One Thursday night this July, the staff of Tightrope Books gathered at a cramped bar on Toronto’s east side to launch their newest title. Halli Villegas, Tightrope’s publisher, sold books behind a table at the bar’s far end, while the author, Kelly Ward, worked the room before taking the mic to read and thank the audience for coming. Missing was Nathaniel G. Moore, Tightrope’s jack of all trades and, often, the on-stage host of the small press’s events. On this night, Moore had handed over his hosting duties, and was across town hoisting a sectional couch up to a second-floor balcony off the apartment of his girlfriend, the poet and teacher Amber McMillan. “Moving that couch really showed me that a relationship requires effort,” says Moore, half-joking.
A native of Toronto, Moore began making a name for himself in the local literary scene in 2004, after two stints at Concordia University, separated by six years in Waterloo, Ontario, that he refers to as a “deleted scene” in his life, before returning home to stay. To date, Moore has achieved a level of success that would be considered modest in the grand scheme of book publishing, but decent by small-press standards. In 2005 he published his first novel, Bowlbrawl. He followed it up with two poetry collections, and another novel, Wrong Bar, in 2009. He also became known, if not always tolerated, among the insular group that attends the city’s regular reading series and book launches.
For the release of Bowlbrawl, Moore posted a series of blog entries and videos of himself interacting with “characters” from the book, culminating at the book’s launch at a Toronto Indigo when Moore planted a friend in the audience to provoke a staged fight. That same year, he used puppets to promote an anthology of up-and-coming Canadian authors. Moore even took his infamous persona—he says the Nathaniel G. Moore people see on-stage is a character he plays—to Ottawa, where he wrestled two other authors and ended up being thrown through a plywood table. These stunts sometimes are met with applause, but many say they find his antics unnerving. “If you do anything weird in Toronto, people are upset. ‘Why are you saying these things? ’ ‘Why don’t you just read something? ’ ” says Moore. “When I go on stage I want to entertain people. But people don’t necessarily want that.”
Five, even four years ago, Moore spent most of his time dreaming up the next antic to foist on his unsuspecting public. But recently, his priorities have shifted. He began dating McMillan (who has a five-year-old daughter from a previous relationship) last fall, and they moved in together this summer. As a result, Moore’s interests now lean toward the domestic. That’s not unusual for a writer in his position approaching forty. But Moore says there’s more to his transformation than just growing older. His latest novel, Savage: 1986–2011, is the story of a middle-class Toronto family very much like his own, and the effects the family’s disintegration have on the book’s protagonist, Nate. It simultaneously parallels the life and career of the wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage, from the time a twelve-year-old Nate first sees his hero live at Maple Leaf Gardens, to Savage’s untimely death, twenty-five years later. Moore’s previous books, in particular Wrong Bar, generally were well reviewed, but were purposely disjointed, tough reads, leading to the—apparently complimentary—assertion made by the National Post, in 2009, that Moore was “a writer so far removed from the CanLit conversation that he might as well be writing in another language.” Savage is Moore’s first straightforward narrative, and his most autobiographical work. The book took on many forms over the past decade as Moore used it to work out certain anxieties he had about his childhood. “I feel like a huge part of my neurosis and pain and self-obsession is over,” he says. “I couldn’t do it through therapy.”
“The first thing of Savage I saw was a short story called ‘Randy Savage’s Moustache,’ and it was complete fiction,” says the writer Spencer Gordon, Moore’s friend and sometimes editor. “Nathaniel called it a ‘coming-of-rage’ story....I thought the switch to autobiography was awesome. It lent an authenticity that wasn’t there in his work before. I think it was a good evolution.”
Another major life event that often hits writers of Moore’s age is the realization that wider literary fame might not come, despite years of effort. The wrestling industry is “able to do the exact same thing over and over again and still make millions of dollars,” he says. “The book industry is the same way. Although the money is completely skewed, it is, to a degree with grants and poetry contests, it is fake, it is prearranged. There are those situations where people say, ‘No, I don’t want to have that person win,’ and no one can tell me that hasn’t happened in Canadian publishing.” Some writers become bitter when they reach this stage, but Moore insists he’s simply reached a comfortable point of enlightenment and acceptance. He’s cut back on readings, but has no plans to quit writing. (He left Tightrope this fall.) Instead of coming up with new ways to entertain barroom-sized audiences, he’d like to move into other areas, such as acting and screenwriting. “You go to a reading and it’s, ‘Here’s my poem, and here’s my giant bio, and there’s my publicist not selling my book while everyone buys vodka, and I’ll see you at my next book launch in a year and a half.’ I’m just not interested in that,” he says. “I’ve already done that for ten years.”
“We’ve talked a lot about family as it relates to the book and what we’re hoping for here—an ideal family unit—with our relationship,” says McMillan. “I think that reflecting in the way Nathaniel has, and digging around the way he has, and being really insightful has definitely prepared him to be a grown-up apart from his childhood. I think there’s a moment that you give up all the crap you’re lugging around.”