The other day, having finished his latest — To Hell with It — I took his memoir down from the shelf above my desk, and opened to the prologue, wherein Dinty, road-tripping in Jefferson County, Pennsylvania, pulls over and stops the car. In those opening pages, he’s been trying to discover, en route from one town to the next, how they came by their unusual names. There on the shoulder, no answers forthcoming, he surrenders to the mystery. “I just bask in the unknown for a while,” he writes, “halfway between Panic and Desire.” And then, new paragraph, a single sentence: “Until it occurs to me: I have been here all my life.”
Titled for the towns in question, Between Panic and Desire was my introduction to Moore, who, it seemed, would try anything on the page; who continues to inspire countless writers to be similarly daring in their approach to personal narrative, short- and longform.
But the other interesting thing: As many books as he’s written, as different as one is from the next, Dinty’s preoccupations are consistent: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? Why are we lonely? How to deal with our confused-and-conflicted human lot? His new book — form-defying, hilarious, heartfelt — is ostensibly a screed against organized religion, in which the author questions himself and his conclusions at every turn. Like, this time, Dinty starts with an author’s note (in advance of the prologue) in which he asks, “[W]hat if I’m dead wrong about all of this?” And he ends the book — well, I won’t tell how he ends it. Except to say that after I blew my nose, I felt better about venturing forth.
But I digress — I meant to begin by marveling: As long as Dinty’s been a writer, his professional résumé is surprisingly various. And I just had to know more.
DINAH LENNEY: Dinty, really? (I’m reading your bio on the back of the book.) You failed as an altar boy? What happened, how is that done?
DINTY W. MOORE: Given my skepticism about all manner of religious instruction, I put off joining the altar boy crew until I was about 12. That was unusual for a Catholic schoolboy, but I was quite good at excuses. However, when my older sister was about to be married, someone thought it might be nice if I was on the altar for the Mass, so I did a quick lesson or two, donned the robes, and subsequently made so many dumb mistakes during the brief service that the monsignor muttered on his way out the door, “Never let that boy on my altar ever again!” I was relieved.
I bet. But (still reading), how about modern dance? That’s something a person has to want to do. Were you really a dancer? Did you actually train?
Yes, though it seems lifetimes ago. I studied both acting and dance in New York for a while, alongside some very talented people, and then performed for three years with a company, Danceteller, based out of Pennsylvania. We toured up and down the East Coast — mainly college campuses — and could best be classified as “experimental, voice and movement, wacky modern.” It was so much work, so much fun, paid so little, but I learned a ton about art-making and composition and those lessons were wonderfully useful once I decided to become a writer around age 30.
Say more, please, about the lessons learned. How does one thing inform the other? Where does craft overlap?
The greatest gift that came from dabbling in the world of modern dance and experimental theater was the wisdom of trusting my intuition. Listening to the odd, spontaneous suggestions of our subconscious mind can be difficult for writers, perhaps because we are trained throughout our schooling to “be clear” with words, to compose unambiguous statements, to “explain” our ideas. Then, of course, we often end up in our adult lives with jobs that demand that we write memos, reports, letters to various clients or committees. Those of us who aspire to use words as our artistic medium too often fall into unhelpful, rigid habits that I’ll classify as “too literal, too cerebral.” It is easier to break out of this pattern if you are working in a non-verbal art form, and by doing so I learned to listen, experiment, go with the whimsy when possible, and that has served me well, especially in early, amorphous drafts.
A second note, if you’ll indulge me, is that as a dancer, I would be choreographed upon — as if I were myself a phrase or a sentence. The choreographer would move me around, change my shape (“lean toward the floor,” “take three steps and slide”), and often, after seeing what she had created, she would wipe the slate and start all over: “No, enter left, take five steps, then stop, facing upstage.” First drafts are always just trials in a dance studio, a chance to see what something looks like before discarding and moving on to the next, hopefully better idea. As a writer, I’ve never lingered on an early draft. I just slash and burn and try to find a better way in.
That’s such a good point, that actors (dancers, singers) know better than most not to get attached to a performance too early. But while I’m on this — crossing disciplines, I mean — this new book is illustrated. By you. Have you experimented with graphic forms before?
I’ve always doodled, but I’ve never worked as a graphic artist professionally or taken it too seriously. What was wonderful for me about the drawings I did for To Hell with It is that they took me back to the drawings I did in grade school. Doodling again in this way gave me re-entry to that seven-year-old boy bored and skeptical in the back of religion class, sketching funny angel figures as a way to show irreverence without getting sent to the monsignor’s office. It was a portal of sorts, and great fun.
Not at all the same thing, of course, but I’m wondering about the link between Christianity and art. Are you able to enjoy paintings, architecture, music inspired by religion?
I mean, the European art of saints and martyrs and Mary ascending to heaven with scores of fat little cherubs by her feet, those are lovely, dramatic, at times breathtaking. I can feast on them visually, but one of the assertions I make in the book is that our constant exposure to this imagery, and to early Christian ideas about justice and retribution, found in religious art, in literature, in our criminal justice system, in our Western moral codes, has reinforced some pretty unhealthy, unhelpful ideas that, in my opinion at least, compound our human tendency toward depression and self-loathing. So yes, these works are often brilliant, but get me thinking about them and the messages behind them and I’m suddenly not a big fan.
Has there ever been any place for organized religion in your adult life? Do you think religious education is important?
I believe firmly in moral education, which can be brought to a child’s life with or without formal religion. I know that many sincere believers from many faiths — from all of them, I suppose — do try to teach morality, and I applaud them for that, but there is something about organized religion that inevitably starts to taint the enterprise. Men are greedy for power, and religion is a way to hold sway over others, so once a religion begins to construct a hierarchy, bad things start to happen. Manipulative things.
I’m more comfortable with spiritual education that does not emanate from the idea that there is an all-powerful god, and that certain men — it is almost always men — know better than others how that god wants us to act. Maybe I am romanticizing, but those indigenous spiritual traditions tied more to earth and the cycles of nature seam less destructive, to the planet, but also to individual souls.
And you’ve been saying so for a while. It’s 20 years since you wrote The Accidental Buddhist. Would you still describe yourself that way? Do you see this new book as a sequel of sorts?
I’m not sure if sequel applies, though I am revisiting the same questions that haunted me all those years ago. I am still an “Accidental Buddhist” of sorts, and still very much finding my way. As a young man, I blamed the nuns and their casual cruelty for many of my problems, but this new book more directly confronts what tainted the whole enterprise: manmade theology, manipulative and cynical teachings about the origin of sin. Did I mention that To Hell with It is meant to be a funny book? The idea to write a funny book about hell and sin is surely one of the most wrongheaded ideas ever to come my way, but here we are.
I can’t imagine you approaching Dante any other way. I’m trying to imagine you getting through Inferno. How many times did you read it? Do you have favorite and least favorite parts?
Though I read and reread certain sections many times, researching this book, the honest truth is that I am not a Dante scholar and have only read through the complete poem once (in Robert Pinsky’s excellent translation). My least favorite parts are the vivid and brutal punishments Dante envisions for his real-world enemies, the revenge fantasy aspect of it all. I concede that he was a poetic genius, but he was also a deeply bitter, angry man. Still, I like his weird fart jokes and other attempts at odd humor.
Ha. I’m not surprised. But will you name some of your bona fide comedic influences?
I tried to channel Vonnegut’s wry cynicism a bit in this book, but my biggest comedic influence has always been the New Yorker columnist and Algonquin Round Table member Robert Benchley. I discovered him when I was in high school, and though his style was an odd choice for a car mechanic’s son from questionable heritage — Benchley is decidedly Ivy league, upper class, erudite — his devious humor cracked me up back then, and it still does.
Also, I read a lot of comic books as a boy, and Mad magazine was a huge influence. On a side note, I am heartened to see how many writers of my generation, especially humor writers, are suddenly willing to confess how much they loved Mad. We no longer have to hide in the shadows.
I should hope not. But, what do you think — notwithstanding our literary heroes, can a writer learn to be funny on the page? Do you have any tips to pass along?
I feel guilty when I teach humor because my main bit of advice is “Don’t try too hard.” I don’t know how helpful that is, or how easy it is to absorb into one’s work, but no one likes the jerky uncle who shouts his jokes and jabs you in the ribs, and too much “funny” writing that I see attempts to do just that. It is insecurity of course, so many of our writerly mistakes are insecurity, but teaching a writer to trust her own voice, her own sensibility, her own unique weirdness, is a major challenge. All you can do is encourage faith in one’s self — and point out the jokes that are more bludgeon than surprise.
Meanwhile, I hope it’s okay if I say that To Hell with It turns out to be a serious (and seriously comforting) reckoning with mortality, loss, longing — was that the plan all along?
No. I start my books with either no clue where I’m headed or with an idea that soon enough, by draft three or four, proves to be too shallow or too obvious to be sustainable, and then I readjust. The deeper material in the book, about my father’s depression, and about the suicides and tragedies in my family, about my own deeper demons, came into the book of their own bidding, pretty far along in the process. But thank you. It means the world to me to hear you say that, in the end, the book is comforting. I’ll take that.
But having written this book — are you comforted? Do you have more to say about the subject? I think I’m asking what you’re working on now.
This pandemic, all that occurred around the recent election, and the post-election lunacy have robbed me of just enough brain space that I haven’t started a new project yet. I’m nibbling away at the edges of things, and I am hopeful the world will look more inviting in a few months, but my next direction is a mystery to me. As for To Hell with It, yes, I feel good having exorcised some demons, I feel clearer about my relationship with Jesus (not his fault) and with organized religion (those theologians were bastards), and I’m done forever with chicken-wing-eating contests. I end the book on a note of forgiveness, which is always a good thing, and I hope readers will forgive me my silly excesses in the midst of such a serious set of questions.
Dinah Lenney is the author of Coffee and an editor-at-large for LARB.