Baron of the bizarre

Fifteen books later, Christopher Moore is still up for a challenge

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Courtesy of Charlee Moore

Work days can consist of bad coffee and mundane chit chat with coworkers. However, author Christopher Moore doesn’t deal with boring office mates or monotonous stories — his work days are filled with clever banter and fantastical adventures. Granted, it all takes place in his head.

“So many times my wife will be coming home from work or a friend will be talking about their day of work and who said what, and I’ll be talking about my imaginary friends with the same sort of credibility that they’re talking about Steve who works at the counter in their coffee place,” Moore says. “I talk about my characters like my imaginary friends because they’re the people I’ve spent my work day with, whereas everybody else, most normal people, spend their workdays with other people and have other tales to tell. I suppose it’s a little schizophrenic that all the dialogue from all my friends I made up.”

Since the early ’90s, Moore has delighted his readers with more than a dozen novels filled with these imaginary friends — relatable characters and some not-so relatable, like Jesus Christ and Santa Claus. Frequently appearing on the New York Times bestseller list, Moore’s books sit right in the middle of the everyday life/fantasy/humor Venn diagram. His latest book, Secondhand Souls, is a follow-up to 2006’s A Dirty Job. Secondhand Souls revisits betamale Charlie and his 7-year-old daughter Sophie, who happens to be the Luminatus, aka the Great Death, as they figure out who’s stealing the souls of San Francisco’s dead.

As the baron of the bizarre, Moore’s books present a typical world with an outlandish twist, be it an average girl who turns into a vampire, a hypochondriac who becomes Death or a giant slutty lizard invading a small, sleepy town.

“It’s more interesting to have a normal person you can identify with who’s thrown into a bizarre set of circumstances rather than somebody who is the Princess of Narnia having to get through something like, ‘Oh no, another day with the dragons and the talking lion,’” he says. “I like extraordinary things happening to ordinary people, and that’s how my work has gone.”

Moore’s flair for writing began at a young age. He grew up in Ohio and was influenced by writers such as Jules Verne and Ray Bradbury. From his cop dad, Moore developed his dark sense of humor, a side effect of dealing with crime and death. Moore was around 12 years old when he realized he could make people laugh with his writing, even though sometimes not everyone was amused.

“I got in trouble one time for an editorial I wrote for the school paper — it was about required attendance at a pep rally in high school,” he says. “I had five coaches write rebuttals and my journalism teacher said, ‘I’ll give you an A for the rest of the year if you don’t write anything else.’ So I sat around and played cards.”

In defiance of this early journalistic setback, Moore continued writing, setting his sights on being a serious horror author, the likes of Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson.

“In fact, when I got back to writing in my mid 20s, I had gone to a writers’ conference with horror stories,” he says. “And just the way I turned a phrase made people laugh when I read them. I realized, ‘I guess I don’t write horror stories, I write comedy.’” 

Despite his funny genre, Moore’s novels are far from silly stories. He might not be writing non-fiction but Moore’s stories are filled with facts, imagery, details and authentic language, and they come out of months, or even years, of research.

Whether it’s trips to England or France, or walks through his current location of San Francisco, Moore says he’s always searching for the details to make his stories richer. For Lamb, a comic retelling of the story of Jesus Christ, he did three years of research and visited Israel to create the world of first century Palestine.

“Initially I wasn’t going to [go to Israel], because I thought, well, the people I’m writing about have been dead for 2,000 years, nothing’s going to be the same,” Moore says. “My wife said I need to go because it always adds something to the book. … So I went to Israel in August, which was not a great idea. But it really added to a lot of vividness. Just the roughness of the country, which is not going to be any different now than it was 2,000 years ago.”

Moore says he chooses the subjects he wants to learn about — such as French impressionists for Sacre Blue or global death traditions for A Dirty Job and Secondhand Souls or spending time on a boat with humpback whale researchers for Fluke. He says he feels the reader deserves some truth.

“I’m asking the reader to believe so much bizarre material that the real stuff has to be real …

“So then when I ask you to believe that, alright, these whales are actually ships and there’s people inside of them, you go, ‘Oh OK, well I trusted you on this other stuff.’ It’s going back to the juxtaposition between what’s real and what’s not real.”

Sometimes his previous research also gives him pseudo expertise in strange subject areas. Recently, Moore says he wasn’t surprised to find out that the female version of Viagra uses serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Several years ago, a clinical psychologist told him that taking people off their antidepressants made them depressed and horny. This inspired his novel where a whole village goes off their pills at the same time.

“To find out that that they’re using that to stimulate female libido really cracked me up,” he says. “And I remember saying to somebody, ‘Yeah, I wrote a book about that,’ and they said, ‘You did?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, and they were like, ‘That doesn’t sound like a book about antidepressants.’” 

The research is also beneficial for Moore’s characters, especially with their dialogue. For Fool, a novel based on King Lear from the fool’s perspective, Moore studied British dialects and Shakespeare. For his teenage goth character, Lilly, he studied blogs on MySpace.

“The more layers you give a character, even a minor character, the better chance he or she is going to be believable,” he says.

Inspiration for his characters can come from research, like his character the Emperor of San Francisco, based on Joshua Abraham Norton of the 1800s.

They can also come from less conventional places, like a popular character from Secondhand Souls, who works as an ex agent of death and wears a green suit.

“Minty Fresh came from a mouthwash commercial,” Moore says. “In a 1989 commercial, someone spit out their mouthwash and said, ‘I’m minty fresh!’ And I thought that is a strange name, and I put it in a notebook and carried it around until I decided to use it for a character.”

As most authors, Moore is a meticulous note taker, with notebooks dating back to the late ’80s occupying space in his garage. He says he feels nervous when he doesn’t have one on him. Even on a casual run, Moore has a small moleskin in his back pocket.

“When I lived in Hawaii and used to swim laps for exercise, I had a waterproof pen and paper at the end of the pool,” he says. “I had to remember an idea just long enough to get to the end of the pool, and I’d dry my hands and write it down and go on.”

Those notebooks come in handy when starting a new book. While Moore isn’t a fan of planning every single detail, he does write basic outlines and timelines. Some planning is essential, considering how complex Moore’s stories can get. He introduces a plethora of characters, intertwines their storylines, tosses in a cannibal or demon, then spins in a bit of humor — all in a process that, he says, is anything but effortless.

“It’s just as slow and complex as it looks,” he says. “It’s not any sort of stroke of genius where I just blast it out on the page and then shape it into what it looks like. There’s a lot of thinking involved and a lot of circles and arrows being drawn.”

In his latest tale, Moore revisits the subject of death, a topic that he feels gets compartmentalized and put away.

“Part of the reason for writing the book is that as Westerners we put death in a closet. We don’t really accept that it’s a part of life,” he says. “Guys come in with gurneys and shuffle off the dead. … Yet it’s something that we’re all going to experience and we’re going to encounter multiple times.”

Death was not a subject that Moore says he had thought a lot about until he was faced with it multiple times over the past few years. He cared for his dying mother back in Ohio for five months, then soon after helped care for his wife’s mother before she passed. 

“My dad died when I was fairly young, 21, really suddenly,” he says. “There was sort of this vacant space — the sound the light bulb makes when it’s breaking, and there’s a vacuum there, suddenly. So watching and caring for someone as they were dying slowly — there’s a lot more time to think about it. I had a lot more experience in life to apply to it.”

Moore doesn’t pretend to know the secrets of death, but in his observations he’s come across a conclusion that he says is rather “duh” and banal: be aware.

“That’s really, in a way, the subtext of these death books,” he says. “To make a statement of being aware — they’re obviously more for entertainment and comedy, but the underlying philosophy is to taste the cheese you’re eating, and be aware, and be conscious of what’s going on. You have to do that to be good at what I do.”

Fifteen books later, Moore is still pushing himself to be more mindful and do something different. He doesn’t want to write the same book every time, saying he didn’t become a writer to turn out widgets on an assembly line. Over his career he says he’s gained more confidence in himself and his ability to turn out stories.

“It keeps your job interesting,” he says. “As long as you’re trying to do something you’re not sure you can do or setting a challenge, hopefully you get better. And to be 58 years old and to still be going, ‘I can still get better at this, and I can still be challenged by this’ — that’s a great thing to have. I feel really lucky to have that.

“It’s more linear than geometric in the way that I’ve evolved,” he says. “Maybe I haven’t evolved, maybe I’m just better at doing it. Not that it’s easy, because you endeavor to challenge yourself, but now I have a lot more confidence that I’ll probably be able to do it.

Regardless of the confidence he’s gained, Moore still has his momentary lapses.

“In every book there’s a point where I’m fairly well convinced that I should have never done this and it was a stupid idea, and I’m going to die penniless and alone in a cardboard box under a bridge cradling my urine-soaked remainders,” he says. “But now I know after 15 books that’s just part of the process, and I’ll probably be on the other side of this at some point. It’s just gonna suck for a while.”

ON THE BILL: Secondhand Souls — Christopher Moore. 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 28. Tattered Cover 2526 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, 303-322-7727.