BY SCOTT STEVENSON
Rick Moody, the award-winning author of The Ice Storm and Garden State, shares the true story of the first year of his second marriage in The Long Accomplishment: A Memoir of Hope and Struggle in Matrimony. A recovering alcoholic and sexual compulsive with a history of depression, Moody is also a man in love and the divorced father of a beloved little girl.
He emerges from a complicated past into a second marriage. This union is strengthened by confronting new challenges—miscarriages, the deaths of friends, and home invasions.
The Coachella Review: Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of The Long Accomplishment?
Rick Moody: It describes, more or less, the first twelve months of my marriage to visual artist Laurel Nakadate, and all of the things that happened to us in that year, many of them rather hard. Infertility treatments, lost pregnancies, suicide among friends, death, dementia among our parents, crimes committed against our persons and our property. It tries to arrive at a celebration of committed-ness, despite all the hardship.
TCR: You describe this year as your “annus horribilis.” Your first memoir, The Black Veil, was published 16 years after the events in that book. The Long Accomplishment was published a few years after the events. Why did you want to talk about this year now?
RM: It was less a question of wanting than I didn’t think I could write anything else. There was so much difficulty happening, and at such a velocity, that it sort of precluded my writing fiction for a while. I just didn’t have room in my head to write a novel, and I thought that writing about what was happening might help me achieve some understanding. Also, I thought that maybe I could help some other people going through similar things. Couples struggling with infertility, people who had gone through divorce (which is where the book starts, with the end of my first marriage), victims of crime, and so on.
TCR: Do your memories evolve through time? I feel memoirists struggle a lot with truth and memory. What truth about marriage in The Long Accomplishment do you feel will be immovable by time?
RM: I think memory is mixed up with desire, with despair, with culture, with history, with other people and their accounts, with photography, with what is written, and so on. It’s anything but pure. It’s like the reverberations that accompany a bell after the initial tolling has already taken place. It’s like what you hear after the applause has died down. Were I to rewrite The Black Veil, my first memoir, now, it would be a lot less heartbroken than it was when I started it in the late nineties. For example, I now look back on my hospitalization, in my twenties, as a great gift. The Long Accomplishment doesn’t need to be a definitive account, the only account, or anything else. It’s just a record of where I was when I wrote it. I hope the result might be a little moving, and perhaps offer an audience the chance to care about the hardship of others, especially couples trying to conceive.
TCR: Do you really think you’ll look back ten or twenty years from now and still see it as an annus horribilis?
RM: I don’t know, really. I’m not the greatest forecaster. (In 2015, I wrote that Donald Trump would never be president.) I feel like forecasting is not a terribly effective use of my observational capacities. But I don’t think it matters what I think of the year in question. I will probably be somewhere quite different (at age 78), and not thinking about 2013-2014 in great detail. But I will say this: home invasion and grand larceny afflicted on one’s property is pretty memorable, pretty traumatic, and pretty hard to shake. I know Laurel, my wife, has not shaken it, and I don’t expect I will shake it too easily. One can go back into the thrall of that particular sequence of our story and still feel the wound as pretty fresh. If that is the anchor store for the mall of our annus horribilis, it is liable to still be anchoring in 2040.
TCR: You write about teaching Heinrich von Kleist at NYU. You write, “In Kleist, it’s more that events take place, disassociatively, and we are at their mercy. We, the readers, impose an interpretation of events, even though their sequence is contestable, and thus it was Kleist, as you can see, all around us.” Can you talk more about Kleist and if he influenced your writing in The Long Accomplishment?
RM: Kleist was not a particular influence, so much as a tonal flavor, because I taught him that year under scrutiny in the book. But the way sequence, order of events, works in Kleist is of great interest to me. He leaves events to happen without the excess plotting that one associates, for example, with the century that followed him. You can imagine Susan Sontag liking the work, because it resists being emblematic, it resists a symbolic field. It sort of wants to say exactly what is says, and no more, in a kind of materialism, and that is maybe what’s Enlightenment about Kleist and his considerable achievements. In The Long Accomplishment, I was trying to make a similar case, that amassing the annus horribilis, making it into some kind of fated-ness, some moral tale (though at various times during the years I felt that that was exactly what it was), was to misunderstand what the present is. The present is a new roll of the dice. A new set of possibilities. And while the past leads to it, the present is also free, in a way. There is a liberation here, and trying to reach that place of liberation is a worthy task.
TCR: Your wife Laurel is a photographer. You write that she has terabytes of pictures. What drives Laurel’s interest in photography? Do you think we take pictures because we’re afraid of forgetting or not getting the details right for a memory?
RM: Laurel’s photographs are a lot bigger than a mnemonic exercise, more complex, more various, more performance-oriented. And what she likes as a person who loves photography is less the documentary, except insofar as the documentary is full of feeling. She is interested in how the photograph speaks to human emotions and consciousness, I think. Like a writer, almost. Laurel’s father and brother are both writers, and she’s married to a writer, and she took a lot of writing classes when younger, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and I think some of what she likes about visual art has to do with a first-rate education as a writer. And while the preservation aspect of photography, the Instagram image culture aspect, is a register that she notes and has worked with and against, it is less about forgetting, and more about getting at what we’re feeling. I’m putting words in her mouth, here, and don’t mean to, but this is, I guess, what she might say about it all.
TCR: The next thing I want to talk about is your relationship with death in this book. Your friends M.J. and Maggie Estep pass away. Your daughter’s friend Stella tragically dies. One of the most affecting moments is when the twin embryos of your sons are “reabsorbed into the first spark of the universe, to be reclaimed at a later date.” You write this year had “a sort of accretion of losses that no one should have in one year,” and it did not seem possible for you and Laurel to move on after her DNC. Does writing about these losses help you grieve?
RM: This is a subject that I think about a lot and have always thought about a lot. For a time I thought about it without having that much experience with it, or only the experience that one has according to the explicable march of time. But then death came calling with greater frequency, and in a more unpredictable and implacable way. It seems to me the knowledge of death, and its influence over who we are and how we are is the greatest question to address in art and literature. The fact of non-being in the midst of being. It is less, I suppose, that writing helps than that writing can be a fact of grief, a thing to do while grieving. For me it is, and maybe this is simply because I am a writer. I don’t see The Long Accomplishment as scripto-therapeutic, in that it has that single confessional purpose, but I do see language as a way, a very beautiful way, to leave behind some accurate impressions. It puts the being in being.
TCR: You are open about your Christian faith. What did you learn about your own life and your relationship with your faith through these losses?
RM: As I say in the book, my practice of faith is mostly about community, and not at all about doctrine, nor about paving some way for the afterlife. Faith is a thing to do here and now to try to describe what being alive is for, and what you might do with it, in the short time you are here. I don’t really care, at all, whether Christ’s body was physically raised from the dead, or if it was his spirit. I think his resurrection can be wholly symbolic and still be immensely powerful. I like all of the possible interpretations, or most of the possible interpretations, and I like the noise of them all at once. I like Christianity as a text, and especially I like those stripes of Protestantism that encourage you to make your own interpretations, and which eliminate layers of hierarchy between you, the faithful person, and the divine. My idea of it right now is sort of Franciscan, that the best thing is to be in touch with what animates, and to feel that closeness, and to live, morally, because that’s what inevitably happens, moral vision, in the becoming-close with the divine. Does this help with loss? What helps, maybe, is the idea that you are not alone in loss, that there is no question of aloneness. This is one reason why I have written at some length about Lazarus of Bethany, and Christ’s part in the story of Lazarus of Bethany. Jesus of Nazareth wept over Lazarus, and felt the loss, and was undone, and then he brought back his friend. He indicates what grief feels like, and is a co-sufferer, and that is an indication of what the community of faith might do for the people who grieve.
TCR: You talk about the Dante reading group with M.J. She’s one of your friends who dies during the year you write about in your memoir. You support her writing, and she appears to be jealous of your success during the course of your relationship. The passage you reference in Purgatorio is where the eyes of the envious are sewn shut, “because they cannot rightly see what is in front of them.” Then, you write, “Was the ’stitched shut‘ quality more an aspect of my character? Or more M.J.’s?” That question surprised me. Can you talk a little about your relationship with M.J. and why either of you may have been blind to what was right in front of you?
RM: My sense, and I am a person with a history of mental illness myself, is that character always has blindness attached to it. You can’t see all of yourself, physically and mentally, and that blindness is important, even essential, to who you are. You are always blind to some aspect of character and consciousness. I know I am. I think of myself as being very fully examined (for example: in twenty-five years of psychotherapy), but part of my examination suggests that low-level delusion is always taking place whether I want it to or not. What I was trying to suggest about M.J. was that even though it seemed obvious that she was suffering with a very serious illness of some kind—the symptoms were pretty classical and not hard to miss—there are also limitations as regards the observation of these things. Subjectivity is a thing not to be ignored in a narration of mental illness. Subjectivity is a thing to be prized, with all of its error messages and low-level delusions inborne. M.J. was a person I cared about, and my caring made me, in some ways, an ineffective helper when she most needed it. Frankly, it’s still painful for me, thinking about it. But at least in talking about her I can try to do what Jesus of Nazareth did for Lazarus—he wept and then raised up his friend from the beyond.
TCR: This is your second marriage, and Hazel is your daughter from your first marriage. What were both wives’ reaction to this book? Do they remember events differently?
RM: I don’t know the reaction of my first wife. I didn’t ask. And I’m not sure she read the book, nor took an interest, and who can blame her for that? Laurel was very fully integrated into the process of The Long Accomplishment, and the book is better for her having participated. Some memories, where I couldn’t remember, are hers. It should be understood that she will perhaps make a book or a project in her own way that touches on some of these events or similar events, and in no way did I imagine my version was comprehensive and stood for us both. Our influence across platforms is pretty significant. She had room to make deletions and amendments and recalibrations in my book, with the implicit agreement being that I did this in words, and then later she could do it in photos, films, performances, or however it appealed to her. This, therefore, is only one part of a larger multi-media grieving act produced by the entire team. (And if you want to see Laurel speak to grief, follow her current “reperformance” of her 2010 performance piece, 365 Days: A Catalogue of Tears, which is happening on Instagram as we speak, one day at a time, at @365_tears.)
TCR: Finally, because you write about music, I can’t resist asking, what new music are you excited about for 2020 and the next decade?
RM: I don’t really listen to much popular music, unless it makes a huge impact. (For some reason I think that song by Sia called “Chandelier” is really, really good.) That said, I really have admired Nick Cave’s recent Ghosteen. I am excited about Mia Doi Todd’s new album. I think Mark Mulcahy’s recent work, The Gus, is a masterpiece. I greatly admire the recent album by The Schramms called Omnidirectional. The new singles by Sparks, “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World,” is perhaps the single best song about climate grief I have heard recently. I love the two recent albums that David Garland, much afflicted with the recent loss of his wife, did with his son under the name The Garlands, Vulneraries I & II. I think Matana Roberts is a genius and can do no wrong. I think Sunn O))) has stealthily become one of the most important serious music ensembles I know of. I really like the 12K label, and just about everything that Taylor Deupree does. I also really like the sort of orthodox minimalism of the Irritable Hedgehog label, and its great collection of performances by R. Andrew Lee. I also really like Death Grips. Ed Palermo is the greatest contemporary arranger.
Scott Stevenson is pursuing his MFA in Nonfiction at UCR Palm Desert and spends the rest of his time steeped in the advertising world of Hollywood delivering the commercials and trailers you can’t skip on the internet or on your mobile device. He loves to explore Southern California. There is always an unchartered neighborhood with an interesting history waiting to be discovered in the City of Angels. It helps if there’s a bar or coffee shop or both located there. He was born and raised in St. Petersburg, Florida, a flyover city for helicopters smuggling cocaine from South America in the 1980s. He recommends watching Cocaine Cowboys to understand his native state. @scotterson on Instagram