Sharp and Dangerous Virtues, the new novel by Martha Moody, is the story of ordinary people caught up in a chaotic world they were unprepared for. Moody is a novelist and former physician from Dayton, whose three previous books have sold close to 1 million copies. Ohio Magazine talks with her about her current work and what it was like painting the Buckeye State as the center of a dystopian future.
February 2013 Issue
Eye on the Future
Dayton novelist Martha
Moody describes a turbulent age to come.
OM: Sharp and Dangerous Virtues is definitely a departure from your other novels. Why did you try something so different? Did you accomplish what you set out to write?
MM: Why did I do it? In 1998, I was driving home from the supermarket and I just had a vision of tanks driving down this suburban street. It was kind of a surprise for me, just out of the blue. I don’t often have visions and I thought, ‘Why couldn’t this happen here?’
It’s a hugely ambitious novel, and I wanted to do something big. I wanted to stretch myself with it and see if I could do it. I wanted to write something that dealt with these regular people and how they would act under awful circumstances. You know, we’ve been very lucky in many ways as a nation that we haven’t faced the sort of stuff in our native land [that happens in the novel]. That was sort of my motivation.
OM: Non-Ohioans sometimes have a skewed view of our state. Hollywood likes to portray Ohio as one big farm. Why did you set your dystopian future — a time when Canada is against us and foreign forces actually invade Cleveland — in Dayton, Ohio?
MM: Because that’s where I live, and I think if you’re going to write persuasively and movingly about the loss of something, you probably write better about something you love. I think Dayton’s great and Dayton’s history is remarkable. I’ve lived in Ohio all my life. So I wanted to write about somewhere I knew.
OM: With food scarcity becoming a real issue worldwide, your concept of a Heartland Grid (the only place where provisions are plentiful) is a terrifying one. It seems so plausible and twists the rural Midwest stereotype into something insular and menacing. How did it first come to mind? Do you think it could happen?
MM: We have a summer cottage in Lakeside, and I drive back and forth between Dayton and Lakeside where the glacier came down and the Great Black Swamp is. That’s where the idea of the Grid came from — just from those drives. There are food issues in the country — we’re starting to see it now — and there are water issues. I wondered, “What would be done?”
I don’t think [the Grid] could really happen, but what is going to happen? I don’t mean this as a local cautionary tale. I guess I meant it as, if things go really sour, if we run up against the limits of things that are essential, what’s going to happen and how’s it going to be decided? If it’s any kind of cautionary tale, it’s just, “Don’t think we’ll always have everything.”
OM: Chad, a history professor in the novel, is a wealth of information about the city of Dayton. Since you’re a Dayton native, how much research did you have to do to describe what his lectures are like? What’s the craziest thing you learned about Dayton writing this novel?
MM: I read a bunch of history books. My favorite book, that I relied on most, is called Grand Eccentrics by Mark Bernstein. It’s really good. It’s about [famous] men who once lived in Dayton. And there was Ohio Water Firsts by Sherman L. Frost, a book about Ohio’s water history. They really deserve a lot of credit for the stuff that’s in my book.
I heard a speaker who said that 100 years ago, Dayton was the Silicon Valley of now. It really was a hotbed of invention and smart people. I like hands-on activities — I’m a knitter — so I like that [concept]. And Dayton was so smart about dams, and was very, very forward-thinking. And the community was involved. The dams were funded by donations, so that’s impressive to me, too.
OM: Water and nature seem incredibly important to you and your characters.
MM: When I began thinking about writing the book, I started thinking about water because I knew Dayton had a good aquifer. I think water will be super important in the future. I enjoy looking at Lake Erie. I like being outside. The natural world is fascinating to me. I’m certainly no expert on it but I enjoy it and respect it, and I sort of worry about water. It is a limited resource.
I’m also really interested in people’s limits. Maybe it’s because I was a physician for 15 years. People change with age, people die. There’s just a difference between young flesh and older flesh. That’s interesting to me. All our imagination and striving and passion are up against these natural limits. The book is about people pushing against their natural limits.
OM: This novel was completed in 2002, but was published late last year. Why did it take so long?
MM: It’s been through many revisions. Right after Best Friends was published, I sent it to my publisher at the time, who said, ‘Oh this is so different. Why don’t you wait until your next novel comes out?’ I had two more novels published, I got a new agent and she submitted it, but again [publishing companies] didn’t want it. Her assistant had the idea to take it to regional publishers and the first one she queried was Ohio University Press.
OM: Ohio truly is your home, and the love you have for your state echoes throughout the novel. Do you think someone who doesn’t live here could have written this book?
MM: Well, there’s that old adage of writing about what you know. I think there’s something about the way a person writes about landscape. It really comes alive if there’s a sense of history and a sense of humor. I know this area. So maybe that helped.
Sometimes I think, “Oh I’m just this author here in Ohio.” I’m isolated as an author, which is fine because I like it here, but I use that as an advantage in the book. It made me proud to be from Ohio. I do travel, and I’ll be in Israel or somewhere abroad and everybody seems to have an Ohio connection. It’s very central.
OM: Ultimately, who is this book for? What do you want this book to accomplish?
MM: I dedicated the book to my sons. I had to really think in a big way for this book, and I had to think about limits and the future and the possibilities and how normal people would act under awful circumstances. I really believe that some of the virtues that are most dangerous can also help people survive. I just hope [we] have big minds and good hearts going into the future. I hope it makes people think and maybe stop, look at the landscape and think, “How lucky we are right now. But we really have to be careful.”
For more information about Martha Moody and her books, visit marthamoody.net.