Writer in Residence · 05/06/2011

Interview with Ralph Robert Moore

Ralph Robert Moore has been publishing stories online since 1997, but he was a working writer long before he arrived on the internet. His horror, suspense, supernatural, and erotic fiction has been published in America, England, Ireland and Australia in a wide variety of literary and genre magazines and anthologies. His 2003 novel Father Figure was published by Bookbooters in 2003, but he decided to self-publish later books. Of Moore’s 2009 short story collection, Remove the Eyes, Peter Tennant said: “[Moore’s] work is not quite like that of anybody else. He is a true original, someone who has taken on board the lessons of genre and mainstream, then harnessed both to his own ends, and if you are looking for something different, then I can’t recommend this collection highly enough.” He published a new collection earlier this year called I Smell Blood, and he just released a novella for the Kindle called A Woman Made of Milk. You can find out more about Ralph Robert Moore’s work, as well his ongoing, engaging monthly journal, at his website SENTENCE. Rob has written some of the creepiest stuff I’ve ever read, but he’s also one of the most kind, thoughtful, and supportive writers I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.

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When people ask you what you do for a living, what do you tell them?

In the past, I would tell them whatever it was I was doing at that point to support myself financially. But for years, I’d always add that in addition to being a clerk, a bank teller, a claims processor, a plan analyst, compliance manager, consultant (forty years just went by), I was also a writer.

And then about fifteen years ago, I stopped telling people that I was also a writer.

For one thing, if you do mention you’re a writer, the most obvious (and reasonable) question for the person to then ask is, Where have you been published? I’ve been fortunate enough to have my work appear in America, England, Ireland and Australia, in a variety of literary and genre magazines and anthologies, but no one who asks that question has ever heard of them. Awkward.

Next they want to know, What type of story do you write? To be honest, I don’t think many of us know how to answer that question, except in the most general of terms. It’s like saying, Who are you?

Plus, I’m no longer sure I want people to know I’m a writer.

Why is that?

I think this is an important point that perhaps is not discussed as much as it should be. Being a writer is about being completely honest, completely open about who you really are. Some of that’s embarrassing, and a lot of it is not always flattering.

I had no problem doing that when it was strangers reading my work, but then one day my father-in-law, who we had helped set up with his own Internet access after his wife died, told me he had stumbled across my site, had read my posted stories (some of which were sexually explicit), and had been surprised by that side of me. About the same time, a few people where I worked also discovered my website, and read the stories and my other pieces, most of which had nothing to do with sex, but all of which were still very personal.

By publishing on the Internet, my writing wasn’t just being read by strangers, it was also, without it being my conscious intent, being read by family, friends, and business associates.

Did I really want someone I discussed the weather with while getting coffee at the office to know that much about me? That’s a decision every writer has to make at some point. To tone down or to not tone down. It’s not just about you writing. It’s about someone else reading what you’ve written, when that someone else may be a relative, a next door neighbor, or the president of your company.

I decided I don’t want to self-censor, because much of the joy of writing, to me (and I think to most of us), is the freedom to say whatever we want, no matter how embarrassing it may sometimes be. I’m proud of every word I write. But it has cooled-off some relationships, and some people aren’t as friendly as they used to be.

So I no longer tell people I’m a writer. Let them find out on their own.

When I think of all the different versions of “me” that I’ve created, I lose count very quickly. There’s a version of me for my family, one for my coworkers, one for offline friends, and even the online version of me is split into subgroups—I’m not the same person on Tumblr or LinkedIn that I am on Twitter. The internet—and Facebook in particular—is pushing us in this direction where we only have one identity, and I’m trying to be open-minded and just go with it, but I kind of hate it.

I think by our very nature, writers tend to partition their personality into all these different personae, because we’re so used to doing that while we’re writing, where we need to inhabit the different characters of each story. If you’re constantly carrying around that many people in your head, it’s more likely there is going to be that fragmentation in your real life. I definitely behave differently depending on who it is I’m interacting with.

Of course, the very anonymity of the Internet encourages that tendency. At one point, about ten years ago, I created a second website for a while, Jump Down the Hole, to explore the whole idea of reality versus fiction on the Internet (that website no longer exists, though the different sections of it are included in SENTENCE.) Each section of the website presented a work of fiction as if it were real. For example, I made a home page for the fictional Arnie Maddox and his daughter Cindy. Like most home pages at that time, it had animated GIFS, a section for the family’s poetry, another for their family recipes, one for Arnie’s weekly musings, a guest-book with fake entries, etc. I even dressed up as Arnie for a couple of photographs to put on the site, stuffing a pillow under my shirt to make me look heavier, and getting Mary to Photoshop my head to make me look bald. And people used to write Arnie! And I’d write back as Arnie! Another section was an imitation of a tourist site, just as you’d have for Italy, or Brazil, or Japan, only this one was for Antarctica. But an Antarctica that was nothing like the real Antarctica. My Antarctica was a lush, populous land filled with blue lakes, green forests and elegant cities, inhabited by a people who had lived on the continent for forty thousand years. They invented motion pictures over two thousand years ago, so have in their film archives in-depth interviews with Pontius Pilate, Julius Caesar, Casanova, George Washington and others, as well as a twelve hour filmed record of the Crucifixion. To this day I still get at least one email a week from people wanting to know how to move there. Irate teachers write me that their students have used my site, thinking it real, for presentations in Geography class.

I know what you mean about Facebook. I’m on it, but I rarely visit my page. I’ve toyed with the idea of creating a fake Facebook page, about someone who lives a truly privileged life (“Edwina and Georges helicoptered in last night. So good to see them after Rio. But the box of caviar they brought spoiled because they put it too close to the copter’s engine. Always something! But we’ll make up for it today when we go hunting for minks.”) Or a Twitter account where you realize over a period of weeks or months that the person twittering is slowly losing their grasp on reality.

To me, Facebook is a devolution from the old GeoCities sites we used to have, where there’d be family pages, tribute pages to people like Elisha Cook Jr., and sites devoted to container gardening. Those were fun.

If you had it to do over do you think you might pick some random nom de plume to use for writing, just to keep those lives separate?

No, honestly, that never occurred to me. For good or for bad, I am Ralph Robert Moore, and despite all the fragmentations we’ve discussed, I can never truly be anyone other than Ralph Robert Moore. Whatever I write, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I’m really always only writing about myself. But I suspect that’s true of all writers.

Does your personal writing pay the bills? Or some part of them?

My personal writing doesn’t pay for shit. I do get paid for my stories, and it’s nice getting the checks, but I earn less money from my personal writing than Lovecraft did, and he had to subsist on a diet of canned beans. Almost all of my income comes from my business writing. So I do support Mary and me on my writings, but not my personal writings.

Does that bother you? The publishing industry is crumbling around us and the notion of what it means to be a writer is changing hour by hour, but is there still a sense that it’s not real, that you’re not successful unless it’s your main grind?

I believe that in the eyes of most people, it certainly is true that if you can’t support yourself completely based on your personal writings, that you may be “someone who writes”, but you aren’t a “writer.” That it’s not a profession, but only a hobby. And that does bother me. I’ve written five novels now, and each time, foolish as it may sound, I was really convinced that the novel I was currently working on was going to be “the one.” The one that immediately got accepted by a large, respectable New York publishing house, got great reviews in the Times, led to invitations to publish in the New Yorker, inspired college students to write long, footnote-filled dissertations. But that kind of success hasn’t happened, and will probably never happen. Only two of my novels have been published, and one of those I self-published.

John Gardiner wrote a book, On Becoming a Novelist, where he talked about the life of the novelist, and in particular the monkish aspect to it. He discusses the emotions of realizing everyone else you went to school with has been successful, whereas here you are, unsuccessful in the eyes of the world, plugging away at something in which most people aren’t ever going to be interested.

But what can I do? I can’t stop writing, so instead, over the years, I’ve tried to downsize my expectations. Which hasn’t been as difficult as you might think. The great rock in my life has been the love that Mary and I share. That can and does get me through anything.

And the truth is, I so enjoy writing, even when I hate it, that it ultimately doesn’t matter if I never “break big.” Hearing myself mentioned on TV would be great, as corny as that might sound, but finding the perfect line of dialogue, or the just-right metaphor, that’s pretty cool too.

What inspired or motivated your decision to start self-publishing your novels and short-story collections?

I had had some success getting stories published in different journals, and they had been well-received, so at one point an editor/publisher I had come to know asked if I might be interested in him putting together a collection of my stories. Well, obviously I was. Who wouldn’t be?

We were working on which stories to include, and he had gone so far as to contact an illustrator for the cover, and done some pricing with a printer, when he became terribly ill and wound up in and out of the hospital, with several operations, over the course of a few months. Thank God he fully recovered, but by the time he did, he didn’t have the strength to continue with the collection, understandably, and it was dropped.

Over the years I had vaguely thought about how nice it would be to have a collection of my stories in print, but it wasn’t until it almost happened, and then didn’t, that I started seriously considering that option.

Most, although not all, of my stories have appeared in print journals, rather than online. I prefer print, because then when a story of mine comes out, I have something physical to hold in my hands, a spine resting against my palm, the umbilical cord finally cut. But the thing is, an issue of a print journal, as great as it is, is also, to some degree, a coffin. In the sense that when it’s first published it’s great, it’s out there getting noticed and read, but then the next issue comes out, and almost everyone forgets about that prior issue.

But if I resurrected those stories from where they had first been published, and put them together in a collection which would always remain on sale, my stories would be actively available for as long as I live.

I was aware of Lulu, had heard good things about it, and over a period of time gradually worked my way around to the idea of putting out a collection on my own.

There’s no question there’s still a bit of a stigma to self-publishing. There isn’t that validation of someone else deciding to publish your book. Which doesn’t really apply to any other art form. A band can self-publish their own album, a playwright self-produce his own play, a filmmaker finance her own movie, and if anything, they’re looked upon favorably for their initiative. But not so with writers. I decided to go ahead with the project anyway, because I really liked the idea of having an assortment of my stories all in one book, and because I was getting emails from different readers of mine from time to time asking if a collection was available.

What pros & cons have you experienced, publishing with Lulu versus working with an editor and a traditional publishing house?

You’re your own editor, which is okay if you’re a good editor, and can be objective about your work, but unfortunately, you’re your own publicist as well, which I don’t think most writers, including myself, are really that good at.

The actual process of creating and publishing a book is really very easy using Lulu, and I certainly recommend it to any other writer interested in self-publishing. I had a lot of fun doing it. Lulu provides you with format and cover templates, or you can use your own, and most importantly, handles all aspects of distribution and sales. When someone wants to buy a copy of your book or ebook, they can purchase it directly through Lulu, or they can purchase it through a large number of online venues with which Lulu works, such as Amazon. I particularly appreciate that service, the fact that I don’t have to pack and ship the books myself.

I enjoy being my own editor, because it gives me complete freedom to decide the final form of each story. I’ve been fortunate to work with some truly great editors over the years, in particular Trent Denyer and Stephen Theaker. Both men are writers themselves who understand and respect how a story works. But then there are also some editors who just don’t have a clue, and often insist on ridiculous changes that make very little artistic sense, in which case I withdraw the story. But that is frustrating. So I was pleased to handle the task myself. Plus, since I was self-publishing, I was able to include some stories of mine that I truly loved, but which had been consistently rejected by journals for one reason or another (the protagonist is too unsympathetic, etc.)

The model I’ve been using for my collections, and will probably continue to use, is to have most of my fiction published first in journals, then combine those published works with a few unpublished stories in each collection.

Of course, one downside to self-publishing, although it isn’t that bad, is that sometimes “I feel like a group of one.” It’s just you and your pencil.

But it’s always a pleasure to check my sales on Lulu in the morning and discover that overnight, while I was sleeping, someone somewhere in the world bought a copy.

I guess it’s fair to say that you and I are both part of the last generation to remember what being a writer was like before the internet, as weird as that sounds. With email and online lit journals and Lulu sales data, the feedback loop between creating the story and receiving people’s reactions to is has closed pretty significantly. Has that changed the way you write at all?

For the writer, life before word processors, websites and email was awful. Seriously. You had to type out each story on a typewriter, which was just one technological step above chiseling the damn thing on a stone tablet. It you made too many typos, you had to go back down to the bottom of the hill and start rolling upwards again. And God forbid, once you finished the piece, if you came up with a perfect line to insert on page 5. Did you really want to retype pages 5 through 24 all over again? And what if after that you came up with another inspired thought?

Plus you had to stand in line at the post office, which to me is the waiting room for Hell, to get the right postage, for both the outside envelope and the return envelope. And usually, after all that, you’d get a small card back, a pre-printed standardized rejection slip, which often ended with a request that you subscribe to the magazine that just said you were no good.

I actually enjoy the closing of the feedback loop. Because I do like getting feedback, and almost all of it has been positive and encouraging. And of course I would never be as published as I am without being able to search journal guidelines online, and being able to send my stories via email overseas.

Talking about feedback though reminds me of something that happened a few years ago. And it has to do with getting a negative reaction from a reader.

Google has a service where they’ll alert you if your name is mentioned on a website. So naturally, I set up an alert for “Ralph Robert Moore.” Great, right? And it truly was. But then one day, I see I have a Google alert in my email folder, and it’s to a page called, “Ralph Robert Moore is the worst writer in the world.” I’m serious. Someone not only made that comment, but they actually created an entire fucking page for it. That’s commitment.

So naturally, I went over to the page to see what it said. Admittedly, to be honest, bracing myself a bit, because no author likes hearing negative things about his or her writing. (We pretend it doesn’t affect us, but of course it does.)

What this guy had done was pull about a dozen long quotes from my novel Father Figure, as examples of how terrible a writer I was. (Well, not just terrible, but the worst writer in the world.) He then said I was an even worse writer than Somebody Somebody. I had never heard of this other writer, and don’t remember his name now, but I looked him up, and that writer was indeed really, really bad. Even worse than Forest J. Ackerman. (Ackerman is dead now so I feel okay about making that comment about his writing abilities. He was one of my boyhood heroes, but God bless him, he was a truly bad writer.) Anyway, in this negative reviewer’s eyes I’m even worse than Somebody Somebody, who’s a worse writer than Forest J. Ackerman?

Then I had a queasy thought. I Googled my name.

The first return, as always, led to my website. The second return was a very favorable review of one of my short story collections. But now my third return was to this ‘RRM is shit’ page, and the bastard had even put his title tag all in caps, so the Google return read, RALPH ROBERT MOORE IS THE WORST WRITER IN THE WORLD, making it stand out on the Google returns page like some kind of warning to potential readers.

My only consolation was that when I returned to the page and started reading some of the comments others had posted in response to the reviewer’s article, most of them said they actually liked the excerpts they had read, and were going to seek out the novel.

Anyway, if any of you reading this ever gets a bad review (and you will, no matter great your writing may truly be), just remember that as bad as someone may think you are, at least you’re not THE WORST WRITER IN THE WORLD.

I am.

Even a terrible review is better than being ignored completely, right? But I guess that’s part of the binary of the internet – you can either shut all the feedback off completely, or learn how to take the good with the bad.

Let’s be honest, one of the many reasons why we write is because we want people to talk about us. “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” And of course a lot of what they said about Oscar Wilde wasn’t very flattering.

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posted by Kevin Fanning