Spring 1990, Volume 7.1
NEILA C. SESHACHARI
PICTURING ANN BEATTIE: A DIALOGUE
An Interview with Ann Beattie by Neila C. Seshachari
Ann Beattie was born in Washington, D.C., in 1947, the only child of James A. and Charlotte (Crosby) Beattie. "I'm from a middle-class family," she told me, "and, for whatever reasons, I was always a very autonomous person. . . . My parents gave me a lot of self-assurance. . . . I've spent my life supporting myself. It didn't ever occur to me that I wasn't going to be out there [in the world] totally taking care of myself and orchestrating my life. . . . I deliberately didn't make choices that I thought might limit me. I decided not to have children, for instance." Beattie has indeed "orchestrated" her life most satisfactorily through writing, even though she has said that she first started writing because she was "bored with graduate school."
After the publication of her first story, "A Rose for Judy Garland's Casket" in the Western Humanities Review in 1972, Beattie became a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and a number of leading magazines. In 1976, Doubleday published Distortions, a collection of short stories, and her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, both of which immediately established her critical reputation not only as a writer but also as the voice of the "Woodstock generation" of the 1960s. Her published works include three other novels, Falling in Place (1980), Love Always (1985), and Picturing Will (1989), and three more books of short stories, Secrets and Surprises (1978), The Burning House (1982) and Where You'll Find Me (1986). Alex Katz, a commissioned book on Alex Katz, the painter, was published in 1987. She has held prestigeous lectureships at the University of Virginia and Harvard University. Her awards include one in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1980), Distinguished Alumnae Award (1980) and Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree (1983) from her alma mater, American University, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1980.
Ann Beattie lives in Charlottesville, VA, with her husband, Lincoln Perry.
The present interview was arranged when Ann Beattie visited Weber State College campus as one of the featured writers at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference in April 1989. She not only agreed to give the interview but graciously offered to come to Washington D.C. in December, so we could meet during the MLA convention. The following interview took place at the Sheraton Washington Hotel on 28 December 1989. I had sent her a set of thirty-two questions earlier but, as expected, the interview took on spontaneous turns, even though we did cover most of the questions sent earlier.
Seshachari: "The Sweetest Songs" deals with some ideas and themes that recur in your fiction often—tenuous relationships between lovers, or husbands and wives and, of course, music. Let's start with music first. How deep is your interest in music?
Beattie: Well, a few years ago I think I could have given you a more enthusiastic answer about that but in the last few years, for the first time in my life, I really haven't listened to much music. I used to work with music on and now I don't. I don't have any one reason for that; sometimes music seems suitable, almost as if you're selecting a soundtrack to a movie for what's going on in your character's life. When I wrote Falling in Place in the summer of l979, a lot of things happening in that book were really taking place. Skylab really was falling. How can you improve on that in fiction? I don't think I've ever heard a song get as much air time as "Heart of Glass." It's a rather haunting song but if I hadn't been writing that book, I wouldn't have kept the radio on. I wouldn't have been, in a sort of bemused way, listening for the next play of "Heart of Glass." So, I was just doing the thing that writers do all the time. I had my tentacles out, and I saw what was out there to grab, that would be appropriate to that particular kind of book. Falling in Place was meant to be very much rooted in a place and time, and music was a part of that.
Seshachari: Do you think that in the 1960s and 70s people listened to music a little more than they did in the 80s?
Beattie: I'm not sure they listened in the same way. For instance, my parents, who grew up in the Big Band era, are very moved by many of those songs and have particular memories. I could name a few songs and say exactly what summer they came out and what boy I thought I was in love with when I was fourteen years old, but I think that music used to be really more a part of the culture when people went out dancing in a different way than they do now. My parents' generation probably listened less, but the experience might have been more personal. When I lived in New York, not only did I have safety locks on the door but I had the music going, keeping the city at a distance, trying to find creative time and peace and so forth. I live in a small town now [Charlottesville, VA]; it's very quiet, and there is no commanding reason to listen to music all the time.
Seshachari: Perhaps also because you were married to a musician then, you might have listened to music more . . . .
Beattie: Oh yes, that's true certainly. I heard a lot of music that I never would have been aware of. In fact, he titled Chilly Scenes of Winter. It's a song by Cousin Emmy, and I'd never heard it. After he read the entire manuscript, he said, We should call it Chilly Scenes of Winter. I said, What does that have to do with anything? and he said, You know, the song, and he put it on. That's how the book came to be entitled Chilly Scenes of Winter.
Seshachari: It brought you recognition. You were even given a small part in the film version.
Beattie: I begged for it.
Seshachari: And did that lead to Love Always?
Beattie: No, I don't think so.
Seshachari: When you get into film life, and you see the actors and director. . . .
Beattie: Well, when Chilly Scenes was being made into a movie, I was out on location for a couple of weeks—very unofficially. But many years ago, I went to school with Tom Shales at American University and for a long time—before he was TV critic of the Washington Post—he did all kinds of arts and entertainment. I used to tag along when he went to Hollywood. I would stand around and watch what he was writing about or meet the people that he was meeting, so for several years of my life, I was in California quite unofficially. I was picking up things by osmosis. Much of what happens in Love Always is really from overheard conversations in the Russian Tea Room. It's an improvisation of the way certain Hollywood agents think and talk to each other.
Seshachari: I admire your extraordinary ability to absorb the sights and sounds of everything that's going on around you.
Beattie: It's interesting, though, that in daily life, I think of myself as being relatively unobservant. A number of my friends are in the arts, and they are visual people. I'm married to a painter. I know many photographers. Compared to them I never feel Iike I'm really focusing on what's interesting. However, when I sit down to write, I find that things that didn't even seem to impress me at the time come into sharp focus. I would be perfectly capable of going away from this interview and five years later, when I was writing about a character who was not in point of fact based on you, remember exactly the way your earrings look. If I weren't writing, I would have no reason to remember those lovely earrings. That is the strange thing; I don't know if you want to call it the subconscious, but things that I don't seem to notice are getting stored away.
Seshachari: Did you ever paint or sing?
Beattie: Only when I was a little girl. If I had had any creative talent in that direction I think that's what I would have loved to do—something visual. When I was teaching at Harvard in the 1970s, I went to Project Incorporated in Cambridge and took photography classes. I didn't even know how to aim the camera in those days. It started me looking at photographs in a different way. I think photography rather than painting is a more direct influence.
Seshachari: I could have guessed that because of the way Jody in Picturing Will handles her camera.
Beattie: I didn't know what those photo booths where you put the dollar in to get the pictures were called. I called up my friend, Bob Adelman, and he said, Photomaton, p,h,o,t,o,m,a,t,o,n. I put it in the book, but later found that I had no need for it because it was a technical term and I had to take it out. It just broke my heart not to be able to refer to that in the text.
Seshachari: Minimalism in literature is said to have borrowed heavily from the fine arts, both music and painting. Even if, as you say, you have no creative talent in music and painting, have they influenced your writing at all? Did you make a conscious attempt to bring their techniques into your writing?
Beattie: No, I didn't make a conscious attempt to bring them together. People could look at my interests in music and painting and say, Aha, doesn't it figure that she would work that way? But again, I really wasn't very informed at the point at which I started writing. I think it's more that these things coexisted than that they provided a conscious framework. I can't deny the influence. You mentioned things specifically [in the questions sent earlier]—the rhythmic pauses in music, or the way space opens up in a painting. I think they're perfect analogies, but I think they're probably analogies that could be applied to many writers. Also minimalism is a term that all of us who share so little in common and who are lumped together as minimalists are not terribly happy with. I like the notion that people are appreciative of the fact that my work is sometimes allusive and that there is an interrelationship of the arts. I'm not at all sure that this is restricted to minimalism though. People mean different things by the word, but I don't think it is that there is less there because things are being referred to. The things are simply there, transpiring, and sometimes people miss what's right before their eyes. I don't find, for instance, the conversations in Raymond Carver's stories oblique; I find them entirely comprehensible. I must admit that I read Carver very early on; also, for years and years I went to readings by Carver. I found that once he started to read, the humor became very apparent. I never sat in an audience where the people weren't entirely converted by the time they left—they were no longer frightened of his writing, once they heard him read. It was also true of Donald Barthelme's readings, although he was considered more of a post-modernist than a minimalist. He was a great friend of mine, and over the years I went to many of his readings. More often than with Carver even, people were actually coming out saying, My God, I get it!
Seshachari: Your own humor comes through too in your readings.
Beattie: It's gratifying that it does; I love to give readings. It's often been said that I'm an extremely depressing, cynical writer. I've never known what to make of that. My audiences have always laughed at the parts that are humorous. I think that I'm serious, but I don't think that I'm inordinately bleak. For instance, I think that Beckett is funny. If you read Beckett to children, who have no inhibitions, they'll giggle away. I think also that the question of intonation is one that a lot of American critics have not been educated for.
Seshachari: In a society that is fast losing its communicative powers—where individuals talk incessantly about things that mean nothing, while they circumvent the important things that are on their minds—minimalism as a technique for both writers and artists can be very effective. Let's go back to "The Sweetest Songs." Like much of your work, this story too reflects a male center of consciousness.
Beattie: I think I write about things that are mysterious to me. I don't write about things that I have the answers to or things that are very close to home. It just wouldn't be any adventure. It wouldn't have any vitality.
Seshachari: Are you saying you use male protagonists because male consciousness operates in a mysterious way and you want to probe it? Do you do that consciously?
Beattie: I think because I have done it repeatedly that on some level I must always have been intuiting that that was where my interest lay. Quite often my narrator or protagonist may be a man, but I'm not sure he's the more interesting character, or if the more complex character isn't the woman. You have to figure out who the right person is to tell the story. And often, people who are very self-aware will only sound as if they are pontificating if they tell the story. In terms of the dramatic thrust of these pieces, I tend to think a lot about women's consciousness is revealed in many of them, even though the man is ostensibly the center of attention.
Seshachari: I do discern latent feminism in your early work. It reaches its incremental peak in Picturing Will. In the 1970s critics called you a writer of the generation of the 60s and in the 80s it almost appeared as if you were going along and writing about your growing generation. But in Picturing Will you're really not writing about that generation anymore; you're writing about the present times.
Beattie: I hope so. I always would have argued, though, that my material transcended the setting. My friends and I make great fun of the fact that I was labeled the so-called spokesperson for the generation. I don't think many writers write from that perspective. I'm sure John Updike doesn't sit around thinking, Boy, have I got the number on suburbia. He'd be horrified if he thought that was all he was up to.
Seshachari: F. Scott Fitzgerald was happy that he "cut the ribbon" for the Jazz age and ushered it in.
Beattie: Yes, but then again you pay the price of being Scott Fitzgerald. There was an extremely insecure, highly neurotic individual who, yes, really did write about his times, but of course I don't think his writings have survived only as period pieces. I still think of Gatsby as being a very complex work that isn't at all merely rooted in the 1920s. That's what I mean; if your writing doesn't transcend the era, then it would really seem to be only of very limited sociological importance.
Seshachari: Tell me about your continued fascination with Fitzgerald.
Beattie: So often he thought he was an extremely sophisticated writer and actually the thing that was so appealing about him was a kind of childlike confusion. He was certainly smart enough to be quite skeptical about the people that he wrote about, though I suspect the perspective he presented to the reader did not necessarily emerge as what he intended. I also just think that he was capable of writing beautifully—sentence by sentence his writing can be simply wonderful.
Seshachari: He did have a dual perspective on everything he explored.
Beattie: That's the fascination about exploration. There is some reason, obviously, that you are drawn to your material, but the way in which you explore it might come to be quite different from what you would expect. In other words, if you were meeting all these people at a party you might have one frame of reference about them but once they were in a work of literature you might find, much to your surprise, that you had quite another perspective.
Seshachari: And also, when a book is published and goes into the public domain, critics are likely to interpret it differently.
Beattie: Yes, yes. People have isolated whole motifs—like the "jungle motif" in my story, "Dwarf House." I was sitting in a friend's class when that story was being discussed and I was absolutely amazed. I don't deny that those things are there. I think they can stay unarticulated in the subconscious of the writer. I do think that after you have written a draft of something, then you have to be your own literary critic and make sure that it functions as a piece of art, but that's not to say that what you've written is definitive and the only thing about the subject that could have been said.
Seshachari: Critics, like most people, see what they wish to see. I see Picturing Will as a wonderful contemporary feminist novel.
Beattie: I must say I was taken aback by that [question sent earlier]. My problem with thinking of it as a feminist novel is that Jody really seems to me to be potentially a rather cold, unattractive person. She certainly isn't the kind of spokesperson for women's rights. She doesn't seem to be any kind of person you'd want to invoke as a representative feminist. She just doesn't function all that well. For instance, when she 's on the highway photographing after the accident when her friend, Mary Vickers, hits the deer. . . what I at least wanted to show with that scene was her absolute detachment. The human impulse would be to embrace your friend in a moment of crisis, but instead, what she's thinking is, Thank God for the autowinder. It may not, at the moment you hear it, make her an absolute villain; she is not to be simplified quite that easily. But in many places in the book I tried to anticipate the ending in which she had more or less dissociated herself from her family and made a life for herself in which she was the queen bee around whom all the students and admirers hovered. This was fulfilling to her, but really it was Mel who was left to take care of the child.
Seshachari: I didn't think of Jody as a cold person, probably because, as I was first reading, I associated Jody with the italized parental voice all along.
Beattie: I see, that certainly would temper your views if you assumed that that was Jody.
Seshachari: There is no reason to believe it's either Jody or Mel at that point. It's a parental voice of concern. But I somehow thought of both Jody and Mel as nurturers.
Beattie: I think she was, up to a point, but when she found Mel to come in and take over, certainly she shifted the burden of responsibility.
Seshachari: I think of Picturing Will as a feminist novel in a genuine sense—not as a novel which is a disguised political tract on feminism, but as one in which womanhood has come into its own, where a woman appropriates to herself the human right—and it's not a male right or a female right, it's a human right—to be oneself. Jody manages to reconcile her profession with her child and her marriage. Even though you do not talk about it, there is no reason to believe that her family life was unhappy.
Beattie: She's highly functional.
Seshachari: In the United States feminism is often pigeon-holed into radical feminism; I don't look at it that way at all. For me, feminism is a social ideal where a woman finds her own level of comfort in society as a male finds his own level.
Beattie: I do agree, but I think women have to fight harder. Women are obviously much more discriminated against than men in many ways. Given that that's going to be the case, you just have to decide individually how best to operate. I must say also that it's never worked to my disadvantage that I have long, blond hair. I'm not proud of that, and I don't send my pictures to the newspapers and say please print them. But if they have their druthers about whose picture to print, it's not because it's me, it's because some photo editors think it's more enticing to print the picture of some woman who has long, blond hair.
Seshachari: And high cheekbones . . . .
Beattie: And high cheekbones (laughter)! Also, just one more thing to explain my own success such as it is—you know I was pulled out of the slush-pile of The New Yorker. I had never personally met another writer at the point at which I published. I didn't study writing, I didn't know any other writers and much to The New Yorker's credit, they read the unsolicited manuscripts. Many national magazines did and still do, and I was pulled out almost everywhere and none of those people knew what I looked like. Later, I think there was no way to keep people, who thought in certain ways, from capitalizing on that. It's not as though I volunteered to do ads. I refused to appear on television.
Seshachari: It's just good to have a writer who looks like one. Which women writers do you admire?
Beattie: I admire many, actually. Mary Lee Settle, who has come to be a very good friend of mine. Her newest novel, Charlie Bland, is really a very beautiful, poetic book. She's someone who is always willing to take risks in her work. There are a number of good short story writers—in particular, Elizabeth Tallent. I think her story called "Ice," is really one of the greatest short stories of our time. I'm also very fond of Deborah Eisenberg's work; Joy Williams is in a league by herself. Mary Robinson's "Mine" is a masterpiece. I like a lot of Margaret Atwood, I like much of Alice Munro. Again, if you were to ask me about male writers, there's often a novel I admire, but not all of their works.
Seshachari: Tell me about the genesis of Picturing Will. Who is Will?
Beattie: Ah, that's a hard one. That book went through three years of revisions. Initially, my only desire was to write something about the kind of bonding that a parent feels with a child. I wasn't even clear that it was going to be a mother, who was alone, who was raising a son. But that emerged fairly quickly; that imaginative projection was easier for me than beginning from a male point of view. I also thought, stylistically, I would like to do more of something that I've done from time to time in my stories, but that I've never done in a sustained way, in a longer work, which was just to write a different kind of prose. And when the book was first written, the first draft ended up being five sections done in terms of geography—Charlottesville, New York, Florida, etc. Later, I realized that I wanted only mother, father, and child.
Seshachari: A trinity.
Beattie: Exactly. I wasn't at all sure what Jody's background would be or who the child would be. They took on their characters rather early. In fact, I had to temper my judgmental tendencies toward her because I figured I wasn't going to write about some perfectly benign, pleasant professional. She was, at least in my mind, someone other than that. She was quite driven and quite conflicted in a lot of ways. That was the only thing that made her interesting to me. Again, all that may not have been demonstrated in the book, but it was the notion that got me into it.
Seshachari: In your previous works you don't talk about or describe sex at all, but in Picturing Will there is at least one explicit sex scene. Is that also a new departure?
Beattie: Again, that was not premeditated. Once I created Haveabud, that seemed inevitable.
Seshachari: How did you come to choose the name Haveabud? Did you do it deliberately?
Beattie: No, no. I realized after I had written it, but I thought, Oh, just leave it, it sounds amusing. It did start out as Haverford, which is his formal name.
Seshachari: I thought Haveabud was suggestive as in "Have a bud [boy]."
Beattie: Other people have said it sounds like an ad for Budweiser beer. I thought, Let people think whatever they want; it's just the way it came out.
Seshachari: Do you ever sit at your typewriter and say, Now I've never done this before . . . .
Beattie: Only with the prose style. From time to time I've sat down and thought, Oh, I'm going to do this differently. For instance, when I wrote Falling in Place, I didn't know I'd have those italicized sections. I was writing at least a chapter a day and I started to make notes to myself about other material I needed to include, and finally I realized, Why not let the notes stand? A kind of coda to each chapter—just write them a bit more coherently. So then I had the task of writing a chapter each day and making coherent the notes at the end of the chapter. The form was appropriate to the content. These are characters who keep things from one another. It seemed a perfect system: characters won't give the reader a complete picture, but an author will (ostensibly) fill them in later. That's sort of analogous to what I did in Picturing Will too, because it has no one story. Even if the characters think they know the story, we as the readers know they are simply mistaken. What I'm telling people in both these books is, Don't believe what you're told.
Seshachari: You were talking about taking risks. What kinds of risks did you take in Picturing Will?
Beattie: Well, the writing. I've never tried three hundred pages of compound, complex sentences in fact (laughter). I decided to let some of the complexity of the story come into the prose itself rather than just being referred to, as I do sometimes in stories. The endings of my stories draw people's attention because they do shift very much. I work on the endings a lot.
Seshachari: I remember Laura sitting on Charlie's lap at the end of Chilly Scenes and asking myself, Where do they go from here?
Beattie: That's an interesting case. I wrote those pages of Chilly Scenes of Winter when I'd only written about a hundred pages, and I didn't know where the scene would fit in. I put it to the back of my desk and I kept writing and then when I got to the pages preceding the end, I suddenly felt, Hey, wait, I've already written the ending of that, and I just shuffled it into place.
Seshachari: How do you plan your endings?
Beattie: I don't plan endings per se. I don't think I've ever known an ending in my entire life, even with a short story. And some stories or books fail simply at that point. They have to be thrown away if the ending doesn't reveal itself to me. When I was writing Picturing Will, the first two sections turned out to be pretty much the same number of pages, but when I got to section three—it was in section five initially—I thought Well, now I probably have about another seventy-five pages of manuscript to write, but I felt very ill at ease. It took me a long time to realize that a long section would be quite inappropriate to my purposes, that really I wanted to write about childhood when it had disappeared. Will's been in the book, the focus is still on him, but we flip forward into the twenty-first century when he's a man in his late twenties, married, with a child of his own at the point at which he's called "child." And of course that had a lot to do with the book, because the book is, in part, about untold stories.
Seshachari: I was impressed with the detail with which you focused on the child's growing up. Where did you ever have opportunities to observe a child?
Beattie: Myself. I think that really is the thing about being an only child, that you do realize you are in a strange condition compared to most of your friends. I don't know that I thought about that as a kid—I certainly didn't have any perspective or any long view of my life, but I think even at that time I probably realized this was a strange position I was in. There were two adults in the house and then there was me. I was shorter, I didn't get my way as much. I think I reflected on that more than I might have, had there been several other children going around the house. My position vis-a-vis my parents was mysterious even at the time and, because I like to write about mysteries, I'm still writing about that many years later. Also things interest me that aren't right under my nose and clearly understood, and so if I spend an afternoon with a kid, I'm sure I tend to file away almost every second and almost every nuance, where clearly you just couldn't proceed with your life and do that if you were the child's mother.
Seshachari: Didn't you once tell me that the original Will is Jay Parini's son?
Beattie: Jay Parini and his wife, Devon Jersild, have a child who was born on my birthday—September 8th—who is named Will, and I must say I have always been entirely charmed with him, but I don't mean to say that I've tried to capture his personality in the book or anything. And in fact, had they named the child Luca, my book would have been Picturing Luca .
Seshachari: So you love the kid.
Beattie: I love the kid. As I start to write something, I need some touchstones. I need some familiarity. I did an approximation of the geography of Charlottesville, Virginia. It doesn't figure that strongly in the book, but the playground that I'm writing about is close to my house. I pass by it every time I take a walk. Real visual things like that have to get me going even if they get edited out later.
Seshachari: I like the little, crisis situations in the book which often wither away as they do in real life. For instance, in Picturing Will, do you remember the scene where Mel and Jody are about to go for a walk at ten in the night and Will and his friend. . .
Beattie: . . . are playing mole ?
Seshachari: Right. Mel sneaks upstairs and opens the door to see they are still wide awake, not asleep at all. Jody and Mel go away. I thought, Oh no, now these two kids are going to get into trouble, and Mel is going to feel terrible. Fortunately, that doesn't happen.
Beattie: I'm trying to create tension when I do things like that. It is very much my sense of life that that wouldn't be the moment the kids would burn down the house, but when Jody was in the room, something like that would happen. It's being true to the way life is rather than to a fictional mode.
Seshachari: True. But being true to life also includes some violence. You are a realist—by reading any book of yours, one can pinpoint the time when it was written because of social and political events that are mentioned in it. But you steer clear of any genuine violence. Sure, John Joel shoots his sister Mary in Falling in Place . . . .
Beattie: But it's not dwelt upon. It's not dramatized. Really, the drama is simply the sentence that he does it.
Seshachari: And it's not the focal point.
Beattie: I read about violence. I watch it on television. Whatever the reason, it isn't something that seems a mystery to me. The lives that I'm writing about don't seem to be dramas that take that form. They have dramas that take other forms. It wouldn't be correct to say that there is a violent marriage in Falling in Place, but the discord in that marriage and the kind of coersion that the characters exert on one another is certainly very unpleasant. It's as erosive as violence might be aggressive. "Where You'll Find Me" doesn't have anything to do with human suffering in the same way a truly violent act would produce human suffering, but there is one line in the story when the brother turns to the sister—and this is a complete non-sequitur—and says, "I fell in love with somebody." Well, what that does emotionally to the sister—and I hope to the reader—is just make her heart fall into her heels. It is a kind of aggression that in my mind is comparable to violence. Domestic tragedies can have an effect comparable to violence.
Seshachari: There is plenty of similar violence in Picturing Will, as there is much stability as well. All the marriages in your previous books are, in a sense, marriages that peter out.
Beattie: Well, I get into trouble with my husband [Lincoln Perry] now if I do that. He reads the rough drafts of my stories and says, I hope these people don't get divorced. I feel intimidated now (laughter). You'll read no more about divorces in my work.
Seshachari: I am impressed with Picturing Will for that same reason. Here are two people who make their marriage work. Will we see more fiction where the marriages do work out?
Beattie: Well, at least temporarily; it's my current view of life (laughter). Also I think that people have found different ways to adjust to the complexities of their lives. There was a long transitional period in which that was very difficult. Everyone would say now that we were sold a bill of goods with the implication that everything could be done, that you could have children, jobs, career success, a romantic marriage, and you could travel. In one way or another people found out that simply wasn't the case, that they couldn't have it all. People have made a lot of adaptations. I think people are living improvisations.
Seshachari: And I think too that couples don't make the kinds of demands of each other which endanger a marriage. Today's woman does not want to achieve through her husband's successes anymore. She's on her own.
Beattie: Yes. That's entirely true, at least in the world I'm writing about.
Seshachari: What do you think of Tom Wolfe's article, "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast," in the November  issue of Harper's Magazine? Do you agree with his claim that the only novel worth writing is the sociological, realistic novel?
Beattie: Anyone who makes a pronouncement that grand is certainly entitled to make it but I don't think anyone should be persuaded by it. I don't think there is any one kind of novel that should be written. You're in terrible danger of being an autocrat if that's what you think. I see his point. I don't think it's an unintelligent point; nevertheless, I think people have various talents. Indirection can reveal something just as well as confrontation. Take something like Bobbie Ann Mason's In Country. There isn't any one ultimate thing to say about the Vietnam War. I'm equally illuminated by Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, or Michael Herr's Dispatches. We know about the Vietnam War as part of our shared consciousness. How you want to speak about the repercussions of that war seems to me to be up to you as an artist. By the way, I think The Bonfire of the Vanities is a wonderful book. I had problems with the ending; I thought the ending was a bit expedient and possibly orchestrated to instill fear in the liberal reader, but leaving that aside, it is wonderful.
Seshachari: You enjoyed reading about New York!
Beattie: I'm not sure. I don't think Wolfe really had to put me in Sherman McCoy's apartment. We've all seen those doormen, we all know what that apartment looks like outside and inside, we all know what the Bronx is like. If people don't already know it, they're not going to get it very vividly from the book to begin with. That book, it seems to me, is about the tragedy of people's insecurities and the horrible price we pay for ambition and about a society that has accelerated out of control. It comes down to simple truths about human nature. I don't remember it because Wolfe made me see what it was like to have your car break down in the Bronx. I remember it because of Sherman McCoy; his cowardice has trapped him and made him pathetic, in his way.
Seshachari: Wolfe scoffs at minimalists as those who write about tiny situations, "very tiny domestic ones," and he calls them K-Mart realists.
Beattie: He's entitled to call them anything he likes. But again, I have to say that I see his point: often what writers are doing is not expansive in the sense of implicating society directly. Indirectly, I think the society is implicated. Trying to legislate form and toss writers out of the field, or the K-Mart parking lot, is simply folly.
Seshachari: Minimalists, by the nature of their aesthetic vision and practice, tend to write poetic descriptions and dialogues. Many scenes in your novels read like poetry.
Beattie: I don't think that that's necessarily true of minimalism. Remember that the painters who were minimalists had a philosophy that what you see is what you get: no more, no less. But this has nothing to do with the so-called minimalist writers. Frederick Barthelme clearly believes that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And the reader who understands that something is unstated—sometimes tragically unstated—between the characters would have to realize the connotations, the implied complexities. Also, Frederick Barthelme is funny. Bobbie Ann Mason can be quite funny. The minimalist painters were not funny. Minimalism in painting was a term of approval. It was a way to discuss a movement that was a responsive movement to a previous movement in art: Abstract Expressionism. When critics began to talk about literature in these terms, they were using it in a pejorative sense, saying that there were empty spaces. Bad empty spaces, not good empty spaces.
Seshachari: I think of them as suggestive spaces. I don't think negatively of minimalism at all.
Beattie: My problem is, I don't even see the empty spaces. They're filled with visual cues, tonal changes, and have far-reaching consequences. Perhaps what people really want to say is that there are a bunch of bad writers. And I certainly agree. Also you have to read the tenor of sentences. Readers need to be educated. If they don't think in terms of nuance, then perhaps they are not getting what is going on at all.
Seshachari: You once said that literature is not being taught in the universities as it should be. How should it be taught? What is wrong with the teaching as you see it?
Beattie: I haven't taught full-time since 1982. I don't know what's going on in the universities now. I just don't think there are many good teachers. I feel that teaching has to be done somewhat by indirection. You do have to pick the right works to subject people to, you have to know how to work with people individually. Part of the problem everywhere is that you have one teacher and anywhere from ten to fifty to one thousand students being taught by a telelvision, and of course no knowledge is going to be imparted.
Seshachari: How did you teach when you did teach?
Beattie: I bullied them, that's how I taught (laughter). Actually I liked teaching literature much more than I did creative writing. Very few people want me to come and teach literature. They want to grab me and have me talk about my trade, which isn't of much interest to me. It's part of the reason I don't teach any more. I read the material very closely. If, for instance, someone told me, Well, this is just a dead head, or Nothing happens in this story, I would say Turn to page forty-one. I ask students' opinions when I'm teaching literature, talk for a while in sort of general terms, talk about the approach the author makes, what the intent is of the piece and so forth. And then, as you were saying about my book, I find that people have quite differing perceptions. In many cases that's fine; in some cases they're having perceptions simply because they haven't read the text at hand. That's classifiable as an error. It has to be pointed out to them.
Seshachari: Many of your short stories and Chilly Scenes of Winter are written in the present tense. Falling in Place, Love Always, and Picturing Will use the more traditional past tense. What do you think are the artistic and fictional uses of the present tense as opposed to the past tense?
Beattie: In retrospect, I can say something about that, but at the time I wrote, the tense wasn't premeditated. I didn't sit down and say I'll now write a novel in the present tense. In fact I was so oblivious of having done it that when I was interviewed after Chilly Scenes of Winter and asked that question I said, It's not written in the present tense. So there's an answer for you. I think that the advantage of the present or past tense is that one sometimes is more appropriate to the material. It's what emotion you want to put into the material. You decide. It's not as though the material is an objective thing you're writing about. Sometimes it's better to hear about things as though they are currently transpiring. Other times, I think the advantage is that you can be somewhat more analytical when you're using the past tense. I think that you can interpret with the past tense in a way that you can't interpret using the present tense. Present tense has a more staccato effect too. Also, as I'm writing at the typewriter, it's sometimes easier for me to say, This is happening, rather than That must have happened. It really is just creating your own drama as you go along. I've never switched tenses at the beginning. But when I'm doing rough drafts, I often start out in the present tense and end up in the past, and then I have to decide.
Seshachari: Do you think the structure of the novel is undergoing subtle changes? Writers like Charles Dickens, for example, used such complicated strings of plot that came together only in the last few chapters. You had to read all the eight hundred pages to know how things happened. Novels in our century have tended to be more or less complete short stories strung together loosely. How do you plan the structures of your novels?
Beattie: The form doesn't precede the content in my mind. I don't have any particular model, and I don't think it would do me any good. Obviously Dickens was a genius.
Seshachari: Dickens was also writing for serialized publication.
Beattie: . . . as Tom Wolfe was writing The Bonfire of the Vanities for Rolling Stone.
Seshachari: So you've never experimented with structures in writing?
Beattie: Well with short stories I have. For instance, I wrote a very short story called "Snow." I was teaching creative writing at the time, in l982, and I wanted my students to write a "you" story, so I thought I'd write one along with them.
Seshachari: Is that the one about the woman going back to the house that she used to live in with her husband and she recollects what the winter was like?
Beattie: And then there's a break in the text and she says,You remember it differently, you remember that the moon had a bit shaved off every night. It does occur to me that one of the things that makes prose interesting is that so much can be done with it, and if you lock into a predictable style, even for yourself, that's not terribly gratifying. I was particularly pleased with the ending to a story called "Skeletons." It took me a long time to figure out what I was doing there and how to layer that story.
Seshachari: You read that at Weber—it is about Kyle Brown, a Mormon.
Beattie: Yes. When I started with the rough draft, I didn't even know that Kyle would be the center of that story. I thought that it would be about Nancy Niles and her boyfriend, Garrett. And then I found myself quadruple spacing [on the typewriter] and moving forward in time and telling myself that Kyle wanted to stay in touch with them, meant to stay in touch, but years intervened, and then I thought, Wow, what territory am I in now, what have I done, flipped forward twenty years? I couldn't tell you what gave me the impulse to do that but once I did, I realized Kyle had been more important than I had thought. Even though consciously I couldn't have articulated to myself why I had put Nancy Niles in a skeleton costume, I suddenly realized what every bit of it meant and I thought, Well, how am I going to get this across to the reader without doing it in a didactic way? So I tried to write about emptiness by invoking an image that was three dimensional.
Seshachari: Sometimes, didacticism works well in the authorial voice.
Beatie: Yes. I can't claim always to be hiding behind my characters. I do say things overtly sometimes, but the story never ends with those pronouncements. Even in a story like "The Burning House," the husband turns to his wife and says, in effect, would you really like a perspective on your whole life, here's the perspective. Though I did not end it with a profound, clearly articulated revelation because nothing ever ends at the moment at which some dramatic revelation is made.
Seshachari: It's the memory sometimes. . . .
Beattie: Exactly. The last line of that story had to be "I'm looking down on all of this from space, I'm already gone." That brought it right back to him and to the larger perspective I wanted the story to have. It doesn't seem to me that any fiction is about making or announcing a revelation.
Seshachari: What was the occasion for a limited edition of 250 copies of Jacklighting, especially since the story was already published in Antaeus?
Beattie: For collectors, frankly. Someone from Metacom Press got in touch with me. People are always interested in having something everyone else doesn't have. And a pretty little book too.
Seshachari: Tell me about the role of the author and the reader. What is their relationship in terms of understanding and interpreting a work of art? Who is your ideal reader?
Beattie: Donald Barthelme. I was always very happy to publish something and send it off to Donald or send him something I didn't publish. . . . Who is my ideal reader? I think somebody who is keen in the way that he was keen. I suppose somebody who isn't predisposed to like me. Also, someone who knows how to read. Readers have to give you the time to really read what you have written and to allow themselves the time to imagine that fictive world. I think it takes more patience and more willingness to suspend disbelief than it does pure intellect.
Seshachari: Your work demands slow reading.
Beattie: Well, I think of it as being sneaky work.
Seshachari: Critics have spoken of your gift for intimacy, which enchants readers like the "whispered secret" you speak of in your introduction to the Best American Short Stories of 1987. I think life is partly about being interested in trivia.
Beattie: And the cumulative effect of trivia is quite different from what Wolfe implies with the term "K-Mart realists." You've got to admit that Wolfe is being very judgmental when he implies that the writer is unsophisticated because he or she can't envision more than K-Mart. What he does not understand is that it's only a cultural talisman. Writers are really doing exactly what Wolfe wants them to do—talking about that external world we live in.
Seshachari: Let me not forget your book on Alex Katz. Was it really the editor who lured you into writing the book?
Beattie: Yes. I approached it as an assignment, one that I found pleasant because I admired the man. Some people thought I was writing about Alex Katz because I saw a great similarity in what we were doing, that I was explaining myself by way of explaining Katz's painting, but I think we're quite different. I approached his work psychologically. Possibly I could have approached it sociologically. I could have talked about the lifestyles of the subjects or whatever, but it did seem to me, after I had looked at his work for a long while, that what was of greatest interest to me were those relationships that were articulated so subtly in the paintings. I'm not equipped to discuss somebody's brushwork or painting style.
Seshachari: You do that very well.
Beattie: Thanks, but it wasn't meant to be a book an art historian would have written.
Seshachari: While you are both interested in portraits, he paints them in very broad strokes, while you go for little details that eventually illuminate the character.
Beattie: I put in a lot of details, and when I'm editing, I strike them if they turn out to be extraneous. One telling detail, as we all know, is going to be much better than six throwaways.
Seshachari: How often do you revise your work?
Beattie: Oh, constantly. Picturing Will went through five major changes, and fifteen chapters were thrown out.
Seshachari: Did the story change too?
Beattie: Sure. I revised the third section of the novel seventy-five to one hundred times.
Seshachari: What do you mean by changes? Do you mean a few words here and there, or do you mean massive changes?
Beattie: I wouldn't say that it was only a few words here and there, but I don't know that I could call them massive changes. A line that might appear to be a throwaway is really a huge cue to the novel and I really had to revise that section numerous times before that sentence came to me about the child who is jumping up and down; do you remember that?
Seshachari: Let's pull the manuscript out.
Beattie: "The child's knees bend as he does a skitterish little dance. Then, holding his arms stiffly, fists behind his hips, he jumps high and lands slightly crouched"—well, here's the punch—"looking something the way penguins did before they became extinct." A friend seized upon that and said, My God, I thought I'd die when I read that. Other people have said they didn't notice it—I mean, good readers.
Seshachari: When I came to the end, I sat and cried. I mean, I cry easily, and I don't mind crying.
Beattie: There, you're my ideal reader (laughter). I've written individual sentences that have made me feel ill because, had I not been writing the story, I would never have had to articulate something that was so painful. A lot of times you fight not to type the sentence. You fight to do something a little cooler. There can be an awkward second in which you decide you'll be a coward and compromise, too.
Seshachari: I was very touched that Mel had—it came as a surprise—that he had written all those monologues. It seemed perfectly logical. Picturing Will is, in a sense, picturing Mel and Jody too. The characters—as indeed the novel—get defined through vivid pictures.
Beattie: I didn't want to hit that too heavily, but there certainly is a motif of photography. Well, she's a photographer. At the end, even Will himself is thinking in terms of photography.
Seshachari: Portraiture. Was Vogue happy that you mentioned it by name in the book?
Beattie: I'd be very curious to know whether they sent Gene Lyons to interview me before or after having finished the galleys. They may not have known I mentioned Vogue.
Seshachari: Let me ask my final question. What plans do you have for the 1990's?
Beattie: Back to writing short stories. This summer, I wrote a very long short story called "Windy Day at the Reservoir." A friend of mine named Rallou Malliarakis did an oil on paper with the title "Windy Day at the Reservoir." She lives in New Hampshire, and it's the reservoir near her house. It just stuck in my mind as an image. I never knew I'd write a story with that title—I've never even seen the real-life reservoir, but that's where it turned out to take place.
Seshachari: It might turn into a novel?
Beattie: No. It's eighty pages. Since publishing Where You'll Find Me, I have at least a dozen short stories, and then this long one, which should make another book.
Seshachari: Have you written anything else like "The Working Girl," which you read at Weber and which is more post-modernistic in style—where you openly consult the reader and ask, Now what shall I do with this character?
Beattie: In some ways "The Working Girl" was a sort of forerunner of Mel's monologues. That kind of volley within one voice was something that I did in "The Working Girl." There is also another story called "Spiritus" in the last collection which is told in a very staccato, matter-of-fact narrative.
Seshachari: Have you ever tried writing a story which actually suggests two or more endings?
Beattie: I've never done that exactly, but I've thought I've written the correct story and then suddenly, something has clicked and I've realized, No, I didn't write the right story at all. "Skeletons" was actually part two of another story about the same character, Nancy Niles. Part one was called "Taking Hold." I was in a plane on my way to Florida; after we taxied to the end of the runway, we were told we were about number one hundred one for take off and instead of being angry, I thought, Great! I can write another story about Nancy Niles, and then I wrote "Skeletons," which I think is a far better story. It's a variation of what you're talking about. In other words, I sometimes feel that the material is very ambiguous even to me, that it's still there to be explored.
Seshachari: What did you write the story on?
Beattie: On the air sickness bag! (laughter)
Seshachari: Something like Habe did in "The Sweetest Songs."
Beattie: Exactly. Just ordinary life. "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought."
Seshachari: Ah, Shelley!