Lisa Moore brings Alligator to York

On Feb. 22, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented author Lisa Moore. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

That was where she became who she was, Madeleine thinks, in that solitude. Everyone becomes who they are in a stark landscape of undiluted solitude and bad weather. It’s possible to go through life without becoming who you are, but it is better, in the long run, to come upon yourself in an insanely ordered forest where nothing has been left to chance. 

from Alligator
by Lisa Moore

One hundred solitudes brushed up against one another at the Accolades West Building on Feb. 22 to hear Canadian author Lisa Moore (right) read from her award-winning 2005 novel, Alligator. In the "insanely ordered" lecture hall, participants in York’s Canadian Writers in Person series created an evening with the author, somewhere between her ringing voice and their questions about her work.

In much the same way C.S. Lewis’ Narnia was created from the vision of a lion and a lamppost, Moore’s writing is driven by images. She began with three: an alligator, white horses galloping across a gothic landscape and a boy in a burning house. Though these initial pictures were crystal clear, their meaning for the author was not. 

"For me, not knowing the meaning of the images is the joy of writing. I love chasing after the images," said Moore, who likened this initial discovery to Canadian painter Mary Pratt’s "shimmery feeling in the gut" when she found the right subject for her photorealistic images.

Moore’s novel is likewise a photorealistic composite of contemporary St. John’s, Nfld. Alligator is the story of people who "brush up against one another" where one small act can have disastrous or redemptive consequences for others. A petty theft can lead to near-death in a burning house, a safety video starring an uncooperative alligator can lead to redemption in Florida, and a life can be irrevocably altered by a single bead of sweat. Each character’s story initially feels like a solitary shard, only loosely connected to those around it. However, as the novel gradually ties these threads together it becomes clearer that, "No matter how fragmentary life seems, there is a unity," said Moore.

The experimental form of the book was partly inspired by the work of French artist and post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. Moore was profoundly influenced by his paintings of oranges, the way he attempted to capture the essence of the seemingly ordinary subject from as many angles as possible. Not surprisingly, Moore is a graduate of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, an experience which she says accounts for the sensual texture in Alligator. She also recalls a childhood art class where she was told to draw a piece of popcorn from a germ’s point of view and was  encouraged to use a variety of lines, to capture the emotion she was feeling as well as the violence of the kernel’s creation. Each of her characters is like one of these varied markings, as she captures the vibrant collisions that make up her home town of St. John’s.

Up until the last few decades, the rediscovery of "The Rock" was about folklorists attempting to archive a disappearing culture that until the mid-20th century had been preserved like amber in its isolation. She credits authors like Wayne Johnston for liberating her to write about contemporary Newfoundland. Like Mordecai Richler’s Montreal, she discovered that her St. John’s was also full of contemporary colour alongside its traditional stories. Moore’s small moments of realistic poverty are placed on the same stage of a grandly gothic landscape, the trivial brushing up with the universal.

Though writing is by nature a solitary activity, she recommends getting a writing group together for would-be authors. Her own writing circle "Burning Rock" came together in her university days and has produced a colourful array of published writers. Though one may seem to be writing in a void, a story is truly created out of a conversation between author and reader. "I want to make a book so sensuous that the reader is willing to give up who they are," says Moore. Perhaps in doing so, we might all find ourselves amid the insanely ordered chaos of a world where "nothing has been left to chance."

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the ArtsOn March 15, Camilla Gibb read from her novel, Sweetness in the Belly and on March 29, Larissa Lai read from her novel Salt Fish Girl.