November 12, 2011
There was a time in the 1970s when getting The New Yorker magazine delivered to my house was something of an event. (I don’t feel that way now and it sometimes makes me sad.) In those days the magazine was posted with a brown paper covering. I tore off the brown paper, checked out the cover art, then turned to the Table of Contents looking for Ann Beattie’s name. When she was listed there (48 times now, and counting), I was happy. When she wasn’t, I made do.
Her stories were pulled from the slush at The New Yorker and rejected twenty-something times before the magazine finally had the good sense to publish her work when she was—ahem!—twenty-something. Her stories were spare, restrained; the emotion often hid in objects, caught and laid bare by her camera eye. Post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-feeling, when no one wanted to be caught hoping, her characters engaged the world and each other, and tried to hold on despite a slippage of meaning, or let go of a world well lost.
Her first story collection was aptly titled Distortions and her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, was made into a movie (I still remember John Updike’s book review: “Chilly Scenes thaws quite nicely”). She was still in her twenties. She was branded “the voice of her generation,” which always struck me as a dumb thing to say about a writer. (I picture Ann sipping red wine on her porch at her summer house in Maine or handling a head of lettuce she picked up from “Lettuce Man” at the Farmer’s Market, then repairing to her writing room to exercise the oracle on behalf of her people and it cracks me up.)
A less gifted writer might have been daunted by this assignation, frozen speechless, or crippled by the criticism that later came her way when the world turned its attention to the next It Girl, but there is no daunt in Ann Beattie. She paid no attention and wrote though it. She’s written through everything. She is still writing (she never stopped) and believe me, there are times—reading the hype about the latest Hot New Novelist or watching a writer morph from artist to Perpetual Self Promotion Machine—when I will fire an off an email to Ann simply to get assurance in writing (her lower case, self deprecating, ironic, irenic, iconic voice) that she is writing through.
Beattie’s new book, Mrs. Nixon, may be unclassifiable. Is it a feigned memoir? Standup comedy? (Beattie continues to be underrated as a comic writer.) A spectrology, Beattie’s attempt to host a haunting, to visit and liberate the dead, in the spirit of Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx? What is it? Fantasy fiction? Fictional biography? Political history? Detective work? A public Ouija board channel? A serious work of literary or cultural criticism? A snapshot of the UVA writing teacher at work? Whatever else it may be, it is above all an extended meditation on how writers write, the daily dreck of a thousand fraught decisions. Plus, some of the best readings I have seen of Chekhov, Maupassant, Joyce, Carver, Barthelme, and others.
I read Mrs. Nixon in late October, appropriately enough, for there is a specter hovering over this book, its revelry as merry as Halloween. Mask after mask comes off the book’s elusive and papery subject, until at last we see discover with the author that we have been a guest at her haunting, the time out of joint; then the scurrying sounds of a writer, part chipmunk, scurrying back under the rocks.
Ann Beattie has published seven novels and nine story collections. She has been included in four O. Henry Award collections and in John Updike’s Best American Short Stories of the Century (the story “Janus”). In 2000 she received the PEN/Malamud Award for achievement in the short story form. In 2005, she received The Rea Award for the Short Story. She and her husband, the painter Lincoln Perry, live in Key West, Florida, and Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is Edgar Allan Poe Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.
Ann Beattie, welcome to The Nervous Breakdown. In June, 2010, when I visited you and Lincoln in Maine, we listened to a song by the folk-pop group Girlyman called “On the Air.” You had recently completed writing Mrs. Nixon. The Girlyman song is about an early TV sitcom star, looking back:
‘Cause there was a time you know
When I had my own live show
It was improvised for the camera’s eye
It was made up in the ring
Back when Bob Hope was king
Back when every choice felt right
Back when life was black and white
Chorus: now there’s one thing I regret
How I wish I didn’t care
How I wish I could forget
That I was someone then when we were on the air
And I’m wondering if that song was playing in your head when you were writing Mrs. Nixon? Are you less likely than ever to write a memoir after writing this book, or was that always out of the question for you, as it was for “the real” Mrs. Nixon?
That song plays in my head a lot. The lyrics are good, but when I heard “Girlyman” live for the first time, at the Gravity Lounge (now gone) in Charlottesville, Va. and Nate launched into that as the first song, and Doris came in for tight harmony . . . I was unprepared. They’re sly, ironic lyrics, but somehow the straight-faced and almost defiantly beautiful way Nate and Doris harmonized was eerie, even alarming, deliberately taking the audience away from the words into another realm. High irony soaring above high irony. Irony’s not the only thing there is, for sure, but the means and the ends were so deliberately at odds in the way the band presented the song. To say nothing of the fact that his hair stood straight up. So I guess the question is a simple one – did that song form part of the soundtrack of “Mrs. Nixon”? Yup. As for whether I’ll ever write a memoir – I hate to think things are out of the question, but (as Gertrude Stein allegedly said, on her deathbed), exactly What is the question? Depending on that, anything’s possible. Let’s say this: I certainly don’t plan or wish to write a memoir.
Did Pat Nixon really own a Republican cloth coat? And if Girlyman were to write a song about her, what would it be?
She might have, but I have mostly pictures of her later on, in fur. Girlyman would probably allude to David Kirby’s poem about her, “Skinny Dipping With Pat Nixon,” and have some refrain like “I like Ike but wonder about Dick” to rhyme with “swizzle stick.” The vocals would, as always, be amazing.
You scoured eBay for Pat Nixon pictures and artifacts. These were displayed in your house in Maine. Are they still up?
I only looked on eBay after I finished the book. Promise. Late night nostalgia . . . AP photos of Pat, too late to study, nothing I ever wanted to include, but something I definitely want to own. I recently bought a great one: RN (as he called himself) with the Duke of Windsor, and walking behind, “The Duchess” with a kick pleat that reveals an almost scandalous stretch of thigh, with “Mrs. Nixon” so picture perfect, she looks like a not very animated paper doll. The guys, in the lead, could keep walking, and the rest of the photo could fall off the Cliffs of Moher and they’d never know. My eBay photos are not still up, but like the guy who flashes the picture of the naked girl on his tie lining, I bring them out for selected people.
You tell a lie in the middle of Mrs. Nixon (page 137). Chapter titles do a lot of work in this book.
I do lie. But at least I end up revealing that I’ve done it before my nose grows so long, it pierces the page. The idea behind this – though you don’t ask directly – had to do with setting a trap but also discussing why I was interested in setting it. It’s about how writers write, and why one liar lied.
Your career as a writer was in its ascendency in the mid 1970s, when Mr. and Mrs. Nixon left the White House, disgraced. Looking back on the 1970s, what do you think about when you think about Watergate? Do you ever talk about that era with your students at the University of Virginia?
No, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about it with my students. And they probably are being polite, and realize that if they mentioned the 70’s, I might not remember them, they’re so far gone. But seriously: Watergate was a bungled, middling disaster. It was about how one lie leads to another. Many works of fiction have involved just this theme. Writers feel nervous about lying, so they often make it the subject they address, thematically. I mention Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey in the book, for example; also, my husband has been haunted for years and years by reading A Simple Plan, which I’ve never read, but have heard about over and over, so that it seems like my own nightmare. For me, the Watergate mess was the backdrop for studying for area exams during the summer – that particular summer, when I was in graduate school – exams on such subjects as, say, Wordsworth. I’d like to hear “Girlyman” harmonize on that one.
When you lived in New York you were friends with the writer Donald Barthelme. In Mrs. Nixon, you quote Barthelme as once saying, “If the writer is taken to be the work’s way of getting itself written, a sort of lightning rod for an accumulation of atmospheric disturbances, a St. Sebastian absorbing in his tattered breast the arrows of the Zeitgeist, this changes not very much the traditional view of the artist. But it does license a very great deal of critical imperialism.” What did Barthelme’s friendship mean to you, as a young writer, and why did you want to include this quotation in Mrs. Nixon?
He was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known. He was my friend for a long time. I’d read his essay before thinking of Mrs. Nixon, but when I was more or less lost in writing the book, the imagery of St. Sebastian and even the word “zeitgeist” (obviously, he could have done a whole splendid story about the word, itself, appropriated into American culture) seemed, in the context in which I wanted to invoke it, so loaded as imagery, and so tonally alarming, that I just put his superior words where my best, faltering insights might have been.
Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Mrs. Nixon is one of the best examples I’ve seen of the enactment of the literary term, irmus. At what point, in the writing, did it occur to you that something like this was happening, and how did the ending of the book come to you?
Kierkegaard: Hmm. Didn’t know that. Immediately think of Amis’ Time’s Arrow and Baxter’s First Light . . . . You’re right that I didn’t know where I was headed in the early versions of the book, but there was no one key to what I wanted to unlock. Until you posed the question, I didn’t realize that the whole trajectory of the book might be looked at as irmus. You’re right, Gary. That’s it. I always knew I wanted the most personal part of the book to precede my overt writing of fiction at the very end, but the next-to-last chapter was severely re-written at the 11th hour. My only emotional transition seemed to be the beach, which was the image I last envisioned in that essay-ish chapter. So I began again with the same image and envisioned my subject there, superimposing her on my own life and thoughts: Mrs. Nixon, on the beach. I tried to set her free.
Can you give us an idea of what you’re working on next?
It almost frightens me that I have something of an idea. I don’t articulate it, even to myself, and certainly wouldn’t risk writing a word about it.