Ann Beattie Opens Up
Short stories that make the ordinary seem surprising
By Interview by Chris Wright
AUGUST 24, 1998: Over the course of a quarter-century -- six novels, six collections of short stories -- Ann Beattie has proved herself to be one of the most important and influential writers in America. Her scrubbed prose, impossibly resonant commonplaces, and pervasive sense of muted despair have found legions of admirers -- and inspired battalions of imitators.
What is remarkable about Beattie's work is not that it takes us over unfamiliar ground. Her characters are, on the surface, shockingly ordinary: drifting baby boomers, wayward yuppies. But Beattie digs deeper than your average writer. Like some backyard entomologist, she lifts the stones and logs of everyday life, showing us, momentarily, the small horrors underneath. Beattie has made a career out of studying disaffection, peering into the grisly breaches in our emotional lives, but she has done so with the humor and energy that only one who delights in lifting stones and logs can muster.
In June, amid much ballyhoo, Knopf published Park City (478 pages, $25), a collection of stories that spans Beattie's career, from 1976 to the present (there are eight new pieces). Beattie spoke with the Boston Phoenix from her home in Maine.
A: It's almost never the case during the last 15 years, but I will never get away from the legend.
Q: How difficult was it for you to choose what did and didn't make it into this collection?
A: I didn't really find it very difficult to make the choice. In some cases I'd look at the table of contents [of the original collections] and think, "Oh yeah, that's just got to be in." Some things just seemed to be an automatic decision, but I'm not particularly proud of all of the stories. I wouldn't feel terrible about only naming six. If you could have a book called My Favorite Six Stories, I don't think I'd have trouble doing that.
Q: Do you have a single favorite?
A: I really couldn't say there's just one. Maybe "Burning House," because I think that was beyond anything I was really equipped to do at that point. That was even a surprise to me.
Q: I think "Park City" is one of your strongest stories. I was late for work this morning because I couldn't stop reading it.
A: Great. That's the ultimate compliment for any writer.
Q: Not really -- you don't know the lengths I go to to get out of work. No, one of the things that struck me about the story was the dark, almost apocalyptic tone that crept in. Does this mark a change in your approach to story writing?
A: What do you mean by apocalyptic?
Q: Well, there was that whole thing about the world entering into its decline. We don't often hear you articulating stuff like that.
A: No, that's true, you don't. I think a lot of the difference between my newer work and the older work is that I would have tried to imply some of those things before. But my friends talk about these things overtly; it's nothing that's implied; everyone's always grumbling about the state of the world, so I probably feel more compelled to put it on the page.
Q: Would you describe your work as moral or instructive?
A: It certainly wouldn't leap to mind. I'm still writing about fringe people leading to some extent cobbled-together lives. I feel that these stories are being written to articulate certain confusions and disappointments, and I do mean to shake up the reader, and I do hope they're on target. But no, I think I'm the last one to make pronouncements.
Q: I've been immersed in your collection all week, and it's left me -- in particular the story "Park City" -- with a vague feeling of unease. Do you hear this often?
A: Well, it's a scary story. I'd feel that I'd failed if you didn't feel a bit uneasy when you'd finished it. To tell you the truth, more often people comment on the grimness; they tend to use a stronger word than unease when they're talking about a lot of the stories. While I would agree that I write about serious subjects, and that they're not necessarily the most pleasant subjects or even the most pleasant people, as a writer I just think about the humorous aspects of these things -- that's what keeps me going when I'm writing a story.
Q: I wouldn't call "Park City" a necessarily grim story, and I don't think that's what I was getting at. It seems to me it was almost the opposite of a cathartic experience: it built to a crescendo of anxiety and ended with a maybe. I had this urge to see what was going to happen and I was left with a question.
A: Well, there's a question for me at the end, too.
Q: Are you trying to work something out through your stories?
A: Yes, but I think that's only step one. I think there's a second test, which is whether it has real aesthetic meaning and real aesthetic coherence. So yeah, it's personal on some level, and in my case it is something that I'm either puzzled by or that I think is in some way problematic, but I wouldn't think that just to articulate that would necessarily mean that it should be something that an audience would read.
Q: There seems to be a remarkable continuity to your stories. It's interesting that two recent reviews either praised this continuity (the New York Times) or attacked you for it (the Boston Globe). I take it you read the review --
A: I certainly didn't, and don't tell me about it because, I have to tell you, this is the truth, my friend Andre Dubus left a message on my machine warning me off. [Laughs] I honestly don't know what it says.
Q: Sorry I brought it up.
A: That's all right, I knew that it was there. What put me over the top was that Michiko Kakutani [of the Times] gave my last novel such a scathing review, and it had such bad fallout -- I mean just terrible, not just psychologically for me, which it did, but just across the board in terms of killing the book. I'm just not going to do it anymore. If I have any advance warning, I'm simply not going to read these things. Of course, you realize this is part of the game. You'd be naive if you didn't realize this is something you have to put up with, you know. It sounds kind of churlish to say I don't read bad reviews -- it sounds defensive and unsophisticated -- but after Kakutani's review of Dara Falcon, I figured it isn't worth doing this to myself.
Q: One article I read had you saying you're not a happy person. Is that true?
A: These things are so taken out of context.
Q: I know, I write them.
A: Right. [Laughs] That's really a problem. It's impossible. What does it matter what my personality is? It's fair enough to talk about the stories, but they're not an autobiographical display.
Q: So it's a huge mistake to judge an author's personality based on her work?
A: Huge. Huge.
Q: Are there any common misconceptions about you or your work that you'd like to put to rest here in the Boston Phoenix?
A: [Laughs] See, I could never put them to rest. Subsequently I'd get a question from someone saying, "Well, you're particularly irked about so and so," and it would be something that I'd thought of being irked about in order to answer your question. So no. I've been in this business for a long time, and I no longer think that anything that I do by way of clarification is ever going to eradicate the mistakes. I don't even correct people when they mispronounce my name now.
Q: How do you pronounce your name?
Q: That's what I said, isn't it?
Q: So what do people say?
A: Bay-tee. Seventy-five percent of the time.
Q: So is it Warren Bay-tee or Warren Bee-tee?
Q: Oh, that's why, then. I've always mispronounced Warren Beatty's name.
A: So now if you interview him, you'll know.
Q: Do you ever worry that someone might recognize an unfavorable trait in one of your characters as theirs and get mad at you?
A: No. I don't really care if they do. But really, the characters are such composites that if I did take a nervous tic of one friend and attribute it to a character that was 50 percent somebody else and 40 percent complete invention -- if I took some little aspect of them and put it in a story, [it's] fair game. Nobody can assume that, to a writer, everything is off-limits.
Q: Your work is very visual, as well as concerning itself with the inner lives of your characters. Do you picture people and places firmly in your mind?
A: I think almost always that what gets me going with a story is the atmosphere, the visual imagery, and then I people it with characters, not the other way around.
Q: Very often in your stories, small details encroach on large moments -- a waitress will bring over a cup of coffee during an argument, and you will describe every detail, down to the "You're welcome." Why? It's almost cinematic.
A: The reader's going to look for continuity. If the waitress shows up and doesn't have an exit line, that isn't true to life -- I'm hard pressed to think of a waitress who just walks away. I think that [these details] are slightly tedious, but to some extent they have to be included for verisimilitude.
Q: No, not tedious. In some ways this builds up tension. But another writer might have said something like "As the waitress put the food down, they glared at each other," and got around it that way.
A: Well, I've found myself a lot of times with student manuscripts, saying to them that it worries me that their work seems hermetically sealed. In other words, in all the time that this fight was transpiring, did nothing happen from the outside? The phone never rang, in spite of the fact that we all live with constantly ringing telephones? A fax didn't come in, a bird didn't hit the window? I think those moments have to be put there. You don't want to overdo them, certainly, but they can be used to build tension, and they can be used to open up the world.
Chris Wright is the associate editor of Stuff@Night.
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