Interview with Christopher Moore

Posted by Goodreads on March 26, 2018
Christopher Moore
As artifacts of modern fiction, Christopher Moore's books are as close to genuinely unique as you can find on contemporary bookshelves. Future historians—AI cyborg scholars, probably—will need to give him his own classification. Moore writes absurdist fiction and satirical comic fantasy, but the labels really don't do him justice. There is a sense of playfulness in his stories, a sense of delight. It's clear, at the end of a Christopher Moore book, that the author has as much fun writing these stories as his fans have reading them.

Moore's latest novel, Noir, follows the adventures of Sammy "Two Toes" Tiffin, a part-time bartender and good-hearted grifter bouncing around San Francisco circa 1947. The book riffs on familiar tropes from the hard-boiled detective genre, giddily borrowing from masters like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But Moore is not so easily contained. Elements of science fiction and pulp adventure emerge as we join a festive parade of colorful characters: the Chinatown hustler Eddie Moo Shoes, the crooked cop Pookie O'Hara, the weird little urchin called The Kid, and a femme fatale known as The Cheese.

Moore talked with Goodreads contributor Glenn McDonald about the new book, postwar San Francisco, and the pointless tyranny of the first-person perspective.


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Goodreads: One of many pleasures in this book is the virtual tour we get of San Francisco in the 1940s. How did you go about researching the historical elements?

Christopher Moore: Well, I moved to San Francisco in 2006, and I've written, I think, five books in San Francisco prior to this, which is part of what made me aware of the period in the first place. Most of the time-and-place stuff I did online. The San Francisco library has a really great photo archive of the city since, basically, the [1906] earthquake. You can look up almost any street, any intersection, and see what it looked like in 1947. There was a lot of that to get a feel for what the city was like.

GR: In the afterword, you mention that you also researched the writing of Herb Caen, the longtime San Francisco newspaper columnist.

CM: Right, I read anthologies of old Herb Caen columns to get a sense of what the street life was. He was very much the Walter Winchell of San Francisco—the guy out on the street, the town gossip. Read his columns and you can find out how the people felt about the city at the time. One example is how people were actually really mad about those famous cable cars, because they slowed traffic up, back in 1947. So for my attitude about people in the city, that came right out of Herb Caen.

That's also where I got some of the incidental details that ended up in the book, like the juke joint that's only ten feet wide but four stories tall. That came from a Herb Caen book. Or the anglicized Chinese businesses that catered to in-town tourism—like the fur shop called Fur Man Shu. The Chinese business community catered to bringing people down from Pacific Heights and Nob Hill, and bringing white money into the Asian community.

GR: Were you able to find anyone who had direct memories of that era?

CM: I met a few old guys in North Beach who had been here in the '40s. But even the older guys I met, they didn't remember a whole lot. They were too young. One incident came from a personal interview with a guy who's in his 90s now. That was about taking girls out to Playland on the beach, which was an old amusement park. That was a big thing you used to do if you were a sailor or something in the late '40s.


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GR: The book has a curious structure, in that most of it is written in first person, with our hero Sammy. But then some chapters drop into third person, with a narrator who isn't disclosed until later in the book. What was the thinking behind that?

CM: Part of it was that I often just feel very constrained by first person. Especially when you have a suspense plot. Sometimes you need to impart information that the narrator doesn't know.

It used to be, in the days of Raymond Chandler, that to deal with the limitations of first person, Philip Marlowe would get sapped or something. Then he'd wake up, and his plucky assistant would tell him what's been going on all over the city while he was unconscious. That's how you dealt with that.

Over the years, I've tried to deal with that in various ways. For instance, in one of my Shakespeare books, I have a chorus. The chorus comes into a scene as a character and just tells you what's happening in the story.

It's really just that, at some point in this weird career, I realized there are no rules. If you want to change narrators, you can do it anytime you want. In Noir, it adds another element of suspense for the reader. Who the hell is telling the story?

GR: So it was a practical, structural thing?

CM: Yeah, but also a matter of voice. For some scenes that I knew were going to be in the book, I needed a voice to tell the story that was different from the voice of our main character.

Particularly in a book like this, that's written in such a constructed dialect, you sometimes need that. The way Sammy and the guys all talk in the book, that's one thing. But the love scenes between Sammy and The Cheese, they beg to be told in third person so I can be sweeping and poetic, so I can draw strange metaphors that are funny. I realize this is all very inside baseball, but that's why I did it. Whether it works or not is going to be up to the reader.

GR: I love this idea that there are no rules.

CM: Sure, I mean, there really are no rules with fiction. You can do a novel out of a grocery list if you want. And those have been done! Collage novels—those exist, made from Post-it Notes and desk blotters and grocery lists.

What I found out early on in writers' workshops is that writers would paint themselves into corners because they felt constrained by point of view. You end up with that awful, obligatory description scene: "He caught a glimpse of himself in a storefront mirror…" It's a conceit that's used because of the restraint of limited point of view.

But if you just say what the guy looked like, no one is going to call you out on it. Just say he's six feet tall, dark hair, ten pounds overweight. You're in, you're out; no one gets hurt. Every time a character has to sort of catch his reflection in the mirror, it makes me cringe.

GR: And I imagine the first-person approach is a nod to the genre itself, the hard-boiled detective story?

CM: Absolutely. I pretty much had to do it.

GR: Who were some of the authors who particularly inspired you from this genre?

CM: Well, I had read a lot of those books already. I had read all of Raymond Chandler and most of Dashiell Hammett in my early 20s. I'm 60 now, and I didn't necessarily remember a lot of it. So I went back again and reread everything, this time paying attention to style and how they wrote those stories. There's a distinct difference between those two. Chandler is much more poetic.

I also started looking at the guys who are really dark, the Black Lizard guys. Like Jim Thompson, with The Grifters. Or he wrote a book called A Swell-Looking Babe. Now, these are dark, hopeless noir stories. There are no happy endings, no redemption at all. A list of other writers in this vein might include David Goodis or James M. Cain.

So, talking about form, I wanted to go toward that hard-boiled detective guy. The way Mickey Spillane writes Mike Hammer, with all these strained metaphors. Raymond Chandler's metaphors are kind of elegant, actually.

Most readers will probably not register the Thompson-Goodis-Cain aspect of it. They're probably more familiar with Chandler and Hammett. And because Hammett wrote about San Francisco, that was practically a prerequisite.

GR: You clearly tapped some of the classic old noir movies, too.

CM: Oh, sure. In fact, if you watch some of the goofy movies that were made out of Hammett's stuff, like The Thin Man, those movies are a lot closer to what my book ended up being…more like a romantic comedy. Really, any of those movies with Edward G. Robinson and George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, where these guys talk in a vernacular that just doesn't exist anywhere else.

Oh, and I can't forget Damon Runyon, whom I just adore because of the weird voice. He has a very distinct wise guy voice, and they speak in this very strange present-tense-told-as-past voice.

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GR: I noticed that! That was so strange!

CM: Yeah, I actually wrote the first three chapters in that voice, and then I realized I couldn't pull it off at novel length. I left in a couple scenes with Sammy and Eddie Moo Shoes, when they're telling a story to each other. There are also a couple scenes with Sammy and The Kid. Just because they were so funny. Hopefully, it won't throw readers too much.

GR: In your previous work, some characters are known to wander over into other books. Do all your books take place in a shared universe?

CM: Not really. When people talk about shared universe or shared world, it's usually about a whole other thing. There's nothing in my books that's true world-building from the ground up. Most of my San Francisco stories take place in the north end of the city. So characters sometimes wander from one book to another. I have this one character, Emperor Norton, and he wanders through five or six of the San Francisco books. But not Noir because of the time frame.

GR: You also have a lot of terrific details about architecture and buildings. San Francisco residents or visitors might get a little history lesson about some particular kinds of buildings that were there in 1947.

CM: Right, there were these houses called earthquake shacks. When the city was destroyed in 1906, they built a lot of these little pillboxes that were put up as temporary shelter until the grand Victorians could be built again. And they just didn't get upgraded for a while.

Then when you get into the Sunset district, that's where I write about tract housing. Before the war, the Sunset was just dunes. The city looked a lot different then.

GR: Reader Spenser asks: One of the things I've always liked about the characters you write is how, while flawed, they're always likable characters and relatable. Do you have a process you go through to create these awesome characters?

CM: The short answer is yes, I do have a process. I had a really good teacher back in the '80s. He used to teach about writing focused on character. His concept was that each character has to have an agenda, and you need to know what they want and what they're willing to do to get it.

So I build characters from that agenda, and I try to be mindful of it throughout the entire story. It makes the characters more real, and it informs every bit of dialogue. There's always a subtext, whether the reader knows it or even whether the character knows it. But I know it…that's the thing.

You know, there's a long-running debate in book circles as to whether a character really needs to be likable. I just think that they do. Part of my reason for writing in the first place is that I want to write books that I would personally like to find on a shelf. And if I'm going to go on an adventure with someone, I want to like them. I want to be OK with spending time with them. So I do consciously try to make them likable.

That said, sometimes I create characters just because I want you to know about something. Like Eddie—he's there in large part so that I can write about the Chinese community in the city. Or Jimmy from Jimmy's joint—he's there to show you those drag-king clubs in the city back in the day, where women dressed as men and performed as crooners like Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett.

GR: Sara asks: I would love to know what object will act as your soul vessel when you die.

CM: Ah, right. In my book A Dirty Job, death merchants deal with these objects that humans go into when they die. Your soul might inexplicably go into a ceramic frog, or whatever, or your favorite fountain pen.

This is tough. I'm just not an object person. I've been asked this before; I should probably have an answer. Maybe a doughnut. Then I could just keep eating my soul and cycle that forever.

GR: Kim asks: My question is if you could have dinner with one character from any of your books, who would it be and what do you think they want to eat for dinner?

CM: Oh, wow. Well, I have cannibals in one of my books. That's an option. Hmm, it would probably be Bleu, from Sacré Bleu. She's a muse. She haunts and inspires the French impressionists in that book. She's one of my favorite characters. I would eat French bread and Camembert.

GR: Talie asks: If you could travel anywhere in space and time, where and when would you go for the most fun?

CM: It's a great question, and I don't have a prepared answer. A lot would depend on how old I am when I get there. It's such a different experience, depending. If I was younger, it would be fun to go to Paris in the 1920s, hang out with everyone getting drunk on the banks of the river Seine. Or maybe the Haight district in San Francisco in 1968.

One thing to bear in mind…and I try to remember this in historical novels…is that in other eras, things like sanitation were really, really different. I have a couple books set in the late 12th century, and really you have to just ignore what sanitation and hygiene were like. It's all right to ignore it when you're writing about it, but if I were sending my own dumb ass back in time, then yeah—gotta think about sanitation.

GR: What are you working on now—anything you can talk about yet?

CM: Oh, sure. So I have this character Pocket the Fool, from my book Fool, which is King Lear from the point of view of the fool. I really liked writing him. I've done a lot of research and have created this pseudo-Shakespearean dialect that's easier for Americans to read.

I like writing Pocket. He's physically tiny and politically powerless, but he ends up moving most of the chess pieces in that book. He ends up taking over most of Western Europe. I brought him back in The Serpent of Venice, which is The Merchant of Venice and Othello, the two Venetian plays. I put Pocket there, and once again he's the least powerful smart-ass, among all this political intrigue. I found that was an interesting way to write about society and prejudice.

So anyway, the one I'm working on now…I don't have a name for it yet…puts Pocket in the world of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He has to solve a murder. It's basically the third book in what's becoming a series with Pocket the Fool.

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

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message 1: by Kathryn (last edited Apr 04, 2018 10:46AM) (new)

Kathryn This! (and what a fantastic job he does of creating likable characters...)
"And if I’m going to go on an adventure with someone, I want to like them. I want to be OK with spending time with them.”

I can certainly see an argument for having an (at least somewhat and possibly even entirely) unlikable protagonist/antihero/etc. on occasion, but if not one of the characters is bearable? Meh. I have better things to do/read.


message 2: by Valerie (new)

Valerie Peterson Looking forward to seeing the Moore spin on noir...


message 3: by Lynn (new)

Lynn Hirshman I wonder if Moore has read Kelli Stanley's wonderful noir books with gumshoe Miranda Corbie, set in 1940 San Francisco....


message 4: by Darcy (new)

Darcy Swoon. Pocket in Midsummer!


message 5: by Theasa (new)

Theasa Tuohy This guy sounds great! Thanks for the introduction. Going to give him a try.


message 6: by Suzanne (new)

Suzanne Oltarzewski Always love the hunt for a new author whose books I can sink my teeth into. So glad I took the time to read this review. I've found my new author!


message 7: by Rita (new)

Rita So glad we'll read more of Pocket. He's my favorite Fool!


message 8: by Rita (new)

Rita Suzanne wrote: "Always love the hunt for a new author whose books I can sink my teeth into. So glad I took the time to read this review. I've found my new author!"

You'll love him, Suzanne!


message 9: by Rita (new)

Rita Theasa wrote: "This guy sounds great! Thanks for the introduction. Going to give him a try."

I hope you love his work as much as I do, Theasa. He's SO much fun to read!


message 10: by Jeff (new)

Jeff Jones Awesome job Christopher. Another great book. The interview is great love all your books. He is my cousin and I have gotten all his books as of now and I am not much of a reader but with his humor and always keeping you on your toes with his books I would recommend a good read of his books. Again awesome job on the new book I can not wait to get an autographed copy.


message 11: by Matt (new)

Matt i've just read a few Carl Hiaasen novels, mostly because I enjoyed Inherent Vice and V, and wanted more "Californian" Private Dick nonsense (yes - I know that Hiaasen is Florida).
This sounds ideal..... is Christopher Moore "serious but silly" in the same way?


message 12: by Ada (new)

Ada Lavin Wonderful interview. Chris's books are great funny and insightful. Lamb is my favorite. I'm reading Noir right now. It's as great as all of his books.


message 13: by Kostiantyn (new)

Kostiantyn Kharchenko Thoughtful words. Thanks for the interview.


message 14: by David (new)

David Murgo My favorite (and first) of the Moore books is "Lamb". I have loaned out so many copies that I've probably bought the book half a dozen times. I've taken to re-reading it about once a year and it never fails to get me laughing. I highly recommend it.


message 15: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Mountrey Matt wrote: "i've just read a few Carl Hiaasen novels, mostly because I enjoyed Inherent Vice and V, and wanted more "Californian" Private Dick nonsense (yes - I know that Hiaasen is Florida).
This sounds ideal..."


Hiaasen is more satirical, closer to the reality of Florida. I love both authors--hope you do too!


message 16: by Logan (new)

Logan i feel like the game L.A. Noire, a neo-noir detective action-adventure video game set in 1947 in Los Angeles, would be interesting to check out, as it would have similar topics and scenarios to this book.


message 17: by Linda (new)

Linda Maloy Some other gentle reader made a comment among these that seemed to say that he always liked to read a new author's efforts. While I agree with the sentiment, Christopher Moore is hardly a "new" author! He is, in fact, one of my favorite screwballs; never to be taken totally literally, always entertaining, and conducive to an open mind with a sense of humor. I, too, look forward to picking up a copy of "Noir" this very day. Thanks, "Goodreads," for an enjoyable conversation with Mr. Moore.


message 18: by Virginia (new)

Virginia Can't wait to read this, and so excited about the prospect of more Pocket (fave character!)


message 19: by Ibikunle (new)

Ibikunle Laniyan My Book Of Poetry " St.Blues Queer Street" about 3,000pages,is the most voluminous book of poetry by a single poet worldwide overtaking Shanahmeh an epic poetry written by a Persian now an Iranian and is about science fiction in poetry form,full of horror,romance,sword and sorcery etc. Some of my poems posted on my blog-www.kunlemicrofinance.blogspot.com.I would have loved penguin random house in new york world largest publisher,to publish it and new york times,world largest newspaper to review it. if any one get access or got contact to penguin literary agent pls i can be reached at ibikabram@gmail.com or 2349036790644


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