Mona Simpson's Family Values

Lisa Broadwater's last story for the magazine was a profile of poet and children's book author Gary Soto

This is not the story of an overnight sensation. OK, well, maybe it is--or was, in the beginning.

Ten years ago, Mona Simpson was 29 and had just published "Anywhere But Here," the wrenching story of a mismatched Midwestern mother and daughter attempting to adjust to life in Los Angeles. It was that rare first novel that earned both phenomenal popular success and critical acclaim. Words like "brilliant," "extraordinary" and "stunning"' were tossed about like so much confetti whenever "Anywhere" was mentioned, which was often.

Although Simpson was not new to the literary scene--she had been an editor at the Paris Review for several years--she suddenly found herself a member of the literary elite. The accolades began to pile up. She won a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She was named a Hodder Fellow at Princeton. To the public she became the voice of her generation. She was profiled in People. Hollywood came calling. In short, the world was knocking down her door. So what did she do? She made a brief appearance and then she went back to work. Unlike some of her flashier peers--the ones who spend the bulk of their careers yakking about a literary life--Simpson has actually been living one.

Last month, Simpson published her third novel, "A Regular Guy," the story of a charismatic, power-driven entrepreneur and his eclectic community of family and friends. As was the case with "Anywhere But Here" and its sequel, "The Lost Father," "A Regular Guy" took almost five years to write. The reason, Simpson will tell you, is that she's "slow, slow, slow." Yet, as with many things involving the author, the reason isn't remotely that simple.

Simpson, who is unnervingly uncomfortable with praise, might label herself as slow, but those who know her see her as painstakingly deliberate and profoundly committed. She is a writer's writer whose influence in the literary world isn't limited to the proficiency with which she strings together words on a page. Granted, she isn't considered a slouch in that department, either.

"Mona is one of the best of her generation in terms of plumbing the complexities of family relationships and the broader social significance," says John Glusman, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux who has worked with many of Simpson's contemporaries, including Richard Powers, Peter Cameron and Elizabeth Benedict. "She's an extremely gifted novelist--a kind of archeologist of family relationships who writes with genuine psychological insight in richly textured prose."

Adds Stuart Dybek, professor of creative writing at Western Michigan University and a regional judge for Granta magazine's "The Best of Young American Novelists" issue, which placed Simpson on its list of 20 best writers under age 40, "Mona is able to do what only a few American writers can do: She has the ability to write stories that at once have a popular appeal but high artistic intentions. What she's doing is creating a world that's realistically recognizable to her readers. She holds up a very accurate mirror to a whole set of attitudes that people recognize in themselves."

Ask Simpson to sum up one of her books in a sentence and she slowly shakes her head: "If you could get everything in that sentence, why not just write the sentence?" She has a point. So does her fiction. For the uninitiated, this is not Saturday afternoon beach fare. The world according to Mona Simpson is an undeniably dark--yet eerily illuminating--place. Plot is often beside the point. Delving into the human psyche is. Characters are rarely what they (or you, for that matter) would hope to be. Children are forced to behave as adults while adults . . . well, adults behave badly. The American Dream may be desirable, but rarely is it attainable.

Consider this, from "Anywhere But Here": "I'd been taught all my life or I knew somehow, I wasn't sure which, that you couldn't trust the kind faces of things, that the world was painted and behind the thin bright surface was darkness. . . ." Or this, from "The Lost Father": "We are all endlessly telling the explanations of why we are not more. At a certain age, this begins. And for my mother and my father, the explanation was still, after all these years, the other's name." Or this, from "A Regular Guy": "It was strange: in her mother's bungalow, Jane always felt beautiful--she was, she knew that. But here, all that fell off like a joke and she was left with her plainness."

One of Simpson's greatest strengths is her empathy with her audience, says novelist Allan Gurganus, who met Simpson at Yaddo, the prestigious artists' colony in upstate New York, during the summer of 1982, when Simpson was a graduate student at Columbia University and Gurganus was a young teacher at Sarah Lawrence College. "Mona understands struggle and difficulties and what makes one as a person and a character," he says. "She seems to have a profound connection with being an American." Like Ann, the teenage protagonist in "Anywhere," Simpson grew up in the Midwest and moved to California when she was 12. Consequently, Gurganus says, "She has a heightened sense of American mythology. In her books, there are a lot of distances and spaces; the people are large, multidimensional." Finally, Gurganus says, Simpson "started as a poet, and I think she has stayed a poet. She cares about where the paragraphs fall, where the line breaks are, the shape of the language. And that sense that language is a joy in itself is becoming increasingly rare in contemporary fiction."

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In "A Regular Guy," wunderkind Tom Owens is struggling to accept his illegitimate 10-year-old daughter, Jane, as he attempts to prevent his impending ouster from the biotech empire he created. Jane is trying desperately to understand why her father is so hesitant to accept her and why her mother is so willing to hand her over to him. Jane's mother, Mary, hasn't quite found a place for herself in the world--and may never find one. Owens' girlfriend, Olivia, is searching for evidence of his love, while Owens' best friend, Noah, is searching for any love.

From beginning to end, much about Owens remains a mystery. To learn about him, it's necessary to listen to those around him. The same could be said about Simpson. Genial yet reserved, she is fiercely protective about much of her private life--a quality that can be problematic for a public persona whose books often contain details strikingly similar to those in her past (the mother-daughter cross-country journey in "Anywhere," for example, or the superficial resemblance between Tom Owens and Simpson's brother, Apple computer co-founder Steve Jobs).

Don't look to Simpson for enlightenment. She doesn't hesitate to talk about her husband, Richard Appel (a onetime assistant U.S. attorney who's now a writer for "The Simpsons," whom she married in 1991), their 3-year-old son, Gabriel, or their life in Santa Monica, where they spend much of the year (she teaches at Bard College in upstate New York one semester a year). But her small, almost delicate frame becomes rigid, an impenetrable wall, when she's asked about other immediate family members. She is so protective of their privacy that she won't reveal her mother's name or discuss Jobs at all.

"I just don't talk about their lives because I feel that's unfair to them," she says. When pressed, she concedes, "There is some biographical truth in what I do, but I want the license to make things up--which I do. I remember a lot, but I don't think I remember a lot necessarily accurately."

Personal details are irrelevant, her stance implies. And when it comes to her writing, perhaps they are. Novelist Robert Cohen has known Simpson since the two were in college at UC Berkeley during the '70s. Simpson, he says, is "working from iconic characters who are extensions of characters in her own life. But by staying with them long enough and doing enough with them, they actually come to be much larger than that. Her work breaks through the personal, and by the force of its intensity, becomes a much bigger story."

As for Simpson's story, she was born in 1957 in Green Bay, Wis., the daughter of a speech pathologist and a college professor. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her mom later moved the two of them to Beverly Hills. Simpson promptly found herself at Beverly Hills High. It was not an easy transition. The difficulty of the move was, she says, perhaps "the one truth in 'Anywhere But Here.' And it's not even that my personal move was so much like that move, but it was on some emotional level. It was just such a big change."

Her interest in writing was piqued by a high school English teacher's encouraging words about a poem she wrote. At age 18, scholarship in hand, she enrolled at Berkeley, which she chose sight unseen. She loved it. "I remember a great relief in college was that nobody fit in," she says. "Those sorts of dynamics unwound because it was such a big place. And it was a beautiful, beautiful place. For some reason, it was my first time, where I felt like myself. I knew what I wanted to do."

It didn't hurt that she had an incredible roster of teachers to guide her: Philip Levine, Seamus Heaney, Leonard Michaels, Ishmael Reed. It was Josephine Miles, a legendary figure at Berkeley admired for her simple, intelligent poetry, who made perhaps the strongest impact. "She sort of opened a door and gave a glimpse of a life one could have as a writer--a contemplative life but full of fun and friends and reading," Simpson says. "For her, writing wasn't a career path; it was more of a vocation. More like becoming a nun than becoming a doctor or lawyer."

Simpson turned down a scholarship to Columbia graduate school (she was unsure whether writing school was "the answer," for one thing), and stayed in the Bay Area for the next couple of years, freelancing for the alternative press and writing short stories (over the years, they have appeared in Ploughshares, Granta, Iowa Review and Harper's). After an East Bay newspaper passed her over for a job she coveted, she received word that she had again been accepted to Columbia, and she packed up and moved to New York. She wrote the first draft of "Anywhere But Here" at Yaddo during the summer between her first and second years at Columbia, and worked at the Paris Review part-time, eventually becoming a senior editor.

Shortly after moving to New York, Simpson met up-and-coming agent Amanda Urban, who suggested that she send her the novel when she finished. Simpson did, and Urban--who by then had become a major agent--signed her on. "It was an extraordinary first novel," says Urban. "God knows, there've been a lot of novels written about mother-daughter relationships. But 'Anywhere But Here' is a clear standout. She may have written a classic the first time out of the gate."

Simpson was named a Hodder Fellow shortly after finishing "Anywhere But Here," which enabled her to quit the Paris Review and focus on book No. 2 for a year. At that point, she was working on the first incarnation of "A Regular Guy," but it wasn't going anywhere. "I don't even really remember what it was about," she says. "It was sort of a sprawling novel. In an almost willful way, I wanted to prove I could do something very different from 'Anywhere But Here,' which is silly. I might as well have set out to write a war novel or something. It was too all-over-the-place, and I eventually abandoned it."

She had been teaching at Bard since 1988 (she has also taught at Columbia and New York University). It was there that her idea for "The Lost Father" emerged. "One of my students had been adopted and wanted to find his mother and couldn't," she says. "He kept imagining he'd find her and she'd be dead. I really wanted to write a book about coming to terms with an absence. I had been reading William James' 'Varieties of Religious Experience' and was thinking about all kinds of absences in paternal figures in my life and my generation. Whether or not you grew up with a father, a lot of people grew up with fathers who were less involved with the home than the mothers.

"I was in Catholic school when John Kennedy was assassinated, and I remember kneeling for four hours--all of us, second-graders--praying very sincerely, hoping he would live. So many paternal forms of solace that were intact when we were young children really fell apart as we grew up. I was thinking about those things a lot."

Given the overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception of "Anywhere But Here," it was probably inevitable that the critical assault on "The Lost Father" would be equally ebullient. Some reviewers found the central character's obsessive quest to find her father too . . . obsessive. The pacing was too slow and the voice too confined. "I'm one of the funny people who think the writing is better in the second novel than the first," says Michael Silverblatt, host of the syndicated radio program "Bookworm," which originates at KCRW in Santa Monica. "For me, she didn't really start to be an interesting writer until certain sections of her second book. Her first book probably holds together better, but the second one starts to interest you in her as a writer." Simpson wasn't surprised by the response: "It's definitely a darker book and a harder book than 'Anywhere.' But that doesn't mean I like it any less."

The reviews for "A Regular Guy" have been more favorable, if mixed. "I think she's not a very good novelist, but she's quite a good writer," says Richard Eder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who writes for The Times. "That is, I think probably her best novel is her first one. The second, I thought, was quite poor. This one I like much better, but not so much as a novel. You get lost for long stretches--it just sort of wavers around. What she has, however, is ideas and absolutely brilliant encounters and wonderful moments. I think her future may not be as a novelist. She may be an essayist or short story writer."

Dybek, however, believes that Simpson the novelist will endure. "There's clearly a tremendous sense of stamina in her writing," he says. "And while somebody might complain about pacing, one thing I've never seen anybody complain about is content. Those books are about something--you don't put them down and forget about them." Adds Silverblatt: "In terms of intuitive gifts, Mona comes to the novel with more talent than most other people of her generation. When the writing puts auras around ordinary objects, she's doing something that no one else of her generation tries to do, which is to find something sacred about profane life."

Even a casual observer can sense that Simpson considers all this speculation about her popularity and position rather pointless; she'd much rather talk about writing. That's one reason she's been teaching for almost a decade--helping other writers is central to her. It's something she did extensively at the Paris Review, says Jeanne McCulloch, who was managing editor during Simpson's tenure there. "The big trick of the dedicated editor is to pay attention to what you're reading and develop correspondence with people you want to encourage--much the way you do when you're teaching a class," she says. "Mona was great at developing a relationship with someone and encouraging them."

Adds James Linville, current editor at the Review: "I recently had cause to go through the editorial correspondence here. And in reading Mona's letters to writers, I realized she was immensely generous with so many--including people like Michael Cunningham, Susan Minot and Jay McInerney."

Allan Gurganus knows perhaps better than anyone just how devoted Simpson can be. "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" took him seven years to write; for almost five of those years, Simpson provided advice and encouragement. In fact, he says, "When I was finishing the book in North Carolina, she came down and stayed in the house for three or four days. I worked around the clock; we collated 'Widow' on the Lazy Susan of the dining room table. It was like a midwifery. It was very generous--it was literally putting her life on hold to help me finish it."

It's probably no coincidence that six of Simpson's students have either published their first novels or will publish one this year. Stephanie Grant, author of "The Passion of Alice," studied with Simpson for three semesters as a graduate student at NYU. Simpson's influence on her was profound.

"She was just serious as a heart attack about herself and her own writing and serious as a heart attack about ours. One of the things she told us was if we wanted to be good writers, we were going to have to be bad at other things--our apartments were going to be messy, and the jobs we had to support ourselves we were going to have to perform mediocrely. She said, 'You can't be a good writer and do that. You're going to have to let other things slide.' But she didn't do that."

What Simpson does is work tirelessly. She continues to write poetry, although she rarely shares it with anyone (a stray line or two will occasionally find their way into her prose). She spent the summer focused on short stories (she's compiling a collection called "Virginity and Other Fictions"), then it was back to Bard, where she's teaching two classes (she and Appel keep an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan). After the book tour for "A Regular Guy" this fall, she'll get back to her next novel, "My Hollywood," which uses the long, slow Wilshire Boulevard bus that runs from the ocean to the Eastside as a metaphor for the city.

It isn't clear whether she'll again focus on family issues or will tackle other forms of interpersonal relationships. "I plan to work into that more," she says enigmatically. "Since fiction is so distorted and filtered and imagined, it seems you're always a generation away from your experience. I feel like I'm just now beginning to be old enough to write about love."

And as she approaches middle age, she's discovered something else:

"I no longer feel the weight of possibility pressing upon me. Instead, it's more a sense that this is what I can do. I wish I could do more."

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