It was also enough of a Hollywood event to involve the author (who had nothing to do with the screenplay) in a rush of pre-release publicity. That’s not an activity the reserved Simpson finds particularly congenial. She’s more at home talking about Proust or Henry James than what she calls "the culture of reference," with its "TV shows and action movies" — even though her husband of eight years, Richard Appel, has been a writer for The Simpsonsand now King of the Hill. The attention has even extended to their son’s school, Crossroads (about which other parents have observed that more industry deals are done in its parking lot than at the Ivy in these child-centered days). Suddenly, she says, people "were coming up saying, ‘Ohhh congratulations! It’s your first movie!’ As if," she adds with a flash of asperity, "the culmination of any book is a movie." For a minute it’s hard to remember that Simpson has lived next door to the entertainment industry, off and on, for the past 30 years.
Like her books, Simpson’s relationship to Los Angeles is at once intimate and difficult to pigeonhole. In conversation she speaks both as a native and as an outlander. She is, in fact, a bit of both. Her history tents the country, forming an imaginatively perfect modern American triptych of semirural Midwestern childhood, California adolescence, and professional coming-of-age in Manhattan.
Her childhood, like the daughter Ann’s in Anywhere but Here, was spent in Green Bay, Wisconsin, a place where "we just went outside and played; we ran in the streets and woods. I had a lot of male cousins who lived next door. I don’t ever remember going through a period I see kids go through now, where girls will be only with girls and boys with boys. I always had both."
She went to Catholic school, "but my family didn’t practice. My father’s Syrian. But he’s Muslim the way children of Episcopalian parents are Episcopalian. Neither of my parents are devout." Her parents divorced when she was small, and she and her mother moved to Beverly Hills in 1970, when she was 12 — young enough to claim this, too, as a hometown.
"A lot of people I grew up with I run into. My little particular crowd in high school all left immediately and never came back. But all the popular kids are still here. L.A. is really one of those places, like New York, where many, many people you meet grew up there. Maybe went away for college, but grew up there. Always intended to live there. Do live there." It’s not the usual view of the ã city, which is often described by visiting observers as populated exclusively by expatriates. But it’s the way most of us remember our homes.
College for Simpson was Berkeley. She loved the area and stayed on after graduation, working as a freelance journalist for, among others, The East Bay Express. "It wasn’t," she recalls, "extremely lucrative. I found if I was getting reimbursed for gas mileage I was doing pretty well." Contrary to many people’s experience, fiction, in Simpson’s case, turned out to be the fiscally responsible solution. (Apparently it still is, though when asked about sales, Simpson professes to be unable to read a royalty sheet. Her agent, she says, has told her that in terms of numbers for a literary novelist she’s "middle-class, upper-middle-class, but not upper-class.")
Once she enrolled in Columbia’s graduate writing program, recognition came quickly: a berth at Yaddo writers’ colony during her first summer as a graduate student; acceptance by soon-to-be-powerful agent Amanda Urban; a professional and personal splash with her first novel, the start of a continuous parade of fellowships and teaching positions, and — what Simpson valued almost as much — a chance to live in New York.
It’s a city she still speaks of as a kind of gold standard of urban experience. "It’s not that I want to be going to literary dinners all the time, but I miss the daily accessibility of art museums. The museums are good here and I go to them, but it’s a big trip. From here, you don’t go that often." Her conviction that LACMA is "ways away" from Santa Monica may be the surest sign that she can be regarded as a native.
Comparing the outlines of her biography with the themes and settings of her novels, one might say that Simpson’s instinct has been to hoard every scrap of experience, to examine them again and again, and force them to yield every ounce of imaginative power. She is extremely careful to distance her life from her fiction, speaking only tersely, if at all, about her parents; but her reasons may go beyond privacy. Busy matching up true life with true-to-life, one can easily lose sight of the extraordinary literary characters she has created.
There’s the relentless mother of Anywhere but Here, relentlessly optimistic about the future, relentlessly tweaking her daughter’s hem and pushing her to stand up straight. Or there’s the revenant dad of The Lost Father— a charming, Egyptian-born academic preceded through much of the novel by his will-o’-the-wisp reputation for brilliance and unaccountable disappearances — whose final shape in his daughter’s life is as a Central Valley restaurant manager, pitching the good life through chardonnay and baby lettuces, juggling an elderly wife and a hungry mistress, anxious at last to regard his child as an achievement.