Writer-in-Residence Reflects On First Semester as Faculty and Discusses New Novel Set in Philly
by Colleen Kropp
Novels, short stories, op-ed essays, and poems, found online, offline, released by small presses, and traditional publishing houses. With the multitude of creative genres circulating and the various avenues through which we, readers, encounter them, it is an exciting time in literature. Sitting down with Temple’s writer-in-residence, Liz Moore, she enthusiastically stresses this and remarks on the incredible community of readers and writers here in Philadelphia, commenting that she has witnessed (and continues to witness) the energy buzzing through this community alongside all of the new voices coming onto the literary scene.
Moore is very much a part of this shifting literary scene in Philadelphia. Having moved here from New York in 2009, she has made the City of Brotherly Love her home, where she continues to create, instruct and inspire. This is Moore’s first year as a part of the Temple community, where she teaches both Fiction Workshop and Manuscript Tutorial in the Creative Writing MFA program. Her passion for and commitment to teaching writing students drove her own graduate work in New York, where she studied at Hunter College. Moore, however, started her MFA program from a fairly different place in her writing career. When she enrolled at Hunter, she already had her first book published. So what could a graduate program really offer a woman who was already actively working and writing successfully? Moore recounts that her desire to teach was coupled with an interest to hone her craft under the guidance of the faculty she admired at Hunter. Her craft and overall writing process changed and evolved over the two years she spent at Hunter. The exposure to a wide array and wealth of contemporary writing that would not necessarily figure into an outside-the-classroom experience becomes essential to the development of a writer’s own voice, drawing inspiration, awareness, and understanding with every text you consume. As a part of the Temple writing community, Moore’s engagement with her students is one that privileges how to navigate the daily life of a writer, recognizing the challenge of what it takes to be successfully productive on a consistent basis.
What goes into the daily work of a writer? The practice of self-accountability is incredible, especially once you have left the classroom setting. Moore’s own sense of daily work shifts over the novel’s evolutionary lifespan. She describes her early stages of writing as “very labor intensive and every page I produce is very slow going – I think about it more like sketchwork. If I write an hour a day every weekday I’m pleased with myself.” It is not until the later phases, once she has a complete draft of a novel, that Moore recontours her regimen, where the one-hour a day of writing becomes an eight-hour day of passionate revision. She likens it to solving a math problem, observing all of the pieces that she already has in place in front of her and seeing what she needs to rethink and where she needs to produce more material or remove something extraneous. The overarching theme of Moore’s process is that of consistency. Consistency breeds quality, so her commitment to writing becomes, as she calls it, a contract with herself. This contractual obligation towards the self allows her to establish the writing goals that have led her to produce the fascinating works like her recently published novel, The Unseen World, and her forthcoming novel, the first text of Moore’s set in her newly proclaimed home of Philadelphia. Being able to plan to write a given amount per day each week, while also being honest with herself and the expectations she sets, create this environment of consistency that drives her process and craft.
But it is not easy to forge and then maintain the terms of this contract, and that has become an important component of Moore’s teaching philosophy and the academic relationship with her creative writing students. At the start of the semester, she asks her students what they are most interested in discussing over the course of their time together. This ranges widely from thinking about a point of craft to requesting assistance with their process or simply how to find the time or the discipline to generate fiction with more regularity. Moore explains, “I always make sure to quarantine a segment of class time just to talk about the daily work of writing and what it takes to be a writer after the end of an MFA program. Because that’s something I struggled with – the minute no one is asking to see your work, it becomes easier to push it aside, so I want to make sure I talk to my students about how to prioritize their work outside of classroom setting.”
This mental rigor and devotion is manifested in Moore’s The Unseen World, published in 2016 --- an emotionally charged novel about a young girl, Ada, who has been lovingly and systematically educated by her computer-programmer father, David. Flashing between Boston of the 1980s, where we see the young child turn into the teenage version of Ada, and San Francisco in 2009, where she is a successful adult in the tech world, Unseen World explores the emergence of virtual reality and the world of modern technology and innovation. This runs parallel to the relationship between father and daughter and how, once her father falls victim to early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Ada must seek out her father’s mysterious history about his identity.
I was curious about how much research went into what seemed like such a technical novel like Unseen World. Moore relates:
A big part of the body of research for Unseen World I had a starting point for in the sense that my father was a scientist – a physicist, not a computer scientist, but a scientist nonetheless. He worked in a lab setting and worked with computers extensively and we always had computers around the house, so a lot of the stuff about computing in Unseen World comes out of prior knowledge, comes out of my autobiography. But the extremely technical stuff comes from research. I don’t typically do a huge amount of research separate from my writing or before I start to write. I start to write, encounter a thing I know I need to research more in my writing, pause, research that thing, then come back and keep writing. Or even sometimes if I am really on a roll with the writing, I will just make it up as I’m writing because I also try to turn off any internet connectivity. So I will just put bold what it is I need to fix later, keep writing, then I will return and fix it once I have researched it.
For Moore, autobiography has to be an element in anything she is writing, even if in an indirect way. There does not have to be an exact commonality with the facts of her autobiography, but rather, an emotional connectivity with her autobiography that piques her interest and inspires her to write. “Some grain of every book that I’ve ever written comes out of my own life experience, even if it is as loosely connected to my autobiography as a theme or a concept or an emotion,” Moore explains.
As far as her upcoming novel is concerned, finally setting a text in Philadelphia is significant for Moore:
After almost a decade of living in Philadelphia, I finally feel equipped to say something about it. To set a piece of fiction here and feel I can do that authentically. It’s contemporary. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve grown to really love the writing community in Philadelphia --- I can’t imagine leaving. I love it – the writing community here is very strong and supportive and it also feels like there’s breathing room within it – not everyone is trying to do the same thing. And so yes – this book is my first Philadelphia book.
Though her focus currently is on her fiction, Moore has a keen interest in nonfiction as well. Some of the nonfiction she has recently produced is directly related to the story of Unseen World. Moore’s interest in virtual reality led her to write a piece on Marvin Minsky, the co-founder of MIT’s artificial intelligence laboratory and that generation of scientists who were forerunners in the field. Part of her research into virtual reality brought her to Best Buy where she was able to test out oculus rift – the first widely commercially available headset -- for the first time. Moore recounts her experience in the store:
The headset was released right around the time Unseen World came out. I was nine months pregnant at the time and I went to Best Buy and put on the OR headset and tried it out. It was cool. So much of the Unseen World is speculation about virtual reality. I had this fear I was going to put it on and be totally underwhelmed by it because in my imagination virtual reality is magic. Of course my version of virtual reality is much more advanced than what we have today, but I was deeply impressed with oculus rift and it was fun to try out, even though I think I made the people at Best Buy nervous being pregnant trying it on.
The vividness of Moore’s imagination allowed her to create the character-system Elixir in Unseen World, the friend and confidant to both Ada and David. We, the readers, develop an emotional attachment to Ada as we follow her back and forth between childhood and adulthood, watching her emotional strife and intellectual growth as she is in hot pursuit of the solving the puzzle that holds the key to her father’s true identity. In a novel that imagines and creates a world so highly advanced in technology, computer science, and virtual reality, it remains ever so deeply human in its emotional intelligence.
Beyond the autobiographical aspects that inform her writing, Moore draws inspiration from texts that she enjoyed prior to diving into contemporary fiction. As a child, she started out writing more poetry than prose, something she carried with her through college. A lot of the writers who inspired her were poets, though eventually her focus turned to short stories, a big entry point into the fictional world. Many of these short story writers were modernists, and a lot of her fascination with modernist writing was rooted in an interest with the way those writers played with convention and actively distorted the idea of traditional fiction. It was after her modernist short story phase that Moore really began to delve into longer works of fiction, post-modernism, and contemporary writing. Even now, as an established author, she will pick up one of these texts from her past to read if she feels stuck in her own writing. She muses that she does this “Not necessarily in a targeted way; just to pick up a book and read it and sometimes that will cause me to think about language differently or a point of craft differently.”
Short fiction remains significant for Moore as a teacher. When we met in her tucked away office in one of the modules in Anderson Hall, she was sipping from a cup of coffee from Shot Tower and perusing Junot Diaz’s Drown, which she is teaching in her Fiction Workshop. Interconnected short stories are a helpful way to present newly emerging creative writers with a manageable way to “build stamina as a writer,” says Moore, which can then lead more effectively to writing a longer form piece.
Moore’s own writing career began with short stories. The Words of Every Song is a series of short stories about the music industry based on Moore’s time in New York, when she was actively playing in a band and working at a guitar store. She played at several of the well-known, smaller venues in town such as The Bitter End, Rockwood Music Hall, and The Living Room. Moore just began writing about the multitude of characters that she encountered and who were populating this same world as her, discovering that they shared a lot thematically and there was an almost natural narrative arc that presented itself.
Liz Moore is an invaluable addition to the Creative Writing team here at Temple University and to the writing world in Philadelphia. Her commitment to teaching and leading young writers during a time when the literary world is so rich and expansive is nothing short of exciting for all of us awaiting the next new novel or short story to appear.