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Author Rick Moody: Classic takes

Rick Moody
Rick Moody says "writing about the classics is a really important exercise, because you really need to dig deep to do it"  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- Rick Moody's books can live up to his surname. Such works as "The Ice Storm" (1995), "Purple America" (1998) and the recent story collection "Demonology" (January) dig into the depths of an American suburbia that isn't all picket fences and perfect lawns.

But Moody's writing is also known for its sometimes cockeyed sense of humor and -- perhaps most lastingly -- a thoughtful, rich humaneness.

CNN recently conducted an e-mail interview with Moody about his new works, including the introduction to an Oxford World's Classics edition of Thomas Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge" -- which placed him in company with one of the last century's greatest writers.

CNN: What drew you to Oxford World's Classics and Hardy's "Mayor of Casterbridge"? Do you see similarities between his often bleak English country landscapes and your own American suburban settings?

Rick Moody: I got involved with Oxford World's Classics, simply because I have often been an admirer of their reprint program, and I knew someone who knew someone there, at Oxford University Press. They asked, and I was willing, had indeed been wanting to do something like this for a while. At first, I was keen to do an essay on Hawthorne, but "The Scarlet Letter" had already been taken. ... They offered me anyone else I wanted to do, so I picked the Hardy novel.

Sure, I think the intensity of Hardy's worldview is not unlike mine. Or, more likely, my worldview is not unlike his. He managed to find great drama in small-town life, and that's something I've always been ambitious to do as well.

CNN: You're in some well-known company. Previous writers tapped include P.D. James, Milan Kundera and John Updike. Was this a particular honor for you, to be included among this group?

Moody: A huge honor, of course. I think writing about the classics is a really important exercise, because you really need to dig deep to do it. There's always a terror associated with such an effort.

I edited a volume of essays on the New Testament at one point, and in the course of that I wrote about the Bible. Hardy was difficult, but the Bible was almost impossible. How can you say what hasn't been said?

That's part of why my essay on Hardy is personal. I leave the matter of interpreting largely to specialists now. I'm trying kindle in potential readers of "The Mayor of Casterbridge" the intensity of its passions. I figure that's what makes people want to read a book.

CNN: The word "classic" has become as much marketing tool as a term with actual meaning. What makes a "classic" book nowadays?

Moody: I think a classic is simply a book that has continued to be relevant over the course of many many years. ... Contemporary relevance, of course, is no guarantee of classic heft. Look at a writer like Dawn Powell. Or even Melville. Not as prized during their lifetimes as they are now. I consider myself a keen student of the contemporary, yet I'm still refreshed by literature that has continued to be valuable over the course of centuries.

CNN: If you were to recommend a little-read classic to someone, what would it be and why?

Moody: Isaac Babel's "Red Cavalry." These are short stories written in Russian (I read them in translation, alas) during the time of the revolution there. They are written with a heightened and intense language, yet full of grit and detail. Really one of the greatest collections of stories ever written. Some other examples: "The Third Policeman" by Flann O'Brien. "Gargantua," by Rabelais. (Robert) Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy." These are all very unusual books that afford much delight and surprise.

CNN: Your work has been compared to that of John Cheever and John Updike. Have they been particular influences on you? And your writing style often leans towards the spare and minimalist, though with bursts of sermon-like prose. What writers -- or editors or priests or musical groups -- have influenced this?

Moody: Maybe I would say "litanical" as opposed to "sermon-like," just because I don't want people to think I'm going to tell them what to do. While I love Cheever, I don't consider myself much like him as a writer. The same is true of Updike. My influences are people not so well known as that. Although, in terms of language, Melville is obviously an influence (at least during the litanical passages), but also Walt Whitman and the Beat Writers.

Music, as you correctly observe, is also a huge influence. Right now, it's mostly classical music and jazz and blues.

CNN: Your stories balance tragic happenings with sometimes absurd or humorous storytelling. Have you considered writing farce? (Or is that what you consider some of the stories already?)

Moody: There are definitely a couple of farces in "Demonology," my most recent book -- "The Double Zero," for example. I think the comic and tragic go very well together. Fiction should have lots of moods, because human beings all do. And since fiction largely intends to depict human psychology, its range should reflect how human beings actually feel.

CNN: "The Ice Storm" was made into a fine movie by Ang Lee in 1997. Are there other Rick Moody films on the horizon? And do you have mixed feelings about seeing your work on screen?

Moody: I really loved the movie of "The Ice Storm." They did a pretty fabulous job. There are other movies on the horizon, but the question is if they will ever get any nearer than the horizon. I think there are two or three stories optioned at the moment. There's no guarantee they'll ever get made of course. I might have had a very, very lucky experience with my first adaptation.

CNN: You told Salon that your next book, "The Black Veil," is non-fiction, and that you were trying to find some relief in telling the truth -- and it didn't work. Does writing boil down to cathartic truth-telling for you, even if you're writing a novel?

Moody: I think bringing personal experience to the work always makes the work riskier in some ways, and I like having some risk associated with a project. With "The Black Veil," the risk just got to where it seemed almost impossibly gigantic sometimes. I'm almost done with it, though. Soon readers will get to evaluate it for themselves.

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