Ann Beattie

By
Photography Thomas Whiteside

Published August 10, 2015

ANN BEATTIE IN YORK, MAINE, JUNE 2015. GROOMING PRODUCTS: DIOR, INCLUDING DIORSKIN NUDE. GROOMING: ERIN GREEN FOR DIOR/ART DEPARTMENT.

Maine is a small state. When others learn that you live there or grew up there, often they will think of another person who lives there or grew up there, and they will ask, “Oh, do you know X?” And the reasonable expectation is that you do. Maine is so short on inhabitants, the assumption is, due to its geographical isolation from the rest of the country, that the people who live there are, by necessity, insular and, in the metaphorical sense (though sometimes not-see Carolyn Chute’s famous novelistic account of Maine), incestuous. They know each other.

To most people, Ann Beattie, who lives in Maine for a portion of the year, and whose new collection, The State We’re In (Scribner), is mostly set in Maine, is a famous American writer. Since the mid-’70s, she’s published 19 books. She’s known for her unique brand of disaffected minimalism, described by Richard Locke in a 1980 New York Times review as “deadpan” with “deliberately banal” subject matter rendered in a style that is “super-realistic … I am not a camera but a videotape machine.” In Maine, Beattie is less known for her celebrity and awe-inspiring literary output than for the fact that she was born somewhere else; she is, in the local taxonomical parlance, a “from away.”

When Beattie and I were introduced over e-mail this past June, we had three days to complete our interview, because she was about to travel beyond the range of a signal, and I was about to fly from Italy, where I was temporarily solo with my children, back to New York to join my husband for a memorial service. The different time zones served us well. Our interview happened over the Atlantic and during the night. One of us was often asleep. Because she was the primary adult who I communicated with for three days, I developed an intense attachment to her that only extreme distance between basic strangers can produce. If asked in the future by a person who learns that I live in Maine, “Oh, do you know Ann Beattie?” I am not sure how I will respond. I did not meet her, though I presumptuously feel, like anyone who has read and studied and been transformed by her work for decades, and who had the privilege of asking her any questions that came to mind for three days, all of which she gamely answered—yes, I know her.

HEIDI JULAVITS: Mainers are so insanely territorial, as you know. It’s basically impossible to gain “local” status unless you were born in the town where you live. How do you classify yourself?

ANN BEATTIE: When my husband and his girlfriend bought a house in Moody, Maine, many, many years ago, the owner, who was 91, complained that she’d lived there almost all her life, but she still wasn’t really accepted, because she was “from away.” I had no idea of this territorial feeling/discrimination when Lincoln and I got a house about 25 years ago, which we assumed would be a summerhouse in Maine. I don’t run up against this discrimination, because I’m off everyone’s radar, which was (somewhat) my desire. But who assumes writers should feel secure and happy? Those times they do, they often screw things up, rather than accept it. So maybe Maine was meant for me: an only child; a loner; a person who doesn’t join clubs; a person with no internet presence, including Facebook. Let me say, though, it has been essentially fine, living here half the year, because we have so many visitors “from away.” I seem to have ended up running a summer B&B (late checkout always guaranteed; pets allowed; good wine guaranteed). I grew up in Washington, D.C., and I didn’t belong there, either.

JULAVITS: Mainers tend to get pretty grumpy when non-Mainers write about Maine. I once had to intervene when a writer I knew wanted to write about Maine, and a Mainer friend basically tried to forbid her from doing so. These days, I have (and am asked, by students) more and more questions about “appropriation.” I wonder where you fall on the issue, whether related to Maine or not. I find, as with the Mainer described above, that pleas for the “imagination” have less and less truck with my students than the perceived rights to tell certain stories.

BEATTIE: To immediately jump in and scuttle your question (never a good idea, I realize): I went with my husband to a reading by Carolyn Chute in Kittery a couple of weeks ago. Someone stood on the sidewalk, telling us rather hysterically (perhaps helpfully) that we’d be towed if we parked where we did. No one moved his/her car. No one was towed. There was a huge audience in the auditorium. We were given a handout: the lyrics of “Goodnight Irene,” if we cared to sing along. The audience did. Ms. Chute talked forthrightly about her finances in a way that suggested that if she could have a new washing machine, she very much wanted and needed that. She was a Real Person. I liked listening to what she had to say. The more you can be real, the better your chances of belonging. Maybe anywhere—I don’t know. And related to this: your question about appropriation. To live, there’s no way to avoid appropriation—and I don’t restrict that opinion to literature. What else would you have, except for narrow, programmed pathways you hoped dumped you out into the light? The “rights” to certain stories? Yikes. Might we have become a fascist state? Granted, Joyce was entitled to write about Ireland. So, good, someone who knows the topography can tell us exactly where some bar or church was located. Does that account for Dubliners? Nobody has to believe in holistic medicine, but if you do, the assumption is that a tiny, miniscule, diluted drop of the wrong thing may eventually fortify you against what you’re allergic to.

JULAVITS: Speaking of “Real People”—when I read your work, I always feel that I’m privy to gossip in the most useful/cognitively formative definition of the term-these are Real People talking about real things, and I feel like I’m either eavesdropping when I’m listening to one of your narrators or that a world is being explained to me via a person whose knowledge base is people—not all people, just these people. I guess this returns to the idea of the “local”—I feel like your work has a local quality. Your work, even at its loneliest, feels like it initiates in a sense of community. So, do you gossip? Or are you more of an eavesdropper?

BEATTIE: I tend to listen, rather than talk. My husband came into my undergrad class on the contemporary short story (when I still taught) once—it was a two-and-a-half-hour seminar, and I talked my head off—and he said to them, “Do you realize that when your teacher walks out that door, she never says another word?” They thought he was kidding. Leaving aside the exhaustion of teaching, he was telling the truth. Like everybody else, if I haven’t seen a friend for a long time, I blither away, but when I meet new people or, frankly, people who don’t interest me, I say very little. I guess I should confess that I think only very limited things can be gotten from conversation. Similarly, in my fiction, I think of dialogue primarily as filler, not as something to “advance the plot.” I don’t think that people do address things of substance head-on, and even when I listen to them in less anxious states, I both listen and don’t listen. I don’t think it’s only in fiction, of course, that meaning appears between the lines and off the page. I almost always assume there’s a disconnect, and a significant one, between what anyone is talking about and who they are, what they’d ideally talk about, what they mean to hide, what they don’t even realize they’re hiding, etc. They’re saying something, and then there’s always that Something Else that they’re not saying. But this makes it sound like it’s all a show for me. Since I distrust talk so much, I tend to express myself in other ways. Among my few, perhaps very few, virtues is loyalty. People get that I’m on their side because I show up. To answer the other part of your question, I don’t get stories directly from my life or from the life of anyone else, though I do take real delight in putting certain “gossip” in my stories—gossip about people I don’t know, overheard in a restaurant, say—embodying that verbatim in what I write. Sometimes it’s a little closer to home. I once met my friend’s friend, who told me about a person she knew, whom my friend did not know. She related a funny story about what that person did after a traffic accident. I put that somewhere—in a book or story, I don’t remember. Subsequently, I met the person, who said, “You’ll never believe this, but this exact thing happened to me.” I am very, very good at keeping a straight face. My husband is an even better actor and mimic, but I’m not bad. It’s good he doesn’t play practical jokes on me, because I’d probably fall for them. I set traps for him and get him good.

JULAVITS: What’s the most intimate conversation you’ve ever had with a stranger?

BEATTIE: It didn’t have much to do with conversation, but one time when my plane was canceled in Atlanta late at night, we were bussed to some truly frightening (as in, cardboard doors, basically) motel with bars on the window. A young Mexican man was traveling with his infant son, and believe me, I know very little about babies. I don’t speak Spanish; he certainly did not speak English. I drew some pictures on a pad, to indicate to him what was happening. But I can remember getting to the frightening motel and showing him how the microwave worked, getting the last milk carton out of the vending machine with my change (he had none), heating the milk, changing the baby, then sitting on his bed with him while the three of us ate midnight dinner (ours was candy bars). Do I confess to strangers? Not an answer you can do much with, but no. Let me also note that people try to feel me out often: basically, how much money do I have? They wouldn’t ask outright, but they’re thrilled if you tell them what you sold your house for. Sometimes it seems all the world wants to know what book advance I’ve gotten, what my house costs, what my salary was when I had my teaching job, how much the real estate taxes are in Key West, etc. But nobody ever tells me. It also comes as something of a surprise to me—I only came to know this pretty recently—that people don’t just lie in the downward direction (saying they got less than they did: real estate transaction, book deal, legal settlement, or whatever), they lie up. I thought the point of lying was that people wanted to seem not as well off as they are (thereby making others less envious/nervous). That was naive of me, apparently.

JULAVITS: I feel like you’re stylistically a person who lies downward—i.e., your work appears to be much more minimalist than it actually is. If you don’t lie up about money, do you lie up about anything else? I have a friend who I’m pretty sure lies up about how much he’s written in a day.

BEATTIE: I don’t want to sound priggish, but I really don’t think I do lie, directly (except for white lies that everyone tells). In fact, I think I’m often brought in as the bad cop, though I wouldn’t develop my point here, as that might slight the people/organizations I think do that. I was certainly outspoken at the University of Virginia, but I was also without a family to support, and I was willing to walk. I understand that such things/attitudes ultimately make my life easier. But I’m amazed that you have a friend who lies about how much he’s written in a day. It never crossed my mind that any writer friend might do that. I thought it was always reverse snobbery: “Oh, I barely write anything …” Naive, again.

JULAVITS: Were you ever slightly tougher than you are now, and what about?

BEATTIE: Slightly more tough? Yeah. In high school gym, which I hated (which we all hated), I figured out that in basketball, where they made me a guard, I could say in a really threatening voice, “Back off, bitch!” to the forward, and the girl would fumble the ball. But generally, not kidding, I hate to have to be tough, and it’s not because I’m a coward or because I think I should exhibit good manners; it’s because I think life is very difficult and often quite sad, and I’m confused about why people can’t get along better. I’m an only child, and both my parents were in nursing homes, and I had to go to bat for them. I did, to the extent that I could, but that only underscored how deep and intractable certain problems were in the society.

JULAVITS: I’m curious how you track your progress as a writer, or if you think progress is bullshit. I think the idea of progress is probably bullshit, maybe also growth is bullshit (or maybe just the word growth is bullshit; actual growth isn’t), but I also think that I figure stuff out in each subsequent book that I hadn’t figured out before, and not that I’ve solved anything; it’s probably truer to say that, via each new book, I isolate a new problem and I realize, “Oh, wow, who knew that was even a problem?” Like the issue had been invisible to me until then. And so maybe I track progress by my ability to more fully see what is actually required to write a book, or for me to write a book, at any rate. Did you come to learn anything new about yourself with this latest book, or are there particular books that you felt, by writing them, that you really saw or understood something about the art (or your art) of writing fiction that you’d never seen or understood before?

BEATTIE: I think your statement about writing and learning what you didn’t even know was a problem is right-on. Couldn’t have said that anywhere near as well. First of all, I don’t track it at all. Of course, I realize I’ve changed (I started publishing in the early ’70s), but I also sort of figure that whatever I’ve learned in one book isn’t easily transferable to any other book. Technically, I guess, I’ve made myself hold to higher standards. For example, no more asterisks just because I can’t figure out how to transition from one scene to the next. (They’re still in my work, but they’re not a fail-safe, and they’re not habitual.) I think that while I wouldn’t exactly phrase it as you do (not that there’s anything at all wrong with the question), yes, I did learn (or mean to learn) something about myself when writing this book. I’ve always rolled my eyes about “related stories” (not to say there aren’t some fine books of related stories, but it’s overdone; it reeks of MFA desperation and concessions to marketing). With this book, as with everything else, I haven’t even known there would be a book. I suppose that since I write so many stories, I hope and assume some will be collected, but I also know that gets harder and harder. The odds are against me. When I started in with these stories, my husband was on a trip to Europe, and we’d just sold a house, and the moving boxes were piled up everywhere in Maine, so I finally just shook my head, shoveled a path to my desk, and wrote what I thought of as brief, little stories: moments. “The Fledgling” was one of those. In the months before I started writing the 15 stories that now make up the book, I had a finished version of a longer story, “Missed Calls,” and a rough draft of what got titled “Road Movie.” Neither was written with any intention of fitting them in anywhere. I didn’t alter them to fit the pattern of what began to be the book, either—except for maybe a word or sentence. Anyway, I wrote 18 stories pretty quickly in rough draft (never have I ended up editing more), then realized that if I threw out three and shuffled the order, I might have stories tenuously related. As it is now, the three stories about Jocelyn [a teenager sent to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle in Maine], at beginning, middle (roughly), and end were once a huge boulder of 85 pages, all at the end. My husband, who is a great reader, said that simply didn’t work, and he was right, though I fought the idea for 24 hours. Then I broke up that chunk and kept the first part, threw out the middle, and kept the last part (“The Repurposed Barn”). Then I wrote a new middle story. By then, of course, I had the other stories and realized generally what things I might incorporate to have some coherence between the three stories, and also have those stories have out tentacles to the other stories—though I was proud of myself for not drawing connections that I could have made. In fact, I scrupulously avoided them: characters who might easily have interacted from story to story, for example. Too contrived. Too cute. So there is a very long-winded explanation of what did not for a long time seem even possible to paraphrase (my intentions, I mean), but that gradually dawned on me. As far as I’m concerned, books can seem like protoplasm until the second you focus the microscope just a little more clearly, and then you see something you didn’t realize was there. I rarely add, more often I throw stuff out.

JULAVITS: Are you competitive?

BEATTIE: I asked my husband. He said, “No.” Then I said, “Something more?” He said, “Like most people deeply involved—Look! The two birds are together. It’s so sweet, they’re huddled up together”—he’s easily distracted. We have a bird feeder you can see outside my window. Anyway, continuing, “Like most people deeply involved in their craft, quality matters but not on a competitive level. Ann holds literature to very high standards, but it’s not a personal issue.” He is standing here in his “Shakespeare NYC” T-shirt, holding a glass of very good white wine.

JULAVITS: Do you garden? Do you sail? Do you raise goats? Do you chop your own firewood? I lazily categorize most Maine people by a handful of Maine-y pursuits, and I don’t know how to lazily categorize you.

BEATTIE: For the last five years or so, we’ve had a friend who works on the garden (otherwise, he’s a painter), and I know a lot about flowers—I keep a lot in the house—but I’m phobic about mosquito bites (recently, my husband had Dengue, which really put me over the top, to say nothing of what it did to him), and we refuse to spray chemicals, so I sit on my screened porch and look at the garden. As for sailing, I certainly don’t sail. I so militantly don’t sail that this is a great source of humor among my friends. We’re living in Maine partly because my husband used to co-own a sailboat with a guy who lives nearby. My husband, Lincoln, and his brother taught sailing in the summer, and his family had a sailboat that basically involved all their time and energy and was, I believe, immediately sold the year the boys went to college. But now there’s no more boat and, as far as I know, my husband has given up sailing, after a particularly horrendous trip that involved not only his lobster roll falling into the ocean, but a thunderstorm with thunder bolts striking all around the boat. Then again, there’s always tomorrow. Do I have a goat? No, not even a dog—though for 15 years, we took our friend’s golden retriever, Sandy, for a month or so every summer. People who visited just assumed he was our dog. Once we kept a journal “written” by Sandy (with accompanying photographs) and plunged the thing down into his dog food bag (which we rarely fed him, or if we did, we crumbled in some bacon and olive oil), so his owners didn’t find it until a week after he went home. I have very long nails, usually painted bright red, so I definitely don’t chop firewood (no fireplace, either). I can’t imagine the lazy categorization of myself (I know entirely what you mean by that), no doubt because I don’t want to introspect that way. I will say that I’m always sincerely surprised when people say I’m intimidating. (I take writing, for example, super seriously—though about life, in general, I really do have a sense of proportion.) Other people don’t think I’m intimidating at all—as I said before, they remark with great surprise that I’m very funny. Maybe it depends on the day. I do have a short fuse. I’m a good cook. People make many allowances for people who feed them.

JULAVITS: For the finale, here’s a vast, bulky nonquestion. I am 47, and just in the past two years, really, have I realized that I will no longer be young (actually, am no longer young—who am I kidding?) and, by logical extension, always alive. I am wondering if you feel like talking about the body; what happens to it, how the mind responds or not. I feel like I am now in a place where my mind is sharper than ever, even as my body starts its official decline. I feel this is not a “mind-body problem,” but more of a mind-body clarity. I don’t know. I prefer it to my younger incarnations, but assuming the authority of the older woman, I’m not sure how to work within that framework, or how to redefine it so that I don’t feel humorless or pandering and overcompensatory. Or apologetic. Nothing unsettles me more than an older woman who seems apologetic as a default mode, because to me that apology reads as “I’m sorry I’m no longer abstractly fuckable by the very narrow cultural standards of fuckability” (if by “fuckable,” I also mean interesting and worthy of people’s attention). I suppose I also want to ask you about what you saw happening when you were first conscious of being a woman in what was, more so then, a man’s world (even when you look at lists of writers who fall into the “realism/mimimalism” camp to which you were often assigned, rightly or wrongly, you are often the only woman), and what it’s like to be a woman who made and who still makes such a mark.

BEATTIE: Big questions. Not really sure how to approach this. I’m also resisting, since thinking about this topic (age) never pleases me. I’m not philosophical; I’m not lighthearted; I have memorized no helpful, inspirational thoughts on this subject or any other. It makes me angry that women are still underrepresented, paid less than men, included but quite often discounted. I’m aware of the VIDA statistics [an annual count tallying gender disparity in major literary publications]. Last week, in The New York Times, I read the statistics of how many women had written book reviews, how many men. It was hugely disproportionate. Such things are constantly pointed out, but little changes. Sure, individually and incrementally, I can stand firm (those times I’m invited into the room), but I’m conscious of being in a world where women are underrepresented and—I can only assume—undervalued. People around me—men included, of course—articulate the same awareness of the problem. But pretty clearly, nobody’s going to change because of embarrassment or even political correctness, except in the most perfunctory ways. So I carry around that depressing realization, which is fatiguing. (Yeah, I realize there are worse things to carry around, and that, say, turtles do so every day.) All of the above is a generalization, and I’m sure many exceptions, counter-examples, etc., can be found. Let’s hope things are better than I observe. I’ll try to address a bit of the other observations/questions you pose. Just for argument’s sake, while I completely feel that women aren’t treated fairly, I don’t think I’m as singular as you suggest. While our writing has nothing in common (except sloppy linkages put forth by lazy reviewers), Bobbie Ann Mason and, a bit earlier, Mary Robison were publishing in The New Yorker around the same time. The time that I published there when I was young certainly did not discriminate against women writers (Fran Kiernan pulled me out of the slush pile), and early on, Katharine Angell White was a fiction editor there. My agent (my wonderful agent) is a woman, and one who is taken quite seriously. Every book editor I’ve had, except for one, has been a woman—and we have always had excellent working relationships. But it’s harder to find places that will print serious fiction. And the competition is extreme. And youth wins out over age. And new wins out over someone already (alas) categorized. Where does that leave me? Really lucky to be living the life I’ve chosen, really loving writing, and not wishing to change lives with anyone.

HEIDI JULAVITS IS A WRITER  BASED IN NEW YORK AND MAINE. SHE IS CO-EDITOR OF BELIEVER MAGAZINE.