When your previous book was 1998’s instant classic Birds of America, your next one is an event—especially if it takes eleven years to appear. Lorrie Moore’s new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, follows half-Jewish farm girl, bass player, and college student Tassie Keltjin into her first real job, as a nanny for a white family’s adopted black daughter. Moore talked to Dan Kois about sad stories and snap judgments.
Tassie says she’s not especially skilled at minding children for long periods. Would you hire her?
Well, I would check the references! She’s hired because Sarah [the mother] just has this feeling about her. But I’ve done that. I’ve hired a babysitter because of a feeling I had.
Were you right?
Yes. You know, as fiction writers, if our instincts are off, we can’t pay our bills.
At one point Tassie says, “I was becoming typical,” meaning that she “was already becoming a woman who sized up another one fast.” Do you think that’s “typical” of women?
Oh yes, I do, but maybe I’m wrong. If you look at most women’s writing, women writers will describe women differently from the way male writers describe women. The details that go into a woman writer’s description of a female character are, perhaps, a little more judgmental. They’re looking for certain things, because they know what women do to look a certain way.
A lot of those snap judgments are really funny.
I don’t sit down to write a funny story. Every single thing I sit down to write is meant to be sad. But I do feel that humor is a comfort to people. Your story’s still sad, but it means you’re collecting the whole picture of life—in theory, anyway. But I do love sad stories. I always have.
What’s your favorite sad story?
I used to be obsessed with “The Little Match Girl” to such a point where my mother stopped reading it to me.
Knopf, Sept. 1