Interview with Kermit Moyer, Spring 2010
Kermit Moyer was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His father was in the US Army, and Moyer and his family moved around quite a bit, both in the U.S. and oversees, to places which included Hawaii and Okinawa. Moyer studied English at Northwestern University where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1965. He then received a Master's in English in 1966 and a PhD in 1972, with a doctoral dissertation "The Historical Perspective of F. Scott Fitzgerald," also from Northwestern University.
Moyer began writing poetry in 1981 and published a few of his poems in some literary magazines; but he returned to his original love of writing fiction in the summer of 1982. Moyer's first published story was "The Compass of the Heart," which appeared in The Georgia Review. He also published his work in journals such as The Southern Review, The Sewanee Review, The Crescent Review, and The Hudson Review.
Kermit Moyer is author of a collection of short stories Tumbling, called by The New York Times Books Review "a work of ringing authenticity." His most recent work, The Chester Chronicles, is a novel of interconnected short stories narrated by an autobiographical character named Chester Patterson, and was published in February 2010.
Moyer began teaching literature and creative writing at American University in 1970 until his retirement in 2007, and won the American University's Outstanding Teaching Award in 1981. From 1992 to 1995, Moyer was Chair of the Literature Department at American University, after which, he was Co-Director of the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing.
Moyer currently lives in Cape Cod with his wife Amy.
In Capital Letters: Dr. Moyer, can you tell us a little about how moving around the country and oversees in your childhood affected your writing?
Kermit Moyer: At the center of my myth of myself there has always been the fundamental belief that most of the qualities that make me who I am, and especially the ones that make me a writer—my shyness and self-conscious unease, my bookishness and my interiority—have resulted not simply from being named Kermit, or simply from being an Army brat either, but from the wicked combination of being both: an Army brat named Kermit.
ICL: How did you come to literature and writing?
KM: My best friend in the 8th through 10th grades, when I was living in Dallas, Texas, was a kind of literary prodigy who got me reading William Faulkner (his favorite writer), Franz Kafka, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Henry Miller. He wanted to be a writer himself, which is what gave me the idea that such an ambition was possible.
ICL: What authors, books, poems, stories do you return to again and again?
KM: Fitzgerald (especially The Great Gatsby); Hemingway's short stories; James Salter's sentences (and sentence fragments); Moby Dick, especially Chapter 96: "The Try-Works"; Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance for its unreliable-narrator; Frank Conroy's Stop-Time—simply the best memoir of growing up that I know; Norman Mailer's An American Dream—for its first-person voice; ditto The Catcher in the Rye and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, maybe the wisest book I know; Sharon Olds's poetry; Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man; Charles Johnson's Middle Passage; E. L. Doctorow; Scott Spencer; Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (especially the second half), and so on and so on.
ICL: What have you read most recently that has surprised or inspired you?
KM: Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge; Stewart Onan's Last Night at the Lobster.
ICL: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?
KM: My favorite parts of writing are the beginning of a story when anything seems possible and the ongoing trial-and-error process of revision. The part that scares me (because it's mostly not under my control) is writing the first draft of a paragraph or a scene; the part I like best (because it is largely under my control) is revising that first draft, clarifying and polishing what's there until it seems to shine.
ICL: What themes do you find central to your work? How have they changed over the years?
KM: My themes don't seem to change much over time. They include the loss of innocence, desire and taboo, aspiration and heartbreak, and the way that consciousness, through the imagination, "constructs" what we take to be real.
ICL: How do your stories first form? Where do you draw the inspiration for them?
KM: They seem to spring most often from my recollection of an emotion and the circumstances that provoked the emotion. Joined with this is the articulation of that emotion—a sequence of words that not only provokes the emotion but somehow strikes me as being full of implicit content that I can try to tease out of hiding. A sense of place and a sense of a rhythmic cadence or voice are the key elements of composition for me.
ICL: Your latest work, The Chester Chronicle, is a book of interconnected short stories. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of writing this book, and how it is different than a regular collection of short stories or a novel for you?
KM: I wrote about half-a-dozen of the 16 stories in The Chester Chronicles one at a time over several years with only the vaguest notion that they might someday be combined into a unified book. I wrote the other ten stories while I was on a sabbatical from teaching in 2005-06 with the very definite aim of using a sequence of stories to form a fictionalized memoir of growing up that would be retrospective but that would also have the immediacy of the present tense.
ICL: What advice would you give unpublished writers that you would wish someone had given to you when you were still in school?
KM: Remember this—in the words of poet William Stafford (in his book Writing the Australian Crawl): "A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them."
ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be?
KM: "Something's Coming" from West Side Story.
ICL: How has your life changed since retiring from American University? There seems to be an important writing community in Cape Cod, what do you like most about it?
KM: Since I retired, my time is my own—it's as if I've won a residential writing fellowship that goes on forever. I highly recommend it.
ICL: Tell us something about yourself most people don't know.
KM: My middle name (no kidding) is Wonders.
ICL: If you weren't focused on writing, what would you be doing?
KM: Probably trying to learn how to become a musician—preferably a jazz pianist; failing that, maybe a harmonica player.