By Daniel Ford
Liz Moore’s recent novel The Unseen World defies easy categorization. It’s a story about family—specifically the bond between a daughter and her father—humanity’s relationship with technology, and how love, communication, and identity can span decades.
Booklist called The Unseen World “a stunner,” and author Alex Gilvarry praised it as “beautiful, redemptive, and utterly devastating.” The novel has also received positive reviews from the likes of The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, and The Boston Globe.
Moore recently discussed with me what inspired The Unseen World, how her writing process involves writing between the cracks of life, and why writers should completely unplug from technology while they’re writing.
Daniel Ford: Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a storyteller or was it a passion that developed over time?
Liz Moore: I definitely always wrote. At first it was mainly poems, and it was mainly in a journal. I actually didn’t discover how much I wanted to write fiction until well into college.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
LM: Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield, Russell Banks, Zora Neale Hurston, Stephen King, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce’s Dubliners.
DF: What’s your writing process like?
LM: I take four or five years to write a novel. I don’t have an outline of the story; rather, I begin with characters and really get to know them over the course of dozens of false starts. Once I’ve found the beginning of a problem or a plot for them, I move forward, slowly, with lots of backtracking and starting over.
I usually turn off all technology when I write, and try to set aside at least four consecutive hours for a writing session, but as my life gets busier and my family gets bigger I have to squeeze writing into the cracks of life more.
DF: In addition to being a novelist, you’re also a short story writer. We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about the format that appeals to you?
LM: I love thinking of short stories as gems to polish; I go over and over and over them, trimming excess words from them, substituting language that is more precise or beautiful when I can think of it.
DF: What inspired your recently published novel The Unseen World?
LM: My father is a scientist, and I grew up surrounded by “lab culture” and by computers that evolved from the earliest personal Macs to fairly sophisticated machines over the course of my childhood. Unlike the novel’s protagonist, Ada, I was never strong in science, and I went to public school and had a more traditional upbringing than she has in the book; unlike her father, David, my father is a physicist, not a computer scientist. Also, as far as I know, he has no secret past, which David decidedly does. However, as a child, I had fantasies about being a prodigy like Ada—unfulfilled fantasies, of course—and today I have fond memories of spending time with many of my father’s colleagues and with their spouses and families. Finally, my father works in Boston; I grew up in the suburbs of Boston; and I have an aunt who lives in Dorchester. These are the parts of my upbringing that were most resonant as I was writing this book.
I’ve also always been interested philosophically in the fraught relationship between humans and machines. I first heard the so-called “Turing Test” described as a child, and that concept—combined with the many hours I spent in my youth talking to the Eliza program, a primitive chatbot that came pre-loaded on many early Macs—sparked my curiosity about what truly intelligent machines would act like.
DF: The novel not only spans several decades, but also has interweaving plotlines and a fresh take on artificial intelligence. Did you have all of these elements planned out beforehand or did they flow organically as you were writing?
LM: I didn’t have any of them planned out in advance, which is part of why the novel took so long to write!
DF: I know writers hate talking about themes, but I’ll ask this anyway. Did you want to touch on specific themes in The Unseen World?
LM: I never write “to theme,” and I tell my students not to either. In my opinion, having particular themes in mind when one begins writing results in flat characters that act in unnatural ways. At the end of a strong first draft, I might look back and ask myself what themes happen to be in it, and then try to pull them out in certain ways, but that’s about it.
DF: This being your third novel, I imagine you find yourself putting less and less of yourself, and those in your orbit, into your characters and plot. Is that true or do you still find pieces of your real life that fit perfectly into your narrative?
LM: I’m not sure that’s true; in many ways, this novel is very autobiographical, as it’s set for the first time in Boston (near where I grew up) and deals with a lab (around which I grew up).
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
LM: Disconnect from technology! Leave your phone behind while writing, and turn on a program like Freedom while you’re writing. If your writing requires research, do your research in separate sessions.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
LM: I was born in the early hours of May 25, 1983, the day after the centennial celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge. My grandfather was president of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden at the time, and was in attendance at the celebration. He made a deal on the spot with the then-borough president that if I’m alive for the bicentennial (the day before my hundredth birthday), I’ll speak at the ceremony. Apparently there is a letter to this effect on record someplace in Brooklyn, but presumably it is a paper record and it’s buried very deep in an archive!