By Kevin Nance
April 14, 2013
When he was a boy of 7 or 8, Edward Kelsey Moore developed a habit that, unbeknown to him at the time, would come in handy years later: eavesdropping. At holiday gatherings of his extended family in the suburbs of Indianapolis, or in the small Kentucky town near Louisville where his mother had grown up, the men in the family would retire to the den to watch sports on TV while the women would remain at the table, telling stories that, from his hiding place in the corner, little Ed knew he wasn't supposed to hear — which made them all the more enticing.
There were alternately riotous and woeful tales of love affairs in and out of wedlock; sex; health problems; eccentric behavior by the old; bad decisions by the young; aunts and cousins who'd gotten too fat or too skinny; and on and on.
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"I didn't always understand what they were talking about, but I was fascinated," recalls Moore, now 52 and an accomplished cellist who has played with the Joffrey Ballet orchestra, the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Chicago Philharmonic and other Windy City ensembles for decades. "I loved their stories and, even better, the way they told them. It was always the best part of the holiday."
It was those stories — not their specific details but the avid, joyous spirit of their telling — that inspired Moore's best-selling debut novel, "The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat." The hilarious, heartwarming and occasionally poignant story of the supportive friendship of three middle-aged black women and their struggles with infidelity, illness and tragic family history has its roots in his youthful memories of overheard family lore.
In "The Supremes," set in the fictional border town of Plainview, Ind., Clarice, a proud and elegant classical pianist, must contend with the serial adventures of an unfaithful husband, a former NFL star; Barbara Jean, the town beauty (now known, unfortunately, for her habit of dressing in a manner more suited to a much younger woman), is dealing with alcoholism anchored in grief over a sorrowful past; and Odette struggles with her weight and, increasingly, a serious illness that's causing her to see what might be ghosts. But their care and concern for one another get them through anything life (and death) might choose to throw at them.
"There's sadness in the book, yes, and angst, and cheating, and even a near-death, but in the end it's so hopeful," says editor Carole Baron, who acquired "The Supremes" for Knopf less than a week after first reading the manuscript. "Reading it, I laughed and I cried. I emailed it to Sonny Mehta (Knopf's editor-in-chief) and said, 'I think there's something here.' He quickly emailed back and said, 'You're right.' We were struck, especially, by the will of these women to help each other through all the troubles that come their way, which is a quality that's so rare in this world these days. And I think it all comes from that experience of Ed's, listening in on the women in his family."
Not that there are any real-life events in the book — even though the author himself thought for a while that he'd included at least one. There's a scene, early on, in which Minnie, an elderly grandmother at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat — the neighborhood restaurant where the three main characters gather at least weekly — casually mentions that her husband had died the previous evening, an event that she had decided not to bother the rest of the family with until the next morning. Her incredulous son demands to know why she would do such a thing. "I thought it out and figured your daddy would be just as dead if I got a good night's rest as he'd be if I called you and didn't get my sleep," Minnie answers with no trace of embarrassment. "So I just let it be."
But not too long ago, when Moore mentioned to his own mother that he'd lifted this colorful tale from his Aunt Edith, she said it never happened. "I don't know where you got that from," she told him.
"I was sure that that was a true story about Aunt Edith, but then I realized I had borrowed pieces of it from the old ladies my grandmother played bid whist with," Moore says with a sheepish smile. "I used to listen to them, too."
"The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat" began life several years ago as a plotless short story of the same title — only the second story Moore ever completed — and eventually developed into the rich and complicated yarn it ultimately became. Early on, the author made a conscious decision for the novel not to deal in depth with issues of race or poverty; "The Supremes" would be more akin to Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale," say, than "The Color Purple."
And Moore, the son of a preacher and a social worker, was also keen to avoid the stereotype of the angry African-American woman — "the rough, sassy black bitch," as he puts it — that has become so prevalent in television, movies and popular fiction.
"There's a way that pop culture tends to present black women, and I don't like it," he says firmly, over lunch at Lady Gregory's in Andersonville. "That trope just goes on and on and on, in literature written by black people and white people, too. It's just become so common that it's easy — almost the default position, in fact. But I grew up in a middle-class home, and I know middle-class black life. I didn't grow up with those women in pop culture, and they're not someone I recognize. If you're into that image of black women, fine, but I didn't want to add to that."
Specifically, he took care not to allow Clarice — who could perhaps be forgiven for resorting to desperate measures in the face of her husband's multiple infidelities — to fall into the Angry Black Woman trap by resorting to violence in the way that, say, a young wife does in one of Tyler Perry's Madea movies. (She goes after her husband with a pot of hot grits and a frying pan.) "I've known a fair number of women who've had unfaithful husbands, and none of them have that really satisfying, over-the-top moment," Moore says. "That kind of stuff is fun to watch — it's a satisfying fantasy — but in real life, what most people in that situation do is weigh it for a long time. If you love someone and they disappoint you or break your heart, you think, 'How can I find a way to live with this? How can I make this work, still?' More than, you know, 'Where's the gun?'"
At a writers' workshop in Indiana, Moore shared the manuscript with author Julia Glass, who loved it so much that she introduced him to the agent who ended up selling the book to Knopf. "What a delight and a privilege it is to be among the earliest readers of this breathtaking debut," Glass would eventually write. "The supremely gifted, supremely entertaining, and supremely big-hearted Edward Kelsey Moore has conjured up the story of an entire community and, at its sparkling center, a trio of memorable heroines. How I long to have Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean on speed dial."
And the rest is history. "The Supremes" debuted at No. 15 on the New York Times best-seller list, a rare feat for a first novel. And now the author is embarking on an extensive book tour of cities in the U.S. and England, where the novel is also being published. Barnes & Noble is featuring it as part of the chain's "Discover" series, and word-of-mouth is building.
"I feel I can give this book to anybody and say, 'Here's a book you should read,'" Baron says. "It just has such great characters with such a wonderful joy in life. You want to hunker down with these people."
The book's success has left its author a bit awestruck. "My big dream was that I'd find some little publisher who'd give me enough money so that I could put new tires on my old Volvo, go on the road and sell copies of the book out of the trunk," he says. "Lo and behold, I'm going on the road after all, but not in my Volvo. It's the ride of my life."
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer whose work appears in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Poets & Writers Magazine and elsewhere.
The Supremes at Earl's All-You-Can-Eat
By Edward Kelsey Moore, Knopf, 307 pages, $24.95
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