Author Marshall Moore Talks About Living in Hong Kong and Developing a Universal Voice in Fiction

Marshall Moore is an American author and publisher living in Hong Kong, whose novels include The Concrete Sky and An Ideal for Living, as well as the highly-anticipated and recently released Bitter Orange. In addition, he has published two collections of short stories, Black Shapes in a Darkened Room and The Infernal Republic. His work has also appeared in various anthologies and in such literary journals as Asia Literary Review, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon, Space & Time, and The Barcelona Review.

I ran across your latest work in New Orleans recently when I attended the Saints & Sisters LGBT Book Festival, where you and I first met a decade ago. It's great to see how prolific you've been since, and I'm glad to see you are still fighting the good fight and dealing with serious literary themes. You certainly don't shy away from difficult, even preposterous, situations in your fiction, which is why I was excited to hear about your new novel, Bitter Orange, and eager to interview you. What is it you reach for as a writer?

I don't know if I've been prolific since then, but I've managed to stay in print! What I write is a reflection of what I like to read. I want to see imagination at work, and as a writer, I want to say things that haven't been said before. All the stories haven't been told yet; all the ideas haven't been had. This is why I'm not afraid to go straight over the top. So sometimes the result is absurd, bizarre, or completely shocking. Quiet little literary novels can be lovely but I am doing something different.

In your latest book, Bitter Orange, you take on 9-11 and a character with a superhero power, but your protagonist is a far more complex and morally ambiguous anti-hero than any I've encountered recently. What were the challenges of drawing such a character and working in such morally murky territory?

Everything about Bitter Orange is morally ambiguous, I think! If there's a challenge to writing a character or a story like this, it's knowing how much of a non-murky foundation you need to offer the reader and the character so that they'll have something to hold on to. The first draft was actually more ambiguous, and I had to cut some of that out. A lot of the inspiration for this story came from the year I lived in Korea, where I was constantly being gawked at because I'm white. It's not that I wanted to be invisible, but the experience made me think about how people see each other and what that means. I also met a lot of closeted gay men, both Koreans and Westerners, which got me thinking about identity. From that, Seth, my disappearing anti-hero, was born. There are advantages that go along with Seth's version of invisibility, but with them come the potential for guilt, shame, addiction, corruption... there's definitely a price.

And what about LGBT lit? Do you think it has shifted away from coming out and stories from the AIDS epidemic, or are those still the vital and essential stories fiction is and should be concerned with? As queer writers, how do we best communicate to a larger, more universal audience?

To your first question, yes, it has shifted because the world is different now. Even before gay lit kind of coalesced in the '90s, it had already been around in more rudimentary form. The coming-out narrative may have been there all along, but until the societal changes that happened as a result of the HIV/ADS pandemic, it was not usually possible for a gay-themed book to end in something other than the gay character's death or misery. We weren't visible before. (Do you see a trend here?) And we certainly weren't expected or allowed to be happy. Certain themes will always be relevant to books with gay characters in them, but as writers, we need to tell the stories that our muses demand that we tell.

I don't think there's a single answer to finding a larger, more universal audience unless it's to keep writing, keep publishing, and keep putting myself out there. I used to worry more about finding a wider audience. When our first books were published, I think it was a more legitimate concern. But this becomes a self-perpetuating mythology, and if you buy into it, then you buy into the idea of two non-overlapping groups of readers, gay and straight, and never the twain shall meet. Now I think I've grown up a bit, and I'm more about appreciating the audience that I have. Of course I'd like a bigger readership, but I don't give a rat's ass what their sexual orientation is or whether mine should factor into their choice of books. If they're reading my work because I'm gay, that's brilliant. If that doesn't enter into it and they're reading my stuff just because it sounds interesting, that's equally great. And the writing success that doesn't come from luck often comes from endurance and perseverance.

Now that you've got yet another novel out, what do you want readers to take away from reading Bitter Orange, or your books in general?

I wish I were asked this question more often! What I want is for readers to come away feeling as if they have just eaten a surprisingly satisfying meal at a restaurant they weren't sure they'd like. I think there's also a fair amount of catharsis in my work. I also have a way with words, which is something I am never upset when people notice.

Indeed you do, Marshall. There's a seamlessness and wit to your prose that's impressive and makes it fun to read. Lines from Bitter Orange come to mind: "Rain, rain, and more rain. Portland's official flower should be the umbrella, not the rose," and "It's impossible to stand on the curb looking hopefully at oncoming cars without becoming forlorn, without taking the absence of a taxi personally." So, of course, I'm dying to know what your next project might be.

There are three books in the pipeline. My next one will be out later this year, although I'm the editor, not the author; it's an anthology I'm co-editing with Xu Xi. The title is The Queen of Statue Square, which is also the title of one of the stories, and it's a collection of fiction in English out of Hong Kong, exploring the multiplicity and uniqueness of Hong Kong identity. I'm co-authoring the introduction, but because this is an academic publication, it wouldn't be appropriate to include my own work. It's an outstanding collection, well worth reading.

And how about your own individual work?

Well, this isn't my next project, but it's my mostly unheralded previous one: I released a sort of e-chapbook a couple of months ago to accompany Bitter Orange. It's called Never Turn Away, and it contains excerpts from my first four books as well as the first chapter of Bitter Orange. It's free on a number of websites (not Amazon, though -- but if you'd like a Kindle version, you can get it from I wanted a free teaser, or sampler, so that people could try my work without risk. I think it holds up pretty well as a stand-alone book, and it's free.

Around the same time, I finished the first draft of the next novel, Murder in the Cabaret Sauvignon. It's my first attempt (successful, I hope) at a more or less straight-up murder mystery (albeit with Marshall characteristics). The main character is from an East Coast wine-making family. He ends up in Hong Kong, which is not such a surprise: a few years ago, Hong Kong dropped its import tariffs on wine, making this the cheapest place in Asia to buy it. It's also the hub for wine going into the mainland, where the demand is exploding. He finds himself embroiled in a bloody mess with implications that go back several centuries. There's everything from the idea of cabaret in Lan Kwai Fong, which probably makes more sense if you're familiar with Hong Kong, to the history of women and literacy in China. But with more blood and strap-on torture devices. After that, I'll do another collection of short fiction, A Garden Fed by Lightning.

Those both sound enticing. We'll all look forward to them, and in the meantime we'll be reading Bitter Orange and exploring your writing via the blogosphere! (see links below). Thank you Marshall!

Bitter Orange buy link:

Trebor Healey is a novelist (A Horse Named Sorrow and Faun) and poet (Sweet Son of Pan) who recently won both a Lambda Literary Award and a Publishing Triangle Award. He lives in Los Angeles and Buenos Aires.