PopCultureZoo: Exclusive Interview With Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore is the best-selling author of ten novels of hilariously funny, yet touchingly poignant absurdest fiction. If you’ve yet to discover his singular wit, then reading any of his books will get you instantly addicted. His latest novel is You Suck, A Love Story, he has a new novel on the way later this year/early next year and recently he agreed to answer a few questions for us.

Practical Demonkeeping

Pop Culture Zoo: Hi Chris, thank you for answering our questions. To start off, did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Christopher Moore: I started thinking about it when I was 12 or so. By fifteen I was thinking I’d like to do it for a living and by sixteen or seventeen I started trying to learn what I’d need to know to do that.

PCZ: Who were your influences when you started writing and who inspires you now?

CM: I think Ray Bradbury was the first writer who made me aware that there was a craft to story-telling, a way of going about it to make it more effective. Other sci-fi and horror story writers were also influential on me early on: Robert Bloch, Richard Mattheson, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, a number of others. Later I was inspired by the work of Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams, and finally, and most profoundly, John Steinbeck. Now I still find inspiration in Steinbeck, but also Shakespeare, and lately, artists working in different media: painters, sculptors, photographers, film makers.

PCZ: Tell us a little bit about your creative process. Do you get an idea for a story and then populate it with characters or do you come up with the characters first and let them decide the story they need to tell or neither of those?

CM: Usually I have an idea, a concept, something like, “What if you took a whole village off their antidepressants at one time?” Then I do characters and work the story through them. From there I try to work the characters through the story together. With books like Lamb or Coyote Blue, where the book was about a mythical or historical character, obviously I start with the character.

PCZ: Do you know when you start a novel if you’re going to use any characters from your past works or do they just sort of show up as you write?

CM: Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. Mostly it has to do with setting. For instance, the Emperor of San Francisco has been in all of my San Francisco books, and Mavis, the bartender at the Head of the Slug saloon has been in all of my Pine Cove books. Other times, I get to a point and I go, hey, I need a demon here, or I need a tall Black guy here, and so and so from a previous book isn’t doing anything.

PCZ: How long did it take you to sell your first novel, Practical Demonkeeping?

CM: It took about 11 months from the time I finished it to find an agent and sell it.

PCZ: How did you feel the first time your saw a book you’d written on a bookstore shelf?

CM: It was pretty cool. It wasn’t orgasmic or anything, but it was pretty cool. The best was seeing someone in an airport reading my stuff for the first time and laughing.

PCZ: What lead you to decide to write about the childhood of Jesus in Lamb?

CM: It seemed like a great story, and one that would be challenging. If I could pull it off and make it funny it seemed like it would be a great achievement for me.

PCZ: Did your research for Fluke change your attitude about the environment?

CM: I did learn a lot about whales, and in a way, I developed a real affection for them. Being up close and in the water with humpbacks can be an almost religious experience –- and to see that they have personalities and stuff, it’s terrific. In the book I have one character say, “I love this whale. I want to take this whale home and put him in a box with some grass and a saucer of water!” That’s sort of how I felt. But I also learned about the damage that we are doing to the oceans in general and it became sort of depressing. It’s such a huge problem that you think. “Oh shit, I either need to become a pirate and start slitting some throats, or just drown in my own ineffective misery.”

PCZ: Thank you very much for a zombie Christmas story! Where did the idea for Stupidest Angel come from?

CM: Actually it came from a salesman for my publisher. At a conference where I was speaking, he came up and said, “You know Chris, you should write a Christmas book. We could sell the crap out of that.” And I was all, “Yeah, what do you think it should be about?” And he was all, “I don’t know, Christmas in Pine Cove, maybe.” And I was all, “Kay.” So there you go. Zombies just seemed like a nice addition to the Christmas theme. I also liked the idea of zombies that hadn’t just been laying dead in the ground for years, but had been listening to people in the graveyard for all that time. So they could yell out everyone’s secrets, in addition to chanting “brainssssss.”

PCZ: Was A Dirty Job difficult to write or cathartic, considering you were inspired by personal events?

CM: It wasn’t so much cathartic, as, I don’t know, instructive. If you’re not sure how you feel about something, writing a book about it can really clarify it in your mind. A Dirty Job was a book about Death, so I had to really get down to how I felt about Death. But it was also a story about San Francisco, and I like the way the City appears in that book. I think A Dirty Job is certainly one of my funniest books, which tends to happen, it seems, when I take on serious subjects.

PCZ: You Suck was your first direct sequel. Why a sequel and have you ideas for sequels to any more of your novels?

CM: I had always intended to do a sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, but the hardcover publisher kind of dropped the ball on it, so I had to wait for my career to recover before I could do the sequel. I’ve never wanted to write the same book twice, and I’ve tried to keep jumping around so no one can really figure out what it is that I do. So mostly, doing sequels or bringing back characters comes out of readers writing me and asking me to. On the other hand, people ask for sequels to books that I just don’t have plans for, or I’ve said what I have to say on the subject. Lamb is one of those. I sort of got the Jesus out of my system. I can’t imagine a sequel being anything but a let down.

PCZ: What can you tell us about your new book?

CM: It’s a little too early to talk much about it. Let’s just say that it’s set in medieval England and has deep Shakespearean influences. It’s my very British book, despite the fact that I’m a Scotch-Irish guy from Ohio. I think it’s pretty funny, though, and it will be a little bit different from everything else.

PCZ: You said on your blog that you finished writing your new novel. What happens to it between you having finished it and us getting to buy and read it?

CM: First it goes to my editor, who will go through it and mainly look for inconsistencies, things with the plot or characters that might not work, stuff like that. Usually, in fact, I’d say 99% of the time, the stuff an editor suggests makes the book better, and if you really think it will hurt, you don’t have to do it.

Then I’ll make those changes, and I’ll send it back. Then the book will go to the copy editor, who will look for typos and put in instructions for typesetting. Then it comes back to me again and I go over those changes.

Then it goes back to New York again, gets typeset, and printed in loose galleys, which are the pages as they will appear in the book, except unbound. This will be the last chance to find errors and fix things, but usually, by this time, I can’t see the errors, even if they are there, my mind will correct them and see what it thinks is right. (I’m not the only one this happens to.) Changes at this point can be expensive, so it’s best not to make any except those that are mistakes.

Finally the book will go out in bound galleys, or Advanced Reader Copies (or ARCs) to booksellers and critics, as well as authors for comment. This, typically, happens about three months before the book comes out.

Finally the book gets printed in hardcover and gets sent out. Along the way they are having meetings over covers, design, marketing, distribution, advertising, and all the other aspects of publishing, but I’m not involved in those, other than looking at ideas for covers and so forth. I have some input now, as to what I’d like on the covers, but early on in my career, no one even asked.

Each country contracts, translates, and prints the book separately, but usually I’m not personally involved. They usually key and translate off the finished American book.

PCZ: Will you be doing a signing tour with this book?

CM: Absolutely. February of 2009. I’m doing the East and West Coast, with a few cities in between in the South and in the Rockies. Unfortunately, I won’t be doing the Midwest because weather can sink a tour in February, but I’m pushing for them to let me go back to Chicago, Minneapolis, Madison, and St. Louis in April. We’ll see how that goes.

PCZ: When you’re on a signing tour do you get to spend any time in the places you visit other than at a bookstore?

CM: Not usually. Sometimes I get an extra day in a city I like. I used to schedule extra days in San Francisco, and I ended up moving here I liked it so much. Sometimes I get an extra day as padding for weather emergencies. (Like flying in and out of Denver in February). Mostly I get a couple of hours, sometimes four or five, and I spend that time in the art museums. The U. S. has some great, great art museums, and nothing puts me into an almost Zen state of calm like looking at great art. And calm is a nice thing to have when you’re flying to a new city every day and talking to a few hundred people every night, as well as doing radio and signing books. Chicago, Boston, Philly, and of course Washington D. C. and New York have art museums on par with the great museums of Europe. But smaller cities like Denver and Minneapolis also have terrific collections – and often you’ll see stuff you won’t see anywhere else in the world.

PCZ: Have you been able to see much of Portland, OR over the years and, if so, what do you think of our fair city?

CM: I like Portland a lot, especially the people. And it’s the only place where I’ve seen rain come down without space between the drops — just friggin sheets of water falling out of the sky. (And I lived on Kauai for three years, the wettest place on Earth.) But Portland people are terrific. Sort of the humor and optimism of San Franciscans, without the smugness, and without the feeling that they could open a vein at any moment that you get from a lot of people in Seattle, (but to be fair, that just might be the caffeine bouncing back on them.) Portland people give the impression that, “Yeah, sure, I’d eat a friend if I was stuck on Mt. Hood with no other way to live, or, you know, if they started getting whiny. Who wouldn’t?” You’ve got to love that “can do” spirit in people. I’ve never had time to actually goof around in Portland. I’m hoping to do that this summer when I come up to do some live radio/stage show whose name slips my mind right now — Wankers Out Loud or something like that.

PCZ: Do you love art in general or is there any particular medium or pieces that are your favorites?

CM: I like to look at painting more than other mediums, but as I learn more, I’ve opened up to that as well. I used to only like stuff from the 19th Century, sort of rejecting most Modern Art and most art with Religious content, but as I’ve see more art, I have more appreciation for painters and paintings on either side of that period, and I appreciate the skill that goes into the communication of the idea, even if I think it’s false to the artist. I don’t think Michelangelo or Leonardo or Caravaggio necessarily felt divinely inspired by their subjects, but they knew what they needed to convey, and they brought their genius to bear on conveying it. By the same token, there’s a “letting it all be” that one has to buy into with the work of Pollock or Rothko, a Motherwell or a Klein. (These are just artists I’ve learned to recognize in the last couple of years, and I’m dog-fuckingly old, so I’m not dropping names on you, I’m simply saying that one’s appreciation can continue to grow, and the more you know, the more you appreciate artists for what they do.) It’s not that much different with writing. The more I learn about my craft, the more I’m in awe of Shakespeare and many other poets. People who were/are pyrotechnists with language. Favorites? I love looking at the impressionists at the Chicago Instute of Art, they have that big ass Seurat painting, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. It’s enormous, a whole wall, and there’s always some kid standing in front of it, explaining it to his class as part of his assignment. It never fails to make me smile. I like Hopper’s buildings, Sargent’s women, they all look like they know stuff you don’t know, Monet’s gardens, Vincent’s farms and flowers, Rousseau’s jungles — silly, primitive, dreamy jungles — Rothkos oranges and blues, Picasso’s circus performers, Magritte’s skies, Turner’s ships — oh hell, I’ve gone on too long. There’s a very cool feeling to coming into a room where Nighthawks, or American Gothic, or Starry Night is hanging — a picture you’ve lived with all your life, that you feel like is part of your visual vocabulary, and suddenly, there it is, in person, the original idea on the original canvas. It would be (I suspect) like coming around the corner and running into Angelina Jolie or Bruce Springsteen or someone equally breathtaking and iconic. You’re speechless, stunned, and a little awed by the luck and joy of your own insignificance. Usually you have to narrowly avoid a plane crash to get that kind of rush.

PCZ: What impact do you think the Internet will have on the book industry? Do you see a time when you would just sell your books straight from a website?

CM: I don’t know. I have to admit, I’m reticent about it, not that I think I can do anything about it. Once there is a device that gets universally adopted the way the Ipod has, I don’t see how we’re going to be able to avoid piracy, and at that point, I’m not sure what the hell authors will do for a living. In music, they changed their revenue model to performance, and that’s where they make their money, but I don’t see that happening with authors. There’s not a dozen authors I can think of who could make a living by charging for their appearances. I don’t have a Kindle or a Sony Reader, but they look cool, and I have to admit, for research I’d love to only have one small device rather than a stack of books, and for college it would be absolutely amazing –- especially with the highlighting features and indexing. Terrific! So, from a readers point of view, I think it’s great, and it could happen, but I worry about being able to keep making a living as a novelist if books get pirated the way music has.

PCZ: Personally, I think that any of your books would make terrific films. Why do you think it is that while all your books have been optioned no one has decided to actually produce them?

CM: I can only tell you what I’ve heard over the years, and it more or less comes down to this: “Oh Chris, we love your stuff, it’s not like anything we’ve ever seen before, now we need to make it into a movie, but first, we have to make it like something we’ve seen before.”

It’s the risk factor. No one agrees that you can just put the book on the screen, and in translation to screenplays, they seem to lose what makes the books work. I’m still hopeful that someone will move forward, but essentially it’s just that it’s too risky to do something different.

PCZ: To wrap this up, is there anything you’d like to say to your fans?

CM: Hello, fans. Thanks.

And thank you to Chris for taking the time to answer our questions. Talk more about Mr. Moore and his books in our Lounge.