Mona Simpson Author Biography Essay

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Mona Simpson won the Whiting Prize for her first novel, Anywhere But Here (1986), and her Off Keck Road(2000) was a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist.

Put up for adoption as an infant, Simpson didn’t meet her Apple-founding brother, Steve Jobs, until she was 25. Almost immediately, they developed a deep bond and kept in regular contact. Simpson delivered a moving eulogy at his funeral in 2011. “Even as a feminist, my whole life I’d been waiting for a man to love, who could love me. For decades, I’d thought that man would be my father. When I was 25, I met that man and he was my brother.”

In 1993, Simpson married television writer Richard Appel, who used her name as the inspiration for Homer Simpson’s mother in the long-running cartoon. They later divorced.

Given her past, it should be no surprise that parental loss, divorce, and a search for roots are strong themes running throughout her work. A New York Times review of her new novel, Casebook, noted, “Family is the North Star for Mona Simpson’s characters: It defines who they are, chaperones their choices, shapes their views of the world.” While the Times review was decidedly mixed, most reviews have been effusive in their praise of her latest (including our own).

Here, Simpson explains her writing process, the mysterious riddle of divorce, and why Susan Sarandon just didn’t cut it in the film adaptation of Anywhere But Here.

What was the creative spark for Casebook? How quickly did you know you were on to something?

 

The moment I started really writing Casebook was when I came upon the vantage — that is, the idea that the whole book would be the story of what Miles discovers, what he sees and learns, rather than focusing more closely on the adults, whose lives have more at stake in the action of the book. But that small opening — of what the son sees — somehow made the story easy to write. I think of it visually as a door open just a wedge.

I don’t want to be a spoiler for those who haven’t yet read the book, but did Hector’s character arc surprise you? It did me!

Hector’s character arc did surprise me, in all ways. What becomes of the whole Audrey family pleased and surprised me. I liked the parallelism of the boy’s families: They’re both separating at relatively the same time, but the two families and the various households have completely different temperaments and habits. As in most intense friendships, the boys can’t help comparing their situations. When they’re young and first coping with their parents separating, Miles pities the Audreys because they have no schedule and they never know on a given day which house they’ll be at that night. Sweaters and books end up in their mother’s apartment when they’re at their dad’s house. Later, though, he realizes that chaotic as the Audrey’s’ schedule was, one of the parents always stood waiting to pick up Hector and his sister.

Do you see a consistency in the impact divorce has on children?

 

That’s a hard question. I suppose the true answer is that there are a thousand particularities and differences between families, but that, for children, beneath the word divorce is a dark well. They don’t know much about this place, but it represents many things that quench the spirit of childhood. It means that good things end. It shows romantic love to be a flimsy thing, subject to damage, erosion, evaporation. It’s a failure of our best hopes and our children understand that in ways that they can’t say, but know. It’s a shame, not a pride, they carry.

What’s your writing M.O. (e.g., four hours a day, always in the same room…)?

 

I do write mostly every day. I read every day, too, and I run. I’m much less consistent about my location, although for the last many months, I’ve stayed at home, at my kitchen table. I like being close to the refrigerator.

Do you use real-life models for your characters? You briefly mention the inspiration for the PI character in Casebook.

I don’t really use models, in the sense of a drawing model, where the draughtsman tries to capture the lines correctly. I sometimes use bits of people, and often fantasies about people. In the case of [PI] Ben Orion, I’d interviewed a few private detectives, and while they each had interesting stories and compelling, convincing voices, they reminded me of Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping A Notebook,” in which she said she sometimes wrote bits of dialogue in her notebook but never used them, because they were exchanges that would be great in someone else’s novel. These first detective stories were like that. When I met the man on whom I built Ben Orion, I knew, before he even opened his mouth, that he was my detective.

Was it a surreal experience to see Anywhere But Here up on the silver screen?

It was an odd experience. There were wonderful parts of the experience — k.d. lang wrote a haunting song called “Anywhere But Here.” The studio gave me a bathrobe with a crest that says “Anywhere But Here” in the shape of a highway sign. The movie doesn’t really feel like my creation, though. [Susan] Sarandon’s take on Adele didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t understand it.

Off Keck Road is such a different type of book than Casebook or My Hollywood in terms of style and structure. How did you approach it?

Hmm. I don’t know. Off Keck Road is a much more narrated book than My Hollywood. Narrated in the sense of an old-fashioned story, told from the point of view of someone who is not a character in the story. But even that storybook quality of Off Keck Road has a certain spin on it, to my ear.

Off Keck Road started out as a short piece, written in the middle of a novel. I was in New York teaching one semester with my son, who was very young then, in preschool. I’d accepted an invitation to give a speech in Berkeley, and we both got sick on that trip. By the time we returned to our New York apartment, I had a very short time left before returning to L.A., and I knew I couldn’t go deeply enough into the novel I was working on (My Hollywood). So instead of trying and frustrating myself, I worked on a short piece that had come out of a few weeks I’d spent in my hometown in Wisconsin the summer before.

Then I returned to California, settled back into the novel, and sent Off Keck Road to the publisher with a few other stories. The next thing I knew, it had been put in the catalogue as a stand-alone book. [The publisher and I] had fights over whether it should be called a novel or a novella. As it happened, I received galleys when I had just given birth to my second child. I remember working them over in the clean high hospital bed. So, yes — that way of working was a little anomalous.

What are you reading now? Do you ever envy other writers?

Right now, I’m reading everything by Elena Ferrante. I read other writers all the time and admire them. I envy other work in a light way, not quite really. As I read Ferrante, for example, I love and admire her evocations of a brutal life in a working-class Neapolitan neighborhood. I couldn’t have possibly written those. Sometimes, with writer friends, I envy a state they achieve when they’re working deeply and they’re just in it. I envy that if they’re in that state and I’m not, for whatever reason. You can feel that aura of achieved daily purpose. It’s a kind of radiance.

Michael Causey is a past president of Washington Independent Writers.

 

Editor’s Note: We’ve had this piece on the schedule to run today for a while, but in an odd coincidence, it turns out that Mona Simpson is the biological sister of Steve Jobs. Read about it here.

1.
One of my favorite books/presents to give to the coming-of-agers in my life has long been Anywhere but Here, by Mona Simpson. Set in the 1960s and 70s, the book follows the 12-year-old Ann August as she and her twice-divorced mother, Adele, move from Bay City, Wis., to Beverly Hills, Calif., with little more than a new car and vague aspirations of having Ann get television work in Hollywood. It’s a book that I think provides a nice picture of my own past — not in literal ways, but emotional, or perhaps even generational — as well as one that might give some insight into what the future might hold for those on the cusp of figuring out what life has to offer.

I first read it in college, a few years after it was published in 1986. As a 20-year-old, I remember being excited by Simpson’s prose, which seemed almost miraculously informal and lyrical, particularly in comparison to some of the stilted so-called classics I slogged through in my classes. To spend time with Ann in particular (other chapters are narrated by her mother, aunt, and grandmother) felt like hanging out with a cool older sister or cousin, or maybe even one of the effortlessly precocious girls around whom I always seemed to orbit during that phase of my life. In one second she would describe a character as “laughing, but not really,” or admit to feeling “I don’t know, kind of proud,” and then in the next offer some startlingly beautiful image: “The weeds moved under the water like swollen hair. I pulled the cattail hard with my hand and the silver seeds blew off into the tall grass like scattered wishes.”

I recently read the book again and in addition to laughing nostalgically at 1970s references like “prime tanning hours” and Jamoca Almond Fudge ice cream, was struck by how Ann seems to be almost an archetype for a certain kind teenager we see a lot today, a girl who is understandably very skeptical about the adult world, even as she acknowledges the desire or need to navigate her way into it, and with the desire to turn out better or, more bluntly, at least not quite as fucked up as her parents. It’s a very muted form of Gen-X optimism/insecurity that evokes memories of a lot of inward (and sometimes, regrettably, outward) eye-rolling and cringing. I’m thinking specifically about characters like Angela Chase in My So-Called Life, or Daria from the eponymous animated show — or maybe even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, if you want to look at the entire ensemble as they more or less evolve from high-school kids into adults, confronting monsters all the way.

2.
In keeping with this theme, the 12-year-old Ann often seems more adult than her mother. In the opening pages of the book, for example, when Ann and Adele are en route to Los Angeles, Ann questions whether they can afford to stay at a nice hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz. She  says that “I worried about money. And I knew that it was a bigger system than I understood. I tried to pick the cheaper thing, like a superstition.” At the same time, though, Ann (like her mother), is not exactly consistent, and capable of tween petulance, like when a few pages later, after arriving at the Bel Air Hotel in Beverly Hills, she angrily orders a steak off the menu, reasoning that “if we could afford to stay here then we could afford to eat, and I was going to eat.”

Later in the book, as Ann struggles to fit in with her, generally speaking, much wealthier Beverly Hills classmates, she starts telling lies, exactly like her mother has always done. Unlike her mother, however, who in the moment of lying actually seems to believe what she’s saying, Ann is more self-aware, and clearly understands what she’s doing, even if she’s not quite interested in stopping. Adele, who lies about everything from gifts she claims she sent to her relatives that must have been lost in the mail to the level of interest a man holds for her (when in fact she is basically stalking him), is pretty much certifiable, whereas Ann manages to remind us that she’s the teenager, acting in ways that are perhaps typical, or at least not unexpected, for someone who doesn’t fit in anywhere and knows exactly why. What’s great about Ann is that she doesn’t indulge in the kind of overly dramatic rebellion we often associate with adolescence, but exudes a slyer, more introspective type of dissonance that allows us to keep rooting for her, perhaps because it’s a feeling that we know will never quite go away.

If teenage Ann is the moral center of the book, her mother, Adele, is the star, a woman who walks thin lines between charisma and cruelty — at times monstrous cruelty, even — intelligence and insanity, or perhaps more accurately veers into all of these areas, sometimes all at once. Now is probably as good a time as any to admit that I haven’t seen the movie version of Anywhere But Here, mostly because as much as I love Susan Sarandon, I didn’t want the film to wreck my image of Adele; some characters are really too perfect — too complicated, too charming, too demented — for the movies.

Adele is nothing if not demented and charming, someone you do in fact want to meet and watch, but only from a distance or for a short time, the kind of person who is great fun at a party but can destroy your life if you make the mistake of getting involved. The best example from the book is probably how Adele, until Ann is 12 and “old enough to get in trouble,” makes a habit of abandoning her daughter by the side of whatever road or highway they happen to be driving on, making her get out of the car and leaving her there until “she drove back…nodding, grateful-looking, as if we had another chance, as if something had been washed out of her.” Later in the book (but earlier in Ann’s life), Adele takes her daughter to an orphanage, where she tells Ann that “‘I brought you here because I’m telling you, Honey, you can’t act the way you’ve been doing. I’m warning you.’”

At other times, Adele’s cruelty is almost campy, such as when she confronts her 10-year-old daughter in the basement of their Wisconsin house and, after noting her displeasure at the way she fidgets on the couch as she watches television, demands to know who has “fucked” Ann, “because they really ruined you.” Or how Adele constantly harps on her daughter’s appearance, telling her she needs to take off about 10 pounds because she “just gobble[s] down the milkshakes” or how after a couple of neighborhood kids attacked Ann and cut off her hair on Halloween: “‘You talk about going to California and auditions for television, well, let me tell you, other kids are cuter. Your hair was what you had going for you. Without it, I just don’t think you’ll stand out.”

Still, for all of these Mommie Dearest moments, Adele is never one-dimensional. It’s hard not to develop compassion for her — and this is clearly Simpson’s genius — to identify with her longing to escape the tedious confines of her Wisconsin existence and create opportunities for her daughter that she never had, or at least squandered, and later — once she’s in L.A. — the terrifying prospect of establishing herself with very few connections as a single mother in an expensive, socially foreign city where she will do pretty much anything to “catch a man.”

Despite the occasional breakdown and the many, many lies she tells (some sad, many funny), Adele is a woman who scrapes by, bouncing more than a few checks along the way, but is always willing to splurge on something “smashing” (like a suede jacket or a great hat) for her daughter or to take them out for ice cream, which is a constant ritual throughout the book. Also constant is Adele’s desire to instill “class” into her daughter, whether it involves getting rid of her Midwestern twang — Adele has a master’s degree in speech therapy, which she uses to get a job in Los Angeles — or more hilariously by encouraging Ann to impress her new Beverly Hills classmates by alluding to a “bunnyfur” jacket like the one she used to wear in Wisconsin.

In the end, I ended up liking — maybe even loving — Adele in spite of myself. Despite her cruelty, the many lapses into selfishness or irresponsibility, the failures to provide much in the way of furniture or even food (except for ice cream) for her daughter, it’s easy to understand why Ann ultimately forgives her mother, which of course is the adult thing to do.

3.
When I give Anywhere But Here as a present, it’s my way of telling someone I love that I understand what it feels like not to fit in, which it turns out is a feeling that doesn’t exactly fade away with the years (so be prepared, in other words). But as much as the book is about the pain our families can bring us, it’s about relinquishing and sometimes laughing at it. It’s about the need to honor our parents, our crazy mothers and absent/distant fathers, who instilled this discomfort with the larger world into us, along with the yearning to escape. I would never say this explicitly, but I think to myself, here you go, dear niece or nephew: I understand how exasperating or sometimes insane your parents (my siblings) can seem, but try to remember that they would do anything for you, that they have lived for you. Which in my mind is a message that sounds better coming from me, an uncle, than it would from an actual parent, because I’m more impartial, someone who wants everyone involved to forgive the worst tendencies in each other as much as they appreciate the best.

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