Rick Moody: The spirit of the age

The novelist Rick Moody, hailed as the coolest writer in America, talks to Marianne Brace about fiction, doughnuts and the 'longing for something bigger'
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The Independent Culture

The Diviners (Faber & Faber, £12.99), a sprawling satirical novel, marks a change of direction for the author, who has been called both "the coolest guy writing fiction in America" and "the worst writer of his generation". On completing his memoir of a troubled family, The Black Veil, Moody wanted to write "something that wasn't going to furrow people's brows... I still love The Black Veil and I'm proud of it but I just felt like: 'Now I'm going to do a 180-degree turn.'"

He had always wanted to write comedy. "A lot of the writers I most admire are comic writers - William Gaddis, James Thurber, Flann O'Brien. It seemed the time to indicate that there's more range to what I do."

Set during the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election, the story follows a group of characters linked to a television drama series about dowsers. A multi-generational saga, it's the kind of project where "extras lose limbs and entire villages have to be burnt to the ground". Kicking off with Mongol hordes driven out by drought, the epic 13-parter takes in the Roman empire, the Crusades, the American Civil War, the Russian Revolution and the Holocaust, culminating in the founding of Las Vegas. The fact that there's neither treatment nor script, and that the proposal is a hoax, doesn't stop everyone hustling for a piece of the action - from a film producer whose issues include an alcoholic mother and doughnut abuse to a pint-size pop diva "with a nosebleed and a stuffed bear the size of a sumo wrestler".

Moody wanted "a little bit of the hurtling quality which we associate with television narrative". Gone, therefore, are the sinuous sentences in search of a full stop stretching through his novel Purple America, and the esoteric vocabulary of The Black Veil. Gone, too, is the full-on embrace of italics that has so exasperated some reviewers. "Oh, yeah, the amusing part was that I had put them all in, and then had to de-italicise the entire document," Moody admits, smiling. "I couldn't stop doing them."

As with Moody's previous work, The Diviners has split critics into adorers and abhorrers. Some have applauded its ambition; others gave its extravagance a pounding. Yet while it's true the narrative would benefit from being shorter, dull it's not. Moody whips up seriously funny dialogue and social observation, including an enjoyably awful scene where a popular writer hosts a Botox party.

He is no stranger to lacerating reviews. "It's not fun to wake up and have horrible things said about one. It's depressing that there are people who hate my work but the good news is there are people who really, really love it." Even giving interviews can be bruising. "I go back to my hotel room and count how many times I said 'you know' or 'like' and everything is an approximation of what's going on in my head. The speech act to me is terrifying and insubstantial, whereas when I write it down I can get it right."

It was Moody's shyness as a boy that led eventually to hospital treatment for depression and addiction - a subject he describes as "central" to his work. He started drinking seriously at 15. "If you're a really shy person, alcohol can be a tremendous lubricant. It's the only thing that affords relief from this prison house of self." Later, he graduated to drinking while taking Quaaludes, speed, cocaine, heroin and marijuana.

It didn't help to be saddled with the family name. "Hiram - it's so hideous," grimaces the writer. "The first day of every year the teacher would inevitably mispronounce it - Heeram... Any child of mine will be named Michael or Debbie."

Moody is able to trace his New England forebears back to 1617. His grandfather, a newspaper publisher, was friendly with Richard Nixon. Moody's father sold investment strategies and sent his son to a smart high school whose alumni include John Kerry. While Moody's parents weren't into "swinging" like the couples in The Ice Storm, they were the first on the block to get divorced.

Sadness, melancholy and angst characterise most of Moody's output, whether sudden death (the boy's accidental electrocution in The Ice Storm; the story of Moody's sister's unexpected death in Demonology) or the sense of failure and self-loathing that engulfs affluent characters like Benjamin Hood (The Ice Storm) and Hex Raitliffe (Purple America).

A voracious reader, Moody started writing when he was 12. "My father, who was always the ass-kicker, said, 'You have to have a passion and if this is your passion - risk everything. Be the best writer you can be.'" Moody attended Brown University, where Robert Coover and Angela Carter taught him. "It was one of the great things of my life. I feel so lucky about it". Were they encouraging? "They weren't saying 'You're the greatest undergraduate I've ever read.' At all," says Moody. "But they were such striking exemplars of how to make literature a way of life."

Moody wrote his debut, Garden State, while working as a publishing assistant. It was rejected 22 times before being accepted. He "can't stand it" now. Mention The Ice Storm, meanwhile, and he makes as if to be sick, only saying grudgingly that it's "an adequate" novel. Not so: The Ice Storm is powerfully moving, with its tightly focused suburban setting.

The Diviners, conversely, is about as all-inclusive as the American novel gets. The usual fixations are here - sex, power and greed - but it casts its net wide to snare pop culture, consumerism, addiction, fractured families, issues of race, mental health, modern art, the media, random violence, business ethics, cults...

"I handed in The Black Veil on 10 September 2001 and it was clear to me what a pre-9/11 book it was - so self-orientated, so introspective," he recalls. While some authors have tried grappling with the events of that day, Moody felt insufficient time had passed and chose to concentrate on the period immediately before and "use it in a way that's premonitory".

Moody continues, "We know what we think about that sort of Clinton-Blair go-go period and about post 9/11, but what of the period in-between? Like many interregnums... it's a period of confusion and ambiguity. I find that interesting." Moody believes the period is characterised by "a spiritual longing". He explains: "The United States has simultaneously this drive to secular life and a kind of weird subliminal spiritual life. Even in really secular environments, like the entertainment business, this longing for something bigger is apparent."

Dowsing provided a good central image because it combines elements of pragmatism and mystical mumbo-jumbo. A dowsing fork is a kind of transmitter too, an inverted aerial. Moody revels in such jokey connections. The Diviners opens with a 12-page incantation about the sunrise whose light illuminates the world.

The cast of millions and episodic structure make the novel seem at times like a series of extended riffs, and the book has been criticised for being less than the sum of its parts. "But I think resolution is cheap and for lazy readers," Moody says."Real life doesn't have that resolution. It's probably never going to be in my nature to deliver a proper ending."

The final chapter is devoted to "a distinguished jurist" with more than a whiff of the Bible-basher about him. "A really vexatious part of what's taking place now has to do with how America reads," Moody suggests. "We're a country begun by religious protestors and the history of the nation emerges out of this way of reading scripture that's - what's the word? 'Inerrant' is the word they use. Biblical inerrancy. They think it's the revealed word of God and they approach the fundamental political documents of the country in the same way. So if the Declaration of Independence says 'You've a right to the pursuit of happiness', well, Goddam it - pursue happiness!"

Pursuing something equally elusive, the script chicks, internet start-up guys and B-listers are on a wild goose chase. "This book is peopled entirely by 'failures'," says Moody, "but what's adorable about them is that they refuse to submit. They're still out there hoping."

Biography: Rick Moody

Rick Moody was born in 1961 in New York City and raised in Connecticut. He attended Brown and Columbia universities and published his first novel, the prize-winning Garden State, in 1992. The Ice Storm was made into a film directed by Ang Lee, and was followed by Purple America. His other work includes two short-story collections, The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven and Demonology. His award-winning memoir The Black Veil was published in 2002. He has also recorded an album, Rick Moody and One Ring Zero. His new novel, The Diviners, is published by Faber. Secretary of the PEN American centre, he lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Amy.