There was a time 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 mailed out 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 out of 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 Updike’s 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 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 still is (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. (I talk about this more, here.)
She has published seven novels and eight collections of stories. 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 Allen Poe Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia. (You can link to Lincoln’s paintings here –his work is astonishingly beautiful. He and Ann were recently invited to keynote an Updike conference in Reading, Pennsylvania; Lincoln has painted 36 takes on “Rabbit” Angstrom.)
Her novella Walks with Men was just issued by Scribner and you can buy it here. Coming soon: a collection of all 48 of her New Yorker stories, arranged chronologically, and soon a non-fiction book about—get this!—Pat Nixon. (Ann’s house in Maine is filled with pictures of the long-suffering wife of Richard. M. Nixon.)
For those in the Fictionaut community who have yet to discover the work of Ann Beattie, let me suggest starting with Chilly Scenes of Winter and Picturing Will if you are inclined to start with a novel. Another You is a helluva novel that whatshername at the Times sort of missed the boat on; no matter, get it and read it. You can witness her mastery of the short story form by reading one of her collections; about once a year I re-read The Burning House and Where You’ll Find Me to try to remember how it should be done. Or, just get Park City and dip into her collected stories.
Finally, I asked Ann to say a word about “Coping Stones,” the story we selected for this edition of Line Breaks. Here is what she said.
Well, of course I didn’t know what “coping stones” were, but my husband is adept enough with the internet that I had him Google “building materials,” or some such thing, until he turned up the inherently metaphoric stones – which he no doubt knew about to begin with, but I hadn’t asked him. I never know what to title my stories. It seems reductive. Anyway: No problem conjuring up an old guy, a doctor, to live the life I don’t live in Maine. As a reader, I always like to know what’s “real” (even though I’m as dismayed as everybody else with apologetic quotes, so forgive me) – and in this case, it’s the dog. Like the butler, who is always the one who is discovered to be the murderer, the dog always runs away with the story. I’m not the first person to realize we displace our emotions onto animals. For the first few years I lived in our house in Maine, our only unexpected, ever hopeful visitor was a dog who crossed the highway often to visit us – so of course once I began imagining the world of the story, the dog made his scheduled appearance. It’s not my place to analyze my stories, but I hope the reader will look at the facts of the case – as my main character comes to do – and see that when contextualized, things take on a different meaning than they have when merely present, or presented. Not necessary for Cahill to become a detective – and he’s not a very good one – but in retrospect, I see that his discoveries are ultimately writerly discoveries: the banal is menacing; the usual is unusual, etc. Whether he wants his immediate world to signify or not, it does – as it does sometimes for me, when I’m re-imagining something, or even seeing something for the first time, when writing.
Previously on Line Breaks:
- “Moving Day” by Robert Olen Butler
- “The Palatski Man” by Stuart Dybek
- “My Date with Satan” by Stacey Richter
- “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel
- “Credentials” by John Holman
- “Pink” by Terese Svoboda
- “The Line” by James Robison
- “We” by Mary Grimm
- “Shopgirls” by Frederick Barthelme
- “Fragment from an Untelevised Revolution” by Rick Moody
- “One-Way Ticket” by Antonya Nelson
- “The OD & Hepatitis RR or Bust” by T.C. Boyle