Bookclub - Lorrie Moore
Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub on BBC Radio 4
I confess to being fascinated by book titles. Great ones pass into the language – from the sixties, for example, The Spy who Came in from the Cold and From Russia with Love – and I’m convinced that there are some fine novels that are unjustly ignored because the author has coined a title that is a turn-off. So one of the questions I wanted to ask the American writer Lorrie Moore when she joined this month’s group of Bookclub readers was an obvious one. Why had she called her book Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? I’m not sure, incidentally, whether it’s a good title or not. But it is certainly memorable. And one of our readers wanted an explanation. Well, the title comes from a painting – unfortunately not reproduced in the British edition of the book – and is named by one of the two principal characters, Sils, whose childhood relationship with her girlfriend Berie is the spine of the plot. But that doesn’t answer the question: why? The picture, as it is described in the novel, shows two girls whispering together and evidently disturbed by the sight of injured frogs which have been shot by some cruel boys. And the truth is that Lorrie didn’t even have to make it up.
She told us that while she was writing the book – still untitled at that stage – she came across the painting, which was being sold by one of her friends in her gallery, and had been painted by another friend. And it was called – Who will Run the Frog Hospital? She couldn’t resist, and – with permissions happily given by her two friends – the painting went straight into the story. Moreover, Lorrie bought the picture, which now hangs on her wall at home.
Lorrie Moore: I was at a moment where the novel was wide open. I saw this painting so I put it in.
The point of the story is that Lorrie, who made her name as a short story writer, finds that in the writing process - this is a novel with less than 200 pages, incidentally – there’s a moment when, as she put it to our readers, the story is ‘wide open’. By the time you get to the end, everything is closed up and nothing else can get in. But while you’re writing, taking the characters through the story you open to new ideas, odd thoughts, the possibility of a change of direction. When she started the book, she knew nothing of the painting. By the time she was reaching the end it had become an important part of the plot, and had provided a title.
The reason, of course, is that the picture reveals, in a slightly mysterious way, the depth of a childhood relationship between two girls – and that is the theme of the story. It’s told by Sils’s friend Berie who recalls, on a visit to Paris in adulthood, the power of their friendship. In that sense, the book is not so much an adventure, or a mystery, as a meditation on the recollections of youth that are so much a part of our later lives.
It’s not a book in which men play much of a part – ‘I do have books with men, but this might not be one of them’ – and Lorrie describes it as a novel in which women are presented in a real way, rather than being represented as ideas of who women are. In that sense, she says, all her stories are feminist, though she has always tried to avoid polemic.
The power of this book lies in the revelation of memory – how it shapes us, troubles us, reassures us. Most of us, of both sexes, will recognise what Berie and Sils are going through. That’s why we follow them through the story, and perhaps why we’re intrigued by the painting that gives the book its name.
After all, the picture doesn’t offer an answer. It simply reminds us of feelings, and questions, that are familiar to us all.
In our next Bookclub on August 3 we’ll be talking about The Outcast by Sadie Jones and our next recording is going to be in Edinburgh on August 23rd, at the height of festival month. It’s at 2pm and our guest will be Allan Massie, talking about his fine novel set in France and dealing with wartime memories – A question of Loyalties. If you want to be there, you’ll find details on the website bbc.in/r4bookclub
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites