ArtsATL > Books > Q&A: Short story master and “Mrs. Nixon” author Ann Beattie on the art of fiction

Q&A: Short story master and “Mrs. Nixon” author Ann Beattie on the art of fiction

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ann Beattie’s stories appeared in The New Yorker magazine like snapshots of the times, her lens trained on a stratum of educated, liberal white Americans in trouble in their relationships. Beattie, who will deliver the keynote address at the award ceremony for the Townsend Prize for Fiction on Thursday, April 26, writes prose of a scrupulous exactitude, the clarity and specificity of her sentences compressing the wobbly emotional plight of her characters.

The 48 stories collected in “The New Yorker Stories,” beginning with “A Platonic Relationship,” published in 1974 when she was just 26, display Beattie’s amazing facility in constructing messy modern lives from peculiar, idiosyncratic details. Like a child of divorce who presents her father and his male lover with a coleus planted in a conch shell. Or the man who jiggles his transistor radio like a cocktail shaker concealing some kind of heartbreak within. But the characters’ responses to the cracks splintering their lives — the epidemic divorces, adulteries and drifting between lovers — are timorous and muted. Something devastating has happened to them, or is happening to them, and they act as if they barely recognize that.

It’s as if the tightly focused domestic story, the story that turns down the volume on the craziness of the inner and outer worlds, is the best way Beattie, winner of the 2000 PEN/Malamud Award for achievement in the short story, can describe lives rocked by the seismic cultural changes that upended American society in the 1960s and ’70s, from the sexual revolution to the counterculture and women’s liberation movement. In that era of whooshing freedoms, when divorce tore up families, children drifted between parents and parents floated untethered, Beattie’s characters appear shell-shocked, unable to reckon with the catastrophic losses they’ve caused themselves by breaking bonds, sometimes for practically no reason.

In her 18th book of fiction, “Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life,” Beattie revisits the 1970s, but not to present a fictional biography of that seemingly blandest of first ladies, as the title suggests. Instead, she lets go her discipline of story-making to riff on who Pat Nixon might be; who a writer might imagine her to be, and on what evidence; and how a writer might imagine anyone at all to be. In other words, Beattie plays around with notions of fictional construction and narrative, a long-standing practitioner questioning the tactics of her art.

In advance of her visit to Atlanta, Beattie, who chairs the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, graciously answered a few questions by email.

Parul Kapur Hinzen: In the late 1980s, when I was in a creative writing program in New York, your stories epitomized the fiction in The New Yorker. They had a great general influence, along with the writing of your contemporaries like Raymond Carver, on a generation of young writers. The style came to be known as minimalism, mainly, I guess, for its lack of elaboration of emotion and morality that has always been the point of conventional fiction. What appealed to you about writing in a way that leaves much unsaid, and what place does emotion have for you in fiction?

Ann Beattie: But, but, but . . . you can’t mean that Chekhov had a lack of “emotion and morality” just because he didn’t make his personal reactions implicit in the text, right? Right now, I am teaching a course to graduate students called “The Long Story.” A lot of the pieces are novellas (“Point Omega,” etc.), others are long stories by Alice Munro, Reynolds Price, etc. Until relatively recently, whether I intended to do it or not, I wrote shorter stories, 12 to 15 pages, myself. Now, while I hope I’m not just indulging myself and my ability to write, the stories tend to be longer. If much was still unsaid, they would be shorter. I have never believed that people speak and communicate, but people do talk and there is such a thing as dialogue. I’m more interested, now, in narrative. I’m more interested in telling stories that invoke the told story (whether it be an anecdote, or a character’s best shot at convincing someone, however long it takes). I’m not sure I know what you mean by asking what place emotion has for me in fiction. What fiction is without emotion?

Hinzen: By your own estimate (in a Paris Review interview), you’ve published about 125 stories and probably written three for every one you’ve published. That is a tremendous number of lives and scenarios to have conjured up. Where do your story ideas tend to come from, and how do you move from a premise to fleshing out a narrative?

Beattie: They come from my life, but my life isn’t just the daily life I live. I worry about what’s on the news when on the treadmill at the gym (get Dr. Phil outta there!), and if I might escape worrying, I come back to my husband, who is more worried about the state of the nation than I’ve ever been. He went door to door for Obama, and this time around he might be willing to go to Mars, or whatever it takes. Slight digression. But not really. Because my fiction isn’t a litany of what bothers me personally; instead, it’s a quieter version of quieter realizations, about quieter people — characters who aren’t necessary as talkative or irate or as hopeful or as lacking in hope as I am. I observe. I don’t listen.

Hinzen: From what I’ve read about your process, you’re one of those incredibly fluent writers who writes with great speed and has little need of revision. Is this an accurate picture, or is there a struggle involved somewhere?

Beattie: I revise a lot. I used to revise less. I used to write shorter stories. I also write a lot less than I used to, but the finished first drafts remain about the same: one in three, at best.

Hinzen: What is your writing routine like? How disciplined are you? 

Beattie: Depending on what I’m working on, I spend more or less time at my desk. I don’t write every day, and I don’t aspire to that. But if I’m at work on a novel or a book, something long, I make myself focus consistently, even if I’d rather be doing something else. I usually like to revise. I go through many drafts of a story before submitting it, many more drafts if I get good feedback that helps me to see other ways I could phrase certain things, or emphasize them.

Subtlety is never the problem. I write at the computer, print out, hand-edit, re-enter the changes. Things are never easy, but I do more or less arrange my life and my time so I can have long stretches to write when I need that time. As everyone knows, though, writers will do most anything to avoid writing. I live in three places and have two desks and a bookcase in Key West that I use as a desk; I have to straddle my legs because of the vertical board. It’s not really a desk, but I pretend it is.

I don’t feel my computer is my friend. I don’t unplug it and, say, take it out to the back deck. I just sit in front of the thing and force myself to focus. The printer is not my friend either. I talk to it about its slowness. Actually I have three printers, all with problems. Which means I talk a lot.

Hinzen: What do you know about writing now that you didn’t understand even as a celebrated young New Yorker writer in her 20s and 30s?

Beattie: What an interesting question. For a lot of reasons (teaching among them, but not only because of that), I’ve realized that even the most ideal audience needs to know a writer’s territory — which means reading enough that one can contextualize a writer in terms of his or her sensibility and parameters — and that that is less and less likely to happen. (Where would even the best reader reliably find these stories, except in a book, where many were collected?) So I always feel at a disadvantage now – my stories are no longer published in the order in which they were written, they are not necessarily published at all, though I’m not so vain that I think people are waiting for my next writerly breath. As craft, I know endless things about writing that I didn’t know in my 20s.

HinzenIn your latest book, “Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life,” you raise penetrating questions about the art of writing that go to the heart of what fiction is. One I particularly liked is, “Yet how can writers be sure about what anybody might think?” What’s your process of entering into a character’s consciousness? How do you persuade yourself about what the person would think or feel?

Beattie: I let the “person” or character have her or his say, whether or not I agree. The question to which you refer (“Yet how” etc.) is really about audience, and I’m worried, as well as consoled, that I can never outguess my audience. Writing is nothing if not humbling.

You ask about the process of entering into a character’s consciousness. Sometimes I have to research what the character (as opposed to me) might know. Mrs. Nixon knew more about Bob Haldeman than I do, and more than I ever wanted to know. No doubt, more than she ever wanted to know. Nevertheless, to be true to her character, she did know these things. Therefore, of course, I had to be aware of them also. But often my characters are purely fictional — even though all characters are projections of the author. With fiction, you want to look at the different edges: where the character is sharper than your particular intelligence; where the character is opaque, and though you see that as the writer, you need not make the character more penetrable: just comprehensible enough to convince — both author and audience.

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