Susanna Moore remains best known for her 1995 erotic thriller In the Cut, about a writing teacher who descends into a seedy world of murder and sexual violence. “I never want to write another sex scene, and haven’t, as you may notice,” she tells Kurt Andersen. She’s written about women growing up in her native Hawaii, and about English ladies in colonial India. Her latest novel, The Life of Objects, is told from the point of view of an Irish girl, Beatrice, who comes to work for an aristocratic German family outside Berlin in the 1930s.
Moore portrays the family as fairly apolitical, but the setting, as the Nazis rose to power, posed many challenges for Moore. “When I was writing the book I was often overcome by a realization of my own naiveté, which had not prepared me for all that was required,” she says. “I knew I had to find a way to enter Germany, enter that world, as an outsider — and not just an outsider, but as someone who is ignorant, as Beatrice is ignorant” — a witness to the horrors of history.
But the narrator Beatrice also resonates with Moore’s family history. Her grandmother was Irish, and for most of her life worked as a ladies’ maid in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill. Working for the well-to-do “gave her ideas about class and behavior, and she molded my mother in this image, even to the point of dressing her in her mistress’s hand-me-downs.” Moore believes the experience was detrimental to her mother's life. “She was pretending to be something she wasn’t.”
Moore’s mother died when she was a child, and she believes that tragedy has played a role in a different aspects of her life, including her activity as a writing teacher in prisons and homeless shelters. “I suppose it has to do with … a compulsion to help, to do what I can to keep someone alive. But also, in a selfish way, it’s really interesting and exciting.” For those students, unlike the Princeton students she teaches, self-examination isn’t a valued activity. “Some,” she says, “don’t know when they were born.”
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