Fifteen Minutes with Ann Beattie
November 23, 2010 | by Kate Waldman
It’s been a long book tour for Ann Beattie’s collected New Yorker stories, and the tour hasn’t even begun yet. “Is this my first stop?” she asks, pressing a hand to her forehead. “I don’t remember.” We are sitting downstairs at McNally Jackson Books, about an hour before her reading is scheduled to start. Her publisher approaches with an update about the Miami Book Fair on Saturday (destination number two on the tour): Beattie can arrive at 10:45, not a problem, but could she make sure to drop by the hospitality tent? Also, in fifteen minutes, her friend will be upstairs, ready to meet her for tea.
“I’ll have to change into my high heels at some point,” the author sighs. She’s spent the day on her feet, but she looks poised and fresh in a floral-patterned skirt, deep green blouse, and pale green sweater. Cabled gold glitters at her wrists and neck. Like Ellen, the protagonist in “A Platonic Relationship”—the first story in the collection, from which she will read tonight—she wears her hair loose, “falling free.” When I admire her nails, which are long, tapered, and crimson, she smiles almost apologetically. “I have insomnia,” she explains. Applying nail polish is one of the few ways she can occupy herself at night without waking her husband. She adds that the age of the word processor has been kinder to her hands than that of the typewriter: Returning the carriage while at work on a story, she once snapped off four-fifths of her manicure.
Most readers would consider the sacrifice worthwhile. Over four decades, fiction by Beattie has appeared forty-eight times in The New Yorker’s pages, making the D.C.- born author something of an institution. Her blend of acuity and flattened affect now defines a genre, with its own adjective: Beattiesque. Beattie herself sees more similarities between her stories than differences. She calls them permutations of a single voice, though reviewers tend to emphasize evolutions in her style. An older Beattie, goes the conventional wisdom, has mellowed into lyricism. Her sentences have filled out and deepened; a sense of mastery stands in for the original sense of discovery. But Beattie denies that more than the surface has changed. Continuity and consistency are words that keep coming up, along with the descriptor “tongue in cheek.” Also: dogs. In her stories, the dogs often seem as complex as the human characters. Is Beattie herself a dog person?
“Oh, yes.” Her busy schedule and complicated domestic life (she and her husband rotate between three homes) currently make dog ownership impractical. But for seventeen years she cared for a golden retriever named Sandy. The writer gathers her coat; our fifteen minutes are up. I head toward the reading area, and she is shuttled along to her next engagement.
Upstairs, a swath of floor space has become an impromptu auditorium. Two-thirds of the foldout chairs are already full. It’s a youngish crowd, dominated by sideburns and plastic glasses, but older fans are trickling in. The New Yorker Stories flashes everywhere on shelves and laps (“My friend thought it was made of pleather,” Beattie told me ruefully, fingering the book’s bright red cover). When the author takes the stage a few minutes after seven, I notice that she has decided not to wear her high heels. She opens by asking the audience what she should do with the lozenge in her mouth, and a woman hands her a napkin.
Beattie has selected a 1975 story called “Dwarf House,” and she enunciates the “d” and the “w” with wry precision, as if to hammer in her subject’s abnormality. Nods, smiles, and laughter come from the crowd. She stands slightly hunched over the lectern and rarely raises her eyes. Outside, three silver-haired men peer through the window, and one tries to take a picture on his iPhone.