I recently reviewed Bitter Orange, by Marshall Moore at CCLaP. In this interview with the author, we discuss the superhero genre, the concept of self-loathing, and scheduling creative writing projects around a busy work life.
How were you inspired to write Bitter Orange?
MM: It was a combination of things. I was living in Korea when I wrote it, pretty far out in the suburbs of Seoul. Westerners there were few and far between, so there was a lot of staring. Being the center of so much attention made me think about invisibility. I had also been playing with another idea, about a guy who goes out once a week to do his Friday crimes. In the end, the book took a different direction, but the fusion of those two ideas is where it started.
Would you describe Bitter Orange as different from other novels about superheroes and people with superpowers?
MM: I think it’s different because so many of those books follow a similar narrative arc, in which the character discovers, hones, and ultimately masters his or her power. Carrie and Firestarter come to mind, and more recently Doctor Sleep. In Bitter Orange, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say Seth masters his ability. He tries, of course. Whether he succeeds, and to what extent, are questions I leave to the reader. And I deliberately avoided black-and-white conclusions about what the ability was, how it came to exist, and what was likely to happen next. This probably violates half the rules of publishing, but so be it.
Is Seth a self-loathing hypocrite? Or is that statement too harsh?
MM: No, it’s too harsh, both in terms of Seth’s financial status and his sexuality. Seth was never keen to live the luxurious, fast-paced Wall Street lifestyle that surrounded him. I always thought he sort of fell into it, but that wasn’t who he was, and he burned out. I have known people like that. Which is not to say he wanted to take a vow of poverty: he had a nest egg and made some good investments. It feels odd to be called upon to justify his life choices, and to make him seem more palatable by disclaiming that he wasn’t rich. If you look at the choices he made in San Francisco, like buying secondhand household items or taking in a flatmate, those aren’t moves you’d expect from rich yuppie scum.
To be fair, a lot has changed since I wrote the first draft of this book back in 2006. The US is in a painful place now, people are out of work, and financial security is an elusive concept. I get it: I live in Hong Kong now, and decadence is commonplace here. Every time I see a Lamborghini, I wish I had a baseball bat. It’s probably hard to read about someone who owns a few rental properties when you’re worried about how you’re going to pay the rent. But I don’t think it’s hypocritical to have a modicum of financial security while still deploring the corruption in the business world and the way it has co-opted civil society.
I also think that it’s incorrect to take the evolution of his sexuality (more of a detour, really) in the story as a sign of self-loathing. To be honest, in the first draft, he wasa lot more conflicted, but that didn’t feel right to me. I saw him as a guy who had kept a lot to himself, too much. There are a lot of reasons people keep quiet about their relationships; it’s not always about self-hatred or the closet. I also saw him as a young man who had experienced a hideous loss, something that had affected him at the most basic levels of his identity. When he lost his boyfriend in the 9/11 attacks, that knocked him off balance for quite a long time, and Elizabeth was like the endpoint on that period in his life. Such things are not so unusual in the gay community. They’re probably not so unusual, period. I suspect a lot of men who identify as straight could, under similar shattering circumstances, find themselves in the opposite situation without it representing a fundamental change in who they are.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
MM: Haruki Murakami’s the easy answer: when I discovered him about 15 years ago, he hadn’t become so popular; he was like my secret favorite writer whom no one else I knew had heard of. There are several other Japanese writers I really like: Taichi Yamada, Otsuichi, Keigo Higashino, Natsuo Kirino. I wish more of their books had been translated. And Stephen King continues to amaze me. Even when I can see the seams and the stitches, he tells a damn good story.
What kind of work schedule do you have and does it affect your creative projects?
MM: I have a full-time teaching job, and I’m in a PhD program. This entails a lot of juggling. Fortunately, the PhD is in creative writing, so I have to read and I have to write. I can’t let those go by the wayside for too long. I’d prefer to have more time for it all — I’m constantly being pulled in too many directions — but isn’t that the story of the human condition?
Any new creative projects in the works?
MM: Yes. Three new books are essentially done. Next up is a book I’m co-editing with Xu Xi. This is a collection of short fiction from Hong Kong authors (not us, although we’re writing an introduction), The Queen of Statue Square: New Short Fiction from Hong Kong. This should be out in early 2014. I’ve written another novel, a murder mystery (with Marshall characteristics) called Murder in the Cabaret Sauvignon. I’ve also got enough short fiction for another collection, and that’ll be titled A Garden Fed by Lightning.
Are people too eager to classify someone as good or evil? (Especially in the context of superheroes and supervillains as literary characters.)
MM: Yes and no. This question makes me think of George Bush fils and his bullshit line about evildoers, his justification for sending us into war. You’re with us or you’re against us. Superhero movies tend to make easy distinctions between the good guys and the bad ones. Americans must like that. How many times have Superman, Batman, and Spiderman been recycled? How many times does a cow chew its cud? In literature, I think that antagonists tend to be more carefully nuanced. (I will not make references that involve shades of grey because I don’t want anyone thinking I’ve read the sloppy smut books.) If people are too eager to write someone or something off as evil, then it’s probably meant as an antidote to thinking. Hmm, maybe I should rethink how I write…
What superhero franchises do you like? Are there any you can’t stand?
MM: I’ve always liked the X-Men franchise because they speak to everyone who’s ever been an outsider in some way. Carrie and Firestarter spoke to me for the same reason: what gay man hasn’t wished he could incinerate the people who spat in his face on the school bus and stomped on the wheels of his bike? The Marvel films are fun too, even if they’re kind of all over the place. Heroes started out so well and quickly tried to become the worst thing on TV; Misfits was how it should have been done!
Have you read Saga, by Brian K. Vaughan?
MM: No, but it’s on the list now. Thanks! (What made you ask?)
[Mainly out of curiosity. I’d never heard about it until my wife aggressively insisted that I read it. But I enjoyed its combination of Space Opera, sharp dialogue, and bonkers world-building. In terms of superhero comics, this seemed radically different. – DAR]
What’s the best part about being a writer?
MM: Hard to say. There’s that frisson when I see my name on the spines of my books. More than that, it’s when something happens to remind me that there are people out there who genuinely like my work, who follow it, and who find it meaningful. (And these are not people I know.) I don’t have a large readership, and it might actually be bigger in the UK than the US. Wherever they are, I don’t take them for granted. That’s one of the most profound compliments anyone can receive.