Interviews

Ann Beattie, The Art of Fiction No. 209

Interviewed by Christopher Cox

The Paris Review first interviewed Ann Beattie in 1983. The transcripts of those sessions reveal a writer who had grown accustomed to being noticed and a little weary of answering reporters’ questions. “I can’t help it,” she said, “if people make the mistake of thinking that I am a prophet and that I am disguising my wisdom as short fiction that’s published in The New Yorker.” George Plimpton attached a note to the interview that read, “Yes, I’m for it,” and Beattie sent in her final edits to editor Mona Simpson, but for unknown reasons the conversation was never published, though some of its passages prompted exchanges that appear in this one.

In the intervening decades, a lot has changed: Beattie still publishes stories in The New Yorker, but far less frequently; talk of a “Beattie generation” has faded, even as she continues to write fiction that deftly captures the lives of her peers; and a temperament characterized by youthful impatience has given way to a mellow graciousness. After reading the ’83 interview, I was prepared for a standoffish encounter when I traveled to meet her in Key West, where she lives with her husband, Lincoln Perry, in the winter. (She also has a house near the University of Virginia, where she teaches literature and creative writing, and in Maine.) Instead, she and Perry met me at the airport like parents welcoming home a son from college. At a restaurant a few nights later, one couple would mistake us for a family dining out together.

Beattie proved to be an excellent host and tour guide for Key West. Despite sitting for hours of questions, she invited me along for lunch and dinner every day (and somehow always managed to pay the check), and even loaned me her car to take around the island. (The Paris Review paid for a full tank of gas, at least, before I returned it.) She showed her generosity, too, in the interview itself: when a discussion of Donald Barthelme threatened to take over too much of our time together, she said, “We can talk about him forever. I love him.”

There was plenty of her own writing to cover: her stories in The New Yorker, where her work first appeared in 1974, when she was twenty-six; her collections, including Distortions (1976), Secrets and Surprises (1978), The Burning House (1982), and Perfect Recall (2000); and novels like Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976), Falling in Place (1981), Picturing Will (1989), Another You (1995), and The Doctor’s House (2002). In the early stories, her use of ­affectless dialogue and bare-bones description, soon widely imitated, seemed terribly new, and terribly pressing, for American fiction. She was a master at portraying the sorts of relationships—the results of divorce, sexual liberation, or youthful aimlessness—that were becoming the norm for a generation that had come of age in the sixties and seventies. Over the years her style has shifted to encompass a greater range of narrative voices and descriptive flourishes, but Beattie’s wry voice, intimate narration, and tart characterization remain instantly recognizable.

The house she shares with Perry in Key West sits in the shadow of a giant kapok tree, a thorn-covered prehistoric beast that fits into the general ethos of the island precisely by looking so out of place. On our last day together, she was shut up in her office when I arrived; her newest collection, The New Yorker Stories, had just gotten a bad review in The New York Times, and she was on the phone with the writer Harry Mathews in the other room, listening quietly as he consoled her (the collection was later named one of the ten best books of the year by the Times). At dinner that night, she told the story of her attempt to go through assertiveness training. “Ann,” a friend had asked, “what more could you want?” Perry laughed at the memory, and then turned and looked at Beattie with a smile before repeating, “What more could you want?”

—Christopher Cox

 

INTERVIEWER

What do you remember about your first Paris Review interview?

BEATTIE

You know, I really don’t remember much. It happened almost thirty years ago, and in those days I was doing a lot of interviews.

INTERVIEWER

Reporters seemed to think you were some kind of oracle back then.

BEATTIE

Yes. I was extremely young, so I could sort of see—sort of see—why people might hope I had some explanatory information about people my age. I had been embraced by The New Yorker, and it comes out every week, so it gave me a lot of opportunities to be noticed.

INTERVIEWER

There wasn’t more to it than that?

BEATTIE

The first time I met John Updike, he said, “You figured out how to write an entirely different kind of story.” I was so flummoxed, all I said was, “Thank you.” Now I wish I’d asked exactly what he meant.

When I started writing seriously, there wasn’t another short-story writer I wanted to emulate. Many I hugely admired, but I didn’t think of patterning my stories on others, for better or for worse. I guess the brevity, the pose of writing a hands-off narrative, the tone came as a surprise to many readers.

INTERVIEWER

Many of them strongly identified with your characters, too.

BEATTIE

It took me years and years to realize a very simple thing, which is that when you write fiction you’re raising questions, and a lot of people think you’re playing a little game with them and that actually you know the answers to the questions. They read your question. They don’t know how to answer correctly. And they think that if they could only meet you personally and look into your eyes, you could give them the answers.

At readings I’m quite often speechless, actually. I am really very happy that I am striking a nerve. But it’s when they take it a step further and think that I have the salve for the nerve I’ve hit, or that I have personally lived through that myself, and that therefore we have a common bond, ­because they have also lived through that—then I begin to realize that what is ­between me and other people isn’t kinship, but a kind of a gulf.

INTERVIEWER

There was a lot of talk at the time of Beattieland—even a Beattie generation.

BEATTIE

That was the source of much humor with my friends. I don’t think any serious writer wants to be called the spokesperson for their generation. It doesn’t hurt book sales, it might even have an effect on your ego if you hear that sort of thing and think, Oh great! But I’m a pretty skeptical person, and the whole Beattie generation idea wasn’t anything I had any control over. I couldn’t make it come, I couldn’t make it go. I was always philosophical about it.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like during the height of your fame?

BEATTIE

I remember walking my dog past the Empire Diner in New York very depressed one night. It was one o’clock in the morning and it was dark, and I had my T-shirt tucked into my jeans. I had just published a story in The New Yorker, and some guy who was at an outdoor table leaned forward and said, “Loved you in ‘Desire,’ ” and I just burst out laughing. But later I had a feeling of disquiet: Oh my goodness, maybe people do know perfectly well who I am, and I’m not invisible. I would of course prefer to be invisible.

Then in 1980, on the night that John Lennon was killed, I was again walking the dog really late, totally in my own world and averting my eyes, because that’s what you’re supposed to do in New York. I had my nightgown on, tucked into my jeans, and I was tired, but I realized something weird was happening on the streets of New York. Everybody seemed sort of off-kilter. Two guys got out of a cab there on Twenty-third Street, and as they walked by one of them sort of smiled at me and I sort of smiled at him because my dog was an extremely attractive dog, and I was used to people smiling. And the other guy said to me, “Boy, I’ll bet you’re really glad you write instead of sing.” I just kept walking. I thought, What’s happened? I didn’t know until a couple of hours later, when somebody called up to say, “Did you know John Lennon was shot?” It made me realize how odd it is that people do recognize you and don’t speak. It’s awfully hard to know what your position is some of the time, why you’re being smiled at while you’re walking your dog.

INTERVIEWER

Someone really called in the middle of the night to say John Lennon had been shot?

BEATTIE

All night. In some sense the rug was being pulled out from underneath all of us. It was yet another death. It was like a blackboard with all these names on it that just kept getting erased.

INTERVIEWER

In Love Always you write, about New York: “Life was so difficult that small triumphs began to look like success.”

BEATTIE

I became disenchanted with New York when I realized that I felt as if I had accomplished something when I picked up the laundry and got the Times and a quart of milk. I spent a lot of time worrying about alternate-side parking. I lived on the fourth floor of a brownstone. If I had messed up and hadn’t jockeyed my car to the right side of the street for the next day and somebody moved their car at four o’clock in the morning, it was an automatic response, in winter or summer, maybe I put my slippers on, but I would run down in my pajamas and get that place. All of a sudden I thought, This is absolutely ridiculous.

INTERVIEWER

Where is home now—Maine, Key West, or Charlottesville?

BEATTIE

None of them seems like home to me. I suppose the house in Maine comes closest because it is a house, and it’s the only place I have my own room to write in. But I don’t feel most comfortable in Maine; I actually feel least comfortable there. I never figured out Maine; I’ve stopped wanting to figure out Maine. If I didn’t have friends who visited, I would see very few people there, even after all these years.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the house like? Is it on the water?

BEATTIE

No, it’s not on the water. Couldn’t afford to be on the water in Maine, even back when we bought the house. We’re about two miles inland, in a big Victorian farmhouse. It’s four acres right by a main road, right by a highway. If you put your back to the highway you can have the illusion that you’re in the country—if you drop out the sound effects from the traffic.

INTERVIEWER

Can you describe your writing room?

BEATTIE

It’s one of the bedrooms on the second floor, and it looks out over a field and a dirt road. I never repainted it when I moved in. It’s painted Band-Aid color, and it has one of those textured ceilings with a lot of cracks in it. I’m waiting for it to fall in. It’s got a futon that folds out if we need more beds. It has a big table in it that I use as a desk. I bought it in 1976, in Virginia, and I still haul it around. It’s missing a board. There are photographs of me and Donald Barthelme and Elizabeth Hardwick when we were all young. I can work in other rooms, but they don’t feel personal. I’m always happy if I happen to be there when I’m inspired or forced to write.

INTERVIEWER

You grew up in Washington, D. C. What was that like?

BEATTIE

Washington was a sleepy southern town when I was a little girl. We lived across from a tributary to Rock Creek Park. My parents didn’t really use the city at all. My father worked for the government, but mainly he was out at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

I did visit my grandparents, who lived near Dupont Circle. My grandmother would take me in the streetcar to department stores and movie palaces—they didn’t call them movie houses then, they called them movie palaces, and with good reason. Dupont Circle was five miles away from where I lived, and it was a big five miles.

Until I was in my teens, there were a lot of empty lots around my parents’ house, and I had a tree house in the park and chased squirrels and all that stuff. A rather happy and inconspicuous childhood, really, with the exception that I deeply loathed school. I’d bought that on some level I was stupid. I graduated in the bottom of my class in high school.

INTERVIEWER

Were you reading a lot?

BEATTIE

I’m always amazed by my friends who were reading Samuel Beckett back when I was reading Wonder Woman. I didn’t think about books much in those days. I took a creative-writing course in high school, but only because it allowed me to skip gym.

If anything, I just thought I was not an unusual person, and in retrospect, I wasn’t. I was the most ordinary of the ordinary. My life was just inconspicuous. I didn’t have a lot of amusing things happen, or ironies thrown at me in school. You know, it was nothing. It’s the same sort of thing that makes rats fall over on their sides in Skinner boxes. If the rat finds there’s nothing it can do effectively, the rat will give up.

INTERVIEWER

Were your parents big readers?

BEATTIE

My father would read the comics to me when I was a little girl, but he didn’t read much other than The Washington Post financial page and the sports page. On very rare occasions, always to my mother’s and my surprise, he would come home with a book. I never saw him reading anything but the newspaper in the living room, but there was a small indentation in the headboard of his bed, where he kept the books he must have read at night: Foot Reflexology, Help for Your Aching Back, How to Sell Your House Without a Real Estate Agent, and a book about his astrological sign. I never personally saw my father refer to anything but Foot Reflexology.

My mother was the big reader. She loved books about Africa—I’m sorry she never got to go there. The year I was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she came to the lunch at the academy and she met Philip Roth. And it worked out so I was sitting with some gentleman who was a hundred and one on my left, who did nothing but say, “What?” all during lunch, and meanwhile the conversation got better and better between my mother and Philip Roth, who were seated to my right. I could hear her say that she really liked his books, and he said, “Oh, thank you so much.” Then as the lunch went on, I began to hear them actually talking about the plots of his various novels. He was much relieved, I think, that this little old lady wasn’t kidding—she had actually read his books.

When Chilly Scenes of Winter came out, my mother called me, and she said with a very false voice, “Oh, hello dear, so glad I reached you, this is very exciting, I have just finished reading Chilly Scenes of Winter to Dad, and yes, Dad loved it, and Dad wants to speak to you personally.” I couldn’t believe it. I mean, really, what could be worse if you don’t read fiction than having a book written by your daughter read to you by your wife? And I knew my father wouldn’t have a clue about what was going on in Chilly Scenes of Winter. So he got on the phone and he said, “Mother read me your book.” I said, “The whole book, Daddy?” He said, “Yup, just finished.” I should have left it there. I said, “And what did you think of Chilly Scenes of Winter?” And he said, “I’ll tell you one thing. It was a hell of a lot better than ‘This is the forest primeval.’”

INTERVIEWER

When did you begin writing?

BEATTIE

I wrote some fiction as an undergraduate and also some creative nonfiction for student publications—very influenced by Tom Wolfe, intruding myself into the text. I wrote a column called T. J. Eckleburg for the school news­paper—I was very taken with The Great Gatsby—but if you asked me to tell you one subject I discussed in one column I could not do that.

In graduate school, at the University of Connecticut, I began to focus more on stories. I was studying English but I was not at all serious about it. I lived with a bunch of people, and I was the one who was always up, the insomniac, writing all night long. It was very cold. I had a three-cornered pillow and I would put it right in front of the radiator and get on the floor, get an extension cord, and work with my typewriter, as close to the heat as I could get.

INTERVIEWER

Were you writing because you were bored?

BEATTIE

Not only bored, but not a good student. I could do the research, I just wouldn’t draw brilliant conclusions. I was buying time. I didn’t want to have a job.

Writing was just a hobby, it really was—something I did in my spare time. With my first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, I had a manuscript that was eighty pages, and I gave it to my friend David Wiegand, who was visiting, and said, “What should I do with this?” He handed it back to me and had written chapter 1 on page one, and chapter 2 on page twenty, and so on. I just laughed. I was married to David Gates at the time, and he titled it. I thought it was a great title, but I didn’t know the song. He put on the record.

I never thought writing was going to be my life’s work. I stayed in graduate school, I continued teaching freshman comp, I continued buying time. I hoped I’d have—a career, you might say, but I would have called it good luck. As in: I want good luck. What can I do to court good luck?

I got back a personal rejection letter from The New Yorker for one of the very first things I sent in—maybe the first thing I sent in. Actually, my friend ­J. D. O’Hara sent the story without telling me. He was a sympathetic, encouraging editor who explained more to me in his notes on the first few stories I showed him than I explain to my students in two years, but he did it all by marginal comments that were often quite witty. The story he sent was pulled out of the slush pile by Frances Kiernan, who was a reader in the fiction department. The senior fiction editor, Roger Angell, wrote me and said in the future to please address everything to him, and that’s what I did. But they rejected the first seventeen stories I sent in.

INTERVIEWER

“Not this one, but send more”?

BEATTIE

He may not have always said, “Send more.” He certainly said, “Not this one.” But I was encouraged.

INTERVIEWER

Did Angell ever suggest reworking a story, instead of rejecting it outright?

BEATTIE

No. It wasn’t the magazine’s policy to accept a story if it needed excessive revisions. There were times when Roger would ask if we could agree something might be fixed, but they were relatively small things, such as cutting a few lines of dialogue or subtly including some explanation of why something might have happened. When I look back, I realize how much his editing made me aware—not self-conscious, but aware—of some of my own writing patterns, and strengths and weaknesses.

INTERVIEWER

Were you in touch at all with William Shawn?

BEATTIE

Yes. He was very specific with comments, scrupulous, and sometimes humorously literal-minded, as has been much remarked upon. In a story called “Vermont” there was a description of several objects on a mantelpiece—keys, a hat, a can of peaches, and roaches. And Shawn wrote, on page five, “Roach appeared page two, has not moved in three pages?” And Roger had to say, “Mr. Shawn, a roach: a stub of a marijuana cigarette.”

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there’s a common thread to those early stories?

BEATTIE

I suppose there were things that identified a story by me, but I hope the stories transcend those common denominators. You can find those with almost any writer. I suppose the early stories were like snapshots more than formal photographs. They were also filled with my personal worry beads: music, more music, dogs, snow, digs at Nixon.

INTERVIEWER

Last year you published a collection of your New Yorker stories. How did it come about?

BEATTIE

I was in a bookstore with Lincoln in New York, and I saw a book by Elaine Showalter called A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. Being the egomaniac that I am, I flipped to the back to see if I was included, and there was only one mention. I couldn’t imagine that it was anything good, to be mentioned just once in passing, so I looked myself up and discovered—thanks to Elaine Showalter—that during one ten-year period I had thirty-five stories in The New Yorker. It planted the idea in my mind that it might be interesting to collect them all.

I think a book of the stories not in The New Yorker would be just as interesting. But the ones in The New Yorker Stories are certainly among my best. I can only hope I’ve written something else as good as “Coping Stones” or “The Confidence Decoy.”

INTERVIEWER

Do you know how many stories you’ve written altogether?

BEATTIE

Never counted. There are forty-eight in The New Yorker Stories and at least as many elsewhere. A hundred twenty-five maybe. Plus a lot that I ripped up at the last line. Or halfway through. Maybe three for every one I published.

INTERVIEWER

You discard that many?

BEATTIE

I have a very short fuse. I always think, This isn’t the moment, another story will come along.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever return to your old work, out of interest?

BEATTIE

No. I wouldn’t of an evening sit around and read something I’ve written. When I was interviewed at the 92nd Street Y several years ago, the interviewer, Roger Rosenblatt, honed in on one particular long story that I had never read aloud, that I hadn’t even seen for at least the better part of ten years—during which time I was, as opposed to now, productively writing a lot of stories a year. And I knew generally what happened in the story, but I really couldn’t answer his questions, and the two of us just started laughing. The third time I failed him he said, “Have you ever read Ann Beattie’s work? It’s very good.”

INTERVIEWER

What about when you selected the stories for Park City? Did you go back and read all those stories?

BEATTIE

No. Once I saw the titles, I didn’t have much to debate. In most cases it was enough to flip through my former books. I remembered which were the strongest stories.

INTERVIEWER

Are you affected by other people’s appraisals of your work?

BEATTIE

When the stories are new I’m very affected by people’s reactions to the ­stories. Over time, less so. I don’t think anyone’s ever convinced me something is ­really wonderful when I haven’t liked it. You’d have trouble now convincing me that an early effort like “Dwarf House” was my best story. But with the early stories I wasn’t getting much feedback, except from The New Yorker. And I was very young and thought The New Yorker must be right. Once a story had that stamp of legitimacy, I didn’t need to question whether it was good.

INTERVIEWER

Didn’t you originally tear up the manuscript for “Snakes’ Shoes”?

BEATTIE

Ripped it up.

INTERVIEWER

Have you changed your opinion of that story?

BEATTIE

Yeah. I was a little harsh on “Snakes’ Shoes.”

INTERVIEWER

John Updike selected “Janus” for The Best American Short Stories of the Century. Was that one of your favorites, too?

BEATTIE

No, it’s funny, I went to the party for The Best American Short Stories of the Century, and this was maybe the third time I had ever met John Updike. I probably should’ve thanked him more than I did. I’m so phobic about this sort of thing that I tend to back off more than I should. It’s perfectly appropriate to tell someone as brilliant as John Updike that you appreciate his having turned his attention to you.

At any rate, I went up to him at the party and I did something atypical, I said, “John, I am, of course, thrilled to be here. But why was it that you ­selected that story?” I had turned a bit against it, only because I see how schematic it is. I’ve been forced to read questions about it at the ends of readers’ guides and things like that. It’s too contrived. And people have much talked about the twinkle in Updike’s eye, but he really did have a twinkle in his eye. He said, “It was the only one available to me.” And it was the first time I realized that I had never had another story in an edition of Best American, except for that one. He didn’t like that story any more than I did.

Last year, finally, I read his introduction to that book, and in the intro­duction he says as much, writing that the Best American series “shunned her early efforts, leaving us with only the later, not entirely typical but still ­dispassionate ‘Janus.’ ”

INTERVIEWER

What might have made people resistant to your work?

BEATTIE

It wasn’t just my work. At first, a lot of people missed the fact that Don Barthelme had a romantic streak, or even that his humor was very accessible. Raymond Carver, initially, had trouble placing his stories, even as a book.

INTERVIEWER

Is it true that Gordon Lish pulled a story of yours out of the slush pile at Esquire?

BEATTIE

Yes, though he never published me.

INTERVIEWER

Did he ever give you any comments on your stories?

BEATTIE

Oh yes! As I remember, he had a lot of different-size stationery. If he went with the smallest piece he had, his handwriting had to be the largest, meaning he wanted to say very little. I kept his rejections. They aren’t in a box marked gordon lish, but I imagine I have quite a lot here and there.

You bristle at rejections when you’re a young writer, but I do see his point now, although I may not always have expressed things the way Gordon expressed them. For example, I sent him a story in the early seventies, and it was one of the half-dozen stories I had ever written in my life, and he rejected it with the note, “Plumbers know and suffer too.” And I just thought that was so mean-spirited and idiotic, as though I was so stupid I didn’t think plumbers had an internal life. I remember really taking exception to that. Now, in the larger sense, I take his point entirely. He once sent a note to my first agent that said simply, “All dressed up with nowhere to go.”

INTERVIEWER

Lish introduced you to Don DeLillo. What did you make of him and his work?

BEATTIE

He did introduce us, but I started reading DeLillo pretty much when he started publishing. He was, and is, one of my heroes. I remember that I was working on a very early draft of a novel when I got Libra, and I read the first sentence and thought, I can quit right now, or I can try to forget I ever read this.

INTERVIEWER

How did you meet Barthelme?

BEATTIE

Barthelme phoned me when I was living in Eastford, Connecticut, when I had either my second or my third story in The New Yorker. I picked up the phone one day and this voice said, “May I speak to Ann Beattie? This is Donald Barthelme.” I thought, Yeah, right. I was still in graduate school, teaching freshman English for my sins, and I had been teaching Come Back, Dr. Caligari. And so I thought that some friend of mine knew that and was pretending to be Donald Barthelme. But it really was Donald Barthelme. He said he’d been following my work in The New Yorker, and did I ever come to New York, and if I ever did come to New York would I come to lunch. And so I did and he cooked me lunch.

INTERVIEWER

He cooked for you?

BEATTIE

He cooked me lunch. In Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Barthelme, Phillip Lopate talks about his friendship with Barthelme, and Lopate was cooked the same lunch that was cooked for me—tortellini and cream sauce. But let me tell you, when I was twenty-six years old, living the way I did, I did not have anyone to cook me tortellini in cream sauce. I was impressed. I was sitting in the Village apartment of Donald Barthelme, on the stool in his kitchen, being served this tortellini and cream sauce.

Later, Barthelme, Lish, and Angell appealed to an agent, Lynn Nesbit, for me; they didn’t think that the first two books were handled well and thought she could help. I’ve been so lucky to be with Lynn ever since.

INTERVIEWER

Your early work is often discussed in connection with Barthelme’s. What did his writing mean to you?

BEATTIE

It showed me an absolutely original mind in action, and it indicated how well speculation and magic could be integrated naturally into a brilliant writer’s fiction. To be clear, I don’t think my writing, early or late, is anything like his. Writers will always tell you unhesitatingly the writers they admire. I notice that stylistically, the writers are usually at a huge remove from the admired writer’s work. The admiration is almost in inverse proportion to similarities in style.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write on a computer?

BEATTIE

Yes. I take my laptop from place to place to place. The very first thing I do when I go back to the University of Virginia—because other people use my office when I’m not there—is carefully put the desktop computer down on the floor. I use it to pile coats on. I don’t even look at it.

That said, I can’t compose with the kind of keys that are on the portable. I just can’t. So I have these plastic twenty-dollar keyboards that I plug in and then it makes it work like a real typewriter. I also cannot control the laptop mouse. It’s the equivalent of someone walking out of a bar after they’ve had way too many drinks. My finger on the little arrow, I just can’t make it do anything. So I have an auxiliary mouse, too.

INTERVIEWER

How long have you been working that way?

BEATTIE

Since 1990. My friends would not hear of it, to a person, that I refused to work on a computer. If my friends got together and told me I had to have crack cocaine, I would be an addict tomorrow. I could not resist this amount of pressure. And it’s been hell! It has ruined my life! Really on a daily basis it ruins my life.

INTERVIEWER

So why don’t you go back to a typewriter?

BEATTIE

I can’t. I’m hooked. I type sixty words a minute on a typewriter, and I’m sure I type eighty words a minute on a computer. And that’s really interesting when you’re doing a first draft. The computer can more or less keep up with my thoughts. No electric typewriter, not even an IBM Selectric could possibly keep up with my thoughts. So now I’m keeping up with my thoughts. But they’re the thoughts of a deranged, deeply unhappy person because of working on the computer for twenty years.

It’s Schrödinger’s cat: You turn it on, and a different typeface comes up. You hit a wrong key, and the page splits in half. Your e-mail message says “Still sending” long enough for you to take a shower.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever lost a manuscript on the computer?

BEATTIE

Yes, a hundred pages of one. Permanently. And does that mean I called computer specialists to try and retrieve it? Yes. Lincoln was trying to work with a recovery program in Wales to get back what I had lost. This was about three years ago. I was inserting something in the middle of page ninety-nine at two o’ clock in the morning when the writing on the screen zipped upwards and I realized there was nothing there but clear space, and I did the stupidest thing you can do: I pressed Save. I don’t know about computers, and I’m ineducable, too. So nobody needs to think they should call me and say, “I’ll come over and talk about how the computer works for four hours.” It will only be four hours of hell for both of us.

INTERVIEWER

How long did that set you back?

BEATTIE

I’m still recovering from that. I’m not the same person.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still write late at night?

BEATTIE

I don’t write exclusively at night. But I do have more energy later in the day.

INTERVIEWER

Do you finish stories as quickly as you used to?

BEATTIE

No.

INTERVIEWER

When did that change?

BEATTIE

It preceded the damn computer, but I link all evils to the computer. When I first started writing I was on a roll, I was learning stuff, I was always internalizing things and wanting to do the next move before I forgot what it was. Something was always the stepping stone to something else. Now there are still many surprises for me in what I write—if anything, it’s even more mysterious—but I no longer feel that having absolute focus and staying power will get me where I want to go.

I don’t begin with a preconceived notion of where a piece of writing is going to end. If you go around filling a grocery cart, you figure, I’m cooking for tonight. You are not often fooled in the grocery store as to what your approach should be. But I’m fooled by stories sometimes, thinking that I’m picking up something for the night, and it turns out that I’m shopping for a week or a month. I’m always happy when that happens. It’s not consistent fun like being on a roller coaster, but I can hardly think of anything that pleases me more than writing a sentence that surprises me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever compose longhand?

BEATTIE

Rarely, and only when I’m sick. I sometimes used to prop up in bed and pile on blankets to write when I lived in New York, because there was never enough heat. I did write the ending of “Skeletons” on a plane, on an air sickness bag, because I ran out of paper.

But I still have a framed picture of my former Swintec electric typewriter sitting on its table. And every day of my life I look at it and think, If only, if only.

INTERVIEWER

How long does it take you to write a novel?

BEATTIE

Falling in Place took seven weeks in rough draft. Chilly Scenes of Winter went faster. But that was a very different book. A lot of dialogue, short, not complicated. Love Always was more formally complex, so it took a full summer. More recently, The Doctor’s House took the better part of a year, but with time off. Another You had a lot of false starts. When I finally figured out how to write it, it took a year or so to get the rough draft. You can easily forget how much actual time you are giving to a book. You’re still revising, or you’re receiving comments from a friend, thinking, Oh yes, I must incorporate that.

INTERVIEWER

And a story?

BEATTIE

My stories are longer now, generally. Sometimes I still write a three-pager, but more often the manuscripts come in around thirty pages.

INTERVIEWER

Who gets to see your drafts?

BEATTIE

After I finish the third draft or so I show it to Lincoln. I hand him the manuscript and then I sit down in the chair across from him and stare at him while he reads. If he has a look of consternation on his face, I say, “What’s the matter?” And if he laughs, I say, “What’s funny?” Now he’s gotten ­really adept, and he’ll say, “I didn’t tell you I have to go meet so-and-so now.

I’m happy to read it tomorrow morning at ten.” I had to learn not to read aloud to him, because he will instantly fall asleep. It’s the perfect defense system. I’m very fortunate to have friends who are good readers—most are writers themselves—and who often ask to see something I’ve written when it’s gotten to a certain stage. Harry Mathews just read and made ­extremely ­insightful edits on an as-yet-unpublished manuscript, Mrs. Nixon. Lincoln had previously reorganized and edited the book. Debra Nystrom, a poet and a big reader of short stories, gave me pages of notes and comments. In fact, I’d given up on it when I described the project to her. Eventually, I gave it to an immoderate number of readers. It was so different from other things I’d written, I couldn’t tell if it was working or not, no matter how many times I reread it. My dear friend and longtime editor, David Wiegand, reads every book and reacts honestly and also tells me how to solve problems in the manuscript. My editor, Nan Graham, sent back a marked-up manuscript and two single-spaced pages of notes. We’re still at work. 

INTERVIEWER

How do you normally start your stories—with a phrase, a character?

BEATTIE

It usually starts with an image. “Hoodie in Xanadu,” for instance, was written about someone who was renting directly across the street from me in Key West last year. He would come out in his hoodie and look left and right, standing right in the middle of the street. Eventually I figured out that he was buying drugs. That wasn’t of interest, but what he might be as a character interested me. It’s usually something that has caught my attention like that—as opposed to my suddenly discovering some potential in, say, that palm tree over there.

INTERVIEWER

Does a story ever start with a piece of dialogue?

BEATTIE

Often hearing the characters talk clarifies something to me about who they are. That information doesn’t always have to be in the final version. A couple of times dialogue has brought a short story to an immediate stop. It was true in “The Burning House.” When the husband expressed his innermost thoughts at the end, I thought, Well, you just lost that story, Beattie. Then after a long time of sitting there defeated, staring stupidly at the typing ­paper, I gave him one final line that was exactly the point at which I had to end. I so much didn’t want to hear one more word from him that I almost didn’t play fair and let him end the story.

INTERVIEWER

That speech is remarkable:

“Everything you’ve done is commendable,” he says. “You did the right thing to go back to school. You tried to do the right thing by finding yourself a normal friend like Marilyn. But your whole life you’ve made one mistake—you’ve surrounded yourself with men. Let me tell you something. All men—if they’re crazy, like Tucker, if they’re gay as the Queen of the May, like Reddy Fox, even if they’re just six years old—I’m going to tell you something about them. Men think they’re Spider-Man and Buck Rogers and Superman. You know what we all feel inside that you don’t feel? That we’re going to the stars.”

He takes my hand. “I’m looking down on all of this from space,” he whispers. “I’m already gone.”

BEATTIE

“All your life you’ve surrounded yourself with men”—that was told to me point blank, by a friend who really meant to enlighten me. And I was enlightened. “Superman is part of the consciousness,” he also said. Roger Angell fine-tuned the analogies.

People commend me on that speech all the time. Women come up to me at readings and they have that speech cut out and it’s in their wallets where they used to have pictures of their husbands and children. I find myself saying, “But don’t you think that husband was rather disturbed?” I’ve had people write to me, “I read your story and suddenly it all came clear to me and I’ve left my husband and I’m in a downtown Cheyenne, Wyoming, motel and what do I do next?”

INTERVIEWER

What do you write back?

BEATTIE

“Best of luck with your future.”

INTERVIEWER

How did you make the turn from an image or bit of dialogue that catches your attention to a full story? What’s the next step?

BEATTIE

Usually I’m going sentence by sentence, word by word, and then some sentence will have a quality that is unexpected to me. It can even be a really flat-footed sentence, but it frees up the preconceived mood that I have and opens the story to some other kind of language. You couldn’t prove to anybody that it’s a pivotal sentence, but in that moment you suspect it is, and so you’re very anxious to see what you place after that.

In “Cosmos,” I thought some of the unstated dialogue was so clearly implied that I didn’t put the reader through hearing it, in conventional or more original form. So you see “??” and “XXXXX.” The outburst in “Zalla,” when Little Thomas concludes his thoughts by saying, “I wouldn’t mind if there was no me, and you wouldn’t either,” was not something I expected. In real life, I suppose you sometimes act to save the moment or at least look the other way, but such announcements are wonderful when your writing is humming along a bit too easily. For me, my real interest in Little Thomas began at that moment, almost at the end of the story, because it was the first time I knew, as the writer, what he always knew as a character.

INTERVIEWER

Did a moment like that ever lead you to go back and make basic changes to a story—like changing from first person to third?

BEATTIE

I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve ever gone from first to third or vice versa.

INTERVIEWER

What about in Chilly Scenes of Winter? So much of it is in Charles’s head—were you ever tempted to put that in the first person?

BEATTIE

It was easier for me to consider Charles as an object—I mean, as if he could be studied closely without realizing he was under examination. Among other things, I think I would have gotten out of breath with his thoughts. You’d have to lay them out there with the panic in his mind, and that would be pretty claustrophobic.

INTERVIEWER

Charles is reading Gravity’s Rainbow, and he uses it as a sort of weapon, to dig at his sister’s fiancé, Mark.

BEATTIE

I’ve heard every discussion there is of Gravity’s Rainbow. I haven’t read it. I’m a big fan of The Crying of Lot 49.

INTERVIEWER

Charles and Sam spend a lot of time mourning the end of the sixties.

BEATTIE

It’s meant to be humorous, because they’re pretty young. When I was writing the book, I realized that this way of thinking—of romanticizing something that happened three years ago—was inherently funny.

INTERVIEWER

It’s often said that your characters are “survivors” of those years.

BEATTIE

That word is used about my work a lot, and I usually just nod, because it gets to the sense of things. But it almost makes things more dramatic than I see them as being. To have survived something, as opposed to have gotten through something—that’s a big difference. I don’t think most people have such clear crises in their lives. I don’t see that around me, though I do see a lot of people with so many low-grade troubles I don’t think I could get out of the fetal position if I personally felt them.

INTERVIEWER

Was it difficult to move from a novel like Chilly Scenes of Winter, where the narrative is told from the perspective of one character, Charles, to Falling in Place, where there are multiple points of view?

BEATTIE

Yes. I was always afraid of being too arbitrary or saying too much or—it seemed like I was more out on a limb than staying inside a single character’s head. Falling in Place had a lot of characters that I had to create and keep straight, compared to Chilly Scenes of Winter. It was an ensemble performance.

INTERVIEWER

Where did the italicized sections come from?

BEATTIE

Those were originally notes to myself that I meant to integrate into the main text the next day, because I was writing very quickly, but I just kept doing them: What didn’t you say in this chapter? What might this character’s dream be that night? They were little improvisations and additions, except that what they referred to often wasn’t demonstrable in the main text. They were things I meant to revise and include. Then I realized the form they were in had an irresistible amount of energy.

INTERVIEWER

Did you write that book start to finish?

BEATTIE

Yes. And as I was writing I thought I had fifty, a hundred pages, some significant amount ahead of me—but when I typed the last line of what is now the last line of the book, I just thought, No, that’ll do. Not that the line itself was so clever or weighted or anything like that. I couldn’t even quote it to you now.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever write with an ending already in mind?

BEATTIE

I’ve done that twice, first with Chilly Scenes of Winter, where I wrote the last fifteen pages not knowing if it would be a five-­hundred-page book or a two-hundred-page book. But I wrote the ending and put it under a stone on my desk, and then kept writing the rest of the book until I realized, Oh, here it goes, and then I was finished.

For Another You, I knew I wanted Evie’s voice at the end. I knew what she was going to discuss and what I wanted it to feel like. As I got toward those last twenty pages, I hoped that everything that led up to it would make for a smooth transition, that I could just roll with that ending. On the last day, I tried to get Lincoln or our friends Stephani and Robert to go to the movies with me, and Lincoln was whispering in their ear, “Don’t do it, she’s only got twenty pages left.” I’d say, “Maybe we could make, like, blender drinks or something.” “It’s three o’clock, Ann, we’re not going to make blender drinks.”

Whatever it was, they wouldn’t do it, so I had to sit there and write the ending.

INTERVIEWER

Was it refreshing to write in the voice of a much older woman?

BEATTIE

It was. And it was also unusual in that I did a lot of research for that section. By the time I was done, I could have written a history of the fire at the Cocoanut Grove.

The fire scene uses the old trick: bring in something unexpected that has a lot of immediacy. If you write a fictional letter, the reader will perk up and think, Oh, a letter. All the rest of it’s been narrative—but this is an actual letter. Turning my attention to Evie at this stage of the novel wasn’t neat or shapely; it was unexpected and pretty audacious. You can go too far, pulling a trick like that. If you put a dog in your Christmas photo, nobody will look at the family; they’ll only look at the dog.

You can do something similar with songs. Just pick a song that’s well known enough, or a musician whose sound is well known enough, and the reader will play a sound track for you. You don’t need to put in the words of the song. Just get it playing—Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” plays all through Falling in Place. There are a couple of songs by Patsy Cline that I put in story after story, just as I might change the living room around to see what the same furniture looks like in different arrangements. Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”—that’s another one that kept me amused for a long time.

INTERVIEWER

If you haven’t already written the final pages, how do you know when you’ve reached the end of a story?

BEATTIE

I hate to summarize my stories at the end, because I know that stories don’t really have conclusions. It’s only an appropriate moment for stopping. For a while, I would find the typewriter keys had stopped and decide that that would quite suffice. For most of my stories, intellectually I could contrive a superior ending, but I try to resist that temptation. In general I end my stories before I get a chance do something more aesthetically pleasing to me. But I’ve thrown whole stories away when all I lacked was a last line. Often.

INTERVIEWER

What about the last line of “Shifting”: “This was in 1972, in Philadelphia.” You put a basic bit of exposition right at the end.

BEATTIE

I did that because of the beginning, which was, “The woman’s name was Natalie, and the man’s name was Larry.” What a stupid sentence. I never thought that would stay in the story. I sat with that story, having written a very lyrical long last paragraph, because I couldn’t resist the temptation of tying it all together formally. And when it was all tied together, I looked at it and thought, What a coward. I was in a panic. But I hated to lose it. Both things stayed in, my lyrical excess and my factual last line. And I’m glad the final comma survived. That made it more than just a banal sentence like the first one. It was that comma that said everything to me.

Every once in a while, not very often, I fall in love with my own punctuation. When I’m making comments on a student manuscript, maybe, I’ll come up with a brilliant, brilliant piece of punctuation. Then I say, “Do you get it?” And they’re so polite, they say, “Yes, you’ve inserted an asterisk.” “No no, but that’s everything, suddenly the whole cosmos opens up around it.” “Yes, Professor Beattie.”

INTERVIEWER

How did you start using asterisks in your stories?

BEATTIE

I didn’t realize the asterisks were so prominent until I put together the stories for Park City, and I thought, When did you start using the asterisk? When did you start using the colon?

I only have a certain bag of tricks. And that’s why little things, like ­punctuation, make such a big difference. The dash I’ve always relied on hugely. I know I use it even in borderline cases, where technically it isn’t correct. But it moves me through the initial draft of the text, and I let a lot of my dashes stay.

Because I don’t work with an outline, writing a story is like crossing a stream, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock, now I’m on this rock. In the context of a story, a fairly boring thought in a character’s head can work better than a brilliant one, and a brilliantly laid out structure can be so much worse for a story than one that is more haphazard.

INTERVIEWER

Many of your stories and novels feature a stranger who will come up and say something to one of the characters and it’s bizarrely personal.

BEATTIE

If you hang around with me you’ll see that this happens. I was in the grocery store two days ago, and I was waiting in line at the deli counter, and this guy came in and I looked at him and I thought, Wow, this guy is in a total time warp. Total 1960s. Work boots, no socks, cut-off jeans, very pumped-up guy, peace sign on his shirt, the whole thing, and I was standing there in a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, and “Brown Sugar” came on, and as the woman was handing what I’d ordered over the counter, this guy kind of looked around and he said, “Wondering what you were getting.” And I said, “Lean turkey”—this is like dialogue—I said, “Lean turkey,” and he said, “Wild horses.” Then he punches me in the bicep and says, “We did it, sister, we did it.” And I said, “That certainly is true, that is true.”

INTERVIEWER

I think that, for whatever reason, this happens to you more than it does to me.

BEATTIE

It does happen a fair amount. Often I use a non sequitur or a stranger saying something out of the blue as a way to change the emotional register.

My students make fun of me for saying, I’ve read this carefully now, and you’ve written it carefully—too carefully. The phone never rings, people get to talk for four pages without interruption. We’re used to daily life ­being the fire truck coming by with its deafening siren. To put that siren in fiction—and not at the convenient moment, but maybe a minute before the convenient moment, or way after the convenient moment—is a kind of ­acknowledgment to the reader that you’re aware there’s another life out there that’s out of control. As a writer, it’s an advantage to work within open-ended, messy moments.

INTERVIEWER

In “The Burning House” there’s a formally interesting moment where the narrator stops the action and runs through a litany of how she knows everyone she has been talking about.

BEATTIE

That began as a note to myself. It was something I needed to articulate about the characters because I didn’t know where to go with the story. I had backed myself into a corner.

When it was coherent enough I thought, That stands on its own, doesn’t it? It’s not enough to just know it in my head, I need to put it on the page. And the reader probably assumes that what comes next will follow from this list. Instead what happens next is that Amy asks Frank if he’s leaving her. It seems like a complete non sequitur. But that subtext has been there all along.

INTERVIEWER

I was trying to think of the happiest relationships in your stories. There’s Richard and Alice in “Snakes’ Shoes,” but they’re divorced.

BEATTIE

But very fond of each other. I do know happy marriages, including mine. But why write about something like that? I can’t imagine writing, without irony, about people who are happy all the time.

INTERVIEWER

There’s a moment in the story “Weekend” when Lenore, who’s been presented as a fairly simple person, plays a trick on her supposedly more sophisticated husband, George, and we see that she’s actually much more perceptive than we thought.

BEATTIE

She says that about herself, that she’s simple. Simple characters can be very useful because you can have them on autopilot—as could be argued people are most of the time—but then, the most conventional people can know the most unconventional things.

INTERVIEWER

Anatole Broyard said about your writing, “In spite of a style that virtually eliminates personality, she still manages to haunt the reader with her work.”

BEATTIE

I think that was meant as praise, but I also think Anatole saw me as being much more discreet than I really am. Maybe he was perceiving something to do with my ghostly presence in the work, orchestrating things but pretending to be nonexistent, as if the moments of the story were happening out of anyone’s control: the characters, even the author’s. In some stories, a certain level of eloquence reassures the reader—a John Cheever story, for example. I avoided eloquence as much as possible. If readers noticed me, they were observing my absence.

INTERVIEWER

Could we talk briefly about My Life, Starring Dara Falcon?

BEATTIE

No!

INTERVIEWER

Are you sick of it because it was poorly reviewed?

BEATTIE

I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it for a long time. People didn’t even know anything was meant to be funny in that book. I don’t think this explains it totally, but years ago I went to see Blue Velvet in New York with a friend of mine. Hushed silence throughout. Now it sounds impossible: how would I not spontaneously have laughed at so much of it? I came out of it stunned, and sort of respectful, though feeling that it was not for me. Then Lincoln went to see it with a friend of ours in Charlottesville when it opened, and he came back and he was laughing so hard coming up the front walk, I said, “What’s funny?” And he said, “Why, the whole movie!” Sometimes­ I have a tone that is pitched so that certain people hear it and a heck of a lot of people don’t hear it. At least, that’s the most self-serving, pleasant interpretation I can possibly give.

INTERVIEWER

What is a less pleasant one?

BEATTIE

That I failed.

INTERVIEWER

I read some reviews criticizing you for only talking about upper-middle-class people, but they seem to ignore a number of your characters throughout the years.

BEATTIE

A lot of people stopped reading me at some point. To them I’m still the writer they thought I was in 1976. I got flash frozen by some people and that’s just the way it’s going to be. I don’t think all of my narrators sound exactly the same, but there are constants in the work. I’m never going to find slapstick as funny as I find irony, for example. I don’t have much control over those things. I’m not saying I’ve never written a sentence to act against some stereotype about my work, but that’s not my motivation in writing.

As for all that talk about my work being representative—that was extremely condescending, I think. There were always very specific details in my stories—a guy who works at an ax-handle factory and smokes dope all day whose deepest emotional tie is to his dog—but by the way, they’re interchangeable with other very specific details. It’s a very reductive approach to go through and note the timeliness and to make the false assumption that something analytical is being said, that the work contains buried opinions, pronouncements, and moral judgments.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you’ve moved away from the style you had back in the seventies?

BEATTIE

I think I got some things right when I was very young, and, not to my credit, I don’t know how much I’m able to move beyond those.

INTERVIEWER

What things do you mean?

BEATTIE

Oh, just the bare necessities from Hemingway: his way of making the subtext creep into the reader’s consciousness, or maybe unconscious, as if it’s a bad dream, which makes it all the more insidious. He’d seem to back off from scenes, but he chose the scenes so well, they were enormously evocative. At the same time they were greatly understated. He writes that way in “Cat in the Rain.” He lets the place, and the commonly found aspects of the place, and the physical objects seem to create a world, all by themselves. The significance of the statue outside the window, the wrong cat brought to the American girl by the proprietor, the objects she imagines and covets are all things of her particular world that overwhelm her. It’s palpable. And I admire those endings of his that boomerang right back at you, with all the glitter, as well as all the dust, flying into your eyes—the final dialogue of The Sun Also Rises. I don’t love everything he wrote, but I love many of the stories, and also the structure of In Our Time. Certain things that I like about endings—endings that hint at the whole story, that let you know there is an arc, but that offer some related image or emotion, instead of decoding the initial image, or pattern, or symbol, endings that alter the tone and the mood just a bit. I realize that some people criticize me for being arbitrary with my endings. I think my stories are very determined. I can tell you the reverberation I have in mind for each element in the story. I can’t make you read it that way, but it’s been contrived, and then revised. What is there is intentional.

INTERVIEWER

Who were the writers you admired when you first started writing?

BEATTIE

I’ve always been interested in the writers of the 1920s. Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier was one of my favorites, and Gatsby, of course. And To the Lighthouse. Eliot. Dubliners. And anything by Peter Taylor, though he came along a bit later. I think he was very much misunderstood, and greatly underappreciated, although he won the Pulitzer and some people tossed around the nickname “the American Chekhov.” People thought, Oh, well, here was an upper-class, dithering, Southern gentleman. And in fact, you know, he had an acid wit and a very cold eye and was able to look at that type and totally expose it, turn it inside out in his fiction. He was doing an X-ray and people thought he was showing them a photograph.

INTERVIEWER

What about Beckett? He shows up in “The Cinderella Waltz,” when the girl is carrying Happy Days around with her.

BEATTIE

What’s writing without in-jokes? I was made fun of by friends for carrying around Happy Days, or some other Beckett play, so often. Beckett was someone I started reading in graduate school because I thought he was funny. At the same time, he made me very, very uneasy.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think his prose style has influenced yours?

BEATTIE

I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but when I look at some of the stories from Distortions, I notice that they had a kind of authority of tone, as though the unusual was usual. That was one thing I got from Beckett.

A number of people don’t think there’s a laugh in anything I’ve ever written, the same way people think that Peter Taylor was a Southern gentleman who wrote about Southern matters uncritically. They’re just wrong. And they don’t know how to read the text. But in some of those early stories it was like I was transcribing a voice that wasn’t exactly mine, but that had a neutrality about it that was partly my own voice, and partly some more sophisticated person’s. I wasn’t trying to hide behind that neutrality; I wanted to make neutrality itself emphatic because I didn’t have enough skill to be emphatic in any other way.

INTERVIEWER

How did you feel about being classed as a minimalist?

BEATTIE

None of us have ever known what that means. Carver was incensed by it! If you look at what the term originally referred to, in painting and sculpture of the seventies, there is no analogy to what was going on in certain new writers of the time. Are my sentences like Raymond Carver’s? They simply are not, sentence by sentence, and I can’t see that any work is built except word by word, sentence by sentence. I love Raymond Carver’s work. I love it more than my own work, but I’m not interchangeable with Raymond Carver, and he’s not interchangeable with Frederick Barthelme.

That said, in the seventies a lot of us stopped tracking characters in a conventional way. In Carver’s story “Fat,” you don’t see what the floor of the restaurant looks like. You could see it, but you don’t. You don’t know what the street traffic is like outside. It’s set up more like a play, in which the scenery can’t change unless it’s during intermission. And in a very brief story, there often is no intermission.

The interplay between character and external world is something that realist writers always dealt with conscientiously, and it started to drop out with minimalism. Hemingway dropped it out, too, but even in his stories there tends to be a volley going on between the environment and the character. Carver won’t say what the volley is. None of us will.

I guess you might say that minimalism resides in certain omissions, in trusting, à la Beckett, that if you give the sparest sort of context—two people in a trash can, a road at night—it will be like a dreamscape for people’s projections. If you look at “Are These Actual Miles,” in spite of the fact that the wife is off somewhere, and we increasingly understand what she’s doing, Carver nevertheless keeps the reader in the house. Then there’s the neighbor out the window, watering the lawn. What could be more extraneous? I can make a lot of the neighbor symbolically; I can make many assertions about him. The point is, Carver lets us see so little outside. What’s on camera is the main character, separated from the action elsewhere, getting increasingly anxious. Tension builds for the character and for the reader because the reader can’t do anything about his limited environment. In Madame Bovary, hypothetically, Emma could run off across the fields! (Which I guess is what she did, and look at all the trouble it caused.)

INTERVIEWER

Why did you feel it was important to do away with that?

BEATTIE

It wasn’t a deliberate stance. I saw it as a way to create tension, to use the external world more the way a playwright would, to more or less present it in notes, or as a way to quickly sketch a recognizable scene, as if the few things that were selected—or the many, sometimes, in my case—inherently defined the world the character moved in. Then I revealed the interrelationship to be increasingly discordant as the story progressed, with characters living in disharmony with their environment. Many did. And do.

INTERVIEWER

In your experience, is it possible to feel too much sympathy for a character?

BEATTIE

You don’t want to damn your characters, but you do keep quite a skeptical distance from them.

INTERVIEWER

Why is that distance so important?

BEATTIE

Because fiction isn’t usually interesting if it’s autobiography, and vice versa. We can all think of writers who relentlessly chronicle just what happened, even if they say otherwise. Sure, sometimes what happened is amazing. But as a working method it would have to make you crazily self-conscious after a while.

INTERVIEWER

About another character, a writer, you say, “He had tried to write for the wrong reason: to exorcise demons instead of trying to court them.”

BEATTIE

It was meant as a harsh judgment of Mel. There is a kind of courtship of your demons in the writing process. I like to think I’m grappling with characters and situations in which I’ve more than met my match.