Helen Simpson on ‘In-Flight Entertainment’


At Work

Helen Simpson. Photo by Derek Thomson.

I met Helen Simpson for a genial pub lunch near Dartmouth Park in North London on the day she received the American edition of In-Flight Entertainment: Stories. She was evidently quite pleased by the book’s spare but elegant design, which looks through an airplane window onto a locket of cerulean sky. I’m tempted to draw comparisons to her stories, many of which peek at other people’s blitheness, or cruelty, or dreams of escape. But nothing in Simpson’s fiction is quite as peaceful as that glimpse of blue. She is perhaps best known for the characterization of contemporary motherhood in her collections, but many of the stories in In-Flight Entertainment confront the prospect of climate change.

Your collections are never quite themed, but they do feel very painstakingly designed. Was that true for In-Flight Entertainment?

In-Flight Entertainment is my little climate-change suite, I suppose. But there are fifteen stories in it, and only five are about climate change. My only rule is to write about what’s interesting to me at the time. It’s a great subject, but it’s very hard to dramatize or to make particular, and not to hector, not to moralize.

There are plenty of experts in these stories. There’s Jeremy in the title story as well as amateur researchers like Angelika in “The Tipping Point” and G in “Diary of an Interesting Year.” They don’t seem to benefit from their knowledge.

Well, it alienates people from them. That’s the trouble. Did you ever watch that episode of The Simpsons shortly after Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came out?  It is spoofed as An Irritating Truth. It is an irritating truth and no one wants to hear someone sounding off about it, and particularly not when they’re about to go on holiday.

Stories are good for uncomfortable things, for uncomfortable subjects. They’re not generally relaxing. Novels are more relaxing. You just give up to the novel, you go into its bath, you submit to it. You don’t with a story. You’re more alert as a reader, and more critical. If it doesn’t grab you by the second sentence, it’s done. Whereas with a novel, people will give it a couple of chapters before they abandon it.

The experience of transit seems to serve you well.

Car journeys are particularly good for stories. Journeys are, generally. You’ve got the confined space, and you’ve got the way that thoughts tend to work while you’re in transit—they’re all over the place. You generally have reflection time. If you ask people when they read, it’s always, Two weeks a year, when I’m on holiday, or, Well, I’m too tired at night, but, ah! When I’m commuting … When you’re on a train, and when you’re driving, unless you blast music out incredibly loudly, you think. That’s your dreaming time.

How much research do you usually do for your stories? It’s not just the data on climate change. There’s a lot of history, geology, and medical science here, too.

Stories are incredibly wasteful to write—the way I do them, anyway. The amount of work I do for a story is ridiculous. For every story, I’ve got a thick file. I read and think around it for ages.

The other thing that’s wasteful about these stories is that they’re not all about the same subject. I know it would be easier to sell, but I don’t think you can coldheartedly decide to do a collection on a particular theme. I let the subject choose me. That’s the only way I’ve ever done it. I didn’t know I was going to do five stories on climate change. But I just kept going back to it, because I hadn’t finished. I kept trying different angles, so by the end, I’d done a monologue, a satirical dialogue, a diary, a love story, and a sales pitch.

Does writing short stories allow you a certain intellectual scope?

It’s very compacted. You can get everything about the history and politics of somewhere into a short story if you think of it as a geologic core sample. That’s what I’m trying to do.

And you can stay ambivalent. Chekhov has this great letter where he says, Your business is to present what’s there, but not to put your thumb on the scales. Yes!

I didn’t want to ask the question that all short story writers get, which is “where’s the novel?” I can see why one might ask Alice Munro …

She’s amazing. She writes novels with all the boring bits cut out. Her way with time—she plays ducks and drakes with the decades. That’s the only thing you’re missing with a story. You’re not spending hours with the reader. You’re spending twenty minutes, or half an hour, usually.

I can make it last longer! But with your writing, there’s a different kind of temporal rigor. It’s almost Aristotelian, in the sense of there being a unity of time and place.

I did write one story deliberately following the Aristotelian unities—“Labour,” which is about a woman having a baby—and I did it in blank verse. That was in my first collection. I think I was eight months pregnant at the time with my first baby, and I turned it into something with spirit and play.

I get the feeling that you devise new time schemes for yourself, and that you look for patterns in daily experience. I’m thinking of routines like the hospital treatments in “Scan,” or driving your kids to school, as in “Early One Morning,” from In the Driver’s Seat.

That’s absolutely right. Once you start seeing those patterns, various things that seem boring you can make interesting. It’s like the Burns Dinner in “Burns and the Bankers.” Those dinners have a particular structure. Then I have the walk on Hampstead Heath in “Constitutional,” which I wanted to be a circle. I like shapes in stories, and that one was very difficult to do, because that was about time and memory, and the weaving in and out, the circular pattern, like a wreath, was the only way to do it.

Does retrospection pose especially difficult challenges?

I’ll tell you what you can’t do with a story that you can with a novel—character developing in time.

In your previous collections, you have revisited characters. For example, characters make more than one appearance in Getting a Life. They form a little community of mothers, in an almost Altmanesque way.

There was a narrower focus in that collection because I think life was narrower at the time. But it gave the collection a certain power.

This reminds me of your essay on Angela Carter, where you quote her remark about how the story should not be minimal but rococo.

She thought of novels as symphonies, and stories as chamber music.

It’s interesting to see how little you can make a good, deep story out of. It’s almost like an acrobatic circus turn. Can you do it with just an egg, an ashtray, and a stick? “If I’m Spared,” the smoking story from my previous collection, was sparked by reading something about Chekhov. Someone had asked him where he got his ideas from, and he said, Give me an ashtray, and I’ll give you a story the next day. And I thought, Yes, that’s how it should be. If you’ve been given an object and if you’ve got that cast of mind, you should be able to come up with something.

I’ve taken up the piano again recently. I was playing one of the mazurkas by Chopin. That gave me another image for the short story actually, because the mazurka lurches from elation and triumph into absolute despair within the space of an instant. It goes from melancholy to bliss! That’s what you can do in a story. I’m coming more and more to thinking that it’s tragicomic.

Your stories are often structured around metaphysical conceits, and this seeps into the language, the vocabulary. It also imparts a slightly fantastical quality to the writing.

Have you read Stendhal’s On Love? It’s all his thoughts on love, in a strange sort of list. I read it when I was a teenager. There’s a lovely image in it. He goes down a salt mine in Salzburg, and finds a twig someone brought down earlier, and it’s covered in all these salt crystals. Anyway, he finds it and he says, “Isn’t it the most beautiful object?” He used it as an image for falling in love, but that’s what happens when you write fiction, too. It’s not falsifying—it’s what happens when you fall in love. It’s what your imagination does.

When you pitch yourself against minimalism, as you do in the Carter essay, and as I think you do in your stories, you seem to be running counter to literary fashion. I feel there’s almost an ethical concern about prose. Writers are expected to be abstemious, in much the same way that your carbon coach from “Ahead of the Pack” wants us all to embrace austerity.

Pleasure in language is one thing I want from any reading I’m doing. It can come from that plain, transparent prose. But you can also get a lot of very boring prose which is just flat and tin-eared. Anyway, who are these puritanical types who come up with rules like, You can’t use adverbs? I’ll use adverbs if I want to!

What does Chekhovian mean?

People quite often use it in a disparaging way. Galsworthy said of Chekhov that he was like a tortoise, all middle. It’s nonsense, of course, because he starts and ends beautifully. Chekhovian gets used when you’re not doing that sort of party-trick twist-in-the-tale ending.

Chekhov has an interesting and very complicated history with English letters. I’ve been reading William Gerhardi recently, who was similar to Ford but modeled himself on Chekhov and was criticized for importing dangerous examples from Russian literature into English.

There’s Katherine Mansfield, too. She got a lot of flack for taking one of his stories and just using it. She didn’t acknowledge she’d lifted the whole plot from Chekhov. It’s called “Sleepy Head.” It’s plagiarism. But she idolized him. I think many people must have come to Chekhov through her.

I had a crush on her, completely, as a teenager. I read the journals, filtered through Middleton Murry at first, and then I read the biographies. She was a wonderful writer and died so young. Thirty-four! But she kept talking about Chekhov. The Modern Library did three different volumes of the stories, and, for a while, I’d just read one a day.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just been asked to do a Selected Stories by my publisher here and to write an introduction. Reading through everything in one go is a bit weird, especially when it’s your own stuff. I’ve called it A Bunch of Fives because I’ve written five collections, I’ve taken five stories from each of them, and they each took five years to write. But that’s not by design. I call it the coral-reef school of writing, which is my approach, where you build up slowly. It’s accretive.

I couldn’t think of a way into the introduction. Either you go for self-flagellation or conceit. I looked at the various ways other people had done it—Lorrie Moore did it in the third person. In the end I hit on the form of a hostile interview—“Why are you so slow?” “Why only every five years?” “Are you a man-hating feminist?”