An interview with J.R. Moehringer
You've got to be some kind of literary masochist to be willing to take a long, unflinching look at your own personal history—warts, cold sores, pimples and all—then share what you find with a bunch of complete strangers. All the best memoirs in the world, though, are fueled by precisely this kind of fearlessness, and J.R. Moehringer's stunning memoir, The Tender Bar, is no exception.
Raised by a tough, charismatic mother, Moehringer was cursed early on with an absentee father who turned out to be both a deadbeat and a psychopath. After somehow weaseling his way into Yale, a beautiful girl pulverized Moehringer's young heart into a fine powder. Then, after he graduated, he tried to make a living as a top-of-the-line East Coast reporter. Despite his best efforts, he didn't do so well. Through it all, he sought consolation in a neighborhood bar where he found the masculine company and guidance so sorely lacking at home.
Moehringer's story is unique, but only in the sense that everyone's story is unique. His real strength is in how he tells that story. The Tender Bar is blessed with an enviable sense of pacing. This guy knows what to reveal and when to reveal it. He knows how to tell a joke. He also knows how to make you cringe, sometimes at his own less-than-perfect behavior, sometimes at circumstances far beyond his control.
Nancy and Allison over at Bookworks were kind enough to introduce me to The Tender Bar after it came out in hardcover last year. Earlier this month, it was released in paperback, and we all agreed the book would be the perfect inaugural selection for the Alibi's long-planned online book club (see “Alibi Book Club Kick-off”).
Although he got off to a rocky start, life turned out just fine for Moehringer. He became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. In 2000, he won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
The Alibi recently convinced him to take a brief break from an ambitious assignment he's working on for the Times to talk about the art of memoirs, the scandal surrounding James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, and the personalities that made his memoir such a joy to read.
What are you working on for the Times these days? Sounds like you've been really busy.
Yes, I've been working on a story about a library in a county where no one can read. It's about the librarian and all his hard work. The librarian just retired, and we're trying to get it into the paper.
Where is the library?
It's down in Mississippi in a county where 45 percent of the population is totally illiterate. The estimates vary as far as functional illiteracy, but it's pretty grim. I think the misconception is these people are illiterate and much of the fault is their own, and I hope this story totally puts that idea to rest. This librarian has done everything he can to pull them out of that abyss. They have made such great use of this library, and the illiteracy rate in this county would be worse without it. If you care about books or words or language, I think it's a story meant for you. I'm hoping it'll get in the paper in the next few weeks.
Amazing. I'll definitely hunt that down. And what will your next book project be? Have you started working on it yet?
I'm taking notes for an idea, but it's fiction, and I don't know that I'm going to write fiction next. I don't know if anyone will let me write fiction next. This idea has a hold of me, though, so I have been involuntarily jotting down notes and doing research and reading. But I may be working not on the next book, but maybe the third or fourth book.
I know you read a lot of memoirs in preparation for writing The Tender Bar. Did that have a heavy effect on your approach to writing it?
Well, the more memoirs you read the more you have faith in the idea that everyone's life has importance and can have resonance if it's structured in a certain way. Because your memoir is so focused on you, you're constantly anticipating the reader's hostility—and there is a hostility that readers bring to memoirs that they don't to other genres. People wonder why they should care about your life when it's all they can do to deal with their own. You're just trying to get them over the suspicion of narcissism.
Since the whole James Frey scandal, readers have become extremely skeptical about memoirs. How do you answer readers' concerns about your credibility? You probably get asked this question all the time, right?
I had a five- or six-month run there after my book came out when people believed that James Frey had told the truth. There was a honeymoon period where if you told the truth in your memoir, as I did, you were able to go out and have discussions with people about the book and not have to submit to the polygraph that memoirists are now submitted to. I actually think James Frey did us a favor, because now we have a chance to really engage the reader and put to rest any doubts they might have about the truthfulness of our books.
Yet the nature of memory makes it impossible to get everything exactly perfect, right? We're talking about the difference between making a few inevitable mistakes and outright lying.
Right. I think what readers look for in a memoir is an effort to make it as truthful as possible. Readers are smart enough to understand that memories are corrupt and people's recollections are different and that recreated dialog is going to be close, but not always, verbatim. But again, I want people to know that I took notes for a novel about the bar I intended to write that would use journalism and reportage. So I was blessed to have cocktail napkins and notebooks that had actual things people said written down in real time. And there's some dialog that is recreated, but it's recreated after interviewing the people I had the conversations with.
Have you gotten much feedback from the people in the book? What do they think about it?
They have been almost all universally pleased with it, I think. I haven't heard from my aunt and cousins. There was that schism in the family that I write about toward the very end. Their silence is their verdict. But all the guys in the bar I wrote about have expressed a lot of pleasure and a lot of pride. If anything else is true, they haven't told me. Of course, my mother has been pleased also with the book.
How is your mom doing?
She's doing quite well. She's the first person people ask about, and I'm very happy to tell them that she's doing well, feeling well. She's a very shy woman, very private, but I think she has enjoyed hearing from strangers, getting letters, and being complimented in reviews and newspapers. That's been a kick for her.
She comes off as a pretty heroic figure.
Yeah, you could definitely argue that through it all, my mother is the hero of this memoir. She got us through incredibly hard times. She helped me when I was losing my mind, applying for college and during college. She really helped me when I was out of control at college. And she had some of the best writing advice I've ever gotten. You know as a writer that when you're really turned around and lost, some of the best advice is good common sense delivered in a tone of compassion and understanding. And that's my mother's specialty.