Ann Beattie, ONLOOKERS: Stories

Ann Beattie, ONLOOKERS: Stories

Zibby speaks to award-winning short story writer Ann Beattie about Onlookers, a brilliant collection of stories set in Charlottesville, Virginia, all linked by contentious monuments in a moment of unrest. Ann shares the inspiration behind this collection, her nontraditional path into this career, her fascinating writing process, the best books she’s read recently, and how her stunning cover came to be.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ann. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Onlookers and life in general.

Ann Beattie: I’m very happy to be here.

Zibby: Why don’t you start out by talking about your new collection and where these stories came from as a group? Why a new collection now? All of the backstory.

Ann: I didn’t know at first that they would be related stories. I must admit that I tinkered with a couple of them to put them in and make them fit in a way that would make the theme of the book more — it would reinforce the theme of the book more. I started out writing just a couple of stories that were based in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is a town that I know pretty well. Back in 1975, it was my first job at UVA out of graduate school. I’ve had a long history with the place. Of course, everybody in the nation knew Charlottesville was put on the map yet again by the Unite the Right rally that happened in 2017 with the neo-Nazis and the counter-protestors and the terrible death of Heather Heyer and so forth in Charlottesville. As I began to write some stories based in Charlottesville, which is, again, just a place I feel very comfortable with — I know the terrain. I know landmarks, things about the place. It’s very easy as a writer to at least write a rough draft when you can just, in your mind, bring those things forward visually and have setting for your stories. I realized that I couldn’t run away from the current controversy about the monuments coming down, and so I decided that that would be a unifying link of all these stories. They’re not linked so much in terms of one character following through in every single story or anything like that, but the fact that in the background of all the lives of the people in the, whatever it is, eight or nine stories in the book, are these contentious monuments. No longer contentious. Removed, as well they should’ve been. They’re gone.

Zibby: I really enjoyed the story about Alice Ott and her inheriting a home from her “boyfriend” — maybe; who knows? — and how her family was at first not surprised that that was happening and then delighted to see it and all of that. I really enjoyed that story in particular.

Ann: I’m glad. I named her Alice Ott because there are references to Alice in Wonderland throughout. If you’ve read the story, as you have, you know that there are all these lawn ornaments. The girl in the story, who is a girl, who’s this very young teenager when the story begins, is looking back and remembering and thinking of how at first, she misunderstood or misremembered what these things were in the yard. Really, it was kind of like an alternate Alice in Wonderland kingdom that her lover had created for her. Suddenly, she just flashed on that as a much older person. I wanted that to be there in the story. I named her Alice on purpose. She certainly is a kind of later-day Alice in Wonderland.

Zibby: I love that. I also started reading More to Say, your collection of nonfiction.

Ann: Oh, how nice. Thank you.

Zibby: Which is really great. I love how you talk about all the things that writers will do just to get out of the act of writing, taking up photography or any of those other things.

Ann: Weeding, anything. Whatever it takes.

Zibby: Anything. Whatever it takes to get out of the deadlines or whatever. Also, that you get to take different perspectives and pick different moments in nonfiction, which happen, and yet you can have these different ways into a story even though it all just happened. Maybe you could talk a little about that because I found that so interesting, the way you were approaching your nonfiction in essays and how you even said — wait, maybe I can find it. You’re in the witness protection program. You said, “I’ve had fun sneaking around moonlighting as a nonfiction writer. My friends hardly ever commented, I assume because they never even saw my nonfiction.” You’re funny.

Ann: Really, joke’s on me. They didn’t see it. You think, it might take years, but so-and-so will eventually read this piece by me in a fairly obscure place. Particularly, a journal about photography or something, that’s not something everybody’s going to be likely to read on a weekly basis or anything. I realized that there was just stunning silence through the years. In fact, I didn’t quite realize myself until — this book was published by Godine. Josh Bodwell is the publisher. The book was really his idea. This was not an idea of mine. He knew more about it, probably, than I did. He told me that the first piece in the book went back, I think, thirty years or thirty-one years and that the most recent was a piece that I had published, I believe, in Narrative magazine just the year before the book came out. It really is a span of years in which I’ve been doing this. I’ve given people every opportunity. I’ve hidden so well that nobody ever, ever brings this up in conversation, that I write nonfiction.

Zibby: The secret is out now.

Ann: Let’s hope, loud and clear.

Zibby: In addition to nonfiction, of course, you do both short stories and novels. How did you originally get into writing anything at all, if you take me back to that? Then as you decide which form to follow, which is the easiest for you? How do you decide even which to continue on? Maybe there’s just more to say for novels. How does that all work for you? How did you get here to begin with?

Ann: It’s a hard question in a lot of ways because there are a lot of aspects to that question, really, as you realize. I don’t think I’ve ever, for example, started to write a short story and thought, oh, this is a novel, or vice versa. Maybe I should. My new novel, I should spare myself the misery and just twelve or thirteen or fourteen pages or something like that. Usually, I’m a short story writer. That’s what I’m more easily suited to. The other things are a different kind of work. I almost feel like you use a different part of your brain somehow when you’re writing a novel, not just because it’s longer in particular, but because you really have to — if your talent is to try to be subtle and to embody things in the story that are not going to be didactic or too obvious for the reader, if they think, oh, that’s kind of cool, I didn’t realize Alice was named Alice Ott — then there’s something else there about Alice in Wonderland. Should I think about that fairy tale as I’m reading the story? That’s the kind of writer I am. I’m putting things there. I’m hoping some of them will spark and will go off together. That’s awfully hard over several hundred pages because you either hit it too hard or people lose it. They lose track of it over three hundred pages. They’re not going to lose track of it over a story that, in manuscript, is maybe twenty-five pages. That’s hard.

To go back to your original question about how I ever got into this to begin with, I have very few talents. In fact, I would claim this to be almost good luck that befell me rather than even talent when I started out. I look back, and I sort of wince. I think it’s wonderful that I didn’t know a lot because I wasn’t scared off of this as a possibility of what I could devote my life to. I didn’t know other writers in those days. There were very few MFA programs. Yes, there was the University of Iowa. There were a few other programs. Now, as we know, it’s almost a lineup of things that most people do in terms of becoming a writer, which is to get an MFA. I didn’t do that. I didn’t know other writers. I did have the good fortune when I was in graduate school to live in a house with a bunch of other people. Everybody had their thing. Somebody was a really good guitar player. Somebody was a brilliant scholar. There was Ann. What was Ann doing? Ann was writing these weird little stories. What did you write today, Ann? If they had a handle on who the character was, what did, let’s say, Sam do today? What happened today? These were just fun. They were amusements. I got so much reinforcement from my friends. It kind of took over. I was, at that time, in graduate school in literature, which is what I have my graduate degree in, not creative writing. I never took a creative writing class.

Zibby: Wow.

Ann: It’s hard to believe now.

Zibby: Goes to show I guess you just don’t need them.

Ann: They’re helpful in their way.

Zibby: No, I’m kidding. I actually love writing classes. I haven’t taken one in a little while. Growing up and even after college, writing classes are something that, it just never gets old. You can always learn. I can always improve. No matter what age you are, you might as well go. There will be an output from the class, whatever the goal of it is. If you really want to write something, you could just take a class and have the deadlines. You have to do it. For the stories here, when you’re writing and crafting a short story, even though it’s not that many pages, I’ve heard — I used to work with Leigh Newman, who writes short stories as well. She said writing a short story is so much harder than a novel because you have to fit everything in. Everything is compressed. Every sentence matters so much more. When you’re writing a story, how long does that take? Do you stew on an idea for a long time? Do the characters come to you first? Tell me about that process.

Ann: I certainly take her point. I certainly understand what she’s saying. I don’t think I look at it that way, though, personally speaking. It’s fun for me. It’s not fun, ever, to start out with something and be very enthusiastic and find out that it’s just not having any sort of motor of its own, that you’re forcing it in some way. You have to do that at the beginning of a story. You have to just sort of state some things. You have to orient yourself so that you can orient the reader. Sometimes those things just aren’t as lively as you hope when you actually look at them typed there on your computer screen or however you write. I throw those things away. I press delete. I would say I throw out, certainly, fifty percent — probably, embarrassingly, more than that — of rough drafts. I don’t recycle anything because it’s not about the prose. It’s about the whole work. Again, we’re not talking about a novel. We’re talking about a short story, anywhere from ten to thirty pages, something like that conventionally in manuscript. If I have to press delete, I press delete. I start over. I think, please, to my material, give me some feedback. Do something on your own that’s sort of out of my control. That’ll be the thrilling thing for me because then I feel like I’m already communicating with something personally. I’m not just controlling something. I’m not just willing something into being. That’s, of course, not what your friend was saying at all. Just in terms of my own writing method, I think it’s that idea that things are shaping up on their own. I better catch up with them. That really motivates me and makes me able to write short stories more easily than novels.

Zibby: Wow, it’s this whole subconscious being transcribed onto the page, in a way.

Ann: Exactly.

Zibby: What do you like to read when you’re not writing? Do you prefer reading other short stories? Do you just read everything? Any lifelong favorites?

Ann: Certainly, there are a lot of short story writers I hugely admire. If anything is published by Deborah Eisenberg, I’m right on it. If anything is published by Joy Williams, I’m right on it. Craig Nova, who writes very few short stories, actually, known for other things, his novels in particular, in a story called “The Prince,” I think he wrote one of the half dozen best short stories I’ve ever read. There are certainty names that I look for. I do subscribe to a lot of literary quarterlies and journals and read Narrative magazine online and all of that kind of stuff. If anybody puts anything in my hands, ninety percent of the time, I really do read it or try to. I just finished reading a really good book. I don’t know if you’ve ever spoken to her. It’s called White Cat, Black Dog.

Zibby: No. I have a black dog too, so there you go.

Ann: That’s a really, really good short story collection, which itself is based on fairy tales, some of them more usual to me, like Snow-White, Rose-Red. Others, to me, are rather obscure fairy tales. I didn’t look at the models again. I just read the revision into current time with certain surreal aspects of them that I thought were really wonderful. That’s by Kelly Link, White Cat, Black Dog, that I thought was terrific. I don’t know if as a collection — this is an exception, her. I don’t often find things that I think, oh, this is great. I find one or two stories, but what’s wrong with that?

Zibby: Nothing’s wrong.

Ann: I read poetry. The same thing. It’s what moves you in the book. It’s not a value judgement. It’s just really what you find moving.

Zibby: Yes. Of course, that’s the trick of finding the right audience for any sort of book. There’s that intangible element. How do you communicate that to the right people who need it? I’m about to interview Kate Doyle about — it’s called I Meant It Once, a collection of stories by Kate Doyle that’s coming out in July that’s getting lots of attention. Looks really good.

Ann: Is that a first book?

Zibby: That’s my next collection. I’ll show it to you. Is it her first collection? I should know this. Obviously, I have not prepared this one yet at all. Let’s see.

Ann: I only ask because I know someone named Kate Doyle.

Zibby: Her short stories have been published in No Tokens, Electric Lit, A Public Space, Split Lip, Wigleaf, and other publications. It looks like she hasn’t had any other books yet. She’s a former bookseller, originally from New England, Public Writing Space Fellow. She’s lived in New York, Amsterdam, and Ithaca. No?

Ann: I’m not sure if it’s the same Kate Doyle, but how interesting. What beautiful books you’re showing me, by the way. They really look terrific.

Zibby: These ones or this one?

Ann: The one you’re holding up, Kate Doyle’s book.

Zibby: I could just spend the whole time showing you the covers of all these upcoming books.

Ann: It’s good. I love visual things.

Zibby: Then this is my last one. It’s called Strip Tees. Very different. It’s about millennial Los Angeles.

Ann: That’s cool. I like that.

Zibby: I thought that was a really fun cover too. Then of course, there’s this one called Onlookers.

Ann: We went back and forth so much. I love the concept of the cover. Absolutely loved it. Of course, when these huge, heavy, heavy statues were removed — do you remember, at the time, how many photographs there were in The New York Times? Just everywhere, the removal of them.

Zibby: Yes.

Ann: It was like a postmortem or something like that in a lot of ways. You felt like it was something between a lynching and — it had so many connotations which you were looking at with the chains lifting these things up into the sky and being loaded off on flatbed trucks and so forth. The idea that what you’re seeing there is something disappearing and all that sky, there is new possibility. It is a new world. You’re sort of watching the old world leave right on the cover. We went back and forth. Not to say that I have the ultimate say, but I felt like if they cropped it just a little more, if we had even less of the neck — we didn’t want to see the face at all. If it really was just the horse, that was all that was left — the horse was never the problem. It was the man atop it. I love, love the cover of this book.

Zibby: I love the cover too. It’s so great. It’s really so great. I really like the cropping, but whatever.

Ann: I do too. I think they came up with the perfect thing to make it a headless rider on the horse.

Zibby: Hopefully not a headless writer. That would not be the best book.

Ann: No.

Zibby: What do you like to do when you’re not writing and working and all of that?

Ann: I’m always writing and working. I work too much. As you know from my essays, I go out and do things to avoid things, to avoid what I should be doing. If somebody comes to dinner tonight and they hand me a book and say, “You’ve got to read this,” and it’s a friend and I trust their taste — I have a pile of twenty books that I really want to read. That’s going to go to the top of the pile, at least to look at it initially. It just really is. It’s amazing the number of books that sneak in that way. What I like to do when I’m not doing that, my husband and I just got back from a couple of weeks in England. It was the first real trip we’ve taken for a vacation since COVID began. That was an absolute thrill, going to museums and having a lovely dinner with one of my ex-graduate students in London and seeing another old friend there who used to work in publishing in New York. It was thrilling to be out in the world again, I have to say. Generally, we like to travel a lot. We’ve been curtailed like everybody else because of present circumstances. I will say, though, that last week when it rained a lot in Maine, I went out on two days. I kept my head down not just because I was pulling out dandelions with a , but because I didn’t want my husband to be onto me that I was doing this instead of any of the work I should be doing.

Zibby: If there’s one thing we’ve established, your procrastination methods know no bounds here. Yet look at all the productivity. It’s like it doesn’t even matter. It all gets done.

Ann: It’s surprising to me. It is a lot of productivity. Certainly, it’s a unique circumstance in my life. It’s because, really, Josh Bodwell, as I was saying, had the idea for this essay collection. That came out on last Valentine’s Day. I wasn’t anywhere where I could do any publicity for it then, so I’m kind of doing publicity for that now. I’m not complaining, but it’s right on the eve of Onlookers coming out. I’ll have a lot of events that I’ll be doing for that too. It’s just a lot at once. I’m also working on a very long essay I’ve been writing for a while too. It’s kind of frustrating because I’d like to get back to that. Basically, if it rains today, the dandelions await. I’m out to the backyard again.

Zibby: I love that. Ann, thank you so much. This has been so nice. It’s a pleasure getting to know you, such a literary legend. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today.

Ann: Thanks very much for having me on the show.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Have fun with the dandelions.

Ann: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

ONLOOKERS: Stories by Ann Beattie

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