Interview With Mary Carroll Moore
Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: We were drawn to the vivid imagery when reading Simon’s premonition-like dream in “Breathing Room.” During your drafting process, how did you go about creating and structuring these scenes?
Mary Carroll Moore: I’m a visual artist as well as a writer; I paint landscapes en plein air in the Impressionist style and have sold and exhibited my art internationally. I’m grateful to be equally passionate about two creative outlets, because when one dries up for a while, I switch to the other. Since painting was my first love, the visual strongly influences my fiction. I “see” a story first: the setting’s sensory details must be vivid before I can dream into the characters. Like any tendency, though, it can also get out of hand. One adviser in my M.F.A. program crossed out pages of setting description with her terrible red pen, marking “Enough!” in the margin. I’ve learned to regard any initial enthusiasm for setting and imagery as an aspect to be tempered, in balance with the rest of the story as the characters come onstage more fully in later drafts. But my initial drafts allow free rein.
I don’t write dream sequences as a rule, and repeated feedback to early drafts of “Breathing Room” almost made me delete that opening scene. But Simon’s inner life, and the fantasy he creates around Rose to make his current situation livable, has always felt very dreamlike. He knows he can’t replace his life with what he really wants—and he questions if he really would want it if he got it. In some part of himself, he knows Rose is not real, that the promise she offers is thin and unsubstantial. (I deliberately made her less developed as a character to show how she exists in Simon’s inner world—how she presents a lesser escape that he eventually rejects, thankfully.) This story, though, isn’t meant to deliver any moral or code of ethics. I’m aware that each situation of loss, grief, and tragedy is unique and has its own rules. I mostly wanted to explore the choices we make between the unbearable weight of responsibilities and the freedom we might imagine without them.
RR: In your story, Simon faces a range of difficulties, such as grief. What would you say was the most challenging part of creating his character?
MCM: During the early drafts of this story, I took an online class with Josip Novakovich. When I workshopped the story, many of my fellow students expressed immediate dislike for Simon’s character—one person even called him “repugnant.” Josip, however, was very intrigued by the complexity of such an unlikeable narrator. He encouraged me to push Simon even closer to the moral edge: What if he went through with an affair with Rose while his wife waited, on oxygen, in their hotel room? I wrote several scenes, not used in the final version, exploring this. It freed me to explore the far edge of a dislikeable character, and in the process, discover his humanity and how to make him understandable when faced with such a personal dilemma. I ended up liking him immensely and a version of him is one of the main characters in my forthcoming novel, A Woman’s Guide to Search & Rescue.
RR: How do you go about writing difficult material? What was the most emotional part about writing this piece?
MCM: I went through breast cancer myself in the early 2000s. Although we later divorced, my husband at the time was devoted to my care. Such care is demanding, as anyone who has been through cancer or cared for a loved one facing such diagnosis knows. During surgery and chemo, I became someone I no longer outwardly recognized. I often worried about how I was changing. What if my husband got tired of all of it and left me for another woman? (He didn’t.) Odd to say, but death didn’t worry me as much as being left to face such a battle alone. But the genesis of the story came during those six months. I began writing it for catharsis, I believe. Writing also helped me find my way to accepting a new self, completely changed by the cancer journey.
I’m drawn to reading and writing difficult material. I like entertainment as much as the next person but if I have to choose, I’ll pick a story that challenges me to look at tough aspects of the human experience: loss, betrayal, truth and lies.I also appreciate the alchemy that comes from surviving such experiences. Not all of us transform with everything we face. But my favorite stories explore the interior movement of change.
When writing difficult scenes, I used to have a somatic response: intense stomach pain, for instance, or dizziness. It became my clue for how close I was to the heart of the material. I trained myself to draft until this point, set the writing aside to mature, then try to go deeper. The pause keeps me from editing out the intensity I’m after.
RR: We noticed that in “Breathing Room” there is a strong motif of water in relation to change or tragedy. Why did you make that choice?
MCM: In many traditions, water is the womb, a place of birth and change, the unconscious and the place of possibility. For scuba divers, water is where the best and worst imaginable can happen. I began diving in my 30s, on a trip to the Netherland Antilles. Breathing underwater presents tangible risk and great beauty. Both try to come forward in this story. On a later trip to Australia to dive the Great Barrier Reef, I encountered underwater currents and saw how easily they could dismantle even an experienced diver, as they did with Simon and Rose.
RR: If you could take a vacation anywhere in the world, where would you go and what would you do?
MCM: Very likely I’d return to Australia to further explore the Great Barrier Reef.
Mary Carroll Moore’s work appears in Issue 10.1 here.