Writing in the City 

Mona Simpson’s dilemma

Wednesday, Dec 8 1999

"There’s a lot of waste in novel writing," Mona Simpson admits from the depths of a low-slung chair in the tiny anteroom of her Santa Monica office. She seems resigned but not altogether pleased. As a woman who attended Beverly Hills High from the south side of Wilshire (read: wrong side of the tracks) and who now embraces Santa Monica, homeless and all, as "the Berkeley of Southern California," only stipulating that "it seems quite bright and clean to me; it could use a few more [shelters]," she is perhaps inclined, by culture and experience, to see waste as a bad thing.

It is, however, a fact of authors’ lives. "Often you’ll write whole passages that you just need to know about the characters, but that don’t need to be in the novel. So much of the character exists in language. You’re finding the right vantage and the right tone." Her speaking voice is disarming — young, a little blurred — as if she wishes to soften the effect of her formidable clarity. "I’m not sure," she continues as if musing aloud, "if there’s such a thing as a fictional idea that’s separate from specific original language." Small-boned and remarkably slim considering she is in the third trimester of pregnancy, Simpson sits very still as she talks. Such composure may be a legacy from her years in Catholic elementary school; or simply a reluctance to waste motions.

Simpson, 42, is well-placed to appreciate the exigencies of her craft. She has edited fiction (at the literarily lustrous Paris Review); taught fiction (at Columbia, New York University and, most recently, New York’s Bard College, where she is currently on sabbatical); won awards for fiction (including a National Endowment of the Arts grant, a Guggenheim fellowship and a grant from the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest foundation). Not least, she has written a number of short stories and three novels — Anywhere but Here (1987), The Lost Father (1992) and A Regular Guy (1996) — in which she turns what amounts to an intense and unblinking naturalist’s eye onto familial relationships. Where other writers might cut to the chase, she is ever willing to pause and sort out the rising and falling notes of a quarrel as though it were the song of a confusing, possibly migratory warbler, or to record the blind thrusts of motivation, even when the end result is as twisted as the sedimentary layers along the San Andreas Fault.

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Certainly nothing about Simpson’s fourth-floor office suite in an aging deco building (Philip Marlowe might easily have had premises here), or the carton of Peet’s coffee she’s nursed for an hour, indicates a person at home with profligacy. Barring an upturned chair (destined for the larger office she will move into shortly with a friend) that takes up most of the floor space, the room’s contents instead suggest a flair for rigorous pruning. There is only one photo of her son, Gabriel, 6, in evidence, and the bookshelf is notable less for its variety of authors than for the depth of their representation — half a dozen volumes of Chekhov; both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in print and on tape; local histories by Mike Davis and Kevin Starr (research for My Hollywood, the novel she’s been working on for the past three years).

All of this restraint would be less surprising if Simpson were one of those terse late-century stylists — a Raymond Carver, say, one of those writers whose prose exhibits the discipline, ruthlessness — and truncated scale — of a bonsai master. But both Simpson’s novels and her stories bear something of the same relation to conventional fiction as Los Angeles does to older East Coast metropolises. At once intricate and sprawling, they focus on larger-than-life themes of wide-screen, even biblical, simplicity — mother and daughter; wandering father — all the while remaining intensely specific and tantalizingly resistant to easy summation.

"It’s very interesting, I think, to make characters as big and paradoxical as they can be while still being coherent," she observes carefully — a care that seems compounded equally of a writerly regard for precision and a well-developed self-protective streak.

"I did a piece once for a women’s magazine. I thought I would look at how appearance was handled in a number of great novels: Proust, Tolstoy, Chekhov. It was very interesting. In genre fiction, if her eyes were icy blue, she would have those eyes every time you saw her. Whereas Natasha would really change. Something as superficial as "Is she pretty?" was a question you couldn’t answer simply in good novels. Which I think is, as they say, true to life."

Self-protection may be on Simpson’s mind of late. The film version of Anywhere but Here, a mother-daughter odyssey that extends literally from small-town Wisconsin to the wishfully glamorous outskirts of Beverly Hills and emotionally from snarling co-dependence to separation and a measure of respect, was released in late October. Directed by Wayne Wang and starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, it is a skillful and charismatically acted treatment of the novel; yet, in place of the book’s disturbing and engagingly specific characters, viewers were offered something closer to a ditsy everymom and a generically sullen though sympathetic teen.

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