The Daily

My Literary Hero

The Difference Between Me and Ann Beattie

June 21, 2012 | by

© Bob Adelman.

I remember reading my first Ann Beattie story. I was sitting in my dorm room on a loft bed with a hard mattress. This was in North Carolina, at night. The dorm was a big stone structure with crenelated battlements that made me dream of castles. My room overlooked the main quad, and I often heard boozy students in the background, college kids stumbling from the buses as they made their way across the lawn and back to their rooms. I was reading from a paperback copy of Park City. I don’t recall much else. I was probably in sweats and an old tee that smelled like pot, lying on my bed, legs crossed with Beattie’s book upright on my chest. Since it was late, I had likely already eaten dinner—gluey pasta and mozzarella sticks delivered in foil pans. Maybe the door was locked. But what I do remember is this: the soft shiver that gathered at the back of my neck as I flipped through the final pages of “The Burning House” and, in the end, chilled me to my core.

After that first story, I kept reading. Aside from admiring her effortless, cool prose, I was drawn to Beattie’s gay characters. They were everywhere—“The Burning House,” “The Cinderella Waltz,” “Gravity”—and they were so different from the kinds of gay characters I was used to reading about. None of them were dying of AIDS or getting beat up or coming out to their parents. Instead, they drank Galliano by the bottle and ashed their joints in unusual places—a boiling pot of sauce, for instance. The same could be said for the other characters who populated Beattie’s fiction. Their problems were so … ordinary.

But if you lined me and Beattie’s characters up, I’d stick out like a sore thumb. Here’s the difference: Beattie’s boys and girls are Greenwich, Connecticut; I’m just a kid from Columbus, Ohio. They’re post-Woodstock; I’m post-Britney. Even though I’ve traveled with parents as far as Rome and the Red Sea, we don’t have a mountain home in Vermont. We don’t have friends who own an art gallery in SoHo.

My parents came to the United States in their late teens, abandoning Eritrea during the war for independence in order to go to school. At the time, my uncle on my mother’s side was a student at Ohio State University, so that’s where they went and that’s where we stayed. In old pictures they’re dressed up in the fashion of the time—or not the time, but a time, because it was always the wrong one. There’s a faded photo from the seventies where they’re standing side by side and clinging to each other, brown kids grinning at the camera, dressed like Sandy Olsson and Danny Zuko—a big frilly skirt and a leather jacket. When they first started out, old stuff was all they could afford; cheap hand-me-downs from the bottom of thrift-store bargain bins.

People look at me and expect big things from my writing. They see a black gay guy with immigrant parents and think, Here’s someone with something to say. For a long time, before I discovered Beattie, I thought so, too. I tried to write about gay hospital visitation and the Eritrean-Ethiopian war—admittedly, in the right hands, possibly great things to read about, but in my hands they were wrong. The characters fell flat—oh, they fell real hard—because they were merely vehicles for an agenda that wasn’t mine. Still, I knew I had something to say, but whenever I tried to locate that inner voice, I heard only silence.

And that’s when I read “The Burning House.” In it, Amy is making dinner for her husband and friends. She tells secrets to her gay brother-in-law who’s also her best friend, but she knows, in the end, his loyalty belongs to his brother. As the story unfolds, we discover the many other unspoken secrets that keep the house together. Her husband’s having an affair, but so is she. Her friend, a gallery owner in SoHo, “is obsessed with homosexuals,” but nobody would ever dare say that to his face. Her brother-in-law is always stoned and too afraid not to be. Still, the secrets don’t add up to intimacy. Amy says, “I’ve known these people for years … But all those moments, and all they meant was that I was fooled into thinking I knew these people because I knew the small things, the personal things.” She’s completely alone. That’s it. With neat, tidy brushstrokes, Beattie shows us Amy’s pain. And it’s absolutely ordinary.

In her stories, not going on a date can be just as heartbreaking as losing one’s mom; two lovers walking through the city can be as extraordinary as fleeing a country—which is what gave me the nerve to write. Despite my cultural upbringing, despite my coming out of the closet, my life feels too ordinary. My day starts and ends the same. I’ll eat a bowl of Kashi while watching a Real Housewives marathon on Bravo. Sometimes, I’ll go for a run. It’s not to say stolen kisses with drag queens don’t make their way into my fiction—or trips to the sandy shores of the Red Sea, for that matter—but those components are only as integral to the story as Fairfield County is to Beattie’s. It’s the quiet, domestic aches and pains that take center stage and soak up the light.

I used to obsessively search online for pictures of Ann Beattie, scouring them for clues on writing, on living, on the art of being cool. There’s a black-and-white picture of a young Ann Beattie that’s my favorite. On first glance you simply see a bored twenty-something holding a cigarette. She’s wearing a short-sleeve sweater and her hair looks as though it hasn’t been washed in days. Her eyes say it all: I could be writing. But look again. Beattie isn’t smoking. Her fingers are curled, but they’re curled around nothing. There should be a cigarette. Maybe she’s flicking her fingers. Maybe it’s a nervous habit of hers. But a cigarette would just make so much more sense. In recent photographs, the woman is warmer. She smiles. Her stories have shifted, too; that laconic, icy prose is gone, replaced by an even more sophisticated style I dream of emulating. Still, I can’t help returning to “The Burning House”—it’s the Beattie I feel in love with, the one that got to me first.

The spine on my copy of her collected stories is now broken, the pages bent at the edges and yellowed from too much sun—whenever I gently flip through it, it opens up to page 206, even when I don’t want it to. I read this story again and again when I’m writing and even when I’m not.

Thomas Gebremedhin studies fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His favorite Real Housewife is Nene Leakes.

Want more? Check out Ann Beattie’s short story “The Astonished Woodchopper” in our Summer issue, which is available online and in bookstores now. Or read her Art of Fiction interview from our Spring 2011 issue.

16 COMMENTS

13 Comments

  1. suzanne Jenkins | June 21, 2012 at 11:54 am

    I want to read more. Keep writing.

  2. Andy Hurvitz | June 21, 2012 at 12:20 pm

    You write so poetically, lucidly and profoundly.

    I have never Ann Beattie, but now I want to. And I want to read you as well.

  3. Andy Hurvitz | June 21, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    “I have never read Ann Beattie…” See how important it is to proofread?

  4. Jordan | June 21, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    I don’t understand why the posts lately have been more about the strange, banal, and boring lives of the contributors than the authors they are reviewing.

  5. The Future | June 21, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Perhaps that’s why THEY are the ones writing for the Paris Review.

  6. Thomas Gebremedhin | June 21, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    Thanks everyone! So glad you enjoyed it

  7. A friend... | June 22, 2012 at 10:13 am

    Just stunning, Thomas. Stunning.

  8. Peg | June 23, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Thomas, as always, I continue as a fan . . . of yours. You have a LOT to say. I feel your full voice percolating just beneath your surface, and every once in a while, it bubbles over in eloquence. I just want to point out that Soho sounds exotic to you BECAUSE you didn’t grow up there. Trust me, the human experience and human emotions (which you evoke so powerfully) are just as poignant in a Durham dorm room as in some trendy uptown art gallery.

  9. Tom May | June 25, 2012 at 10:45 am

    Thomas, want more on emulating the Ann Beattie style?
    Try reading the Paris Review’s hasty inclusion of one of her stories in the current issue.

  10. John Kenny | June 28, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Great piece, Thomas, beautifully written. Reading of the struggles of a writer trying to find his/her voice makes me feel I’m not alone with my own struggles as a writer (although, essentially, we are). Best of luck with your own work.

  11. Caleb | July 5, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    “It’s the quiet, domestic aches and pains that take center stage and soak up the light.”

    That summed it all up for me. Really beautiful prose, Thomas, and a great reflection on the normalcy of our lives often being the best material for our craft (Bravo tv marathons and internet trolls included…ahem, “Oh Hell No”. Keep it up and I’ll keep eagerly reading.

  12. Genet | October 16, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Great Piece
    but I’m not really surprised =)
    I have always been a Fan of Yours.
    Keep up the good work
    Hopefully you can read one of my Poems and let me know what you think.
    Many Blessings
    xxx

  13. Leah | January 23, 2013 at 6:19 pm

    I can’t wait to read more from you.

3 Pingbacks

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