Originally from North Carolina, Marshall Moore is an American writer, publisher, and academic living in Hong Kong. Since his debut novel The Concrete Sky (2003) he has written three further novels and three collections of short stories. His latest book is Inhospitable, a ghost story set in Hong Kong (which will be published by Camphor Press this May). His writing is difficult to categorize, but is perhaps best described as literary fiction with a touch of weirdness. Before moving to Asia (Hong Kong via a three-year stay in South Korea) he worked as an American Sign Language interpreter for fifteen years. Moore founded the publishing house Signal 8 Press in 2010. He teaches at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
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How did you get into writing?
You could say that I started writing before I could actually write. I’d make up stories and draw pictures and diagrams on paper to illustrate what was going on. When I was a little kid, my father worked for a company that did something with computers (that was the extent of my understanding then and I still don’t actually know what he did), and he was always bringing home paper that I would quickly use up. Later, maybe in the 3rd grade, I had a teacher who put a lot of emphasis on creative writing. It turned out I was pretty good at writing stories, and at some point I realized it was what I’d been put on Earth to do. I never struggled much with what I wanted to be when I grew up; I’ve always known, and I’ve always done it.
What are some of the books which influenced your early writing? Who are some of your favourite authors today?
When I was a kid, L. Frank Baum’s Oz series and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia were huge influences, as were Edward Eager’s books. I loved Eager’s work in particular: there was a sort of matter-of-fact archness to his writing that resonated with me. I also read every book the library had on ghosts. When I got a bit older, I started reading my parents’ John D. MacDonald mysteries, the Travis McGee ones set in Fort Lauderdale. (If anyone in or adjacent to Hollywood is reading this, somebody ought to adapt those for television.) That’s when I got into Stephen King, too, who’s still one of my favorites. In fact, I’m finally working my way through the Dark Tower books, which I regret not reading when I was younger. Haruki Murakami’s another favorite, and I’m looking forward to Killing Commendatore when it comes out in English.
Before tackling a novel, most writers start off with short-form writing, whether magazine and newspaper articles, short stories, or blog posts. What was your route to your first novel The Concrete Sky (2003)?
I took the short-story route too. The gospel of short-form writing may or may not still be preached in MFA programs, but it’s a good launch pad for book-length work. I’ve been writing short stories all my life, and after years of rejections I sold my first one back in 1997. A few years later, another short-story sale led directly to the publication of The Concrete Sky. I had submitted a story to an anthology I was interested in, and as it turned out, the editor actually worked for the publishing house. He asked if I had written a novel or was planning to. I had just finished the first draft when we had that conversation. I tidied it up, sent it to him, and voila: my first book sale.
Did the relative ease of getting your first novel published have any long-term effect on your writing career?
I had to think about this one. To be honest, I think that what happened with The Concrete Sky was part of something bigger: when I moved to California back in 1999, I started selling short stories one after another. Then the first book, and the second, and the third. To say the least, it was a rush. It was escape velocity. It’s one of the things that have enabled me to persevere despite the delays and other obstacles I’ve faced.
Your publication history has a consistent pattern of a novel being followed up with a short story collection, then another novel and so on. Happenstance or do you find short stories a welcome change of pace from the more intensive work involved in doing a novel?
It’s deliberate now although it didn’t start out that way. Some of it was to do with the order in which my books were accepted and then dropped by their respective publishers. I don’t alternate between writing short fiction and writing novels, I just keep writing short stories one after another. When I’m busy with other projects, it can take ages to get through one, but they’re my first love and I keep writing them no matter what. This is why every few years I seem to have enough of them for a book-length work. After this, the pattern will probably change: my next projects are two edited (or co-edited) academic books and a memoir. Having said that, I still think I’ll do another collection before my next novel. It’ll be called Love Is a Poisonous Color, unless I change my mind, which I probably won’t. No idea what my next novel will be or when I’ll get around to writing it.
What was the inspiration for Inhospitable?
Pragmatism. When you do a PhD in creative writing, you submit a proposal that includes a description of the creative work you want to write as well as the research component behind it. I had written part of a short story that featured Lena (whose name changed for the novel; I had an unpleasant colleague with her original name at my former job and didn’t want to be reminded of her outside of work) and Marcus under similar circumstances. I knew that what I was trying to write would be longer than a short story, so I set it aside, then dusted it off again for the doctorate. As for the rest, well, thanks to the creative magpie that lives in my head, it’s an amalgam of things. Partly it’s a meditation on life as an expat in Hong Kong, and on the idea of ghosts from the past that follow you when you leave your home country. The part about the hotel… several friends of mine work in the hospitality sector, so I’ve picked up a few things from getting to know them. To an extent, the book is also a comment on this city’s real-estate obsession.
As part of your PhD studies you looked closely at both the Chinese and Western traditions of ghost stories. What are some of the differences?
The short answer is that it involves agency. Chinese ghosts have a lot more of it than Western ones do. They can take solid form, eat and drink, have sex with living people, and so on. There’s a whole mythology around the afterlife and even a legal tribunal of sorts. Western ghosts tend to be more limited in how they can manifest and what they can do. They may only manifest as a disruption to a single channel of sensory perception, like a cold draft in a room or a hazy presence. There are stories of them taking solid form as well, but not as robustly as Chinese ghosts seem to do.
Living in Taiwan (and in particular the boonies), I’m immersed in folk religion and superstitions; all part of everyday life here and there’s little need to look far for inspiration of the supernatural (my house, for example, comes with its own spooky origin tale). Even though Hong Kong is a modern city, I assume it is also rich soil for tales of the otherworldly and that the unpretentious, matter-of-fact Chinese approach to such matters is a good match for your own writing style, which is a kind of restrained surrealism, that is realistic fantasy (with helpings of dry wit).
That juxtaposition is what makes Hong Kong such a fascinating place to live and to write about. It’s exactly as you say: it’s a relentlessly modern city that at the same time is very Chinese. So you get people burning ghost money on the sidewalks, and conducting the cleansing rituals when you move into a flat, and so on. Actually, the parts of the story that related to cleansing rituals and ghosts were inspired by real life: my partner insisted that we do them when I moved into my first couple of flats. The second time was a bit of a mess, and the smoke from the burning ghost money stung my eyes quite badly. After that, I put my foot down and refused to do more. He compromised and now we just burn sage like everybody else.
Why did you choose Western outsiders rather than Hong Kong locals as the main protagonists of Inhospitable?
It wasn’t a conscious decision. When the ideas for stories occur to me, usually I have some sense of who the characters are, or who they need to be. Inhospitable wouldn’t have worked with a local Hong Kong Chinese main character as so much of the story hinged on Lena’s status as an expat, dealing with ghosts from her own past (literally and figuratively), and encountering real live (ahem) ghosts here. Besides, I’ve long been interested in writing about Southerners outside of the (American) South, since I am one myself. There’s also the issue of cultural appropriation, which is touchy.
Can you explain that last point? I’ve recently heard a few Western authors being almost apologetic in their having written novels with non-Western characters. I find talk of cultural appropriation as it relates to literature confusing because I see Western writers having more non-Western characters in their novels as a positive trend.
Let’s just grab the third rail here, why don’t we? There’s a lot of angst and acrimony around the subject of cultural appropriation at the moment. As an author, I feel it’s my responsibility to pay attention, to make sure I am well informed, and to be respectful. That’s what we all should be doing—listening. It would be presumptuous of me to attempt to write a saga about, say, an immigrant family from Honduras. I’ve never been to Honduras, my Spanish isn’t very good, and I simply don’t know enough. I’d be relying on stereotypes; I’m not sure I could tell such a story with integrity. But what’s making this topic difficult is the culture of weaponized offense-taking that has emerged, and it’s being perpetuated by two groups of people: one that’s kind of naïve in a self-righteous way, and another that has axes to grind. If you do any serious reading on the subject, you’ll discover some interesting stuff. To the extent that a consensus exists, it’s that no one can reasonably claim ownership of a culture, that culture is not monolithic, that borrowing and adaptation are not only inevitable but desirable, and that sometimes feelings are going to be hurt. Context is everything, though. It would be vulgar for, say, a fraternity to host a Mexican-themed beer party with big tacky sombreros and fake mustaches. Or the blackface we see so often here in Asia—it’s beyond inexcusable. We’re also seeing silly extremes like banning sushi on college campuses. To make matters worse, the way that the Internet has made people vulnerable to attack is a real problem, one we’ve barely begun to address.
So yeah, I do see why Western writers might feel anxiety at the moment. I have felt it. It’s hard to escape the notion that the line between striving for greater social justice and venting rancor has been crossed, and that Westerners (frequently, white ones) who object are then accused of racism, of fragility, of whataboutism, whatever. Sure, there has been far too much representational injustice and disrespectful sloppiness. Yes, there is plenty to be aggrieved about. Absolutely. But very few realistic, actionable remedies are on offer, either, and the attacks I’ve seen online and in the media really aren’t helping. To bring this back to my own work, I have lived in Asia for some 13 years. The US is a foreign country to me now. I don’t live there and don’t want to, and when I write about it, it doesn’t feel entirely real. While I’d like to think I wouldn’t descend to Lionel Shriver’s level of stridency on the subject, I also don’t respond well to being told to stay in my own lane.
You’re a prolific writer. Eight books and countless other pieces is good going for someone with a full-time day job. Having a cat rather than a dog or children always helps, but any other secrets?
To be honest, I’ve always chosen careers that have offered time and flexibility. More money would be nice, but time is irreplaceable. Before I started teaching, I was a sign-language interpreter, and I freelanced. It meant I’d be going from assignment to assignment, sometimes two or three or even four different locations in one day. Working in one place all day was unusual. Although I stayed busy, I controlled my schedule and could give myself time to write when I needed it. Now, as an academic, there’s less flexibility (everything else kind of goes by the wayside when the semester is in session, especially during the fatigue-slog of the final few weeks of each term), but there’s still a certain amount of time, bits and pieces that I can use. And the breaks between semesters obviously help.
Forgive my morbid fascination, but I find abandoned projects interesting. I’ve got several such wrecks – a book on the snakes of Taiwan, and a travelogue of Mongolia from the mid-nineties (which I still hope to finish, er, one day). Do you have any unfinished books gathering dust or using disc space?
I do have a couple of trunk novels, actually. The one I wrote after The Concrete Sky was a hot mess called Invisible Hands. It was a stupid thriller about a guy who wakes up naked in a Las Vegas casino and has to figure out how he got there. It wasn’t very original, and at some point toward the end (don’t ask me why I finished it, I have no idea), I had a moment of clarity and realized I needed to set it aside. Just before I started the PhD, I finished the first draft of a(n attempt at a) mystery novel, Murder in the Cabaret Sauvignon. It was a decent first draft that had several very good ideas underpinning it, and I may come back to it someday.
How has your work as a publisher influenced your own writing?
I started to say “I’m not sure it has,” but then I thought better of it. Being a publisher has definitely helped. For one thing, when a cascade of unfortunate events resulted in all of my books going out of print or being dropped by their publishers (due to business closures or what have you), I was able to step in and release the books that had been accepted and were suddenly homeless. Not having to go through the trauma, bullshit, exasperation, and endless waiting that shopping them around would have entailed gave me some peace of mind. It’s a luxury writers don’t often have. Moreover, the additional time meant I could revise a couple of those books further, resulting in them being better than the earlier versions would have been. Editing most of the books we’ve published has taught me a lot, too. Another influence, and this has only occurred to me just now, is that having seen how unpredictable success is, I’m more resolute in writing whatever I want rather than trying to pitch my work at where I think the market is.
When publishers put a book on Amazon, they a suggest category. However, the algorithms designed by the Bezos boffins sometimes see fit to assign it elsewhere. I mention this because I was wondering whether your novel Bitter Orange (2013) – which is listed as “gay fiction” – is in the correct category?
When I published Bitter Orange (which was yet another casualty of that string of small presses shutting down), I figured that would be the best fit for it: the protagonist is gay, and it’s important to the plot. It’s about a guy who turns invisible when he does things he knows are illegal or wrong. When I was writing the novel, I saw it as a meditation on the ways that having a power like that – even one with such limited usefulness – could affect someone. There’s another layer, though, and it’s one that crept into the narrative even though I didn’t plan it that way: the issue of visibility is intimately connected to gay identity and the idea of coming out. I didn’t want to shortchange the story (and by extension, myself) by pretending that element wasn’t there, or by downplaying it.
How do you feel about genre writing: is it fun to break the boundaries or is it better to play it safe and stick to a genre?
Just yesterday, I was at a party, and someone asked what kind of fiction I write. I opened my mouth and no words came out. My partner saved me from an awkward moment by saying “Weird stuff.” That seemed to satisfy everybody. The thing is, I’ve almost always written from this very peculiar, shifting, interstitial point of view that’s sort of literary fiction and sort of horror and sort of gay and occasionally sort of speculative/sci-fi. Unless I’m responding to a request from an editor or a call for submissions, I rarely set out to write a certain type of fiction – and even then, I tend to do my own thing. If the ideas that come to me fit within genre conventions, great, and if they don’t, then they don’t. Compared to a lot of my other work, Inhospitable is an anomaly in that regard: I stayed quite true to the conventions of the ghost story. But even then, I had two different sets to work with and was also keeping an eye on the influences of horror. Now that I think about it, maybe it’s not such an anomaly after all. Yeah, I think genre is more the exception for me than the norm.
Would you like to write full-time?
There was a time when I would have said yes, but I enjoy my academic career and would like to stick with it. I like getting to know the students, and even though the academy is a beleaguered institution at the moment, no matter what country you’re in, there’s a real collegiality that I appreciate. The ideal of a life of the mind isn’t dead, it’s just… under bombardment, you could say. If my interpreting career gave me a lot of material, my academic work is refining my ability to write about it. I’m fortunate to be in that position. In retirement (assuming the world hasn’t ended by then), I’d like to spend more time on the writing, but for now, even if I were to come into some kind of windfall, I would not quit the day job.
Do you enjoy living in Hong Kong?
At times. This is an amazing, breathtaking city in so many ways. When the weather’s nice (which does happen occasionally, usually during the fall and spring) and it’s not too crowded, it can be spectacular. There’s a lot to do, and no end of good places to eat. The convenience is addictive, and I don’t think any other city on Earth has done as good a job with public transportation. There are drawbacks, however. Even though I make a decent living, I’d like to buy property and can’t afford it here. There are too many tourists, too, and walking through busy districts like Tsim Sha Tsui, Causeway Bay, and Central can be like a sustained physical assault. You literally have to walk in the street sometimes because there isn’t enough room on the sidewalks. (Don’t even get me started on the fact that the sidewalks have fences.) Although the air pollution isn’t nearly as bad as it is up in the mainland, it’s pretty grim at times. These are serious issues, and the older I get, the harder it is to ignore them. For now, I’m okay: I’ve got a job I like, permanent residency, and a nice place to live. It’s home. Will I be here forever? Ask me again in ten years!
One of the advantages of writing as a creative endeavour is that age extracts less of a toll on our abilities. Do you feel, as you ease into your late forties, that you’re at the height of your writing powers?
That’s an interesting question, and it’s one I’ve been thinking about off and on for some time now. My work has matured. About ten years ago, I went through a little spasm of worry because my prose didn’t seem to have the same kind of nutty, balls-out intensity that it used to. Then I realized it shouldn’t. I wouldn’t want to write the same way at 50 that I did at 30. As long as I continue learning, I would hope that my work will continue to improve. Some writers do amazing work in their 60s and 70s. I hope I’ll be active and working then and beyond. I’m pretty sure I’ll still want to.
(Coming soon) Marshall Moore’s latest novel Inhospitable
A Publisher Interview with Marshall Moore.