AUTHOR: Susanna Moore: Write the good fight

By Kate Kellaway

Susanna Moore came out of the rain into a cafe at the top of the Janiculum hill, in Rome. It was late afternoon, already dark. She was dressed to be ready for everything: a yellow gabardine as if about to fish, a pearly cardigan as if for a party, studious horn-rimmed spectacles and a show-stopping gold necklace, given to women in southern India as a protective dowry. Later, she would pull it from her neck and we would inspect each of its heavy charms in turn, one with a tiny ruby on it, the size of a full stop.

Susanna Moore writes as she dresses: she is braced, ready for anything. In the Cut (now on release as a film, directed by Jane Campion, with Meg Ryan starring) was the novel that made her famous: an erotic thriller that described female sexuality in a way no man would know how to hazard. The book is driven by the desire to name the unnameable — and its narrator, a reckless New York creative writing professor, plays with words as she does with men. I had supposed that Susanna Moore might be like her: an edgy, voluble, New Yorker. And she is — only that there is more to Moore.

Her new novel, One Last Look, set in India, seems to have been written with a different pen — or quill. It has taken eight years to produce and was inspired by the nineteenth- century journals of Fanny Parks and Emily Eden. Moore has translated herself, without error into the upper-class English psyche and another century. If In the Cut was written in blood, this new novel seems inlaid with mother of pearl. She writes deeply about surfaces: she imagines the clothes of the period with passion, each dress an ornament.

The novel is an exotic education: two sisters, Eleanor and Harriet, travel with their brother Henry on his posting to India as governor-general. What begins as a captivity imposed by their sex develops into a kind of liberty, a loosening of stays. India makes a subtly different conquest of each woman. Like In the Cut, One Last Look is erotically charged but in a different, more decorous, register.

Moore is older than I had imagined (she’s 55). I found her sympathetic and startling — especially the remarkable quality of attention that she brings to everything. I had thought we were about to talk about the differences between her novels, but it was the similarities that unexpectedly surfaced and seemed to count. I suggested that all her women characters are disadvantaged by being women, made vulnerable by their sex — and sexuality. Her response was immediate: “It is the only thing that interests me,” she said.

She looked at me, dead straight across the table, her hair pulled back into a ponytail. “Women are completely disadvantaged — despite what men will say. It is not a fair fight. Both books (the title of the second is taken from Dante) are based on a refusal to look away. My only method of survival is in taking it (by ‘it’ she means everything) on, facing it, thinking about it.” I kept noticing the way her fingers moved, as if playing an invisible harp.

It is no surprise, given her meditative nature, that she should adore India. She would give anything to return to Calcutta. She was there in 2000 because her partner, John Newman, a sculptor, was studying there. (She is now in Rome for a year, for the same reason.) She enthuses about India — describing its bookshops (she is a wayward, intellectual autodidact) and then she took me on a spoken pilgrimage. She described how, one day, her Indian cook and friend Sumitra led her to see a huge, saffron-coloured rock. It was, Sumitra said, her “goddess”. Moore found in this moment a “joy and exultation and a sense of kinship. I was so moved by her gesture and by the goddess itself.”

But in Moore’s novels, such joy is in jeopardy. She finds an inauthenticity in happy endings; they are a “Western notion. One Last Look ends in vivid disappointment. And In the Cut ends in violent desolation — an ending travestied in the film. Susanna is forgiving. She sees that her ending does not equal popular entertainment. And she defends Jane Campion: “She is a miraculous person, funny, intelligent, passionate.” They got on like a house on fire: “We are both island girls,” (Campion is from New Zealand. Moore grew up in Hawaii). “We’re tomgirls,” she added, and then laughed at her “interesting slip of the tongue”.

Looking back to her childhood, she dubs herself a “Hawaian blue stocking”. Her father was a doctor, her mother died when she was a teenager. She came to New York, at 17, “so eager for the world but unprotected and unprepared”. She paused. “I had never worn shoes,” she said.

She rattled through her biography like a lift stopping at different floors (going up). Worked in department store, spotted by designer who asked her to model in California. Became a script reader (for Jack Nicholson). Married Richard Sylbert (production designer of “Chinatown”). Divorced. Lived in London (1977-80). One daughter: Lulu. First novel: My Old Sweetheart (written for Lulu), about her own childhood, won prizes. Writing, she discovered then, was something she could do.

Moore likes to travel because it helps her to live in the present. New York she finds “very hard — assaulting”; London is more “civilized”. She inclines towards the past, would have been more at home in another century. Her daughter describes her as a Luddite because she has no mobile phone, an ancient word processor and composes in longhand. She used to teach creative writing at Yale and New York University but “writing can’t be taught”. And she became disillusioned with students full of “unearned privilege and ambition. What they really wanted was the name of an agent, to come to tea, to be introduced to Joan Didion.”

Now she teaches creative writing in homeless shelters in New York. She finds the work of her students has a “purity” to it. It has become “a very big part of my life”. She has an eye — and heart — for the itinerant (an Indian inheritance?). As we left the cafe, we ran into a colony of stray cats — they looked like fat cats to me — but she was concerned, she brings them food.

She has only been in Rome a week or two, and feels a melancholy that is partly to do with the weight of the city’s history but also to do with its beauty. When she witnesses it on her own, she longs to share it. Her daughter’s nickname for her, she confided, is “Smell-the-Night-Jasmine” — like some Japanese courtesan. A name that makes fun of this compulsion of hers to involve others in what she loves.

But there is a comedy and practicality in Moore, too. When she told me necklaces like hers were becoming rare because Indian brides are now given fridges instead, she said: “It is heartbreaking but understandable.” But then she frowned: “Which would you rather have? A necklace or a refrigerator. It’s a hard call.” — Dawn/Observer News Service