undefinedAnn Beattie in New York, 1980.

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.