It’s Pat! …Nixon — Ann Beattie in Conversation with Edmund White at McNally Jackson

1. The wild crowd at McNally Jackson. 2. Edmund White, Ann Beattie, kinky scuba masks.

Last night was in stark contrast to the last event I attended at McNally Jackson. Ann Beattie, recipient of four O. Henry Awards and a Pen/Malamud award, conversed with novelist Edmund White (City Boy) about her new book Mrs. Nixon, a part-writing diary, part-fiction re-imagining of an elusive figure in public American memory. Despite the evening lasting only about an hour, Beattie and White managed to to discuss feminism, cubism, kinky scuba masks, and sex with Raymond Carver.

1. Mushroom seats and table in the kid’s section. No one came to sit with me.

The night was not the sex and rock’n’roll that readers of the Dish have been seeing the last couple of weeks. Beattie and White were introduced without fanfare, alcohol or a punk rock worthy turnout for their writerly yet ticklish talk. The two sat between a decorative stand with their two most recent works and a little pot of flowers and had a conversation. The audience watched as if we sat behind a clear cellular membrane that was enough separation to seem that we weren’t there at all, just observing two very accomplished writers casually discuss the craft.

The most fascinating aspect of the talk stemmed from Beattie’s first assertion: people are fascinated with myth, and are also equally fascinated with creating personalized myths. Beattie, whose initial distaste for Pat Nixon wasn’t for her personally, but from the public memory of the Nixons as a whole. Through her research, Beattie found more of a literary character than a first lady: a woman who retreated from the public gaze not exclusively from shame, but exhaustion.

White wanted to know more about the process of re-writing, or filling in the gaps, of the elusive Pat Nixon. He noted that though Beattie’s book was rooted in the exploration of one of the few first ladies without a memoir, it was just as much a book about writing fiction. The book makes the reader aware of the presence of Beattie the writer and what she is doing, finding the answers to the question: How do you read a person? The fictionalized scenes where Pat Nixon discusses Maupassant and Carver are Beattie’s filtered thoughts on the two authors. Beattie said she was miserable while researching and writing, which came from a combination of a dislike for Mr. Nixon and being hemmed in by Pat Nixon’s mind while recreating scenes, such as when Pat Nixon has to cancel the order for fine china after Watergate, after her husband doesn’t listen to her when she advises him to destroy the tapes. Through recreating the myth of Pat Nixon, Beattie was able to produce a book that merged memoir and biography with the imagination of fiction.

1. Christine Vines, fiction writer and curator at Fiction Addiction.

A short Q&A followed that was lighthearted and prompted Beattie to read a short passage where she busted out her hoity-toity British accent and Pat Nixon’s laugh. White suggested that Pat Nixon’s scuba mask in the book was not in fact for scuba, but for kink. A question was asked about Beattie and Carver’s relationship, prompting White to immediately ask if Ann Beattie slept with Raymond Carver. Beattie did not sleep with Carver. She repeats, she did not sleep with Carver.

For readers and writers who want to detox from the rock’n’roll vibe the lit scene has been engendering recently, McNally Jackson regularly holds their “In Coversation” series downstairs.

Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life

by Ann Beattie

Powells.com

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— Ryan Chang is a writer and student living in Brooklyn. His work has previously appeared in Thought Catalog. You can find him on Twitter here.

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