It is possible that the only consistent feature across humanity is that we are all, every one of us, a bundle of inconsistencies. We have complex, sometimes even conflicting, desires and interests; we defy easy categorization. Ironically, our one universal commonality may be our individual disparities.
This eternal push and pull of human nature plays out on the page in Maggie Moor’s novel Skinless. Charmay is a woman willing to be whatever she has to be to survive—a musician, a sex worker, a philosopher, an addict—as she works to overcome her past and wring hope from the drug-drenched, sex-soaked streets of 1990s New York City.
We connected with Maggie for an interview on this multifaceted thriller. We hope you find her answers as challenging and thought provoking as we did.
First things first: what inspired you to bring this gritty thriller to life?
A gritty thriller, yes. Skinless is a painful story that takes the reader on a whirlwind ride through seedy drug culture, money, and manipulation. It is about a young femme fatale, Charmay, living in New York City at the turn of the millennium and trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, working in gentlemen’s clubs to pay her way, while haunted by childhood sexual abuse and active addiction. I wrote Skinless because I wanted to explore the magnificent human strength to survive very difficult circumstances, and more, how, with introspection, humans have an inspiring ability to grow through strife. Skinless explores the choices people make when in a state of fear: do we manipulate as a quick means to feel better, or trust that if we follow truth with an open heart we will find our way? Skinless is a story about introspection, growth, and the courage to live out loud, told through the fragile, inner voice of this flawed young woman living in a primal world.
If you take a look at the first few pages of Skinless, the prologue, you will see a kind of instruction to the reader to center a perspective: “This story has characters who some may not like or care about because they’re considered low life on the barometer of what people are worth in society, but if you choose to judge them, you’re probably not looking at something about you.”
I wanted the reader to experience themselves while experiencing Charmay. Different as our stories are, there are certain themes that we all share: fear of the unknown, longing for intimacy and bonding, a desire to be felt, understood, and many thousands of different survival or coping mechanisms to soothe the anxieties created by the unrest of these fears and longings.
Skinless, and the characters in Skinless, focuses on the ways in which people use outside objects, people, material gain, judgement, racial differences, and addictions as this “quick fix” to feel better. An attempt to manipulate their own inner lives and environment, to quickly soothe fears and longings, rather than seek to look within and accept, get to know, become “intimate with” their own internal selves. Maybe even heal their own internal trauma, to awaken to greater depths of understanding their own humanity.
I added the Jung quote (abbreviated) on the first page of Skinless: “In each of us, there is another whom we do not know.” The lead character, Charmay, is living out her internal conflicts, and we quickly learn that these intrapsychic conflicts take the shape of several inner voices happening at once inside of her. We then come to understand that these conflicts center around Charmay’s silenced traumas and fears, and manifest into her own fear-based societal judgements, manipulations of others, and addictions to substances as means to get by. Yet, because the reader is so intimately involved in knowing Charmay’s internal thoughts, they experience her seeking a higher truth: a healing, an artistic expression through music and love. Charmay is ultimately aware of her “other self”—in her, and in all of humanity. She painfully longs to be able to believe in that vulnerable yet stronger part of herself, to shed the other layers of persona and defense, and to step into this “other self” she knows exists, but can’t quite let herself believe in. She often finds her inner truth weak, or “skinless,” and covers it up with a made-up character she plays for men: Cindy.
I think the idea of a “false” and “true” self is something everyone can relate to, if they look within; the struggle to remain true to the “other within” is part of the human condition, and especially elucidated through societal pressure and fears. I felt Skinless, and Charmay’s inner dialogue, would inspire others to find the courage to live out loud, to heal what holds them back from growing into their higher selves or choosing heart-led actions.
Charmay is an intriguing character: the protagonist, but not quite the hero of the story. How did you approach writing such a complex, flawed character while still making her someone the audience roots for?
Well, the second line in the prologue is, “A guy told me recently, ‘If you knew all the parts of someone, you would love them.’ If you could connect the dots.” In fact, someone did say this to me one day over coffee while discussing something about his own personal relationships. His words stuck with me.
I’m sure you would agree that, in this progressive day and age, a core theme to the development and integration of human culture is empathy—acceptance of people who may not look like what one may consider the “American Dream” on the outside—with a major emphasis on gender, race, and economic neutrality. With the old American Dream waning, we have people striving for equanimity, equality, and a fair chance at achieving their goals no matter what they look like or identify as. The best way to develop empathy is to help entice people’s curiosity for understanding each person’s humanity. Imagine you could hear every feeling, thought, desire that moves through a person’s mind while watching them live life. Imagine yourself listening in to every feeling, thought, desire that percolates in your mind as you live your life now.
So, in Skinless, I used Charmay’s ongoing inner monologue as my approach to inviting the reader to feel with, and thus root for, a complex, flawed, “non-hero.” The reader experiences the inner world of Charmay in a way that is tangible and emotionally moving. I used a train-of-thought style writing to allow the reader to step into the truth of the mind; an ebb and flow of consciousness to unconsciousness; memory to future to now; deflection; expression, and on. I chose to skip words, abandoning the unnecessary to keep the reader in the rhythm of the truth of the “now.” I do not offer the reader what they often expect from a writer: a well-designed, commercially saleable, formatted thought that tells the reader what to think or feel. Instead, I remain raw; I offer the reader an opportunity to live inside the mind of Charmay, a deeply traumatized, poetic, courageous, raw, emotional woman living life to her own beat. While Charmay often makes choices most would not consider “good” or “moral” choices, I felt that, by the reader entering into this personal voice, he or she could feel very close to Charmay, as if she is talking to them and is with them. This approach allows the reader immediate immersion into Charmay’s human experience: her fears, longings, and desires, right, wrong, or indifferent; the moral judgement subsides and the truth of a human spirit seeking to survive immerses the reader in wanting to know, feel, and see more.
Perhaps the reader is even surprised at themselves as they root for Charmay, and, as they read on, they may realize that it is because, while Charmay is struggling, it is clear that she is seeking to touch her higher self, yet can’t quite touch that space. A heartbreak of the human condition, one we all feel at times. In Skinless, Charmay repetitively recoils into her fear-based survival mechanisms, and each time these choices only prove to create an added repetition of trauma, until she finds the courage to leave it all behind with the click of her heels on the New York City sidewalks and heal. Perhaps Skinless is a story that many people can relate to the feelings of, if not the circumstances.
The humming concrete jungle of New York City comes to life in your novel. Have you travelled there before, or did you travel there in preparation for writing this story? How did you settle on the late 1990s for the time period of your novel?
What better time period than the late 1990s in New York City to set a story about a young twenty-something female trying to make it as a singer while stripping, mixed up with her angry Cuban American boyfriend who sells drugs to try to make a film about his migrant family tragedy, while playing a double life as Cindy for a rich divorcé who is trying to buy his vitality back by playing sugar daddy to this young starlet? It’s a triad of people looking to get fed by quick fix, insular means. They each try to buy, hustle, or manipulate to get what they think they need to survive: sex, youth, money, fame. They each lose connection with what they may really want and crave in the deeper parts of their humanity: intimacy, human connection, hope, vitality. None of them end up with the kind of fulfillment they are truly seeking, and each is left alone, faced again with the unknowns of life.
So, to answer your question, I chose the turn of the millennium in NYC because to me, the zeitgeist of the 1990s in the world’s biggest melting pot metropolis signifies the key main ideas of this story: expansion, personal paradise, VIP status, money, greed, objectification, media sloth, silenced trauma, aggression, addiction, and racial conflict. The Washington Post called New York City in the 1990s “the city that defined America’s New Gilded Age.” In business the message was, “Greed is good; manipulation is the way you succeed in life.” For consumers the message was: “Buy this, you’ll feel better; achieve wealth, you will be a hero and loved forever; become a star and you can get away with anything.” The drug trade was still illegal, but prescription drugs were taking off as a daily household habit; media froth sold millions—“cash is king” and the word “hustle” were popular buzz phrases of the 90s mainstream culture. Education as a means to success was out of fashion. Technology was expanding rapidly; people who hadn’t finished college were becoming dot com million(now billion)aires. Old-money elitism was becoming a status new money could achieve, and it didn’t matter where and how you got it; VIP status was offered to those with the money to buy it, and separated those with from those without even more. Finally, to my point, the entrepreneurial spirit was beginning to rise as an almost anarchic means against the old-money culture. The late 1990s were exciting times, and, as we saw, were not sustainable.
I love New York City and wrote Skinless while living in New York.
What is one thing you hope audiences take away from this novel about a tough, street-smart woman surviving against the odds?
Charmay’s character can serve as inspiration to many men and women who relate to her journey. Obviously, in recent years the “me too” movement has broken down the old, misogynistic status quo, and the centuries of hidden sex abuse traumas were finally welcomed. Women and men began to see that speaking up about their experiences, coming of age and moving into developing their professional goals, could make a difference. People living with trauma and using addiction to feel better may be inspired by Charmay’s repetitions and find the strength to start to make different choices, to heal.
Charmay’s story may help people understand that we are not just destined to continue living in pain and resentment. We have the choice of introspection, looking at our actions, changing our behaviors, and choosing faith over fear, humanity over insularity.
Charmay’s story may also help people understand the effects of trauma.
For those who read and may judge Charmay from the outside, they may learn that it is possible to gain some valuable perspective from someone they might have judged. By living inside of this person who is surviving difficult experiences, they may learn that they, too, can survive something difficult, or may relate to a human being living in a different circumstance than they are with greater breadth of heart and empathy, even respect and curiosity to know more. Life experience coupled with introspection is valuable to anyone, and cannot be bought or taught.
Ultimately I would hope it would pique a person’s curiosity to understand their own inner life rather than live in a defended state of being addicted to outside sources to try to assuage intimacy with their own humanity, to seek a life authentic to themselves and the humanity in which we all cohabitate.
Either way, Skinless is a fun, exotic entrepreneurial journey about a beautiful, courageous young female artist in the gritty world of New York City.
Are you working on any new projects you can tell us a little bit about?
I am developing a one-hour TV pilot for Skinless: “Sharp-witted, resourceful singer-songwriter Charmay gets pulled into the dangerous and seedy drug-crime and sex world at the turn of the millennium in New York City.”
I have also completed a first draft on a second novel focused on Charmay in later years, a sober woman navigating Eastern healing arts as a path to healing childhood traumas as she continues to explore human intimacy and transcend her past.