I have to see these people saying this stuff to each other, but I have to imagine that you’re seeing it, too. Hopefully, I’ve set it up well enough so that I don’t have to explain every gesture.

When I teach writing, I say that you have to write in scenes. That’s what drama is: scenes that accomplish something. You watch them and you put them down. Sometimes you craft dialogue, but the visuals you’re almost always watching on that screen of your imagination and writing down what you see.

Dave: What’s your fascination with the undead?

Moore: I don’t know if it’s a fascination. It’s just a cool thing. It’s a cliché as much as anything.

In The Stupidest Angel, I like the idea that the dead are actually listening to what’s going on in the cemetery. I wanted to write about that. People say some really stupid stuff in the cemetery, and they don’t think there’s an audience. That was a fun thing to do with the undead, to imagine that these people were just hanging out. And it’s the extension of the little town where every time someone says something you find out across town, but in a different version. This is the graveyard, and people remember for fifty years. That was the reason for it in this book, to have the dead be part of the community.

If it makes you feel any better, my next book is about dead, not undead.

Dave: What’s the scariest movie you’ve ever seen?

Moore: The Haunting. It probably had as much to do with who I was at the time, but when I was a kid The Haunting with Julie Harris scared the bejesus out of me. A few years ago, I think, they remade it with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Liam Neeson.

When I was even littler than that, about seven, I saw The Haunting of Hill House and slept with the light on for months.

I’m trying to think of what scared me the most as an adult. What’s scared me the most in a visual medium was playing Resident Evil by myself in the basement of my mom’s house a few years ago. During a snowstorm. It scared the hell out of me. You’re wandering through dark halls, all the stuff you promised you’d never do.

Dave: What are you reading these days?

Moore: As we talked about earlier, those genres that I’m on the edge of, funny horror in some instances, I read less of than I used to, but I’m always reading something. I like imaginative fiction, I really do. I don’t think I have the patience for literary fiction because stuff doesn’t really happen.

I like Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, pyrotechnic writers. I’ve been reading a guy named China Mieville, who has this Hieronymus Bosch-like imagination. It’s interesting to read his books because there’s no paradigm for them. You’re just going, Ugh. I’m so glad this stuff’s in his head.

I’m always looking for funny books and being serially disappointed. There are just those few authors, consistently, who give you your money’s worth: Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaason, guys like that. Some of the most entertaining writers in America right now are crime writers.

Dave: Do you have any odd superstitions?

Moore: No, other than I make them up as I go along.

Well, one of my superstitions — and this was foisted upon me by another author — is that any book that is dedicated to a woman, by the time it comes out the woman will be gone. My wife-like girlfriend of ten years and I both believe this. People are always dogging her, “Why doesn’t he dedicate a book to you?” And she’s like, “No!” Then the relationship is over. We’ve seen it with writer friends so often.

I’ve tried to develop all kinds of weird idiosyncrasies around my writing. As you get to where you’re making a living at it, you think, I can be more and more eccentric, but as it turns out if you’re going to make a living at it you can’t indulge too many of those habits. The book’s now due. I really need to get at the manuscript. I have some superstitions, but most of them I’ll cast aside for pragmatic purposes.

Christopher Moore visited the Powells.com compound on December 7, 2004. It rained steadily throughout his stay. By the time we finished talking and Chris returned to his van, its windows were fogged with the breath of the undead. (“Leave some windows down a crack next time,” they griped — as if he’d fall for that.) Later that evening, the author read to giggly fans downtown at Powell’s City of Books.