An empathetic pen

Liz Moore, 28 , created a hero who is 58 and 600 pounds. (Photo by Jeffrey Stockbridge)
Liz Moore, 28 , created a hero who is 58 and 600 pounds. (Photo by Jeffrey Stockbridge)

In Liz Moore's second novel, "Heft," she exhibits her uncanny knack for inhabiting characters one might think she'd know little about.

Posted: January 15, 2012

'The first thing you must know about me is that I am colossally fat," says Arthur Opp in the opening line of Philadelphia author Liz Moore's second novel, Heft, which is due Jan. 23.

Arthur isn't a typical hero.

A 58-year-old former literature professor, he weighs nearly 600 pounds and lives a solitary life in a Brooklyn brownstone he hasn't left in 18 years. (He did venture as far as the front steps once, 10 years ago.)

A bittersweet novel, Heft is peopled by men and women so isolated by their fear of rejection, they've ceased to seek meaningful connections.

"They are all shuttered, closed in on themselves," says Moore of her characters. That includes Arthur's long-lost love, Charlene, a single mother systematically destroying herself with alcohol and pills, and her son, Kel, a 17-year-old baseball prodigy who is just as alienated because he has to be her caretaker.

It's hard to reconcile the self-hating Arthur and his compadres with their accomplished creator, a slim, poised 28-year-old woman who seems very comfortable in her skin.

Unlike the phlegmatic Arthur, Moore is all action.

Born to an academic family in Framingham, Mass. - dad, Stephen Moore, is a Harvard University physicist who specializes in nuclear medicine; mom, Christine Parkhurst, teaches English at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences - Moore wrote her first book, The Words of Every Song: A Novel, while an undergrad at Barnard College in New York.

"I took a lot of creative writing courses," Moore says during an afternoon chat in her South Philly living room.

"And I was able to write a lot of the stories as my classwork."

Moore didn't waste her free time: A guitar player and singer, she played gigs throughout college, releasing her first album, Backyards, shortly after graduating in 2005.

"It's acoustic, singer-songwriter [music]," Moore says when asked about the album.

"I guess it's a little folk."

While not exactly a roman à clef, The Words of Every Song draws heavily on Moore's personal experience.

Set in New York's music scene, each of its 14 linked stories focuses on a different character, including a would-be rock star, a has-been megastar, and a cynical record executive.

"I was really immersed in New York's music scene," says Moore. "I used to work at this well-known guitar store in the Village called Matt Umanov Guitars, and I met a ton of characters there and while I was out playing shows. . . . It seemed easy, in a way, to write about them."

Moore trails off, looks out the window for a few beats.

"I haven't had time for music lately," she adds. "What with the writing and my teaching."

She's busy, all right.

Moore followed her debut novel and album with a two-year stint in graduate school at Hunter College in New York, earning an MFA in creative writing in 2009. She moved to Philadelphia later that year after winning an arts residency fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. She has since landed a position as an assistant professor of English at Holy Family University in the Northeast.

Heft, an ambitious, 352-page novel, took Moore four years to complete. Told by two narrators, it required Moore to take on two voices: The first half is told by Arthur, the latter by the teenage Kel.

The book tells the heartbreaking story of people who seem unable to recover from lost connections. Once a respected professor, Arthur walks away from his job after being cautioned for developing an innocent friendship with a young coed named Charlene.

For 18 years, the would-be friends communicate only through letters, until one day Charlene asks Opp to help with her son, Kel's, education.

The request slowly brings Arthur out of his self-imposed exile from life, and the novel out of despair into some sense of redemption.

Heft began taking shape at Hunter.

"It was an amazing experience," Moore says of her two years at Hunter, where she apprenticed under renowed authors Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda), Colum McCann (Zoli), Nathan Englander (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges), and Russell Banks (Affliction).

McCann speaks in glowing terms about Moore.

"I knew from early on that Liz had the desire, stamina, and perseverance to make it as a writer," he says by e-mail while in transit home from Ireland. "She had real fire. She can tell a good story. And she can tell it well."

Carey was equally impressed. "Here's what really impresses me about Liz Moore," he says by e-mail from his home in New York. "She has the courage to be original and put herself in strange places."

Moore's fellow Hunter graduates Alex Gilvarry and Jessica Soffer praise Moore for avoiding the stylistic gimmicks that seduce many young writers.

"When I met her in grad school I was really intimidated by her," says Gilvarry, whose debut novel, the Guantanamo Bay satire From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant, was released on Jan. 5. "She already had published a book, and no one else had."

Soffer, whose untitled debut novel is due in spring 2013, says Moore is forthright in person and in print.

"She is sensible, which seems to be an underrated virtue in writers," she says, "but makes for the kind of thoughtful, poignant, direct prose that is distinctly Liz Moore's."

Moore's agent, Seth Fishman, met her during a visit to Hunter.

"I was struck by the fact that her writing is not typical of other MFA students' works," he says. "It was extraordinarily mature."

Fishman says while most MFA students write about themselves, or their generation, Heft took Moore into uncharted territory.

"[Heft] was a leap forward for Liz in terms of subject matter," says Gilvarry. "Suddenly she's writing about a 550-pound man and a high school athlete. These are types of characters I didn't even know she knew about."

Speak to people who know Moore, and one word keeps cropping up: empathy. It's almost uncanny.

"[Moore] has the empathy to inhabit lives completely different from her own," says Carey, whose new novel, The Chemistry of Tears, is due May 15.

"Then she has the guts to follow her ideas to their logical conclusion."

Adds Carey, "There are established writers who lack this quality, who slam on the brakes in terror of the abyss."


Author appearances

Liz Moore is scheduled to read from Heft at two events in the beginning of February.

Lunchtime reading with Liz Moore: 12:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 6, Campus Center, Room 115, Holy Family University, 9801 Frankford Avenue, Philadelphia. Information: 215- 637-7700 or www.holyfamily.edu

Philly Writes! presents Liz Moore: 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts, 439 Ashbourne Rd., Cheltenham. Tickets: $10 in advance or $12 at the door. Information: 215-379-4660, www.cheltenhamarts.org, or ww.lynnrosen.com/openbook


Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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