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Marshall Moore Talks About Living in Hong Kong and Developing a Universal Voice
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Marshall Moore is an
American author and publisher living in Hong Kong, whose novels include The
Concrete Sky and An Ideal for Living,
as well as the highly-anticipated and recently released Bitter Orange. In addition, he has published two collections of
short stories, Black Shapes in a Darkened
Room and The Infernal Republic.
His work has also appeared in various anthologies and in such literary journals as Asia Literary
Review, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon, Space & Time, and The
Barcelona Review. His short story “The Infinite Monkey Theorem”
was a runner-up in the 2006 storySouth Million
Writers Award, taking third place. His
publishing company Typhoon Media Ltd has published over 90 books to date and is
a leading English-language publisher in Hong Kong.
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TH: I ran across your latest work in New
Orleans recently when I attended the Saints & Sisters LGBT Book Festival,
where you and I first met a decade ago. It’s great to see how prolific you’ve
been since that time, and I’m glad to see you are still fighting the good fight
and dealing with serious literary themes in your work. You certainly don’t shy
away from difficult, even preposterous, situations in your fiction, which is
why I was excited to hear about your new novel, Bitter Orange, and eager to interview you. What is it you reach for
as a writer?
I don’t know if I’ve been prolific since then, but I’ve managed to stay in
print! What I write is a reflection of what I like to read. I want to see
imagination at work, and as a writer, I want to say things that haven’t been
said before. All the stories haven’t been
told yet; all the ideas haven’t been
had. This is why I’m not afraid to go straight over the top. So sometimes the
result is absurd, bizarre, or completely shocking. Quiet little literary novels
can be lovely but I am doing something different.
TH: In your latest book, Bitter Orange, you take on 9-11 and a character with a superhero
power, but your protagonist is a far more complex and morally ambiguous antihero than anything I’ve read
recently. What were the challenges of drawing such a character and working in
such morally murky territory?
Everything about Bitter Orange is
morally ambiguous, I think! If there’s a challenge to writing a character or a
story like this, it’s knowing how much of a non-murky foundation you need to
offer the reader and the character so that they’ll have something to hold on
to. The first draft was actually more ambiguous, and I had to cut some of that
out. A lot of the inspiration for this story came from the year I lived in
Korea, where I was constantly being gawked at because I’m white. It’s not that I
wanted to be invisible, but the experience made me think about how people see
each other and what that means. I also met a lot of closeted gay men, both
Koreans and Westerners, who were deeply uncomfortable with their sexuality,
which got me thinking about identity. I mean, how could they stand to live like
that? From that, Seth, my disappearing antihero, was born. There are advantages
that go along with Seth’s version of invisibility, but with them come the
potential for guilt, shame, addiction, corruption… there’s definitely a
TH: A high price! I do like how dynamic his
inner struggle becomes and the weird way it manifests in the world around him
via his power. Like a Möbius strip really. From The Concrete Sky to An Ideal
for Living, you sketch out such characters, who are almost beyond
existential—more like free-falling in some kind of angst-ridden panicky
This makes me think of Play It As It Lays,
in which I think Joan Didion said everything that has ever needed to be said
about existential angst and paralysis. I read that in college and only recently
realized how much it affected my own work. Which is probably a scary thing to
admit, or pretentious, or something. One theme all three of my novels share is
that sense of life spinning out of control. We’ve all been through it once or
twice. But if there’s a free-fall, there’s also usually a landing. I’m not
needlessly cruel to my characters, nor to the reader. Unless it’s cruel of me
to make you laugh your ass off while all this is going on! Bottom line, I don’t
write about people who wallow. Seriously, if the only forward motion your
characters are capable of is bending down to navel-gaze, they aren’t
interesting. So when I write, there may be angst and a great deal of weirdness,
but there’s not stasis.
TH: I like that. The stories keep moving; the
characters keep developing. Many of your characters even seem to achieve a
certain kind of dark justice that they wrest from life, which begs the
question: are you primarily a moral writer?
I had never thought of myself as such until someone pointed it out in a review.
I love reading thoughtful reviews of my work for that very reason — sometimes
the critic sees things that I don’t. One insight that being gay has given me is
so much of what is called morality is completely hollow. How can an inborn
characteristic possibly be a moral issue? Once those scales drop away from your
eyes, you achieve a certain clarity around this issue. Case in point: justice and revenge are often the
same thing. And is the writer God? I don’t feel godlike; I feel more like a
conduit for my work. That being said, I think there is a very consistent (and
rather dark, depending on your perspective) morality at work in all of my
writing, and you see it in the decisions my characters make.
TH: Yes, they can be momentous. Both in your
novels and your stories. You’ve written a great number of essays and short
stories, many of them collected in Black
Shapes in a Darkened Room and The
Infernal Republic. Do you prefer them as a form?
In some ways, yes. Writing a novel — getting from the original idea to the
first draft to the published book — takes years. It’s a rewarding process, but
writing a short story is not such an odyssey. Some take longer than others, but
I can do that in a couple of months if I’m lucky. I also like the concision of
short fiction: get in, do it, and get out.
TH: And with the advent of e-books and
e-readers, short stories are supposedly making a comeback. Is this where
shorter fiction is headed? Has the short story become even more accessible and
Even before e-books and devices, I think short stories were already in good
shape. We already know how much publishing has changed in the last few years.
There are fewer print-based markets for short fiction now, and if that’s your
only measure of the health of short fiction as a literary form, then I can see
why you’d think it was on its last legs. For me, the discussion of short
fiction is inextricably tied to the debate about the merits of non-paying,
Internet-based markets. There are a gazillion of them out there, and their
detractors claim that they are not worthwhile markets, that they’re only
portals for marginally talented wannabes who can’t get published in Glimmer Train. I disagree rather
strongly. Even though I don’t know how many of them survive year on year, nor
what kind of steady readership they offer, quite a few — The Barcelona Review and Word
Riot come to mind — are edited or curated by people who know what they’re
doing. In fact, so much publishing is now happening online that there might be
more of a market than there used to be. Amazon has done interesting things for
the form with Kindle Shorts and now Kindle Singles, and several other e-book
portals package short stories for individual sale, apparently with some
success. No, you can’t make a living writing short fiction, but that doesn’t
mean the form is dead.
TH: And what about LGBT lit? Do you think it
has shifted away from coming out and stories from the AIDS epidemic, or are
those still the vital and essential stories fiction is and should be concerned
with? As queer writers, how do we best communicate to a larger, more universal
To your first question, yes, it has shifted because the world is different now.
Even before gay lit kind of coalesced in the ‘90s, when the Big Six (or however
many there were then) finally took notice, it had already been around in more
rudimentary form. The coming-out narrative may have been there all along, but
until the societal changes that happened as a result of the HIV/ADS pandemic,
it was not usually possible for a gay-themed book to end in something other
than the gay character’s death or misery. This sounds simplistic, but I think
there’s something to it. We weren’t visible
before. (Do you see a trend here?) And we certainly weren’t expected or
allowed to be happy. Certain themes will always be relevant to books with gay
characters in them, but as writers, we need to tell the stories that our muses
demand that we tell.
don’t think there’s a single answer to finding a larger, more universal
audience unless it’s to keep writing, keep publishing, and keep putting myself
out there. I used to worry more about finding a wider audience. When our first
books were published, I think it was a more legitimate concern. Publishers and
booksellers used to make very narrow assumptions about who would read what, and
may still. But this becomes a self-perpetuating mythology, and if you buy into
it, then you buy into the idea of two non-overlapping groups of readers, gay
and straight, and never the twain shall meet. Now I think I’ve grown up a bit,
and I’m more about appreciating the audience that I have. Of course I’d like a
bigger readership, but I don’t give a rat’s ass what their sexual orientation
is or whether mine should factor into their choice of books. If they’re reading
my work because I’m gay, that’s brilliant. If that doesn’t enter into it and
they’re reading my stuff just because it sounds interesting, that’s equally
great. And the writing success that doesn’t come from luck often comes from
endurance and perseverance.
TH: I completely agree. My career has been
about continuing to show up, to write relevant material, and to build community
and audience through publishing. On a personal level, what’s your creative
process like? Do you support the advice that writers should write every day?
Coffee in the morning. Wine in the evening. Somehow the writing gets done. The
problem with any received wisdom about writing is that it tends to overlook the
fact that most writers also have lives. Despite the newfound respect our
collective introversion is enjoying, we do have to pay the bills, and that
usually involves wrenching ourselves away from the keyboard for hours at a
time. Being consistent is probably more important than being constant. If the
best I can do for several days at a time is to think about whatever story I’m working on, then that’s how it has
to be. But this slower, more considered approach tends to be better because it
lets me avoid charging up blind alleys and needing to do huge revisions later.
My first drafts are relatively clean.
process itself… I think it was David Cronenberg who described story ideas as
tumors, and as disturbing as that idea is, it also has a nasty ring of truth.
The stories present themselves to me, some more fully formed than others; I don’t
make conscious choices to write this or that. But I think I like the metaphor
of fermentation better: it can take months for a short story to develop from
its gestational idea to the finished product, or years in the case of a novel.
Once I’m working, I still need long-ish intervals to just think about what’s
going on in the story and what the characters would do. I like to bake in the
sauna at the gym after a workout — it’s a great place to shut up and think.
Same goes for getting a massage. If anything, the hardest part comes afterward,
when it’s time to flog the book. I’m one of those introverted authors who’d
kind of rather hide under the sofa.
TH: Amazing. You are the first writer who has
concurred with me that a sauna is a place of great inspiration. You speak of
how it can shift your perspective. Of course, you’ve been living in Hong Kong
for several years now, and before that Seoul. How has your time as an expat
changed your perspective, or changed your outlook on the US and on the American
How has it changed me? Well, it has proven me right. After 9-11, I tried to
write a book about why it would make sense to leave the US because of what was
coming down the pike. I saw the collapse of the housing bubble and the
financial crisis coming. I also foresaw that the infrastructure would start
falling apart because we refused to invest in maintaining it. And I knew that
the Patriot Act was a Pandora’s box full of horrors that wouldn’t fully
manifest themselves for years to come. No agent was interested, so I abandoned
the book and got on with the business of moving overseas. And a decade later,
here I am in Hong Kong, and I was fucking right about pretty much all of it.
I’m not gloating, either: I would love to have been wrong.
TH: Well, now that you’ve escaped the
Infernal Republic (pardon the pun), what’s it like being a writer in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong has been a real boost for me as an author because there is a literary
scene here, albeit a small one, and it’s accessible, which the one in the US is
not. For one thing, the US such a big place that everyone is just overwhelmed
— publishers, authors, agents. People are more likely to ignore you than not,
even if you’re very good, simply because they’re not willing or able to take
the time to look closely. If it’s not an instant, obvious fit, forget it.
There’s something to be said for working within a friendlier microcosm. And if
there’s a certain amount of backstabbing and bitchery among the gay-lit
contingent, you can at least make friends, ask questions, and assume your
emails will get replies.
Kong is different because there are only a few writers working in English, and
I also run a small press here, which makes me a bigger fish in this rather
small pond. Despite Hong Kong’s reputation for being all about business, which
it is, there’s also a surprisingly good creative scene here — the arts,
literature, etc. As an acquaintance pointed out recently, a lot of smart people
from all over the world have come here to work, and it shows. They’ve lived in
places like London and New York and brought their expectations of culture with
them. The fact that two of the local universities now have (English) MFA
writing programs (at least one of which aims to begin offering a creative-writing
PhD) makes a huge difference, too. There’s a real and growing appreciation of
writing, and of Hong Kong’s place at the forefront of Asian writing in English.
TH: Now that you’ve got yet another novel
out, what do you want readers to take away from reading Bitter Orange, or your books in general?
MM: I wish I were asked this question more often! What I want is for readers to
come away feeling as if they have just eaten a surprisingly satisfying meal at
a restaurant they weren’t sure they’d like. I think there’s also a fair amount
of catharsis in my work. I get a lot of “ZOMG it’s so creeeeeeepie I can’t
believe he went there OMG OMG OMG,” as if I set out to be disturbing for the
sake of being disturbing. I mean, yeah, I did sort of start out with the idea
of writing horror, and it shows, but then my work took a different turn. And
while I’m not pretending I don’t go places the average Joe wouldn’t have ever
imagined, that’s not what I’m ultimately about. The point is that you can go to
these places and come through the experience in one piece, possibly better than
you were beforehand. In Danse Macabre,
Stephen King said more than that horror is mostly about catharsis: it appeals
to us because it puts our own troubles into perspective. I also have a way with
words, which is something I am never upset when people notice.
TH: Indeed you do, Marshall. There’s a
seamlessness and wit to your prose that’s impressive and makes it fun to read.
Lines from Bitter Orange come to
mind: “Rain, rain, and more rain. Portland’s official flower should be the
umbrella, not the rose,” and “It’s impossible to stand on the curb looking
hopefully at oncoming cars without becoming forlorn, without taking the absence
of a taxi personally.” So, of course, I’m dying to know what your
next project might be.
There are three books in the pipeline! My next one will be out later this year,
although I’m the editor, not the author; it’s an anthology I’m co-editing with
Xu Xi. The title is The Queen of Statue
Square, which is also the title of one of the stories, and it’s a
collection of fiction in English out of Hong Kong, exploring the multiplicity
and uniqueness of Hong Kong identity. I’m co-authoring the introduction, but
because this is an academic publication, it wouldn’t be appropriate to include
my own work. It’s an outstanding collection, well worth reading.
TH: And how about your own individual work?
Well, this isn’t my next project, but it’s my mostly unheralded previous one: I
released a sort of e-chapbook a couple of months ago to accompany Bitter Orange. It’s called Never Turn Away, and it contains
excerpts from my first four books as well as the first chapter of Bitter Orange. It’s free on a number of
websites (not Amazon, though — but if you’d like a Kindle version, you can get
it from Omnilit.com). I wanted a free teaser, or sampler, so that people could
try my work without risk. I think it holds up pretty well as a stand-alone
book, and it’s free. Did I mention that? It’s free! Free!
the same time, I finished the first draft of the next novel, Murder in the Cabaret Sauvignon. It’s my
first attempt (successful, I hope) at a more or less straight-up murder mystery
(albeit with Marshall characteristics). The main character is from an East
Coast wine-making family. He ends up in Hong Kong, which is not such a
surprise: a few years ago, Hong Kong dropped its import tariffs on wine, making
this the cheapest place in Asia to buy it. It’s also the hub for wine going
into the mainland, where the demand is exploding. He finds himself embroiled in
a bloody mess with implications that go back several centuries. There’s
everything from the idea of cabaret in Lan Kwai Fong, which probably makes more
sense if you’re familiar with Hong Kong, to the history of women and literacy
in China. But with more blood and strap-on torture devices. After that, I’ll do
another collection of short fiction, A
Garden Fed by Lightning.
Those both sound very enticing! We’ll all
look forward to them, and in the meantime we’ll be reading Bitter Orange and exploring your writing via the blogosphere! (see links below). Thank you
Orange buy link:
Trebor Healey is a novelist (A Horse Named
Sorrow and Faun) and poet (Sweet Son of Pan) who recently won both a Lambda
Literary Award and a Publishing Triangle Award. He lives in Los Angeles and
Buenos Aires. www.treborhealey.com