Friday 6 January 2017

Interview: Rick Moss

Last Updated: 19 May 2024

Today it is my pleasure to host the author Rick Moss on The Writing Greyhound, talking about his life, his writing, and his latest novel Tellers.

Firstly, tell me a little about yourself and your background.

I grew up, along with two tolerant older brothers, in rural and suburban Maryland, which had and continues to have a tinge of the South affecting its general liberal-minded population. We witnessed a lot of racial disharmony in Baltimore in the ‘60s, and to see that the pain and anger carries on there to this day is terribly disturbing. But I digress.

I took to drawing and painting at a young age and studied visual arts of all kinds through college. I found work as a video editor and producer, at a point forming a small design firm and, ultimately, launching a business web publication with the help of two talented partners. In short, I’ve picked up whatever skills were necessary to get on in my work and always enjoy taking on new challenges, but the need to create things has motivated all else.

How did you first become interested in writing?

With the growth of our web publication, it became necessary for me to do a lot of business writing and reporting, so I learned the craft.

In 2007, I was taken with the passing of Kurt Vonnegut and began writing an essay that played off one of his half-serious world-altering ideas. But the essay kept expanding in unexpected directions. At a point, I realised a novel would be the best platform for the ideas, so I plotted out the narrative. My first draft was over 700 pages. I hired an editor who took me to school on everything I had done wrong. I spent two more years rewriting and produced Ebocloud, my first published novel.

Ebocloud is the story of a utopian social media movement that spurs a step forward (ostensibly) in human evolution. Ebocloud may have gotten more interest among the scientific community than with fiction-lovers, but to my delight, it was picked up for a Duke University course on augmented reality in fiction and read by students alongside William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

Tell me about Tellers.

Tellers concerns the close-knit residents of a small farming collective who suffer a tragic loss and seek comfort - and perhaps forgiveness - by telling their stories. We hear the tales voiced by the individual characters, flashing back between chapters to learn about the events that led to the tragedy.

Tellers by Rick Moss book cover

What made you decide on the unusual format of Tellers?

Tellers is, in effect, a set of inter-related short stories, stitched together by, and supportive of, an overarching narrative. In other words, it’s a novel/anthology hybrid. I can’t say that I set out to take on such a difficult task - it grew organically out of the need to express a lot of ideas that all play toward a few core themes: the dissolution of family and society; our disassociation with nature and reliance on technology; and the role of artists, free-thinkers and utopians in pushing humanity forward.

How did you get inspiration?

I was researching innovative design concepts for inner cities (just poking around for ideas) and happened across a short book on the MOVE tragedy that took place in Philadelphia in 1985. MOVE was a radical green political group founded by John Africa (born Vincent Leaphart) in 1972. Africa and his extended “family” of followers believed that society’s ills and, in particular, the struggles of Black people in America, stemmed from our separation from natural processes. Africa taught a return to a hunter-gatherer society while voicing opposition to science, medicine and technology. The MOVE lifestyle, in other words, was at odds with living in inner-city Philadelphia and the group had a number of run-ins with the police, some violent.

By 1985, the conflict had come to a head. The MOVE family barricaded themselves in their row house. In an ill-conceived effort to end the stand-off, the Philadelphia police firebombed the home, killing all but two of the MOVE family and igniting a firestorm that destroyed a large swath of homes. The essay I read proposed a solution for rebuilding the homes in a way that would support a healthier social environment.

My head was spinning. I could see the MOVE tragedy as a microcosm of so many problems that plague modern life. And because of the kaleidoscopic swirl of influences, I imagined not just one but a set of distinct voices exploring these themes from their unique perspectives.

What’s your writing process?

I don’t recommend my process - it’s anything but efficient. (Tellers took me nearly six years to complete.) My fiction-writing time is limited to off-hours, so I write in bursts. I tend to dive headlong into the story at any point that offers an entry point. Later, once the overall plot comes into focus, I sketch out a chronological outline and begin rearranging what I’ve written. I’m also an obsessive editor, so after writing only a few paragraphs, I double back to begin reworking. It’s a confounding process, but I love every minute of it.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

The toughest challenge for me is perhaps keeping the broad objectives of the project in mind while buried in the minute details. Often what should be an inconsequential story thread lassos me and drags me off on a tangent. I have a great time and can’t imagine the reader not following me off on some darling side adventure. Later, I man-up and “slay my darlings.” It’s sad. I love my darlings.

What do you love most about writing?

I’ve worked with painting, printmaking, photography, animation — on and on. Writing is unique in that the scope of your expressive product is limited only by your skills. There are no boundaries — no edges to the canvas. You can write about anything, from the point of view of anyone, set in any era, and in any setting. I believe art is the highest aspiration of the human race and that language is the most versatile tool in pursuing those ends. And so what I love most about writing is the freedom it offers.

Which authors inspire you?

The aforementioned Kurt Vonnegut is my singular hero. He was able to uncover our most damnable and dumbfounding qualities with a depth of humour that can only come from recognition of life’s absurdity. And yet, despite his cynicism, he was an unyielding humanist. To read stories that can balance all those traits is quite inspiring. David Foster Wallace and George Saunders rank right up there for me in this regard, as well.

When it comes to improving my craftsmanship, I look to Doris Lessing, Elmore Leonard, Franz Kafka, Faulkner and Hemingway.

Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
  • Be humble. When you think you’re getting somewhere, remind yourself that you don’t know diddly
  • Accept that nothing you write is beyond sacrifice for the overall good
  • Never give up. Good writing doesn’t come cheap — you need to spend years, if not decades, at it
What’s your all-time favourite book?

This question is causing me pain. I feel like I’m being asked which of my daughters I favour. In support of my gushing praise of Vonnegut, I’m going to go with Slaughterhouse-Five, a book that’s got everything I could possibly ask for. But please also put Moby Dick, Ulysses, The Illiad, Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, 1984 and Valis in my suitcase before shipwrecking me on that desert island.

Where’s your favourite place to write?

I’m perfectly content working on the couch in my Brooklyn apartment but, often as I sit here, I imagine myself on a bench in nearby Prospect Park.

What are your ambitions for your writing career?

Realistically speaking, to bring enrichment to as many people as I can - and in the scheme of things, a few thousand readers would suffice. Money doesn’t really play into that objective at all. And yet, if I could make a modest income from fiction writing, it could make the rest of my life a heck of a lot more satisfying. But I don’t kid myself. This is not the right time in human history to make a living as a writer.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing?

Painting more - big canvases, huge brushes, buckets and buckets of gobby acrylic.

What are your interests outside of writing and reading?

My wife and I are movie-obsessed. Being in New York City makes it all too easy to spend lots of time feeding our habit. It’s a great joy sharing those experiences with her in those dark rooms. (Yes, I’m still talking about movies.) And, as discussed, I like to throw paint around when I’m able.

What are you currently working on?

My third novel, which is still at Stage One. I’m spitting out story fragments with somewhat vague metaphysical themes swimming in my head. As with Tellers, this one will also tell stories from different vantage points. I can’t say more. The embryo hasn’t formed features yet.

What are you reading at the moment?

Oblivion - a book of short stories by David Foster Wallace, and a pile of small poetry volumes that we recently won in a raffle at a reading.

Where can my readers go to find out more about you and your work?

The Tellers website, my Amazon author page, or my Goodreads author page.

Tellers is available to buy now (paid link; commission earned).

Will you be reading the book? Let me know in the comments below!

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