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Writing in the City 

Mona Simpson’s dilemma

Wednesday, Dec 8 1999
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"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.

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.

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 Simpsons and 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.

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.

"Very few things seem the same to me. When I lived here I lived in a house we rented from Jack Haley, who was the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. It had a great peach tree in the back yard. I think it had three bedrooms. It’s since been torn down.

"Of course the most interesting in a way are the places that you know one way as a child growing up and then see again in a different context as an adult. I’m always finding these old shrines of sorts here.

"You know the way that little Brentwood Country Mart looks, or the Farmers Market up at La Brea? A lot of L.A. looked like that, low-down, ranch-style. They were sort of kitschy and nostalgic even when they were built.

"Also I know that Beverly Hills has these old pretty bronze signs." Her tone has turned gently sly. "But they now say ‘sister city to Nice, France.’ Or is it Cannes? I don’t remember that they ever said that before."

If Simpson has felt more intellectually and aesthetically at ease in New York, she has thrived in some ways as a writer precisely because she has maintained a vantage point outside that literary hothouse. Indeed, to pick up one of her books is to settle in for a long drive down boulevards of subtly varying apartment blocks, or highways rolling past endless re-configurations of golden grass, gray-green brush and chocolate new-plowed furrow. There are moments that the steady accumulation of perceptions may become wearying by their very constancy, but the view is always spacious, sometimes breathtaking. And because the books don’t end at the next corner but track characters well past any obvious climax (going away to college, finding a father, the birth of a wanted child), there is ample time to look back in the rear-view mirror or contemplate the approaching horizon.

Most important, Simpson’s fiction offers the reward that excellent writing always does: unequivocal confirmation that looking clearly and scrupulously recording one’s observations can make all the difference in the world.�

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