Since the publication of her first story collection, “Self-Help” in 1985, Lorrie Moore’s many fans have waited expectantly for the next chance to relish her unmistakable wit and dark humor. It’s an opportunity that arises every few years: “Like Life” (1990), “Who Will Run Frog Hospital?” (1994), “A Gate at the Stairs” (2009), “Bark” (2014).
Her latest book, “See What Can Be Done,” is a work of nonfiction that highlights a different side of her writing: less acerbic, more generous. The book collects more than 60 reviews and essays — many from the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books — as well as articles about politics, TV and the O.J. Simpson trial.
Moore, 61 and an English professor at Vanderbilt, answered questions via email from New York, where is she is working on a new novel she doesn’t want to talk about.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: Why is your book called "See What Can Be Done"?
A: “See What Can Be Done” is just an instruction from Bob Silvers [the late editor of the New York Review of Books]. He would FedEx me a book or email me a suggestion to see if I were interested in writing about something or other. He would always close, “See what can be done. My best, Bob.”
But it leaves everything up to you. It is a challenge but a gentle one. And I found it gave me permission to write about things I didn’t think I had any expertise in. So it is a gift to the amateur.
Q: Do you think it's necessary, these days, to nudge people just to try?
A: I don’t know what’s necessary for “people these days” but an invitation with an open door (only slightly different from a nudge) is often necessary for me.
Q: Your new book compiles nonfiction you've written over the last 30-ish years. How is writing nonfiction different from writing fiction?
A: With fiction, of course, you must create your own world — at least somewhat. Nonfiction is a response to a world that already exists — and usually a response to a response — so in some ways it is both simpler and more dangerous.
Q: In what way more dangerous?
A: Well you are often writing about something of value to someone else and/or things made by others. Often there is a certain public conversation already going on and you are jumping in. So it can prompt a lot of mail of every variety.
Fiction writers get much less mail.
Q: Do you have a favorite piece in this book?
A: I would say that the ones I stand by most are the longer reviews that look at several different versions of things and discuss them, threading them through with snippets of personal essay, like the pieces on O.J. Simpson or “Friday Night Lights.” Also perhaps the essays on Peter Cameron and Miranda July. Alice Munro is difficult to write about and I did so many times, more than just the three pieces in the book. But I stand by those three pieces.
I should add that this book should not be read in its entirety nor in order. I had to do that in the proofreading stage and I don’t recommend it.
Q: You write about politics occasionally, though only one piece is post-Trump. Are you going to write about President Trump?
A: Oh, I’m so tired of Trump. I don’t feel the need to write about him. I do sometimes wonder what Marla Maples is up to these days. And I did watch that video of Melania swatting her husband’s hand away at the Tel Aviv airport — over and over again and at varying speeds. I thought it was that entertaining. And I did think that perhaps Rex Tillerson was the smartest person in a very dumb room. And I am somehow deeply fascinated by the scowling unflappability of Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Q: Are your conversations at work or with friends as witty and biting as the repartee in your books?
A: I don’t think of there being witty, biting repartee in my work or my life. My recollection is that there are mishearings and misunderstandings, slips and falls into the cracks of disconnection, and general awkwardness. There is despair that rises up and causes the mind to go to forbidden places. Humor is almost always an accident or a desire to be kind and jolly and one can discover it all around — in the world of one’s fiction and outside of it as well.
As for my friends — we are all brilliant and amusing when not tired.
Q: Your book includes your New Yorker piece of "Girls," in which you describe Lena Dunham's work "unwatchable in the very best way." What exactly do you mean by that? Which books might you describe as "unreadable in the very best way?"
A: Well, with regard to “Girls,” Dunham was really working a kind of psychosocial comedy, the sexual aspects of which were excruciating to watch. So that’s what I meant to say. (I always avoid the term cringe-worthy. I’m probably too old for it and I don’t care for it anyway, which means I have to make up my own terms.)
A book that is unreadable in the very best way might be. . . . I have no idea. Well, “Anna Karenina” in the original Russian would be in its very best version and unreadable by me.
Q: You moved to Nashville from Madison, Wis., several years ago. Do you feel Southern yet?
A: I’m working on that.
Q: By becoming a country music fan? Eating grits?
A: Oh, sure. Plus the vowels. Nashville has a lot of people from Chicago in it so the accent sometimes has to be searched for.
Carole Burns is the author of the story collection “The Missing Woman,” which won Ploughshares John C. Zacharis Award.
By Lorrie Moore
Knopf. 432 pp. $29.95