There are few writers whose work is more eagerly anticipated than that of the novelist Mona Simpson. Ever since her first book, Anywhere but Here, became a best-seller after being published in 1986, Simpson has explored the ways families connect and disconnect. Her latest, Commitment, centers on a single mother’s harrowing collapse and the fate of her family after she enters a California state hospital in the 1970s. An earlier novel, A Regular Guy, is generally considered by critics to be partly inspired by the life and habits of her brother, Steve Jobs, whom she first met in 1986 after Steve learned that he had a sister. She eloquently eulogized him at his memorial service in 2011, but Simpson is far too talented a writer to ransack the truly personal for her books, so rich is her imagination and so private her life.
JIM KELLY: Your new novel is a heartbreaker, detailing the lives of a single mother who falls into a deep depression, and of her three children, who suddenly must cope on their own. It is such a deeply felt book that I wonder how much you relied on your own experiences to make the novel come alive.
MONA SIMPSON: I use whatever I can to make a book come alive.
I couldn’t rely as much on my own experiences for this book, because I grew up as an only child, and Commitment is about three siblings. And I wasn’t committed to a mental-health hospital. Nor was my mother. So I had to rely on intuition and research. We’ve all known depression; it’s not so hard to imagine that becoming a constant. I don’t know if I’d trust myself to write about a feeling I’d never experienced. As a writer, it’s possible to deepen feelings, to embed them in character and escalate the obstacles around them.
In my first two books, I drew on my central-family configuration: I’d grown up with a single mother and a literal lost father. If you grew up with a circus in your front yard, I thought at the time, you may not turn out to be a magical realist. I remember saying that Anywhere but Here was the PG version.
Yet even with those books, inspired by a set of longings, I knew how much I changed or made up whole-cloth. Alice McDermott once quoted her mother saying, “I know that it’s not me and our family, but how will the person at the dry cleaners know?”
My mother read the manuscript of Anywhere but Here and called me the next day, saying she stayed up late laughing and laughing. That was a profoundly generous response.
J.K.: Your portrait of the mother, Diane Aziz, is especially devastating, and the scenes in her mental hospital are so specific in detail that one could cry. How much research did you do to achieve such realism?
M.S.: I visited the closest state mental-health hospital to L.A., which is (ironically) named Metropolitan, in Norwalk, California, where I interviewed many people, in particular three retired staff members—two nurses and a psychiatric technician—who worked there during the period Diane would have lived in the hospital.
They showed me various buildings, including the huge industrial kitchen, which is now a library; the hall where they have performances and dances; and the “store.” I modeled Diane’s ward on one of the wards, with its particular dormitory beds and the patient-painted mural in the dining room. These three former employees helped put together the museum of the hospital, which is on the grounds, where the old fire chief lived. They still meet regularly and volunteer to put together the hospital archives. Someone had made some tapes—oral histories—of people who’d worked in the hospital, which I had transcribed. I also read several first-person accounts of former patients and doctors, in that hospital and many others.
The book was a “what if” for me. What if, at some crucial turn, things could have gone this way instead of that?
J.K.: You are especially deft in getting into the minds of boys and young men—in this novel’s case, the character of Walter, and also, notably, in Casebook, which centers on a 14-year-old named Miles Adler-Rich. I know inspiration can be a mystery, but how do you pull this off as well as you do?
M.S.: Thank you for saying that. It’s a compliment that means a lot to me, because, for years, I thought I couldn’t bring men to life in my work, which I suppose isn’t all that surprising, having grown up with women. Time changed that. With a few decades of distance, young men and young women seem equally comprehensible and heartbreaking to me in their expectations of themselves, their hopes, and the many pressures they feel to be more.
“I use whatever I can to make a book come alive.”
J.K.: So many of your books deal with family and what it means to show and withhold and discover love. As a reader, have you been especially drawn to stories about families and how members connect? And have any novels about families been especially influential?
M.S.: Most of my favorite novels concern love and families: Middlemarch, War and Peace, and Remembrance of Things Past. Love is the great subject of most novels and one of the eternal questions of how to live a good life. I’m interested in the overlaps and intersections of romantic love and family love, which Tolstoy often manages to include within one book, such as Anna Karenina. Whereas Moby-Dick chronicles ambition and obsession. Some novels about romantic love are ultimately chronicles of obsession too. Madame Bovary.
J.K.: You spent your early 20s in New York City, studying for your M.F.A. at Columbia and working at The Paris Review. I do not presume that those days for you were comparable to Fitzgerald and Hemingway living in Paris, but did you find that time in your life to be magical in some way, then or in retrospect?
“With a few decades of distance, young men and young women seem equally comprehensible and heartbreaking to me in their expectations of themselves, their hopes, and the many pressures they feel to be more.”
M.S.: Being a young writer trying to make a life on $9,000 a year in New York City is more magical in retrospect than at the time. But even then, there were a lot of funny, lucky, sweet moments, most of them stemming from generous friendships. We had no security; all we had were hopeful futures; we competed for crumbs, yet people performed regular acts of kindness. I remember Allan Gurganus inviting me to read to his class at Sarah Lawrence before I’d ever been published. The college paid me $100.
A young classmate who’d always inspired envy in me submitted a story to The Paris Review. She lived in an aunt’s apartment on Park Avenue. She seemed to know New Yorker editors personally. All that and she was talented. Beautiful and talented. Anyway, I sat in the chair in the corner of the Paris Review office and read her story. Of course, I could have easily rejected it. I started reading with that in mind, but then I became exhilarated because it was so good. We printed the story.
J.K.: Writing is a sort of therapy, in my view at least (and cheaper!). Do you agree, and since you also teach, do you find that useful for your own writing?
M.S.: Writing is definitely cheaper than therapy, although if one considers the time it takes to write a novel, we may find we’re being paid well under the current federal minimum wage. There’s also more mystery at the core of the endeavor. You resolve things, and writing changes you, but you don’t always know what problems you want to solve when you start a book or what parts of yourself you want to lose or alter. People in the world of therapy talk about “letting things go.” Writing a book is the most profound way of letting things go.
Teaching is very different. It’s fun and lovely. It’s the movie version of parenting.
J.K.: Your first novel was an astounding success both with critics and the public. How did you make sure all that acclaim did not ruin you? And I also note that you thank longtime agent Binky Urban in your latest book, a person who has had great success nurturing writers. What’s her secret?
M.S.: Let’s not go overboard about the success of a small literary first novel. The kind of acclaim writers attain, even in the very best of circumstances, is hardly head-turning. There’s a story—it might be apocryphal—of a famous middle-aged novelist, male, walking down Fifth Avenue. People were staring and dropping packages. He had just had a book on the cover of the Times Book Review. Then, all of a sudden, the attention stopped. He looked around, confused. Then he looked behind him and saw what everyone else had already seen: Paul Newman. He’d stopped to go to the museum.
“Most of my favorite novels concern love and families.”
Anyone who would let a good review and a few readers turn their heads would be delusional. One of the things I like about our world is that the most successful writers—of the kind of success I aspire to —still have pretty much the same life as the rest of us.
Binky, justly famous for her loyalty and frankness, would tell you as much.
J.K.: Finally, your writing habits! One of the best parts of the Paris Review interviews for me is when writers talk about their rituals, such as when George Plimpton described one of Hemingway’s at his house in Cuba: Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him. I won’t ask you about footwear or animal skins, but are there one or two rituals you adhere to when you work?
“Teaching is … the movie version of parenting.”
M.S.: I’m grateful. I don’t have any footwear or animal-skin rituals that noticeably help with writing. But I find it useful to busy my hands. Years ago, I used fountain pens. I liked a cheap Pilot fountain pen that worked with cartridges, but I preferred brown ink and the cartridges were available only in black, blue, and red. Helen Wilson, the painter (and also, incidentally, Edmund Wilson’s daughter), taught me her method of filling an empty cartridge with her ink of choice, using a hypodermic needle. That was an intricate, soothing, concentrating start to the day.
I still write first drafts on legal pads, but much of my later work involves the computer, so I’ve transferred to new rituals. I’m on day 659 of a Duolingo streak. I order coffee beans from all over (today’s: direct-trade El Salvador beans), and I begin the morning by slowly making a pour-over with a gooseneck kettle.
I sit down to write until I hit a wall. Then I do something physical. For decades, I ran six miles a day. Now I spin. I’m listening to music, so I’m not overtly thinking of the problem in the writing at all, but usually, at some point, while my heart rate is in the 160s or 170s, a clearing emerges. I have my next sentence, served up on a plate.
Commitment, by Mona Simpson, will be published on March 21 by Knopf
Jim Kelly is the Books Editor for AIR MAIL