Most recently there’s the visionary biotech entrepreneur of A Regular Guy, a man so isolated by his own brilliance, and the skittish magnetism of wealth and power, that he’s unable to stave off the loss of his company, a self-made connoisseur who pours thousands of dollars into the individually hand-shaped floorboards of a house his girlfriend doesn’t like, and ultimately adopts fatherhood with the awkward single-mindedness with which others take up religion. (If the latter story rings a bell, it is because Apple Computer’s Steven Jobs is Simpson’s older brother, although the two did not meet until they were in their 20s.)
There is one character, however, who is essentially the same from work to work: a girl who excels in school, is accepted by her peers, but is nevertheless isolated by her experience — a divorce, a sudden move, relative poverty or (in the 1984 short story "Lawns") an incestuous father. It is, in its way, a fruitful isolation. The child believes she sees the world more clearly than her parents; or perhaps looking hard is the way she takes care of herself. In either case, the writer in her is already at work, even if she doesn’t know she will become one. This central authorial eye is dear to Simpson, not only as an alter ego but as a fictional ideal, seemingly connected to her notion that novels can best be "true to life" by being as all-encompassing as possible.
"I wish there was some way to knit all the books together so they made some sort of whole," she says on a chilly December afternoon a couple of weeks after our first meeting. Peet’s coffeehouse, for which Simpson maintains an affection from her Berkeley days, is crowded and noisy — a surprise to Simpson, who usually visits in the morning — but she seems less self-conscious conversing in this public space than in her office.
"I’m not sure I’m going in that direction, but I think that would be a great thing, to have that kind of coherence. It’s one of the things I love in Proust, the way that people come back and they’re quite different yet there’s enough that’s recognizable that you believe it was the same character, the same person."
She tried it once. Having begun the work which would become The Lost Father, she decided in midstream to cast it as a kind of sequel to Anywhere but Here.
"It was kind of an intuitive thing," she explains. "I was writing about a woman looking for her father, and I realized that I wasn’t terribly interested in writing about her mother, which, of course, you’d have to cover, given that she’d grown up with her mother. And I understood why I wasn’t that interested, because I’d just written a whole book on that."
The solution caused as many problems as it solved. Simpson acknowledges that the books are not as integrated as she might have liked. "There are some names and stuff that aren’t coherent between the two. The later book you always favor more. I mean, I could have easily made it consistent by just using the name [I’d used] in the first book. But I preferred the later ones, so I didn’t do that."
To a reader encountering the books in sequence, however, the dislocation goes beyond names and places. The references to the young adult Ann’s earlier life as detailed in the first novel seem enough at odds with her current character that they feel pasted in. To put it another way, Simpson has discovered the outer limit of contradictions a single character can bear. It is a useful lesson and one she profits from in A Regular Guy, in which not only the central, opaquely charismatic Tom, but his beautiful yet oddly unambitious girlfriend, is simultaneously baffling and believable. And yet, perhaps because they emerge from such specifics of time and place as the hip counterculture of the 1970s and Silicon Valley start-ups, they loom less large than her mothers, fathers and daughters.
In addition to being "in the middle" (the novelist’s all-purpose self-protective term) of My Hollywood, Simpson is using her sabbatical year to complete a collection of short stories. "I don’t usually do two things at once," she says. "Some days that seems great; other days it just seems awful." Ask her what she likes about Los Angeles and she seems for a moment lost for a reply. There is hiking, she ventures, a trail just past Sunset above the Pacific Coast Highway that’s "very pretty." There’s downtown. "I guess that’s the part of me that loves New York. I like the buildings. I like that concentrated vertical."
Ask her on another occasion what she’s noticed, writing about the city again nearly 30 years after the period she chronicled in Anywhere but Here, and she turns voluble — proof perhaps of the axiom that writers write in order to discover what they think, or merely that a person who has already put in her day at the blank page feels freer to talk than one who hasn’t.