Rick Moody: writing for an Internet age

We chat to acclaimed writer Rick Moody about finding humour in Virginia Woolf, writing fictitious hotel reviews, and why novels should mirror modern life

Hotels of North America by Rick Moody, published by Profile Books
Hotels of North America by Rick Moody, published by Serpent’s Tail books

Rick Moody: controversial, riled against and hailed. His novels have criss-crossed from disintegrating suburban life to struggling slackerhood, and in his latest work, Hotels of North America, he has moved to the online world. How do we tell stories in this forum? Is it confession or performance? If we can present ourselves as anything, are we putting forth a true representation, or have we all become liars? And if we do choose to tell the truth, is it with irony or tenderness that we manage to do so?

These our some of the questions put forth in the book, released in spring 2016 – a deconstructed rush through one man’s life, told in the format of the minutely detailed hotel reviews he writes, and garners a devoted and vocal audience for due to their no-holds-barred confessional nature. Comedic, heartfelt, often tragic, the story spins its way across countries, through the many rooms, visitations, and memories that make up the life of Reginald E. Morse.

We sat down with Moody to talk TripAdvisor, the “fantasy-driven Internet world”, and finding humour in Virginia Woolf.

Where do you write?

Right now, I’m writing on a bed, while my wife looks at her phone beside me. But the site varies. I used to write in the car quite a bit. While it was parked, of course.

What are you working on at the moment?

An essay on Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

How has your writing changed since you first began?

I suppose I would leave it up to the critics to answer this question, though it seems to me I have changed a great deal. The earlier works were more narrative based, because I was figuring out what narrative is and how to use the large palette of the novel. But lately they have been more about consciousness and language, and more given to formal experimentation. Probably because I don’t like repeating myself.

How did you start researching your 2016 novel, Hotels of North America? Did you spend a lot of time in hotels or on TripAdvisor?

I started by staying in hotels. In fact, I didn’t really pay attention to TripAdvisor or Expedia or until I was nearly done with the first draft. I didn’t pay much attention to them at all, at the end of the day. Though they do have their delights.

Why did you choose the hotel review format for the book?

I chose the online review format because online life is life in the 21st century in many ways, whether you like it or not (and I don’t like it that much). I had started a more conventional novel, protagonist-driven in the somewhat traditional way, and I awoke one morning feeling like this work was totally fraudulent because it contained none of this fantasy-driven Internet world. The youngsters are almost always on there! It is where they live!

A novel that doesn’t take advantage of how life is actually being lived is a pretty ineffective mirror of its times. So I put down that novel, and began this one.

What do you think of review sites and the culture now where everyone can write a review, rather than just journalists?

Thrilling, democratic and totally id-driven, and thus both excellent and lamentably horrible at the same time.

A lot of Hotels of North America deals with the idea of an Internet persona – both in the character of Reginald Morse and the people he interacts with. How do you think the Internet has changed our ideas of identity?

I don’t think identity really exists; I think identity is a legacy of pre-20th century ideas of psychology. It’s useful to pretend identity exists, because it makes life easier, but I incline toward a ‘society of mind’ idea, in which we are systems of being who interact as selves on a temporary basis for particular social purposes. I don’t think there is a stable self, therefore, and the Internet reliably indicates as much. How many people on the web are transgender avenger ninjas? Quite a few, it would seem.

There seem to be two currents running through the book – the ironic motivational speaker and hotel reviewer, and then the tender side of a father and ex-husband. How do you consolidate these into a single work?

I always think that comedy and tragedy are obverses of one another and each makes cleaner and more compelling the incisions of the other. I can’t imagine a work that didn’t have each.

I was reading Woolf last week and remembering that she is very funny in spots, though she has a reputation for being earnest. The same is true of many writers I admire – Joyce, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard… They are funny and deadly serious at the same time. I want to make sure my work has a similar full spectrum of human emotions.

Rick Moody’s new novel Hotels of North America is available now on Serpent’s Tail books