My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
“I’ll watch the weather a couple of times a day on T.V.,just to see if anything has changed. I take storms personally, too.”
While working at Farrar Straus & Giroux, Rick Moody received a Pushcart Press Editors Award for his first novel, Garden State, an intense, gritty portrait of adolescents trapped in the industrial wastelands of New Jersey. The surburbanites populating his second novel, The Ice Storm (Little, Brown), are perhaps equally disenchanted but their story is leavened by stinging humor and vivid historical detail. It is 1973. The mood is a mood ring. Along with Watergate, Tang and modular furniture, the sexual revolution has just reached the Hood family’s suburban Connecticut community. How and if they will survive this temporal storm (and it’s meteorological manifestation) propels the book as it did our recent conversation.
Jill Eisenstadt You have a strange way of compressing and expanding time. The Ice Storm opens with Benjamin waiting for his mistress and meanwhile, his life flashes past him. But the book takes place in a 24-hour period. Was this intended to be a comment on history or just a handy structure?
Rick Moody I was trying to do that Aristotelian unity of place and time. I thought of the book structurally as being three acts that take place in a continuum, like a play. There’s a gap in the night between parts two and three, but basically, that dramatic structure was the idea.
JE Is your next book going to take place in an hour?
RM (laughter) … an hour?
JE … and then a minute, and then a second?
RM It’s going to have a similar kind of compression to it.
JE Has there been a book that takes place in a minute?
RM The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker takes place in 20 minutes. He enters the building, goes up to the mezzanine and gets to the top of the staircase. That’s very compressed. (And then there’s Borges’ short story … )
JE And The Ice Storm is a decade in a day.
RM Well, psychic time, time as it’s experienced by humans on a daily basis, doesn’t run as it does in the universe. It has fits and starts. It has elongations and compressions. That’s how I experience it at any rate. Certain moments come back again and again. Time gets hung up like a record skipping.
JE Only after an exhaustive, essentially third person account of the ’70s does your character, Paul, reveal his identity, reminding us there is a narrator. It’s as if history only exists in his head.
RM Right, or to put it another way, macroeconomic or political or global history are just personal history. That’s what it’s really about, phylogeny recapitulates ontology—or whichever it is that recapitulates the other one.
JE Is that why you chose to have it take place in the psyche of the 1970s? Do you think the concept of history ended or changed after the ’60s?
RM No, I don’t buy that end-of-history, millennial anxiety stuff. For our generation, Watergate as a political event was formative. I watched the Watergate hearings in seventh grade. I read All the President’s Men in the eighth. I was obsessed with Watergate as an ethical construct, this idea of abuse of power, surveillance, coercion … That was the first thing I learned about politics. The first president that I remember, Nixon, resigned office. So, for me, that event shaped the ethics of that decade and consequently, my political and social views about American politics now.
JE All I remember of that summer was that nothing else was on TV and all the adults kept saying, “This is history, history is being made, one day you’ll tell your children you saw it.” But I was too young to really grasp what was going on.
RM My grandfather was this ardent conservative who supported the McCarthy hearings. Your average way-out-lunatic-fringe conservative who was deeply depressed by Watergate and actually went into a coma and died right about the time Nixon resigned from office. My father’s very conservative, too. There is a signed photograph of him shaking hands with Nixon on the wall of my dad’s house. So this whole idea of what Nixon represented was really important to me.
JE What did your father say about the book?
RM Something along the lines of “poor little thing.”
JE That reminds me of the scene in The Ice Storm where after a night of wife and husband swapping, one of the fathers tells his son and his swap partner’s daughter all about his own adultery and then gives them a lecture about morality. Of course, he wouldn’t use that word—adultery.
RM See, to me that’s typical of the times. Watergate was not an isolated event in the 1970s. It was just the most obvious example of a certain ethical way of being. At the same time, there was this lax, so-called sexual revolution, which just fell apart. I’m not saying this was the wrong way to proceed but it had consequences. The other day this guy asked me, “How is your book different from Updike’s?” And I said, “The Updike books—Couples for example—are all about extra-marital adventuring without consequences, and The Ice Storm is about what the kids of these experimenters experience or how the generations interact when faced with the realities of the sexual revolution.”
So what do you think, when you look back on that time? Did you lose your virginity on the beach in Rockaway without thinking about the ramifications of sexuality between your parents, between adults?
JE That’s not where I lost my virginity. (laughter) But hmmm … at a few of my parent’s parties I saw certain things going on, but nothing like the key parties in your book. How did you find out about them?
RM I would ask anyone that I met what they remembered of the ’70s, and one of my friends, Larry, cataloged some stuff he’d been into: student riots, blah, blah, blah, and then he said, off-handedly, “And then there were these key parties on Long Island where all the suburban women were exchanging husbands.” I asked my mother if she had ever heard of such a thing, and indeed she had, although neither of my parents seem to have gone to one.
JE Would they admit it if they had?
RM Well, no, I don’t think they would, but …
JE I always loved the episode of All in the Family when Edith naively answers an ad from a couple seeking “companionship,” and these swingers come over. I suppose most of what I associate with the ’70s has more to do with TV than reality. It was a big part of my reality. Did you do a lot of hard research?
RM No, I read those period self-help books: I’m Okay, You’re Okay and Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance … and the Times from November ’73. That ice storm actually took place.
JE What drew you to that ice storm? It’s not just the title, but the emotional crucible.
RM What drew me to the storm was just that I love calamities, heavy weather, disaster. And the things that come after disaster. I have a sort of geekish tendency to be preoccupied with weather in general. I’ll watch the weather a couple of times a day on TV, just to see if anything has changed. I take storms personally, too. But in the case of the book, the beauty and menace of ice—especially in the midst of WASP culture, which has a reputation for iciness anyway—it just seemed like the right thing.
JE Did you discover anything about the ’70s that shocked or surprised you?
RM I was more interested in how people remember than in what had actually happened. The mechanism of my remembering that time was my primary research archive. All that stuff about GI Joe with Lifelike Hair or Tang or modular furniture … These are all textural things from my own life. One thing that shocked me was how repulsive the color wheel was during that period.
JE The book left me with an impression of vivid color, the comic books and color television the kids are addicted to. The structure is like a ’70s sitcom in the sense that there’s a limited set and various characters move through it, acting upon the way other characters left it, finding things other characters left behind.
RM Yeah, I buy that. I wanted to have that kind of dramatic movement. Also, I was learning how to write a plot as I wrote this book.
RM You’ve read Garden State, that was an anti-plot book. It’s meaningless event followed by meaningless event. And this time I had set myself this task to figure out how narrative artists use dramatic tension, have one scene lead to another.
JE It becomes like a puzzle, doesn’t it?
RM Yeah, it’s very like a puzzle.
JE When Benjamin thinks he sees Buddy Hackett at the party, and then his wife thinks of Buddy Hackett, those psychic details.
RM That was a homage to a moment in Gravity’s Rainbow, which was published in 1973. There are maybe twenty Gravity’s Rainbow references buried in The Ice Storm. A lot of the statistical stuff is borrowed from the parts of Gravity’s Rainbow about Slothrop’s ability to predict, with his erections, where bombs are going to fall in wartime London.
JE What about the statistics about sperm?
RM I made that up, totally. The amount of sperm created in a given year by American men masturbating.
JE What would your characters at the key party in the 1970s, unhappily married in the suburbs, be doing if they lived in the ’90s? Putting condoms in the bowl with the keys?
RM In all likelihood that wouldn’t be happening now. Marriage probably doesn’t endure the way it endured then. That period was the beginning of the end of marriage as an institution. Or it began the bad spiral that marriage is in now.
JE I thought that marriage was doing better.
RM One in two marriages ends in divorce.
JE Your characters seem to have nothing nice to say about family, which I assume means marriage.
RM My father accuses me of having bad family values.
JE Is he a Quayle lover?
RM He’s indifferent about Quayle. Quayle isn’t far enough right for him. He likes Oliver North a lot. (laughter)
JE My grandfather called Clinton a whore monger.
RM What would be so bad about that?
JE At least he’s not a warmonger. I wrote down a couple of your family quotes; “Family was the worst torture,” “Family is all tricks and mirrors, flimflam.” Do you personally believe this?
RM It’s complicated, there’s this idea that if you just keep the family together that it’s going to somehow work out. That’s the underlying hypothesis of the US government’s health and human services approach: keep the family together, keep the kids with the parents. If it’s possible, stay married. And it’s not always the greatest thing. It wasn’t the wrong idea for my parents to get divorced in 1969. They probably should have gotten a divorce—
JE Sooner? Were you happier afterward?
RM No, I was miserable for awhile, but I was miserable before they were divorced, too. When a marriage is unhappy it affects all the people around it.
JE Do you think parents should tell their children when they’re not in love anymore?
RM Oh, you really get me on all the personal questions.
JE Well, a character in the book does that.
RM It would really be painful if everyone were to do that, but some people feel that being honest is the better part of valor. (pause)
JE In the book all the kids want to be younger, they want to be kids again—to be taken care of, and ignorant of what’s going on, of the unhappiness around them. We read it and want to be kids again. It reminds us of our childhoods … even if they weren’t all good. Deep down, do you feel some sort of nostalgia for the 1970s?
RM No, I feel that lostness of childhood. My childhood wasn’t terribly happy but I feel nostalgic for the texture of my childhood, not for the decade specifically. I’m much more interested in character then I am in some sort of global pronouncement of what that decade was like. I would use non-fiction if that were my intent.
JE But you are clearly making certain observations about how the ’70s impacted the family. At the same time that the kids yearn for innocence, they’re experimenting with sexual role-playing in the basement, stealing lingerie, etcetera. Their sexuality is both eerily sophisticated and almost feral.
RM That gets to the heart of the novel. It’s not all that complicated. One of the child-rearing commonplaces of the period concerns the kid whose parents don’t treat him or her as a child, but instead, take him into their confidences, adult style. This is the kid whose divorced mom or bachelor dad has a gaggle of sexual partners which they talk frankly about in the interest of being honest. The Jim Williams monologue you referred to earlier very much exemplifies this theory of parenting. Tell them everything, he seems to suggest. You don’t want to conceal anything from them. Concealment is worse than the shock that might follow. As a result, the kids in The Ice Storm develop precocious sexual lives. They think it’s what they’re supposed to do because the adults who surround them make “sexual liberation” a priority. The kids are fucking around in the book not, in the end, with a great deal of pleasure. They’re doing it because they think it’s part of their socialization. But they long, or imagine they long, for an appropriate sexual development, one in which they don’t have to know what they know already. That’s what I think the book is about, in a way—the metaphysical or psychic or philosophical sexual abuse inherent in the sexual revolution of the early ’70s.
JE And the question of what the Hoods would be doing in suburban Connecticut in 1994?
RM They wouldn’t be married. They’d have broken up a while ago. Or else their kids would be ages one and two, and Elena would be painting instead of going to Junior League. Benjamin would probably be doing what he’s doing in the book, some sort of stock analysis. Maybe he would have gotten into AA.
JE So they would not be having extra-marital affairs?
JE What, do you think because of AIDS, people have more virtuous feelings?
RM No, I don’t think it’s because of AIDS at all. It’s that the holes in the thinking of the sexual revolution have been revealed. These things aren’t about lust, lust is shallow and pointless as an impulse. Lust doesn’t get you love. Being in love with people is something totally different. You disagree?
JE I just don’t think all people are that high-minded. I’m sure a lot of pointless, shallow sex still goes on.
RM Yeah, what makes you say that?
JE (laughter) My point is this: My mother apparently has not slept with anyone other than my father and I always wonder, if she feels like she missed something. I think a lot more marriages last now, partly because all that sexual curiosity has been sated beforehand. Getting married much later now, you know what you’re not missing.
RM I mean only to suggest that there’s a cyclical thing happening now. We’re adopting beliefs that aren’t that far from what our parents believed in the ’50s. Only ours are informed by the sexual revolution. Essentially we’re saying that you’re going to have a lot better time if you sleep with people whom you care about.
JE But I would never encourage my daughter to get married to the first person she slept with.
RM Right, right, that’s true.
JE You used to be an editor. Can you be a good writer and a good editor?
RM Absolutely. The two skills are really complimentary. We’d have better editorial attention in this country if more writers were editing.
JE But if your editor wants to be a writer then isn’t there a little bit of … ?
RM Don’t you think most editors want to be writers?
JE I always hope not.
RM I think they do. It’s often a field for frustrated writers.
JE Whenever I try to edit anything, I always end up rewriting it.
RM It’s a skill like anything else. You have to learn to leave stuff intact. Let go and try to find the writer’s voice. I loved editing. I love it still.
JE You won the Pushcart Prize for Garden State, is that why you quit?
RM I didn’t quit. I got fired. I have a very bad commercial sensibility. I think the fact that I won the prize made it possible for FSG to feel that they could fire me without devastating me. And I wasn’t devastated.
Hey, what did you do the day you found out your first novel was accepted for publication?
JE Oh, man, I was so happy. My first offer … I got a call at work, it was during the summer, during graduate school, working in a PR office on their frozen foods and plywood paneling accounts. Horrible midtown office building right across from Cats. An editor at Simon and Schuster called me there to make the offer, and luckily I knew enough not to say “Yes, Yes, Yes” without getting an agent. I told my boss I had a family emergency and ran out of there and down the street so happy. Of course, I was wearing stupid work clothes and running to the pay phone my shoe flew off and hit a man. He just laughed and gave it back. It was a very friendly New York kind of moment.
RM I was really happy, too. There was nothing that could dent my happiness for three days. I went to sleep happy, and I would wake up in the morning, “My book’s going to be published. I’m so happy.”
JE Sometimes I think I’ll never be that happy again. Getting the one thing in your life that you always wanted. Did you always want it?
RM I did ever since I was little. I started my first novel at twelve. Didn’t get very far, though …
JE One thing I noticed about The Ice Storm was all the times you brought up the characters feeling cheated, or feeling let down. I have a couple of quotes here: “He was one of those kids who would spend hours in front of the television shouting, ’That would never happen … .’ Sandy Williams expected to be cheated. He was ready for it and it came to pass almost every time and in this way the world seemed good and true.”
RM That’s the kid’s reaction to this period, to the weird moral lassitude of the parents of the ’70s. That’s what you get, and the people of the ’90s, our generation, are people who grew up feeling that way.
JE And you still feel that way? Still expect to be cheated?
RM In some way, yeah, that institutions are all corrupt, that government has no legitimate moral authority.
JE But then it’s still good and true as long as you—
RM —as long as you know it, ’cause then there are at least some things you can rely on, right?
JE (laughter) Another thing, when Jim is describing his estranged wife: “She treats me like I promised her something I welshed on. She just doesn’t want the life she used to think she wanted.” Even the adults in The Ice Storm feel cheated.
RM What constitutes a universal value in a relativistic period? I guess that’s the question here. What can you rely on being true in a period that treats everything as relative? Nothing, nothing.
JE That’s so sad.
RM And if nothing can be relied on as true, then even the measurement of things in the universe is suspect. If the ruler itself may or may not be twelve inches, it’s pretty hard to figure out whether or not this fork is six or eight inches. I don’t feel this way personally with my life, this instability, but I’m aware that as a way of thinking it’s still out there.
JE How do you think the ’90s will be remembered 20 years from now? Someone writing a novel about their childhood in the ’90s?
RM The ’90s are going to look like some last minute blip of intense anxiety before the millennium.
JE And when people ask for the high concept of The Ice Storm, what do you say?
RM I run, fleeing from the room in order to avoid that question.
RM I usually say that it’s a family novel set in Connecticut in the early 1970s.
JE You have to come up with something better than that.
RM How about if I say it’s the novelistic embodiment of “Benny and the Jets” by Elton John?
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.