Dinty W. Moore, writer and editor of the online journal Brevity, corresponded last week with Sara Hoover — NBCC intern and University of Memphis MFA student — about his unusual name and his forthcoming memoir, Between Panic and Desire, due out in March 2008 from University of Nebraska Press.
Q: A while back, after seeing your name on a petition, someone on Critical Mass claimed you weren't a real person, which caused quite a comments flap. I’m sure you hear cracks about your name all the time. Has anyone accused you of not existing before?
What I get most often is a cashier at a grocery store who looks down at my credit card and insists, “Come on, that’s not really your name!” Usually the cashier is named ‘Mary' or 'Frank.' Often I just smile and say, “Yes, that is my name,” but sometimes I will point at Mary or Frank's big plastic name tag and insist, “That’s not really your name, is it?” This seems to baffle everyone.
Q: Okay, so what’s the story behind your name?
Dinty Moore, back in the early 1900s, was a character in the comic strip Bringing Up Father. He was a wiry, mustachioed, cigar-smoking scoundrel in spats and a bowler hat who pulled the main character – Jiggs – away from his wife and daughter and off to visit the taverns. Dinty Moore represented every Irish-American stereotype of the time: buckets of beer, fatty corned beef, back room card games, coarse language, and unreliability. I wrote an essay about this called Mick on the Make: Notes on an Unusual Name, which is in the current issue of the Southern Review. As I discuss there, the question of why my mother thought this was a great name for her beaming baby boy remains an open one.
Q: You changed your name to William for a few years to be taken more seriously. Did people treat you differently? And were you more serious as William?
It gets tricky here, and if any lawyers are reading, I’m in trouble. All my life I’ve been known as Dinty. That’s the only name my family has ever used for me. I pay my taxes and conduct all of my official business with that name. But technically – due to an Irish priest who threatened not to baptize me – my birth certificate lists me as William Jr. Briefly, when I was pursuing a career in journalism, I tried out the name “Bill” and it did make me feel different. “Bill” seemed more anonymous — reporters in those days were supposed to be objective, invisible, note-takers — and certainly more serious. But ultimately, I went back to Dinty, because “Bill” always felt like an impostor.
Q: Mick on the Make was adapted from your new book. Where did the idea for “Between Panic and Desire” come from?
My other books were all intentional, but this one sort of snuck up on me. It began with a number of shorter pieces I was writing for magazines. A kind editor pointed out that there was a thematic thread throughout the short essays – popular culture, political scandal, and personal tragedy. The book asks, How did phenomena such as Nixon’s dishonesty, Father Knows Best, the Vietnam War and campus protests shape my early sense of the world, and even more, how did these events shape an entire generation? If I’m looking at the present through a lens distorted by my past experiences and influences, to what degree is that distortion shared by other children of the 60s and 70s? So I started looking for the book within the essays, and eventually something new appeared.
Q: How long did it take to write? Did it change along the way?
Off and on, five years, but other projects came and went during that time. And oh yes, it changed! About half of what existed in an early form of the book has ultimately been tossed away and much new material has been drafted and re-drafted. I like to joke, though it may not be just a joke, that I’m not particularly smart, am not naturally clever, but I am one of the most tenacious, bull-headed people on the planet when it comes to revision. There is nothing I love more than to tear something I’m writing down to the bare studs and start all over.
Q: You’ve called Between Panic and Desire experimental an attempt to stretch the memoir form so readers will be left scratching their heads by certain chapters. How is it experimental? Why did you choose to write it this way? And why do you want people scratching their heads?
Did I say “scratching their heads”? Don’t let my publicist hear that. What a sales pitch! I am interested in experimenting with structure and shape in nonfiction, especially in memoir. The interaction between form and content has been explored more often in the novel and poetry than in nonfiction prose, though recently that has begun to change. So, many of my chapters take on peculiar forms – an abecedarian, an autopsy report, lists and quizzes, a made-for-TV movie script. And though I have no particular argument with chronological order, my memory doesn’t always work that way, and there are about ten years in my young life where I was stoned more often than not, so the book reflects this too, not just in the oddball structures but by moving back and forth in time without apology.
Q: How did you get into to writing?
Most of my life choices occurred because I was stumbling backwards and fell into something. Writing was like that. Years ago, I wanted nothing more than to be a serious, front-page, hard news journalist, but that soon enough became dull and I decided instead that what I really wanted to be was an “artist.” From age twenty to thirty I bounced from making experimental independent films, to trying to paint and do sculpture, to acting and performing in modern dance concerts. For a very brief time I was a hideous, ill-prepared street performer in NYC’s Central Park.
It wasn’t until I ended up in a fiction writing class with the novelist David Bradley that it occurred to me that writers could also be artists. Duh!
Q: You publish book reviews in Brevity — are Brevity’s reviews 750 words or less, like the essays you publish? What’s the benefit of keeping reviews short? And what does Brevity look for in a review and reviewer?
Actually, Brevity book reviews aim to be even briefer: around 500 words. We also minimize summary and evaluation, presenting instead reviews that resemble personal essays: discussing the experience of reading the book or reacting to the subject through personal experience. Just this week, in reaction to Ander Monson's Neck Deep, a book of experimental nonfiction essays, we are putting up a review in the form of a crossword puzzle, with prizes from Graywolf to some lucky puzzle-as-review-solvers.
Q: I understand you were once trampled by a zoo elephant. What happened?
I’m bailing on that question.
Q: C’mon, please?
[editor’s note: Yes, dear readers, that’s Dinty, the former zookeeper.]