Minister of Fiction

By Chad Galts / July / August 1998
November 30th, 2007
What happens to a writer when his books get glowing reviews in the New York Times, when Hollywood descends with lucrative film contracts, when he is named one of "Fiction's New Fab Four" by Time magazine? Some authors would take the money and write more of the same.

Thirty-six-year-old Rick Moody, on the other hand, takes risks. After a string of acclaimed novels, he decided to tackle a subject few people his age discuss in public. He began to write about God.

Slender and soft-spoken, with glasses and a shock of bleached-blond hair, Moody - like many of the characters in his novels - is a curious combination of quiet vulnerability and garrulousness. Ask him about his latest novel, Purple America, or the film adaptation of The Ice Storm, his melancholy 1994 ode to the 1970s, and he talks in lively, ornate sentences peppered with references to literary theorists, biblical exegetes, and highbrow novelists. But on the subject of "Demonology," the stunning short story about his sister's death that won an O. Henry Award last year, Moody refuses further comment.

These days, Moody is eager to discuss his spiritual journey. Last fall he wrote the lead essay for Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited, an anthology he coedited with the writer Darcey Steinke, as well as an article for Esquire titled "Why I Pray." Spirituality, he says, "is an issue that people of our age group are not talking about, and our failure to talk about it is detrimental to our constitution as a generation." Though he doesn't envision himself becoming a spokesman on spiritual issues, Moody's experience with The Ice Storm - an early entrant in the seventies craze which turned him into a talking head on such topics as shag carpet, ascots, and key parties - has taught him to be cautious. "My motives are always in the category of investigations of self," he says over a cup of tea in the book-lined Brooklyn Heights apartment where he lives alone. "In Joyful Noise, I have something to say - something that is overlooked and often ignored by our contemporaries." He pauses to adjust his glasses, smiles, and adds brightly, "It seemed like a lay-up."

Becoming a writer has been a long personal and professional journey for Moody. Despite "being in the right place at the right time, with really engaged, ambitious teachers at Brown," Moody began gravitating to the drug and alcohol scene while he was still an undergraduate. By the time he'd completed a two-year stint in Columbia's graduate writing program, his substance abuse had led to such a deep depression that he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. It was there, on July 4, 1987, that the writer saw himself as ruined. "I was how far I had fallen since I was a kid," he wrote in Esquire. "I had a family who loved me, I had the best education you could get in America....But I was in a psychiatric hospital in Queens where a nurse was trying to teach me how to make eye contact in conversation."

That moment of desperation, Moody says, came with a gift: he learned how to pray. Though his family was Episcopalian and he was dragged to church on a semi-regular basis as a child, "belief wasn't something I believed in," he says. His college literature and philosophy classes - in which God, he says, was often referred to as "a theoretical repository for the idea of meaning" - were a first, small step in what would prove to be a more complicated process of understanding spirituality. Eventually Moody felt he had to confront his spiritual life on terms that were personal and emotional enough to yield real answers, without losing the intellectual rigor that was just as central to his sense of self. "I took more of a William James attitude toward theology," he says. "Let's quit talking about whether God exists or not, and talk about how people use this. Is it useful in our daily lives? And the answer for me was yes - I had to answer yes."

How to express that belief in his writing, Moody says, was another, perhaps harder, question. The characters in his fiction are conspicuously aspiritual. No one in Purple America, which was released as a paperback in May, has any apparent religious convictions. The self-centered characters in The Ice Storm seem too preoccupied with masturbation, wife-swapping, and comic books to engage in meaningful soul-searching. And in Garden State, his first novel and the winner of a Pushcart Press Editors' Book Award, the drug-addicted, twenty-something inhabitants of Haledon, New Jersey, don't seem interested in anything at all. For Moody, fiction has seemed less effective than nonfiction as a means to pursue questions of spirituality. "But then," he says, "you have someone like Flannery O'Connor who's really good about dealing with issues relating to her faith in her work. I haven't gotten to that point. I've been somewhat timid about inching into that terrain."

Timid, perhaps, but not entirely negligent. In the opening chapter of Purple America - which, Moody points out, has a quote from the gnostic gospel of Thomas in every chapter - the sacred and the profane are interwoven. In one scene, the book's alcoholic main character delicately bathes the sclerotic, disease-ravaged body of his mother. Here, Moody's tender, biblical prose underscores the act's intense spirituality: "Whosoever knows the latitudes of his mother's body, whosoever has taken her into his arms and immersed her baptismally in the first-floor tub," he writes, "...he shall never die."

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July / August 1998