Complex Fathers and Daughters: An Interview with Author Honor Moore

On Oct. 25, poet, dramatist and biographer Honor Moore will visit Salt Lake City as part of the 2008 Utah Humanities Council’s Great Salt Lake Book Festival. During her hour long talk she will read from and answer questions about her memoir, The Bishop’s Daughter. The book chronicle’s Moore’s often turbulent relationship with her father Paul Moore, who was well-known in his nearly two decades as New York City’s Episcopal bishop for his groundbreaking work against homelessness and racism, and his support for gay and women priests. A closeted bisexual, Bishop Moore hid his sexuality from his family even as his daughter openly explored her own, with male and female partners.

Moore is also the author of four books of poetry and a play, Mourning Pictures.

JoSelle Vanderhooft: How did you get involved with the Book Festival?

Honor Moore:
They invited me. My book has received a lot of publicity. It was excerpted in the New Yorker, and you can read a piece of it online. There’s also an interview on the New Yorker podcast.

JV: Tell me a little about The Bishop’s Daughter.

HM: It’s a story of a daughter’s relationship to someone – I’m actually going to interrupt myself. I gave a talk earlier in the summer in Saratoga Springs. This woman raised her hand and said, “Thank you so much for writing a book about complex daughters with complex fathers.” … Complex daughters of complex fathers. If there is a subject of the book, that’s what it is. It’s essentially the story of a father and a daughter. It’s novelistic not in the sense that it’s fiction, but in the sense that it tells a big, American story.

JV: Before writing The Bishop’s Daughter, you had written a biography of your grandmother, artist Margarett Sargent. Describe for me, if you would, how you wrote that book, and how the process differs when writing autobiography.

The White Blackbird—which, by the way, Norton is going to reissue this spring—is a biography with elements of memoir. I was not interested in writing a biography. In writing White Blackbird, I was interested in finding the life of this woman who had been an artist, but who I knew as my Boston grandmother. She came from a lot of wealth and, you know, I knew her as kind of odd and mentally ill. She wasn’t presented to me as an artist. What I wanted to do is show her as an artist and see what the life of Margarett Sargent was … That required a lot of research, art historical and historical research.

JV: And the process for writing The Bishop’s Daughter?

HM: I wanted to explore for myself and resolve my very turbulent and complicated relationship with my father, so that required searching into my own memory. I had also sort of written chunks of things about him for years, but I had ultimately decided I couldn’t write the book I wanted to while he was still alive. Toward the end of his life or at the end of his life … we really reconciled, and I felt all the love for him that had been blocked by anger over my step mother. I had to write a whole book, it’s so complicated and nuanced. And then I knew I had a story because I knew the story had ended in a way that I was interested in as a writer. It’s very hard to write just out of anger and fury, but to tell a story that has an arc.

I also became interested in my father when all the anger fell away. And then I – I didn’t do a great deal of research, but I did collect the journalistic record. I looked for the newspaper record of his accomplishments and achievements and his role in the civil rights movement and so on, which is how he came to prominence. I read his books and I re-read my mother’s memoir of our time in an urban parish, a poorer parish in Jersey City which was where I spent my early childhood. All of his papers are at the archives of the Episcopal Church in Texas. I went there a couple of weeks and went through stuff. I had their letters and my letters from them as I was growing up, I had my diaries and they had saved my letters to them. So I had a lot of stuff to back me up or to reassure me I was remembering properly.

… Then I did some thinking about what I was going to do with the fact he was a priest, and I realized there was some parallel between a religious and an artistic calling, so I decided to think about his priesthood as an art. Then I read the story which was the story of a father and a daughter focused on their relationship with the unseen; in my case through art in his case through religion, our activism and our relationship to sexuality.

JV: Tell me a little about the aspect of sexuality as it features in the memoir?

HM: What was so painful to me was how inhumane and brutal a life in the closet is and what it does to relationships within a family and what it does to a person’s life. I deal in the book with my own anger at him for choosing the closet—if you could say one chooses the closet. [In writing the book] I talked to layman Louie Crew, who started Integrity, which is the gay organization in the Episcopal Church … [He] talked about the kind of choice my father had to make between choosing a gay life, which given his [upper]class background and what was going on historically, would have been very difficult for him. Plus, he was split in the kind of way he fell in love with women. He would say, “I’ve never fallen in love with a man.”

JV: Do you have any other projects in the works right now?

HM: No, there’s nothing in the can. I’ve published five [poetry] books in the past four years, and I’m actually just starting another prose book and starting new poems. But I have edited an anthology called Poems from the Women’s Movement for the Library of America American Poetry Project. It’s a collection of 59 women poets in that time between 1966 and 1982 when the face of American poetry changed and women went into the American poetry world in large numbers. This is an anthology that starts with Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Applicant.” You know, “Am I your kind of person?” and ends with Eileen Myles’ poem about Joan of Arc, and the last line is, when she’s burning: “a dove flew right out of her mouth.” So it begins with “Am I your kind of person?” and ends with, “a dove flew right out of her mouth.”

Moore will read on Oct. 25 from 2:30—3:30 p.m. at the Salt Lake City Main Library (210 E 400 S). The event is free to the public. For more information about her work visit honormoore.com.

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