An Interview with Liz Moore
You’re a woman; was it hard to write in the voices of two men?
I knew right away that I wanted to write about Arthur—he sort of arrived in my brain fully formed (which is rare), and I knew that I wanted to tell his story. But his voice took longer to come. As a matter of fact, Heft was written in the third person for nearly a complete draft until one day the particular rhythms and patterns and quirks of his voice popped into my head. Fortunately I had a journal with me, so I was able to write down what turned out to be the opening paragraph of the novel. (Realizing that this meant that I had to write the whole thing over again—several times—was less of a happy moment!) Kel’s voice came next and felt satisfying in the same way that Arthur’s did. In some ways I feel like I have no choice whose voice I write in; once I’ve decided on a subject I want to write about, I play with voices until I know I’ve found the right one. And there is a right one, oddly—I feel like I know that a voice is right or wrong as definitively as a piece fits into a puzzle.
What was your research process like?
There were three main things I had to research: the logistical aspects of morbid obesity (for example, did you know that many online retailers don’t carry men’s pants in waist sizes larger than a 72?); the medical facts of addiction and overdose; and baseball—specifically, how standout high school baseball players are recruited by the majors. Generally, I like to speak to people with expertise on various subjects, rather than simply relying on books and Web sites; I find that I’m able to ask for small details and specific anecdotes that I wouldn’t otherwise come across. I spoke to two medical doctors, one EMT, a baseball player, and a college baseball coach. (Whatever inaccuracies still found their way into the book are, of course, mine!) The rest I researched more traditionally.
What personal experiences of yours informed the book?
This is the question I am probably most frequently asked about the book. The answer is complex; obviously, I’m neither a 550-pound man who compulsively eats and never leaves his home, nor a high school boy who excels at baseball and underperforms in school, nor a pregnant nineteen-year-old house cleaner, nor a single mother with a drinking problem. But there are parts of me in all of these characters, just as there are parts of every writer in the stories they make up and record. A lot of writers talk about taking a sort of buzzing energy from the most fraught moments in their lives and redirecting that emotional vigor into various made-up moments in their writing. The same true episode in a writer’s life can become the basis for a huge array of fictional episodes—it’s the feeling that matters, not the events. Despite the fact that Arthur seems at first to be quite different from me, of all the characters I’ve ever written I think of him as the most like me. Putting my brain in a radically different body gave me a kind of freedom that I found incredibly satisfying, at times. Similarly, I was able to explore some of the feelings I had as a high school student, or the feelings I used to imagine that some of my classmates had, through Kel. Both were cathartic, in different ways, to write.
I’m not sure it’s ever helpful to bring up specific episodes from one’s own life when talking about the content of a book, so I typically try to avoid doing so. All that matters, in the end, is what’s on the page. But a lot of people want to know whether I have any experience with eating disorders, and I’ll hedge a little bit here and say that I don’t necessarily think that my experience with food and eating is worth any special discussion—but I’ll also say that I think it’s nearly impossible, growing up female in today’s United States, to avoid having at times a difficult relationship with food. I am able to imagine Arthur’s relationship with food very vividly because it’s sort of "the deep end" for me. It’s a place that I’ve been in my life that occurs when I think too hard about food and eating, which I try hard these days to avoid doing.
Can you talk about addiction as a theme in the book?
Everyone in Heft is addicted to something. Arthur is addicted to food and, in a way, to solitude or loneliness. Charlene is addicted to alcohol and to her “heroes.” Kel is addicted to baseball, or to fantasizing about the future that baseball might bring him. The title of the book refers to many things, among them addiction. I have this idea that all of us on earth are carrying around a great weight, and each of our burdens is different but painful. Finding someone—a family member, a romantic love, a friend—who will help us to carry this burden is a great gift, and I think it’s what all of the characters in the book are trying to do.
The book is called Heft. What role do you think weight plays in our society, and in the book?
Our society is terribly messed up when it comes to weight. It’s talked about so frequently that I’ll try very hard not to be redundant or obvious. My take: The thing that is most troubling about the way we think of obesity is the fact that we are simultaneously commanded—by television ads, by print ads on the sides of buses, by fast-food restaurants on every block—to consume a huge number of calories each day, and encouraged to ridicule the overweight or obese. It’s a really vicious paradox, and I can’t see a way out of it yet.
I believe in the concept that it’s possible to be "healthy at every size," and that it’s important to encourage body positivity in young people and not-so-young people, for that matter. I don’t mean for Arthur to embody the stereotype of a fat person who is lazy and eats out of habit—I think this is a false stereotype, and that many overweight or fat people are both active and healthy—but I do think he has an illness, and his compulsive overeating is, well, compulsive. And it leads to his weight gain.
In the book, I chose to make Arthur 550 pounds because I felt it served as a physical metaphor for his emotional state: he is "encumbered" by many things. He is burdened by himself. His eating comforts him in a way that very few people in his life ever have.
Why did you choose Brooklyn, Yonkers, and the fictional Pells Landing as your settings?
I have a long history with Brooklyn, which is one of my favorite places in the world. My father’s parents, my grandparents, moved from Westchester County to Brooklyn Heights, and then Park Slope, in the late 1960s. They and a large group of friends moved into and renovated many of the brownstones that had fallen into disrepair, and sort of precipitated what has come to be called the “Brooklyn Renaissance” of the late twentieth century. Of course, this was then seen—and still is seen—as controversial, because of the fact that so many families were displaced from Park Slope by the influx of rich Manhattanites. But when I was a child growing up in suburban Boston in the 1980s, visiting my glamorous grandparents and their friends in Park Slope was exciting. One of their friends still lives in a beautiful, enormous brownstone situated not far from where Arthur lives in the book, and in my mind Arthur’s brownstone is a modified version of the real-life brownstone that I’ve frequently visited (although the real-life brownstone is much more neatly kept!).
Yonkers and Pells Landing were more difficult to choose. I spent some time in Yonkers when I was in college because I worked with a small theater company there, and the grittiness of certain parts of Yonkers appealed to me. It also reminded me in several ways of my own hometown, which is very nice in parts and very, very downtrodden in other parts. It was important for Kel to be from someplace like Yonkers, and the geographical distance between Yonkers and Brooklyn was right.
Pells Landing is, of course, made up—partly because there was not a town in Westchester County that met all of my needs, and partly because I felt that it would be slightly slanderous to use a real high school in place of PLHS. I had fun imagining Pells, and imagining Kel’s reaction to being in Pells, which would have been similar to my own at his age.
Charlene is an important character because she’s the link between Arthur and Kel, but except for a very short passage we only get to see her through their eyes. Why did you make this choice?
An early draft of the book had three points of view in close third person—one of them being Charlene’s. In the end, I felt that allowing Kel and Arthur to tell her story made sense; part of her "lost-ness" came from not having a really strong sense of self, I think, and in the end it was part of her downfall. She saw herself only the way others saw her. Writing from the point of view of Charlene always felt unnatural and wrong.
What was the hardest part of writing the book? The easiest?
The hardest part was timing the release of information so that everything made sense and nothing was given away too early. It’s always tempting for me, as an author, to frontload a work with everything the reader possibly needs to know about a character or setting—kind of a reader’s manual—before getting into the events of a book. But I try to resist that temptation as much as possible.
The easiest part was writing in each of the two main characters’ voices, once I had finally found them; they felt as natural to me as my own voice. It was really gratifying to get to work on days when I knew what I had to write—like putting on old gloves.
Do you see Arthur and Kel as similar or different?
Physically, they’re as opposite as they can be. But I see them as startlingly similar in other ways, especially in terms of what they want: I think they’re both looking for family and home. They’re both very shy in their own ways—but Kel has been blessed with the gift of physical beauty and grace, where Arthur has not been. Similarly, I think they’re both intelligent, but Arthur has had access to the kind of support and formal education that Kel has not had, prior to attending PLHS—by which point his view of himself as primarily an athlete is cemented in his mind.
What happens after the last page?
I can’t say! But I feel a great sense of hope for both characters, and I have to believe that good things are in store for them. (I like them too much to think otherwise.)
- Why do you think Arthur has isolated himself? What kind of connection does he want, and does he find it?
- Is it possible for the characters of Heft to free themselves from the behaviors, the characteristics, and even the physical objects (a house, for instance) they inherit from their parents?
- Several of the main characters in Heft are outsiders. How does one’s inability to "belong" shape his or her character in the long term? Did the novel reinforce boundaries between different groups? Who appear to be the outsiders in the book?
- From Charlene to Yolanda to Marty to his neighbor’s wife, Suzanne, Arthur seems more comfortable in the company of women. Why do you think that is? What do you make of these platonic relationships?
- Why do you think Charlene kept the identity of Kel’s father a secret, even when she knew she was going to die?
- Do you think Kel will continue to search for his biological father now that he knows Arthur isn’t his? Should he?
- What are the aspirations of the characters in Heft? When is it important for us to strive for something more, and when do those same impulses become harmful?
- Why do you think the author chose to tell this story from multiple perspectives? Did it affect how you perceived these characters? What about your impression of the novel as a whole?
- Both Arthur and Charlene struggle with different types of addiction. Did either of their compulsive behaviors strike you as more dangerous or unacceptable than the other?
- Is it possible to divide the characters in Heft into those who help others and those who are dependent on others’ help? Are there examples of mutual support, too?
- Arthur and Kel still have not met at the novel’s close. What do you think will happen between the two of them when they do meet? Are you optimistic about their futures?