Liz Moore’s second book, Heft, follows the story of an obese recluse in Brooklyn and a teen baseball star in Yonkers, N.Y.—and the intricate ties that intersect their difficult lives.
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The story centers around a former academic, Arthur, who fell in love with a student, Charlene, who later had the teen Kel. While Arthur and Kel both wrestle with the difficulties they face in their lives—fractured families, substance abuse, depression and acceptance—Moore expertly weaves together their stories as they eventually work toward one another.
It’s truly one of the first outstanding fiction books of 2012, and Moore’s second starred after her debut The Words of Every Song. We said that “only a hardhearted reader will remain immune to Kel’s troubled charm.”
Here, Moore talks about finding her characters, “banging her head against the wall” and what role music plays in her writing.
Many authors rewrite the same story over and over. This is so different from your first novel, The Words of Every Song. How did you get the idea?
It’s very different from first book. The idea for the main character Arthur is a little bit foggy for me, it’s not based on anyone in particular I know. He’s based on short story I wrote right out of college, at around the same time I wrote Words. I was almost intentionally looking to write something quite different than Words. Arthur came from that impulse, someone not at all out in world, but cloistered inside and not actively facing the world.
The impulse to write the rest of the book came out of grad school. I was lucky enough to go to Hunter College for its MFA program. While there, I really got a sense that I wanted to write a true novel, not a novel in stories. It was kind of a challenge for me to do that. My goal for grad school was to emerge with a solid base for a novel.
The character of Kel is based on a lot of the kids I grew up with. I grew up in pretty working-class town in Massachusetts, and I was always interested in the particular challenges that young athletes face, which is funny cause I’m not athletic at all. That’s what drove me to write about Kel, remembering lot of kids I grew up with.
Putting them together felt natural ’cause they’re so different. It’s almost a conflict putting them in the same novel, but it felt right to do that. Yet I see certain similarities in them as well.
Both obviously come from families that are lacking in some way. Both are seeking family, whatever that means. I think sometimes they look for it in the wrong places, especially with Arthur. So both have the impulse to search out something kindred, and it’s that impulse that I wanted to make one of the major themes of the book.
You used several characters in Song and use a similar method here. What do you feel multiple viewpoints bring that a first-person account doesn’t?
[Arthur and Kel] are the only voices in the story. [Kel’s mom] Charlene is only seen through them. It felt right. Originally, she had more of a voice in first draft, but it never felt right or natural to me. Part of her character is that she herself feels kind of voiceless, only capable of seeing herself through the eyes of others. It’s part of her downfall. I felt it was right that she’s only seen through Arthur’s voice or Kel’s voice.
You’re a musician also. How do you think that helps in writing?
First, I should say that I’m not playing nearly as much music as I did when I wrote Song. I think my life has just evolved in that direction. I teach full time now, and I’m really more focused on writing fiction. All of the hours of my day go toward teaching and writing, and it leaves very little time for music. I could say that I’m really sad about that, but I also feel that people do what they want to do. The fact that I’m not playing music is that I don’t want to badly enough anymore.
But it is connected to writing for me—both satisfy similar impulses for me whether I’m writing a song, a story or a novel. I feel the same way prior to creating any of those three. I listen to music a lot while I’m writing, too. I know a lot of authors do…I have very particular rules about what kinds of music I listen to while writing a particular piece…
For this book, I listened to a lot of classical music, especially when writing Arthur. It seemed like the type of music he would listen to. And for Kel, I listened to jazz a lot; there was something cinematic about him, and I liked that feeling.
There were several moments in this book when it could have easily fallen into clichéd territory. How do you avoid those pitfalls?
That’s a particular difficulty of mine. Character comes much more naturally to me than plot. That is really just a matter of hard labor. Like seriously, I describe the act of writing for me as banging my head into the wall until the wall actually comes down. I met with scene obstacles over and over again…
I don’t know if it’s true for all authors, but I know if the answers are right or wrong, the same way a math problem is right or wrong. I can’t force the characters to do something they wouldn’t naturally do.
Molly Brown is the features editor for Kirkus Reviews.