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The literary event was part of the Frank B. Hanes Writer-in-Residence Program, which brought the acclaimed short-story writer to campus to visit classes and give readings and talks.

A speaker at a panel conference at UNC-Chapel Hill
Lorrie Moore, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, is considered a master of the short story. She has authored several story collections, including “Birds of America,” published in 1998. (Photo by Heidi Hannoush)

Fiction writer Lorrie Moore read a short story that captured the painful alienation and absurd humor of the COVID-19 pandemic during an in-person reading on March 1 in Moeser Auditorium.

She was in town as the 2022 Frank B. Hanes Writer-in-Residence, a program organized by the College of Arts & Sciences’ English and comparative literature department.

In the story, “Face Time,” published in The New Yorker in September 2020, three adult daughters do their best to accompany their elderly, COVID-19–positive father through video calls set up by nurses caring for him in a locked-down hospital. Two of the three daughters live far away, but because of the virus, even the local one couldn’t visit in person. Each handles the situation differently, encountering new challenges that have become familiar in this pandemic era, like sending pizza delivery to the nurses’ station.

“His head leaned back against the pillow, and then he pulled it up to look again into the iPad that the nurse had set there. … He did not ask after me, for which I was grateful,” Moore read, speaking in the voice of her story’s unnamed narrator. “Who wanted to share the banalities of this life right now: the low buzz of dread in the head like a broken wire; the endless YouTube links; everyone frantically not socializing; the recently furloughed male friends doing their insane air-guitar concerts on Zoom; the hours of television news interspersed with highly theatrical, mind-boggling insurance ads; the early-morning senior mixer at the supermarket; the neighborhood walks with face masks hanging from one ear like dream catchers.”

Moore, the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University, has written several novels, and is considered a master of the short story. She has authored several story collections, including the lauded “Birds of America,” published in 1998. In 2020, all her stories were published in one volume. In this excerpt from “Face Time,” she packs meaningful descriptions of six separate characters — including the narrator, her two sisters and a brother-in-law — into just 84 words:

My father was too old to grasp technology, so the nurses were the ones to place his FaceTime calls, according to a schedule that Livvy had given them. But the nurses were frazzled and Livvy could be a pain in the neck, though she didn’t know it. Her husband always called her an angel, massaging her shoulders, hoping to get laid. And Delia, of course, had refused to be a part of it. “I can’t watch Dad like this,” she’d said again that day.

Moore is just the latest Frank B. Hanes Writer-in-Residence writer invited to campus to meet with students and faculty, visit classes and give readings, talks and symposia. The program is named for the late Frank Bordon Hanes Sr. ’42, who was a generous supporter of creative writing at Carolina.

Department chair Mary Floyd-Wilson noted the story’s themes while welcoming those in attendance.

“It has been two years since the creative writing program has been able to gather all of you — our community — together for an in-person public event,” Floyd-Wilson said. “This alone makes tonight so special.”

While the department has held many virtual events during the past two years, she said, “it really is fortifying and restorative to be back among you all. … While it’s true that with our masks, we cannot share our whole facial expressions … we can feel each other’s energy, we can experience the synchronicity and comfort of original response, the sounds of enjoyment.”

Following the reading, Moore welcomed questions from the audience, including one about how close a fiction writer can hew to her real life without risking hurt feelings among those close to her. Moore admitted that “Face Time” had some autobiographical aspects to it: She wrote it during the early days of the pandemic, and Moore’s father died during that period. She also has a sister, but just one.

“It’s a hard call,” Moore answered, noting that her late mother always combed her stories for the mother characters and once asked Moore why her mother characters had to die. “Once or twice maybe I got a little close” to reality, Moore said. “Once in an okay way, once in a way that might have hurt her feelings. Make sure you change the name.”

A group of four people standing on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus
Author Lorrie Moore (second from left) with faculty from the English and comparative literature department. They are, from left, Assistant Professor Gabriel Bump, J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor and Director of Creative Writing Daniel Wallace and Mann Distinguished Professor and Department Chair Mary Floyd-Wilson. (Photo by William Fink)

By Claire Cusick, The Well

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