Entering midlife is often associated with trying something new, from skydiving to a new hair color to the ever-popular sports car. For debut novelist Edward Kelsey Moore—already an accomplished professional cellist and college professor—writing was that something new.
“I didn’t complete my first short story until after I turned 40,” Moore (who is now 52) tells BookPage from his home in Chicago, where he lives with his longtime partner. “It was one of those midlife things. I thought, I’m not going to be happy until I write. I wanted to all along, but had another creative outlet I really loved and focused on. Finally, I just said . . . I’ll enter the local NPR station’s yearly short-story contest, write one story, and that will fix the urge.”
But despite years of experience on stage and in a classroom, Moore wasn’t quite ready to put his writing out in front of people, and he let the deadline pass. Then came a twist of (or gentle nudge from) fate: He was hired by the NPR station, WBEZ, to play in a string quartet during the awards event for the very same short-story competition. “I was sitting there playing Mozart and being reminded that I chickened out,” Moore recalls. Sufficiently chastened, he entered the contest the following year—and won.
“That was the start of it all,” he says. Several more published short stories followed, and then, a novel: The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, published this month by Knopf. Moore says working with Knopf has been “a lovely surprise . . . and I have a lovely agent! What a wonderful position to be in.”
It’s a vantage point that’s enhanced by the passage of time: “When I was 25 or 30, I couldn’t have enjoyed this the way I am now. I would’ve been so self-conscious. But you get to a certain point where you can say, this is just good—you don’t have to qualify it or put any weirdness into it.”
That’s true of his cello playing, too, Moore says. “I was probably a better technician 25 years ago, but I didn’t allow myself to relax or take any sort of risks. . . . Now I have a lot more freedom emotionally, and knowledge the world won’t end if I make mistakes. Certainly if I’d set out to be a writer first, it would’ve brought the same anxiety. I took a long, long road to adulthood.”
The author’s current, more expansive approach to life inhabits every person and encounter—some quotidian, some dramatic, some madcap—in The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, set in fictional Plainview, Indiana, from the 1960s to the 2000s.
Via the 40-year friendship of Odette, Clarice and Barbara Jean (nicknamed “the Supremes” in their teens), Moore makes a convincing case for being open enough to take emotional risks, whether befriending people who see the world differently, speaking your mind even if it’s scary or daring to fall in love.
“I wanted to write about women who were like the women I knew, who were smart and interesting and not foolish.”
He also does an excellent job giving voice to a sizable array of characters, most of whom are women. Moore says he didn’t set out to write in the female voice and didn’t even realize it might be seen as unusual. “It wasn’t until Knopf bought the novel that anyone mentioned it. I simply never thought about it,” he says.
“Maybe if I weren’t a black man or a gay man I wouldn’t feel this way, but I spent a fair amount of my youth trying to get away from the notion that anybody should look at the world a certain way. I think once you let go of that, it becomes a lot easier to empathize with people and see there’s really not that much difference between what someone feels . . . whether it’s a person with 10 times as much money or another set of genitalia.”
Similarly, Moore says, “I wasn’t trying to make the book specific to a black experience, or anything other than who I thought these women were. When I first wrote it, they weren’t even all black—I didn’t think that was the most important thing about them, by any means.”
“That whole ‘strong black woman’ thing brings in a bunch of stereotypes I didn’t want to write about; it tends to conjure up this sassy, smart-talking TV reality-show woman,” he says of the trope that some find offensive. “It was very important to me that I not contribute to what I feel is often a popular culture that demeans women in general and black women in particular. I wanted to write about women who were like the women I knew, who were smart and interesting and not foolish.”
Moore has been lucky to know women like the Supremes. Odette enjoys her food, speaks her mind and is the de facto leader of the trio. Clarice leans toward superficial, but her friends draw out her inner empathy. And preternaturally beautiful Barbara Jean survived a difficult childhood and now struggles with new sorrow and long-held regret. The centerpiece of the novel is one year in the lives of the three friends, but flashbacks told from various points of view reveal mileposts along the women’s journeys, both individual and intertwined.
There’s also plenty of hilarity in The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat, whether in the guise of a faux psychic; an astoundingly hypocritical church deacon; a series of unfortunate events at an elaborate wedding; or a vegetarian dog (the only one in southern Indiana).
Throughout, everyone circles back to Earl’s, where Moore conjures up the events, sounds and scents of the diner with writerly ease. His charming, skillful evocation of the small-town life of Plainview and its cleverly crafted history will make readers curious about (or nostalgic for) Indiana, where Moore grew up and regularly visits.
Soon, though, he’ll be visiting other countries on an international book tour, where he’ll get practice stepping into the spotlight without his cello. “I was surprised at the feeling of nakedness in writing fiction. Every weird little thing coming out of your imagination, you have to own up to it. As a [cello] performer, you can blame Beethoven or the instrument; they serve as a shield.”
Ultimately, though, Moore says, “People are going to tell me what kind of book I’ve written, and that’s the way it should be. I wrote what I wanted to write, and what others think about it, what it means to them, is up to them.” Spoken like a true adult—and an author.