A Downtrodden Protagonist Reveals Himself Room-By-Room In 'Hotels Of North America'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I always wonder who posts all those online reviews of products and clothing and hotel rooms. I mean, we're reading the unedited opinions and evaluations of people we know nothing about, so we don't know how much to trust their opinions.
Rick Moody's new novel "Hotels Of North America" is told solely in the form of website hotel reviews written by a man who shares some details about his life within those reviews and seems to be increasingly down on his luck - and unreliable as a narrator. Sometimes, he tries to skip out without paying the bill. Some of the hotels he reviews are seedy and roach-infested. It's possible he's homeless. But he's proud to be one of the top reviewers on RateYourLodging.com.
Rick Moody's other books include the memoir "The Black Veil" and the novel "The Ice Storm," which was adapted into the film of the same name. Moody also writes an unusual advice column on his website in which he takes on the persona of life coach. We'll talk about that later.
Rick Moody, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I've picked out a passage for you to read from "Hotels Of North America," your new novel. And this is one of the entries - one of the reviews of one of the hotels the main character has stayed at. Would you read it for us?
RICK MOODY: I'd be happy to. The passage is called "Union Station, Water Street, New London, Connecticut, May 13-14, 1984."
(Reading) How grateful I am that you guys have named me a top reviewer on this site. You and I are people conjoined by a belief in sincerity and by a basic agreement about what that means. I'm not going to say the hair dryer in the room didn't scorch a hole in the wall if it did. That's just who I am. Say you're staying in a hotel room in Hilton Head, S.C., that was used shortly before you took occupancy for the filming of an adult movie, perhaps because of the sybaritic amenities of the hotel and the appearance in the backdrop of Southern vegetation, such as Spanish moss. Don't you want to know that this is the kind of hotel that allows such uses, the kind of hotel that might clean up a little bit and spray around some disinfectant? Which reminds me - I have often desired to have an infrared camera of some kind that could detail the sex stains that are surely concealed on hotel-room bedspreads, which we all know are not routinely cleaned. Should we not be trying to create a national conversation on the subject of cleaning the unlaundered bedspreads of the world?
GROSS: (Laughter) That's Rick Moody reading from his new novel "Hotels Of North America."
I'm so glad you raised the point about bedspreads (laugher) in your book because it's not something you think about when you're a child. But once you become an adult, you wonder - what is on this bedspread? Like, they wash the sheets every day. The bedspread, the blanket - who knows when it's cleaned? Who knows what's going on on that blanket?
You've stayed at a lot of hotels, I imagine. Do you think about that a lot?
MOODY: I do. I do think about it. I've thought about it over the years frequently. And now that I've written it down, unfortunately, I don't know if I'll ever stop. It's just there.
GROSS: I know people who take their own blankets with them.
MOODY: That's such a good idea. I've never thought of that, but maybe now that you mention it, that's a way to go in the future.
GROSS: Were you ever tempted to write an online review of a hotel?
MOODY: Yes. In fact, here's how it happened. I was trying to write a more conventional novel in sort of 2009, 2010. And believe it or not, it was meant to be about a NPR producer.
GROSS: No, really (laughter)?
MOODY: He was - seriously. He was going to be the protagonist. He got - he was near a roadside bombing in Baghdad at the end of the conflict, and he comes home to try to sort of patch it up. And I wrote 200, 250 pages of this book. And I just sort of woke up one day, and I had grave reservations about my ability to use that book to say something, with literature, that was new. I just felt like it wasn't new.
And at the same time, my wife and I were staying in Bergen, Norway, in a very, very bad hotel, just a horrible, horrible hotel. Among its many bad features was the Friday and Saturday night house music bacchanal in the cafe, where you could hear it in your room (imitating musical beat), you know, for - until 2 in the morning.
And at some point, Laurel, my wife, said, we should review this hotel. And I had never really thought of such a thing. I tended to avoid online reviews because I didn't want to encounter one that was about the books of Rick Moody.
MOODY: So I sort of threw them all out. And - but when she made the suggestion, I thought, yes, yes, I should review this hotel. So I wrote a splenetic, savage take-no-prisoners review of the hotel. And I was just getting to the point of - where should I post this? - you know, when I had that thought. And the thought was, you know, a really crazy idea would be to try to make a novel out of these.
GROSS: So did you actually post your review?
MOODY: No, I put it in the novel and then I took it out because it wasn't as good as many of the others ones. But it was the starting point for the book.
GROSS: So your character in the novel is a top 10 online reviewer. What does that mean to you? What do you think of online reviews and online reviewers?
MOODY: I mean, in a way, it's what do I think about online life in general. I think that the book, for me, is an attempt to get at the psychology of online life in general. I feel that online life is characterized by estrangement and longing, that those are two of its features frequently, you know.
We imagine that we're somehow getting closer to our social networking friends, but I think, in some systemic way, maybe we're getting a little farther away from them, both physically and psychically somehow. And I think the reviews come from that same place. People review online, and it's, you know, 111 words, most of them bilious. And they hit send before they think about it terribly much. You know, that's sort of the nature of online reviewing.
But down underneath it somewhere, I think is a sort of pulsation of some wish for more and some greater connection. I think Reginald Morse the character in the book comes from that place. He sort of winds up in hotel reviewing online because he's a guy who would do better with other human beings, but he's somehow kind of failing at it.
GROSS: He keeps telling you, over and over again in different reviews, that he's a Toastmaster who gives talks about how to make a good first impression. And you know that he makes a terrible first impression. And that also he used to sell securities and he used to sell collateralized debt obligations, CDOs, which, by the way, were one of the financial instruments that helped create the crash of 2008 (laughter), and he's now broke.
So he's bragging about things that you can tell he's not very good at, that he's failed at. So that's part of - that's part of his style, which is part of what I find interesting about him.
MOODY: I took the dating of his falling out of the economy very seriously. And so the collateralized debt obligations reference - and there's actually a reference to the Libor scandal later on. Those are meant to be, you know, little flags that indicate sort of where he was and how he fell out. And I really think of him as a particular kind of an American worker, like a sort of middle-class, you know, white male member of the economy who fell out at that time, you know. His marginal skills became not relevant to the economy during the Great Recession. And now we're seeing his increasingly desperate attempts to sort of work his way back in.
GROSS: You know, there's really a lot of reflection in this because the book is part memoir, you know, part this character's memoir. And we learn the story of his life in bits and pieces - or part of his life in bits and pieces through the course of the book. And in part of the book - in one passage in the book, he writes about home and the meaning of home because he kind of doesn't have one at the moment. You know, he's separated from his wife. He can't see his daughter. He's staying at these hotels. I'd like you to read that passage for us. I've asked you to abbreviate it a little bit because there won't be time to read the whole thing, but it's a beautiful passage.
MOODY: Thanks. I would love to try to read it.
(Reading) Home, the place your enemies would wish to avoid. Home, the place your former lovers are troubled by. Home, where you can sit at the quiet table in the morning. Home, the place you sometimes hate that you also love the second you leave it. Home, any address that causes you to tear up. Home, near the metal box that has your surname on it. Home, where almost all the postcards you have ever received have been delivered. Home, where the government of your nation believes you live. Home, where your mother or your father brought you the second you no longer lived in a hospital. Home, where you first sang whatever it is you first sang. What welcome means, this you first learned at home, along with the word home. Home is where your bedroom was in the past and is now, and home is where you sleep more days than you sleep anywhere else, because if it were otherwise, you would renegotiate the application of the word home. Home is what you will describe in your masterpiece, either home or the leaving of home. If you say you have no home on earth, then what you mean is that there was trouble at your home. Home is where go right before dark. Home is where you go when you are recovered. When work becomes impossible, you will long for home. It is possible that in your life, you have had multiple homes, a sequence of homes, and that each of these has required a transition. For example, when you were in a car that carried you from a house where both your parents had lived together to a house where only one of your parents lived, even during that car ride, there was still an idea of home.
GROSS: I would love to know what you were thinking about when you wrote that passage because there are so many - there are so many turning-point events in almost anyone's life that are referred to in that passage.
MOODY: I mean, I started - I think again and again, I've quoted it before - I quoted it in a story long ago. But I think again and again of this passage in Robert Frost. Home is where they have to take you in. And, you know, so true for me - I had such a sort of difficult teen period. In fact, my dad turned 80 last year. And at one point during the celebration, he turned to me, and he said you were such a difficult teenager (laughter). And it was really true.
And then in my 20s, you know, I had all these problems. I was in the psychiatric hospital for a while. I had a drinking problem. So, you know, I had a long, difficult road getting to adulthood. And given that that's the case and that there were periods of sort of aimlessness and uncertainty professionally and all that kind of stuff, I feel like now, at a stable point, when I have a family of my own, I really have appreciation for this word. It's not that home's, you know, a complex place that I'm worried about going back to. It's actually a place of refuge now. I feel that. I feel it powerfully, and I suppose that the passage came out of that.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Rick Moody. His new novel is called "Hotels Of North America."
Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Rick Moody. His new novel is called "Hotels Of North America," and it's told in the form of online hotel reviews written by the main character. When we left off, Moody had read a passage from his novel about the meaning of home.
There's a sentence in that passage, home is where you go when you are recovered. And it made me wonder, after you recovered from your period in the psychiatric hospital, when you were dealing with depression and with a drinking problem, what home did you go to, your parents' home? Your...
MOODY: Yeah, I did. I went to my mom's house, yeah. Yeah, I sort of - I didn't have - I got - I was tossed out by my partner at that point. And so it was my mother who took me back. I can vividly remember being in the car, you know - the hospital was in outer Queens - and sort of getting into the car with my mom and thinking, well, you know, I'm just going to go where my mom takes me right now. And, you know, it's been 10 years since the role of mother between the two of us was as sort of acutely important as it is on this day, you know? And I'll just go with her. And then we'll see what happens next.
GROSS: What was it like for you, after going through this period of severe depression, to go back to what I assume was the home you grew up in and live with your parent?
MOODY: Well, I didn't stay there that long. You know, I - eventually I sort of got a little apartment. And I will say of my peer group at that time that they really stepped up. And sort of while I was inside the hospital, people were sort of militating to help me have someplace to go to when I was ready to go to. But - but I was - I was fragile and sort of acutely vulnerable at that time. So it was right that I was with my mom for a little bit - you know, for a few days. And she was sort of the transitional aid that made it possible for me to say, look; I'm a - I'm 26 years old. I can't just live with my mom indefinitely. I have to go back to my job and doing what I do, however difficult that might be, you know? That's where I am now. But I can't understate how generous it was of her to come and do that and to - and to help me back onto my feet.
GROSS: I think it's always difficult, in some ways, for an adult to return to the bedroom they grew up in, where all of the stuff from their childhood or teenage years still lives and the memories of all that still live. And you've changed. And the house hasn't, necessarily. The room hasn't, necessarily.
MOODY: You know, that wasn't my story, Terry. I had a completely different but equally poignant one because I went away to school when I was 13. And I never lived at home again after I was 13 except, you know, at Christmas time and stuff. And it just happened my mom married a guy, and then they - they took in his kids. So it was sort of like a "Brady Bunch" household. There were, in total, six kids. And they didn't have enough bedrooms for all those kids. And so when I moved out, I didn't have a bedroom. So I had no bedroom there. I had no bedroom at my dad's house. I effectively had no bedroom. And there's a way, maybe, that this home passage is about, you know, some longing for having had those things, for being the guy who's lucky enough to go back to his childhood bedroom. I never - I didn't have a childhood bedroom. I wouldn't even know what that referred to, exactly.
GROSS: Wow, that's sad.
MOODY: That's just my lot. You know, it's an upper-middle-class family. It wasn't that I didn't have such a thing for economic reasons. It was just all practical reasons. I was away at boarding school, and there were other people who needed bedrooms more. And so - so I didn't really have one.
GROSS: So where did you stay when you visited?
MOODY: Guest room.
GROSS: Oh, so you had a room, but it wasn't yours.
MOODY: No, it wasn't mine.
GROSS: So you were kind of like a boarder at your family's home.
MOODY: I was. (Laughter) I was. I'm like the weird guy who came back at Christmas.
GROSS: (Laughter) And that passage also has a sentence about the desire to leave home and the desire to return once you've left. Or at least I read that into the passage.
MOODY: Yeah, it's an oscillation.
GROSS: Yeah, I wonder if you experience that because I know I do. It's, like, so nice to get away from home sometimes. But then you just start longing for home.
MOODY: I mean, you tell me what you think. My experience is that the, gee, I can't wait to get away, has grown shorter and shorter and shorter...
GROSS: Yes (laughter).
MOODY: In its duration.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yes.
MOODY: And the, gee, I want to go back, has grown longer and longer.
GROSS: I - that's absolutely true for me. And part of that has to do with just changes in my life. And part of it has to do with how travel has changed.
MOODY: Yeah, travel's hard. Boy, I will underline that sentence. Travel right now is hard.
GROSS: My guest is Rick Moody, author of the new novel, "Hotels Of North America." After we take a short break, we'll talk about the advice column Moody writes on his website, in which he takes on the persona of a life coach. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Rick Moody. He's the author of the memoir "The Black Veil" and the novel "The Ice Storm," which was adapted into a film of the same name. His new novel, "Hotels of North America," is told in the form of online hotel reviews written by the novel's main character. So we've been talking about your book "Hotels of North America," and I want to talk with you now about your website, the Rick Moody website. And there's a part of your website that's a really interesting echo of your novel because your novel is a series of online hotel and motel reviews by this online reviewer, and in the process of reviewing hotels, he is also revealing bits and pieces about his life. There's a section of your website in which you explain that you've always wanted to be a life coach, so you're going to fulfill that ambition by answering readers' questions about their lives. I'm guessing that those questions are questions that you made up?
MOODY: Absolutely not.
MOODY: I'm so happy to say that those are all real questions, real questions.
GROSS: Why are you putting yourself then in the real position of answering them? People are - you know, these are really deep questions about, you know, someone whose friend is on the verge of suicide, somebody who lost, like, their sister and their mother was bereft and now the mother has died, too. I mean, these are really just, like, heartbreaking letters from people who want to know, like, how do I face these things in my life? Who are you to help? Who are you to respond?
MOODY: Who am I? Who am I? Now, what I find interesting, Terry...
MOODY: ...Is that self - that life coach is a self-anointed title.
MOODY: There's not really - unlike clinical social worker.
GROSS: There are classes in that, but I'm not sure what the licensing, if any, is like.
MOODY: Yeah. It's sort of the Wild West out there for life coaches. And so I decided that I would self-declare. And I have nothing - I have absolutely nothing that would make me a great life coach except that I too have been through a great number of travails and have emerged intact. And I have complete sympathy and compassion for my fellow sufferers on the road. So all I did was say, if you want to write me an advice question, I will be happy to try to answer it. And initially I think I mainly attracted people with literary-related questions, you know? I have writer's block or, you know, how do I get an agent, or what have you. And at the outset, I sort of thought that I was like the character in Nathanael West's "Miss Lonelyhearts," which is to say, you know, a little bit tongue-in-cheek, started doing it because I could. But I very quickly found that people with earnest problems who really want help are people that I totally sympathize with. And even though I'm no expert, I do have some, you know, reasonably practical advice, most of which is along the lines of, you're really trying hard and you're doing a great job. And if you need someone to say to you today that your struggle is real and it's hard-luck but you're doing great, I'm happy to be that person. I'm happy to be that person. So that's just what I started doing. And in fact that has in turn generated other people who want more of the same. And I'm happy to serve. So if what little wisdom I have can be of service then I really want to be the person who tries to help. So you FRESH AIR listeners, feel free, contact me.
GROSS: (Laughter) You know, and this advice column on your website is in a way an echo of your novel because in the novel the reviewer of hotels reveals parts of his life while reviewing these hotels. And you reveal a lot of your life while answering these questions from your readers. I feel like I've learned a lot about you by reading some of your responses. For example, an answer to a question from a writer whose sister died eight years ago, and whose mother never recovered, and then the mother recently died and the writer's not sure what the writer can do for his father other than the obvious, which is just, like, be with him. And in your response you reveal that your sister died and you remember watching your mother suffer.
MOODY: Yeah. I mean, I wasn't sure - that was a really interesting letter. The guy who wrote it - I happened to know - is a fellow writer, and I feel like in a way he knew the obvious thing. The obvious thing is to sit with his father and listen to his father, but there's a way in grief that we always feel a little bit like we're not up to the task and we're not doing what's expected of us at that time, we're not doing enough for the other people that are suffering. It's like death in the family for some reason always carries this little portion of guilt with it, which I wish I could alleviate for others. I wish when my sister had died somebody could have taken me aside and said, you know, this one thing you don't need to feel. It's not going to help you. It's not going to help your family. There was nothing you could have done. You loved your sister. Be at peace, you know? And I felt like the only way I could convey to that guy that that's what I know, that's what I know to be true in this situation was to share my own situation. And there's no earthly reason why I should not be open about that if my loss helps somebody else.
GROSS: And your sister died of a heart condition. It wasn't a, you know...
MOODY: She did, yeah.
GROSS: ...I don't want people to think it was, you know, something other than what it was.
In response to another writer for your advice column, you write about middle-age, which you're in. I mean, you're in your - what? - mid-50s, no?
GROSS: And you write, (reading) middle-age and one's own death, these are the things that are bounded on the one end by the demise of one's parents. Gazing at the dramatic extremities of this situation would cause anyone to be hesitant. But my argument is about not forgetting the great responsibility of middle-age - taking care of ourselves, recognizing when we have gone beyond what the body is able to accomplish. Or, put it this way, if we are to parent ourselves now the way our parents are perhaps no longer able to, the thing we should remind ourselves of at the close of each day is this - you've done enough today and now you should rest. There will be plenty of time tomorrow to solve all of the world's problems and to make sure that all of your nearest and dearest can get through another day. That paragraph is both such a cliche and so profound at the same time. Do you know what I mean? It's so obvious and yet so true.
MOODY: I mean, yes, I concur. I felt - and I always feel in the life coach letters - that my job is not to be profound in the literary sense. My job is to try to be there for the person in question, you know? And I really felt for that guy that repeating the tried-and-true would be helpful to him in the sense that if you get caught up sometimes, especially in middle-age, with looking after everybody else - in a grief situation, let's say - you forget these really obvious things. And in our 20s and 30s - or this is my experience in my 20s and 30s - I never thought about that stuff. I burned the candle at both ends. I stayed up writing, you know, into the early hours. Or I stayed up and went to a club and then I came home and wrote. And I never thought about really anybody else terribly much unless they intruded into my imaginative space a little bit. So for me to be where I am now in my mid-50s and sort of say, hey, it's OK for you to take time to just take your pulse, slow down, and be where you are - cliche but also so important to reiterate. And all I'm doing here in the passage is trying to find a new way to say that so that I can refresh the idea with a language such that it might appear to be novel to those who have forgotten.
GROSS: You write to someone who signs off as in need of enlightenment. And the letter they write is about how someone close to them is suffering from severe depression and the letter writer doesn't know what to do to help them open the door to let some light in. And you write, (reading) I'm no longer willing to catch the disease in order to love the man or woman who suffers from it, which means, I think that despite everything, I'm happy to be alive, happy to have survived. And you're referring to your own depression here. (Reading) And this I can recommend to you - I recommend staying alive, doing whatever you have to do to stay alive. What you're referring to there (reading) I'm no longer willing to catch the disease in order to love the man or woman who suffers from it. What are you thinking of there?
MOODY: Well, you know, depression is so part of the writing community. I mean, you know this, Terry. And there are friends of mine - multiple friends of mine - in the writing community who died by their own hand. And I feel like it's possible to know things about human psychology and human nature that would make you a great writer and not have to go to that place, you know? There's a way that we romanticize writers and writing a little bit. And I even remember when I was in grad school at Columbia, one day somebody posted on the bulletin board this study about mental illness in the various professions. So this was like two years before I myself was in the psychiatric hospital. And I remember seeing this thing that was on the bulletin board at Columbia, this little study that someone had posted. And it said that if you are a poet you are like 50 times more likely than the average person in the population to have mental illness. And I thought - because I was 23 or 24 at that time - bingo, that's my profession, you know? That's where I'm going to apply my trade, among those who burn brighter than the accountants and bean counters of the rest of the world. Now I have just the opposite thought. I don't need to have that illness any longer. I don't need to be the person who has that illness to have insight and compassion into human nature. I think you can do it and be a regular Joe, a regular person out there in the world, and that maybe the bean counters burn just as bright and care just as much about their fellows.
GROSS: Is depression something you feel like you have any control over?
MOODY: Well, that's a long discussion. I mean, I would say there are probably professionals who say that here you are, you know, you have a genetic predisposition and maybe there are some environmental situations that create a hothouse in which it becomes inevitable. But I feel for me - this is just for me - that I invited the ghost in. I invited it in. And I live in such a way now, I hope, that I wouldn't do that again.
GROSS: Well, Rick Moody, I have really appreciated talking with you. Thank you very much for coming back on the show.
MOODY: My pleasure, Terry.
GROSS: Rick Moody's new novel is called "Hotels of North America." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan is going to present her list of the best books of the year right after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.