Thursday, September 13, 2007

Lisa Moore in Conversation

On Empathy
A roundtable discussion on empathy in fiction
excerpted from's fall 2007 magazine

LISA: Virginia Woolf has said: “Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning to the end.”

How to create empathy for a character? That is certainly what I want when I write, and what I want when I read. Here are the characters with staying power that instantly leap to mind: Anna Karenina, Jay Gatsby, Hans Schnier in Henrich Boll’s The Clown, Madame Olenska in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Duddy Kravitz, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascomb, Humbert Humbert, Hans Castorp, Suttree, Olanna in Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Half of A Yellow Sun, Mrs. Ramsay, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Dalloway — and they come to me in a sort of emotional shorthand.

I see Heinrich Boll’s clown in face paint on a dark stage, in a spotlight, performing with an oversized ring of keys. The keys are made of ice and they are melting in his hand as he tries to open an invisible door. This is an image of such torpid impotence and grim humour, that I knew, as soon as I read it more than twenty years ago, I would never forget it. Mrs. Ramsey, during the evening meal in To The Lighthouse, silently commanding Lily Briscoe to rescue a socially maladjusted young man. Lily Briscoe moving the salt shaker. Frank Bascomb’s son getting hit in the face by a baseball, down for the count — these brief gestures, these tiny moments, are as real to me as any brief moment in my own life: watching my son swim under the waterfall in Northern Bay, watching him emerge with his hair glossy and plastered down, his eyelashes spiky, his gaping, open-mouthed ecstasy, or: the thick chain that chokes my neighbor’s Rottweiller, slithering crazily through the dirt, the slathering 150-pound beast yanked by the neck, mid-air, and slammed back into the ground a yard from my feet.

To read the rest of the discussion, please click here.


The unabridged audio edition of Open by Lisa Moore, narrated by Lisa Moore, Holly Hogan and Mary Lewis is available from