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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Lorrie Moore's new novel manages to be both playful and powerful. "A Gate at the Stairs" is the story of a year, happens to begin in 2001, in the life of 20-year-old Tassie Keltjin, the small-town daughter of a farmer who grows what amount to designer potatoes for fancy restaurants in Chicago and Evanston.

Tassie's become a college student in a Midwestern town that has a few Chinese restaurants and people who talk about Sylvia Plath, so Tassie finds it cosmopolitan. She takes a job as a part-time nanny for a couple that can seem appealing, appalling and mysterious, and surprised to find that she rather likes the child that they adopt.

Over the year, Tassie's parents grow older, the couple she works for grow more mysterious, her brother finds himself, and she finds spaces in her heart that she never knew.

Lorrie Moore joins us from the studios of WHA in Madison. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. LORRIE MOORE (Author, "A Gate at the Stairs"): Oh, thank you for having me.

SIMON: And we usually don't slavishly cite reviews but boy, these have been good, haven't they?

Ms. MOORE: Some of them, yes.

SIMON: Well, all the ones I've read. So let's say all the important ones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOORE: OK. That's right, all the important ones.

SIMON: The events of September 11th, which in this book are called the events of September, loom over the story without ever being the center of the story, really. Which raises the question: Why did you choose to begin the story in the fall of 2001, as opposed to the fall of 2000?

Ms. MOORE: It's when there was a kind of passivity and fear and acquiescence going on, as we watched the Bush administration use this event to make a case for an invasion of Iraq. And one of the several themes in the book is that kind of passivity and acquiescence, both in the personal realm and in the public realm.

That's what I was interested in, in that strange kind of hiatus between 9/11 and then March 2003, when Iraq was invaded.

SIMON: Do you write every day?

Ms. MOORE: I try but it's, you know, my life is very crowded, so I try to take notes at least every day.

SIMON: When you say your life is very crowded, do you mean, among other things, teaching?

Ms. MOORE: Teaching, I'm a single mom, I have to go on a book tour next week, so…

SIMON: This is your first novel in 15 years, right?

Ms. MOORE: Oh, my God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOORE: Yeah, I guess. I mean, time flies. What can I tell you?

SIMON: Well, it's not as if you haven't been writing. But you write short stories, collections.

Ms. MOORE: Right. I've written book reviews, I've raised a kid who is 15. So he's exactly the same age as…

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. MOORE: …the years between these two books.

SIMON: Does he know what a novelist does?

Ms. MOORE: Oh, he thinks a novelist just sits at their desk and drinks coffee and avoids him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOORE: And isn't going out and getting enough ice cream. You know, that's what he thinks a novelist does.

SIMON: It's terrible in this day of writing at a computer terminal. 'Cause in the old days, whenever you saw a novelist at work in an old movie, they would, remember, they would…

(Soundbite of paper crumbling)

SIMON: …take the paper out of the typewriter and throw it away angrily because obviously it wasn't until they grasped the truth that they could begin to - ch-ch-ch-ch - to write?

Ms. MOORE: Right. And now you can't hear it at all. David Updike, at the tribute to John Updike, said something about that. When he was young, he would visit his dad at his dad's office, and his dad seemed never to be working. And it was only when they would leave the office and go down the stairs and he actually could hear the clack of the typewriter that he knew his dad had a job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: I want to get you to read a section, if we could.

Ms. MOORE: OK.

SIMON: This is - this little girl, Mary Emma, is racially mixed. And Sarah and her husband, Edward, have a series of Wednesday night meetings. Would we call these consciousness-raising sessions?

Ms. MOORE: Well, in a way, yeah. They're a bunch of people who come together and sort of pool their ignorance and wisdom, and they're chatting up a storm every Wednesday night. It's an interracial family group. But the conversation wanders and wanders back, and it's set forth in the novel as disembodied dialogue that's overheard by the narrator, who's upstairs.

SIMON: Well, let me get you to read it, if we could. We're going to hear a cacophony of voices read by just your voice. And let me ask our producer, Thomas, cue the music. A little Sarah Vaughn, please.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MOORE: Is this Sarah Vaughn on the stereo? Sure is. Man, listen to her scat.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MOORE: And you say you don't believe in such a thing as black culture? I don't. Ever heard Julie Andrews scat? I don't believe in gay culture or white culture or female culture or any of that. It's just so dream world, baby. Ever heard Julie Andrews at all? Hey, you don't need blue eyes if you've got blue earrings.

I didn't know what they were talking about most of the time, but sometimes in recalling certain remarks, the context would clarify them. Certain phrases like a dusting of sand would float across my mind and heap to a sort of glass. I'd seen scat, and now here it was as an admirable thing.

Vaughn takes autumn leaves and turns it into "Finnegan's Wake." Is that your argument? Yeah, kind of an Irish one over beer. I'm drinking beer. When we were in France, the French customs officials looked at us in a bewildered way. But look, they said, as if they were pointing out something we'd failed to notice. You are white and your son is black; how can this be? As if it defied science or as if we had never regarded our own skin color before. And I had to say in English and in anger: This is what an American family looks like.

The rest of the world doesn't understand the ungovernable diversity of this country - diversity made even more extreme by capitalism and by Karl Rove. I was once in a restaurant and saw Karl Rove sitting across the room and for five minutes I thought: I could take this steak knife and walk over there and change history right now.

And, well, as you can see, I chose to stay a free woman. Would anyone care for a timbale?

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Sarah, who owns a fancy restaurant, and she and her husband, Edward, have adopted - or taken in Emma May as a child. She turns out to be hiding something about their past, but by the time it's revealed you even have some sympathy for it.

Ms. MOORE: Well, I think it's one of these events - and of course, again, it's an event of passivity and acquiescence and failure to respond that results in tragedy. It's one of these events that people will have different responses to. I mean, some people feel the whole scene is monstrous. Other people will say, oh my God, I could see how this could happen, even to me. It's part of my demented imagination, I'm afraid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, that is my question. When you talk about your demented imagination - I can't call it that with a straight face - how much does your imagination rely on suggestions from the real world?

Ms. MOORE: It's prompted by the real world all the time. But I'm not recording from the real world most of the time because that's just dull. Sometimes I collect little things. But even the little things I collect have to go into something new that I'm imagining.

I want to create something that doesn't exist exactly in the real world but exists as a kind of parallel world. And so it's informed by the real world, and it's a response to the real world. It's meant to reflect.

SIMON: Lorrie Moore - her new novel, "A Gate at the Stairs." Thank you so much.

Ms. MOORE: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And you can read a review of Lorrie Moore's new book plus an excerpt on our Web site, NPR.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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