Remaining Open To Surprise: An Interview With Ann Beattie, author of The State We’re In
by Claire Luchette
I suspect that in the near-fifty years she’s been writing stories, Ann Beattie has been asked everything. And what do you ask a woman who’s been asked everything? We discussed her new collection, The State We’re In, which every review points out is her first in a decade, and the state referred to in the title: Maine, where she and her husband split their time (they also have a place in Key West). Her new stories proclaim the Beattitudes anew: women look back on their youth, wonder about their marriages, reflect on failed or failing love. Her voice is classic Beattie, filled with the wry and keen observations that won her a following. We also talked about why she thinks people ask about the link between author and characters, and how she’s held to everything she’s said that’s in print.
(For more from Ann Beattie, check out her stint as guest editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading.)
Claire Luchette: What are your feelings and inner dialogue like when a collection’s published? Is this time different, since these are the first new stories we’ve seen from you in a while?
I want to know how my book is going to be received, and I don’t want to know.
Ann Beattie: Well, things don’t all happen at once when a book is about to be published. There are many things going on all at once, out of the writer’s control, some of which you find out about by chance, some that somebody sends you the link to (usually with a wickedly funny joke message attached). You see (or miss) early reviews in PW, etc. But meanwhile, you’ve been photographed and haven’t seen the photos. You have no idea what the writer from the magazine will write, after spending an hour with you. My feelings ride a roller coaster. I want to know how my book is going to be received, and I don’t want to know. But publication takes on its own momentum, and at a certain point I’m just along for the ride.
CL: How do you know a story is finished and ready to be shared in final form?
AB: I pretty much know how much work will be necessary and also can make a good guess about how difficult revisions will be the minute I finish the rough draft of a story. Sometimes I’m wrong, but only sometimes. I think writers use a different part of their brain to compose and to revise. I try to be an outsider as much as possible as I re-work the story, and I also try to make sure I’m neither excluding my ideal reader nor writing only to that person. Then I give the final draft to my husband, and he tells me if it’s ready to submit or not.
CL: This collection has three stories that have overlapping characters, which I’ve decided to call “the Jocelyn stories.” Which of these came first, or were they all imagined around the same time?
AB: It’s a boring answer — one of those “You had to be there” answers — but initially all of Jocelyn’s story (in different form) was one big chunk. My husband said it didn’t work at the end. It was like dropping a boulder on the reader’s head. I agreed. I threw out about 20 pages of what I had and re-shaped the first, second, and third sections, writing new stuff and interspersing her story throughout the text. (Boring, huh?)
CL: Your stories are anchored by excellent dialogue and conversations. I find dialogue so difficult to write. How does a conversation come to you? Are you always listening to strangers and taking notes?
AB: Difficult to answer. I don’t think overheard dialogue is much help when writing fiction — at least, not for me. I suppose that because I feel my way into a story and don’t have a strong sense of the characters, who become simultaneously more developed and more mysterious as the story goes along (if I’m going to keep that character in the story at all), and because I believe that everyone is complex, I try to remain open to surprise . . . not so much by what direct questions might be asked in dialogue, but because I believe that anyone, when questioned enough, is likely to surprise you. And probably also to surprise themselves, more often than they’d like to admit. But I don’t think dialogue is best thought of as revealing something surprising, which can just be a lazy way of getting information into a story. I have to be present when the characters talk. Not actually there, but I have to imagine my way into the story, if the dialogue is anything more than a marker for time passing. My presence, if I manage it — the presence of an invisible third person — determines the dialogue, to some extent.
CL: Why do you think there’s a tendency for readers to look for the author in a story’s characters? Do you read that way?
…whatever one intends, the work takes on a life of its own.
AB: I hate to sound like I’ve got everything figured out when I don’t (and it doesn’t bother me when I do find ambiguity in a text; also, when questioned directly, I don’t feel I have to stop dead and explain exactly what I thought and did in the moment as the writer, or that I lose anything by not complying, because whatever one intends, the work takes on a life of its own). But, okay: for whatever reason, the “new criticism” told readers it was wrong to look for the autobiographical as an end in itself when analyzing fiction. I think that approach did temper a tendency toward the easy (and also lazy) tendency/desire on the part of the reader to assume that to know the writer’s biography meant that you could de-code the work. writers are not a bunch of spies writing code. But I suppose it’s another question about why readers tend to look for the writer’s presence in their fiction. Maybe because people resist artifice, and if the writer seems to be included, it’s more “life-like”? Maybe that’s also why many people like painting that is labeled “photorealism,” though time is never stopped, and to label, for example, Richard Estes this way, when actually he’s altered and idealized a seemingly perfect moment (meaning: the perfect moment for the painting), with no intention of functioning like a photographer, is a trick that’s open to many interpretations.
CL: What are your favorite stories to teach?
AB: Sometimes I used to teach what I’d just read the night before, if I liked it and was so excited or puzzled or whatever I was that I just had to talk to someone about it. But, in general: Alice Munro; Deborah Eisenberg; Joy Williams; Richard Ford; Thom Jones.
CL: In “Yancey” I loved that the novelist invites the man from the IRS to move in with her.
AB: This story was very loosely based on the story a friend — a writer, in fact — told me about the IRS coming to his apartment in the Village because they were questioning whether his wife’s tiny home office met their exact criteria for taking a deduction. That story had a punchline that was stunning: After my friend showed the IRS guy into the partitioned kitchen — where his wife was able to work about as happily as a mouse in a crowded cupboard — the deduction for home office space was disallowed. My friend asked whether, man-to-man, the IRS guy really, truly thought a scam was being pulled. No, answered the agent. Then why hassle me? asked my friend. The answer: “Mr. X, a bit of advice? If I had your money, I’d move out of the city.” Thirty-some years later, I wrote “Yancey.”
CL: The novelist also recommends the IRS man a book of poetry. How do you decide what works to suggest to friends or students? Is it based on how they write, or their preferences, or is it on characters/plots that remind you of them?
AB: It varies. Sometimes I think someone else has already worked that territory, and that the writer needs to know that — to know that he/she will be contextualized by a predecessor, whether they want to be or not. Other times, I do try to come up with something that seems to have been organized in a way that might be helpful to someone else’s story. If nothing else, this elicits such a fear reaction that it instantly clarifies the writer’s mind and they come up with a better solution.
CL: In “Duff’s Done Enough,” the writer-narrator says that “as any writer knows, once you have [the first draft] the going gets easier.” But I find the first draft is pretty easy, and it’s finding out a piece’s holes that’s challenging. What’s the hardest part, for you?
AB: I think I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t find the two things related in my own work. (Not to say I don’t have my own ongoing problems.) Every writer writes differently, and with different soft spots etc. If I don’t get a first draft that pleases me by the time I’m half, or ¾ through, it hits the trash. I don’t say this as advice to anyone.
CL: Do you feel each place you’ve lived has as many stories to offer as Maine?
AB: As many, and as few.
CL: You told The Paris Review a few years ago that you had “stopped trying to figure out Maine.” Could you explain what you meant by that?
Does print etch a person’s daily perceptions in stone?
AB: You’re always held to whatever you’ve once said if it appears in print. Does print etch a person’s daily perceptions in stone? How many people remember exactly what they thought yesterday? So… what did I mean about figuring out Maine? That I don’t live there in happy harmony with whatever place it is, though I also don’t believe that everything is a riddle to be solved.