BlogChats , Literature

“Sexy, Messy, Scary, Fun, Overwhelming, and Precarious”: A Conversation with Carley Moore

Carley Moore is a writer, mother, and teacher, and all of these roles find their way into her terrific new novel, The Not Wives (Feminist Press). The book brings together the rhythms of motherhood and teacherhood with the electric energy of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The merger of all these different spheres in the book creates a moving portrait of three women trying to blow up old ideas about what it means to be a woman in America.

Caroline Hagood: You deal with the Occupy Wall Street movement with such nuance. What was your own experience of the movement?

Carley Moore: Thank you.  I worked very hard to build that world in the book.  My experiences were similar to many working artists and writers I know, who also happened to be parents during that time.  My then husband and I went several times during the occupation.  We brought our toddler in her stroller and walked around.  We participated in a couple of GA meetings, the biggest being the one that happened when Occupy took over Washington Square Park, which was magical.  We also sent our students as part of an ethnography and interviewing project and we marched with Occupiers a couple of times.  As the mom of a toddler and a person with a disability I wasn’t able to stay overnight, but I would have liked to.  I marveled at the structure of it all—the People’s Library, the Kitchen, the GA, the working groups, and their non-hierarchical leadership model.  I also found the People’s Mic to be very moving—the way one voice could ripple out to the crowd and give voice to so many, was a real shift in the way I saw and felt power and space at protests.  For the book, I did more research.  Two books were really helpful—Michael Gould-Wartofsky’s The Occupiers and Stephanie McMillan’s The Beginning of the American Fall.  I also just happened to make friends with an Occupier, Pablo Benson, and he ended up helping me a lot with day-to-day details and some of the struggles of running Zuccotti Park. Lastly, since Occupy, I started teaching a course, called Youth in Revolt:  Case Studies in Global Activism, and while Occupy Wall Street has not been the center of the course, it has helped me think about how the ideas and methodologies of Occupy have filtered into other movements and political conversations. Occupy led to Occupy Sandy and informed aspects of the Umbrella Movement and Black Lives Matter to name just a few, though BLM is totally its own radical, powerful thing.  We wouldn’t be having national conversations about student loan debt, Medicare for all, and reforming capitalism if it weren’t for conversations that Occupiers made mainstream.  They took the shame out of debt and they very rightly pointed to banks and wealthy CEOs and said, hey, this isn’t right. I loved their media savvy and joy as well.  My students don’t always believe me, but a lot of activism is about community and pleasure, and I wanted that in the book, too!

CH: The women in the book are so multifaceted. How did you approach writing women? What sort of pre-writing, exercises, or thinking did you do to get there?

CM: Well, I don’t really pre-write, but I do write a lot of shitty drafts, and this book went through about five major revisions before it found a home at Feminist Press, with Michelle Tea’s queer imprint Amethyst. I don’t have any particular approach to writing women characters, other than to make them as real and honest as I can, and I know these women. They are composites of friends and artists and writers and parents and very dear to me.  Stevie is probably the most autobiographical, although she’s very much a fiction too, and I drew on my real experiences as a teacher, queer person, mother, and single parent to make her. Mel and Johanna are also based on people I know or see every day on the street. In this book, it was important to me, to represent women’s lives as sexy, messy, scary, fun, overwhelming, and precarious because that’s what I know about being a woman in America right now. The dialogue is a big part of that for me, trying to really get characters to have authentic conversations, to text, and to be terrified by the news that’s dripping into our phones at us all day long. The little lyrical chapters between the larger chapters about Wives, Husbands, and The Not Wives were a way for me to write about gender, marriage, and all these cultural expectations we carry around about women in particular that just aren’t true, or are far more complicated than they first appear.

CH: You also capture the complexities of parenting. Rivka Galchen, in Little Labors, writes about how few babies there are in literature. But it’s not just infants. It’s so difficult to capture the moving parts of real children and real parents. What are your thoughts on writing parents and kids?

CM: Well, my first novel was for young adults and of course my first favorite books were about kids, so in a way, it feels perfectly normal that kids and babies would be in books because they are the beginning of what we read and kids are everywhere. We were all once kids. We all came out of somebody’s vagina or stomach, so we all have the kid experience. The trick for me was to make Sasha a real character, and not some cutesy prop or toy for the adults. Like, she is often willful and very much her own person and I wanted her to have her own small arc, too, which is learning how to sleep on her own and also adjust to her parents’ divorce.  I love Little Labors, though I’m not sure I agree with Galchen. Maybe it’s true for babies, but as I was working on this book, I was reading parts of My Struggle by Knausgard and all of the Ferrante trilogy, so that gave me courage. These epic and wonderful stories with children and parenting at the center.  Some of my favorite classics also have kids in them—Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid, Sleeping on Jupiter by Anurahda Roy, and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.  This is such a short list, but I like kids and I am a mom and kids are interesting and fun to have in books because they mess with order and make chaos. I mean, what is a baby but an interesting constraint? And constraints make for drama, or so I’m told. Ugh, plot is a whole other nightmare, but I’m learning.

CH: In addition to the unsung labors of motherhood, you capture the unsung labors of untenured teaching. What messages did you want to convey about this lifestyle? What are the cultural issues that come up? How do they overlap with the Occupy movement?

CM: Most of the professors I know and work with are untenured—either contract faculty like me or adjunct. The whole idea of the tenured professor teaching one or two courses a year and having the summer to write and research, that’s just not the reality of university life these days.  At any given school, somewhere between 50 and 70% of courses are taught by contract and adjunct faculty, and they are suffering to feed their families and get healthcare, and many of them are the best teachers I know.  Most contract faculty, though we have a higher wage and sometimes benefits, are still hired on the whim of any given department and it can be a precarious life. So in this book, I wanted to show that the many artists, writers, teachers, and professors, are part of the working class and are struggling to get by in a rapidly gentrifying city.  It’s also true that the majority of untenured faculty are minorities—women, moms especially, people of color, and queer people, and we do so much of the work for so little of the pay. I’m honestly not sure why we can’t have an equal pay for equal work lawsuit, but we’re all too tired for that, ha.

CH: Since teaching is so central to your life, what advice do you have for young writers?

CM: I’m working on a book about this with my colleague Matt Longabucco, so we have a lot to say, but for now. 1. Don’t let other writers damage you. There are so many poorly run workshops out there, where it’s just a free for all of hate and bad advice, so if you find yourself in one of those, get out. Protect yourself and your writing. 2. Get into the habit of revision. Being a writer is in my experience about stamina and the ability to revise to get to a better thing, so it’s important to get good feedback and then revise. 3. It’s okay to publish on your own timeline. I am 47 and The Not Wives is my debut novel. There are others in files on my laptop, but I learned stuff with each one. 4. More fun? Writing is very hard and no one is making you do it, but can we make it more fun?  More writers together helping each other?  More dark chocolate?  Puppets?  Can publishing be less of a gauntlet?  I don’t know, these are my dreams.