Mona Simpson, COMMITMENT: A Novel

Mona Simpson, COMMITMENT: A Novel

Zibby interviews award-winning author Mona Simpson about Commitment, a powerful, engrossing, and deeply-felt family story about a single mother’s depression, and the fate of her three children as she enters a California state hospital in the 1970s. Mona talks about her fascinating research on mental health institutions; her complex mother character, who does everything to give her children a better life; and her own childhood with a single mom. She also explains how she came to be an author, and reveals what her next book is about.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Mona. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest novel, Commitment.

Mona Simpson: Thank you for inviting me.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Would you mind telling listeners about your amazing new novel?

Mona: I’ll try. It’s funny, it’s the most common question, but it’s hard to answer, as you probably know. By the end of a book tour, I feel like I can . Usually at about this point, which is the middle of the beginning, I’m not so certain. It started in a number of ways. Actually, it’s a book about three siblings who have a mother who is a bit fragile, a single mom who was a bit of a striver and worked to get them in the best school district or in one of the good public-school districts in Los Angeles in the 1970s. Then after she takes her oldest child to Berkeley, she falls into a real depression which she can’t seem to get out of. Eventually, she’s taken to a state mental health hospital. Her two kids, who are remaining home, and her son, who’s a student at Berkeley, have to then put together their lives and try to help their mom and go from there, so to speak. That’s what it’s about.

Zibby: It’s about giving so much and then realizing you have nothing left to give. I love all the Palisades references in the book, Pali High and all of the stuff and even how you have Walter get into Pali High because of a relationship with his mom with someone in her exercise class whose address that she kind of stole. I thought it was so interesting how you said she could’ve turned them in. She could’ve easily noticed all the mail. This was something that so many people — not so many, but many people were trying to do just to get a better education. You talk about the mom’s reverence for her nursing degree and how important education was for her. All she wants to do is just give her kids a better life. Immediately, we’re drawn in and rooting for her. What would we all not do for our kids?

Mona: That’s true. It’s also just a sad state of affairs that one has to do that or would have to do that. There’s been all these studies, as you well know, of the zip code of where you live really determining so much of your future socioeconomic outcome. She’s probably right that the school that her kids are districted for is not as good a school. That’s a very sad state of affairs, especially for those of us who grew up in public schools when they were a little better than they are now.

Zibby: You automatically — not automatically — immediately highlight the competition between moms, which so many people can relate to as well. When she’s driving up to take Walter to school, the other mom’s like, you’re not going? I wouldn’t miss this for anything. I could so see and hear that whole scene. I know that other mom. She’s like, oh, no, bracing herself. Even how Walter was so perceptive and is like, my mom, she didn’t do well with women like that. They made her nervous. Of course, women like that make everyone nervous.

Mona: How old are your children?

Zibby: I have two fifteen-year-olds — they’re almost sixteen — and then a nine-year-old and an eight-year-old.

Mona: Oh, my goodness.

Zibby: I know. I’m in it.

Mona: That’s so nice.

Zibby: It’s fun. Yes, you come up against all types of parents. Talk about the decision to figure out what to do when the mom has this breakdown. There’s so many ways you could’ve gone with the story. She could’ve just suffered at home. Why go to the institution? I guess I should back up and just say, which piece of this story came to you first? What was really exciting to you about it?

Mona: With a novel that I worked on for this long, I had a couple of little doors into it. One of them was certainly Walter, was starting with a kid who was at college and who had a lot of usual experiences, falling in love with the two girls down the hall, especially one, and loving his roommate, just exuberant with the feelings of friendship. At the same time as he’s having these very universal and typical experiences, he also has a whole other life going on in his head about his concern for what’s going on at home. Then another way into the book I had is I read an essay by the late and wonderful writer Oliver Sacks called “The Lost Virtues of the Asylum.” Before that, I had grown up, like most people of my generation — I had seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I sort of thought of those big state institutions as snake pits and terrible places of abuse and exploitation. This essay traced the history of how those hospitals started in America and what the original ideals were. He actually quoted a number of people who’ve been committed. Several of them actually had better lives in a smaller, more protected environment and wrote about it in their memoirs.

He himself worked at Bronx State, which was one of these hospitals, for decades, so he had a certain kind of authority. He wasn’t glossing over anything. He said, of course, there were bad nurses. Of course, there were bad doctors. Of course, there were also very good ones. He had memories of all kinds. He certainly remembered many patients leading peaceful and seemingly productive lives inside the institution. I was also thinking about that. I was thinking about how we grew up, or at least I grew up, kind of in the age of institutions and how many of them really have ceased to exist. I grew up in a town in the Midwest where there was one orphanage in the middle of town. Now we have foster care. We don’t really have an orphanage. There are all kinds of ways in which we’ve changed the way we take care of society’s neediest people. I wanted to examine whether maybe we went too far in closing all the mental health hospitals now. Ninety percent of people who were there in 1960, the beds aren’t there anymore.

Zibby: I feel like you see that particularly here in New York, the effect of not having proper state-sanctioned mental health and what happens as a result of all of that. I worked in a psychiatric institution for a summer, which I found really eye-opening. For a while, I wanted to be psychologist and all of that. In my head, I thought, when you get to a point where you really need to go to a hospital, they’ll take care of you. You’ll really get the care you need. When I was there, managing so many people with so many disparate mental health conditions all in the same ward, basically, became much more about management. I was in the adolescent inpatient unit. Still, it became about rewards and systems and how to manage. I’m like, this is not the TLC I would imagine where you hit bottom and you need help. This is the complete opposite. This isn’t going to make anybody feel any better. How is this going to help?

Mona: That’s kind of what happened everywhere. A large thing that happened with these big state institutions is when they opened, people brought their aged parents and left them. It was kind of the first form of institutionalized elder care in this country. These wards became incredibly overcrowded. The funding was less than they’d hoped it had been in the beginning. Of course, that’s not going to work. These places were designed to have therapy, really, and to have a kind of peace and quiet and some time in nature and libraries and so forth, orchestras. With one or two doctors and hundreds of patients, none of that is possible.

Zibby: It’s really powerful the way you write about it and for us to see it. Another great example, I feel like, I don’t know if you’ve read Wally Lamb’s book which was recently made into that miniseries, which was amazing.

Mona: I saw.

Zibby: Wasn’t that amazing?

Mona: It looks like it’s going to be really great. I have it in my que.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, push it up the que. Now I’m blanking on the name. I always forget the name. It was with Mark Ruffalo. You will never think about institutions the same way after that either. I feel like there’s a narrative about — it’s prison literature, institution literature. You also are really good, as you well know, I’m sure, at observing the way that society works and all those unspoken things. You had a line that said how the younger daughter analyzed — something like, she analyzed the way that the goddess girls at Pali High, how they operated similar to how boys analyze sports moves. They had to study them. She had to know everything. Talk a little bit about that. I feel like there’s so much of this societal commentary woven in.

Mona: I think that’s always a good thing for the novel. I think that’s, in a way, what we go to fiction for. Those little irritations and those little hurts and those little things that we feel in everyday life get explained, in a way, in fiction, and especially with this family because they’re not quite members of this community. They live outside of the district. As you said, their mom got them in with a fake address, so they can’t ever have people over to where they live. They can’t even accept a ride home. If one of their friends is driving, they can’t even get a ride home because they don’t want to blow their cover. Because of that, they’re also especially vigilant in that way. They’re all a little vigilant in the way one is when one doesn’t easily, gracefully, casually belong.

Zibby: The show is I Know This Much is True. It just came to me, by the way. You write really well about this feeling of being other, being on the outside and trying so hard to get in. Where does that come from for you? In what situations do you feel other?

Mona: That’s a good question. That’s a really good question. I grew up as the child of a single mom. We lived in a small Midwestern town and then eventually moved to California. I don’t know. I don’t think I was ever quite in the situation of these kids. I certainly grew up poorer than most of my classmates, so I was aware of that kind of feeling.

Zibby: Interesting. Then how did you go from coming from the Midwest and your background or whatever, how you arrived in LA, to then selling books, having your book in 1986 be made into a movie? That’s the American dream. What happened in between 1986 and arriving in Hollywood? How did that all happen?

Mona: In 1986, I was living in New York. The book sold to Hollywood. It didn’t get made, I don’t think, until a few years later. I went to UC Berkeley. I had a situation a little bit like Walter’s at Berkeley. I was a scholarship kid at Berkeley. Then I went to New York for graduate school, to Columbia. When I went to Berkeley, like you, I first thought I might want to be a psychiatrist and then changed to writing. I stayed a few years after graduating and worked as a journalist, which was really fun. It’s what I always wanted to do most, and so I’ve stuck at it for better or worse.

Zibby: What was it like having that book be successful and get optioned, made, the whole to-do? Then you’ve written how many novels? Six novels now? Six? Seven?

Mona: Seven.

Zibby: Seventh novel. Sorry. How do you keep reinventing the form and figuring out what to do next and keeping this going without being hindered by past successes?

Mona: I think I’ve been lucky, in a way, in that regard. I’m not that successful, so I wouldn’t ever that get feeling of, oh, my god, I’ve made it. I still feel sort of hungry. I still teach, for example. I’ve still got my teaching job. That hasn’t been so much a problem. Every time, you feel like it should get easier, but it doesn’t, necessarily. It’s one of those fields in which every story seems to present its own problems and challenges. This one was hard for me.

Zibby: You referenced earlier that this took you a while. How long did this take? When did you start working on it?

Mona: Somebody asked me that. I told this lovely reporter at the LA Times that it had taken six years. Then afterwards, I googled it. Actually, it was nine years since my last book was published, so way too long. Although, there were other things in there too. There was COVID and the paper shortage. My editor, whom I have been with for years and years and years, was working in the South. She’d gone back to Charleston where she has relatives. She wasn’t with her assistant. She’s very computer dependent, so things went slower than usual. Nonetheless, it was a very, very long time. I don’t encourage that. I don’t think it’s a good idea. One of the good things about that, though, is I did actually start a shorter book in the last few years of this book. I have another one almost ready. Make up a little time.

Zibby: Smart. Good. Tell me about that book.

Mona: That book, it’s two sections. It’s called Help and Its Sequel. It’s about the problems of trying to help other people. It’s about a young in New York just out of graduate school trying to make a living, just barely, barely making a living, getting her first apartment. At that time, her family back in the Midwest has — one of her cousins has been hospitalized because she’s having terrible problems at home. She’s not eating. It’s looking very bad for her. They want to send her to New York, to what they see as their successful niece. In fact, she goes to the bank, and she takes out a twenty-dollar bill. That’s really all she can take out because she’s near the bottom of her balance. It’s about that girl coming to stay with her and trying to help her, but the limits of that while at the same time, her landlord comes to her with his granddaughter who’s fairly privileged. She’s seeing a private guidance counselor. They know that she’s trying to be a journalist, so they say, will you help her write her college entrance essay? It’s about who’s able to be helped and who’s not and why and all the complexities of that.

Zibby: That sounds really good. Exciting. Keep it going. Keep the machine churning. What do you do like to do when you’re not teaching and writing and all of that? I know you live in California. Do you hike? I feel like everybody who lives in Santa Monia hikes.

Mona: I hike. I see you have a dog. I have a wonderful dog. Where is he? Copperfield. Gosh, I don’t know. The usual thing, I suppose. I take walks. I hike. I read. I go to the movies, have dinner parties, all that. It’s funny. I just was at a lovely, lovely wedding in Northern California with five other families who my oldest child, my son, grew up with. His best friend from babehood on was getting married. It was really lovely to see those families again.

Zibby: That’s so nice. I have a group with my oldest son’s lower school buddies. I feel like that group of moms in particular, we went through so — actually, even with his preschool buddies. That’s another group of friends. I guess my twins put me through the wringer.

Mona: It’s really true. It’s a whole different group.

Zibby: There is something about in the trenches with those families, especially at that young age. It’s kind of different than now, but who knows? Are you reading anything great?

Mona: I’m teaching My Ántonia and To the Lighthouse, which were both published . It’s really delightful to be doing that. I’ve been reading all this Cather material and all this Woolf material. It’s really funny too. Here I am on book tour trying to sound halfway intelligent talking about my book. In the critical edition that I’m teaching My Ántonia from, her early interviews when she tried to talk about the book, she’s so much more stilted in the interview than she was in the rest of the book. It’s very funny.

Zibby: You’ve been in the publishing world for a long time. How do you see where we are today? Was there anything better back in the day? Is it easier or harder to break out books? Is there anything we can do? Some days, it feels really challenging.

Mona: I don’t know. Kind of for self-protective reasons, just so I can write, I don’t follow it probably as attentively as, say, my character follows the social ups and downs of her high school. I’m not sure. Certainly, during COVID, everybody was reading a lot. I hear a lot about young people not reading, but I don’t know if I fully buy it. I teach college students. I like to teach a big novel sometimes. I’ve taught Middlemarch several times. I’ve taught Copperfield. I want to teach Great Expectations. I like to teach a big novel that takes the whole term to do. That’s all we do. We just do that novel. We’re reading at a reasonable pace. We’re not reading hundreds of pages. I go down the halls, and I see some people will have Middlemarch covered in two weeks in their class. I think, what can you possibly do in two weeks? Students from all over campus will take these classes. Sometimes it’s the first real nineteenth-century, demanding, long novel a lot of these students will have read. It’s absolutely an exhilarating experience for them. I’m not sure I buy — on the other hand, we are all on our phones. That’s true too. I don’t know what the future will be of books and literature. I just don’t know. There are certainly good aspects of it all. I have my writing students do a little research on literary magazines, and also including online magazines. Each time they do it, it’s kind of fun for me too because they’ll come up with a few new online magazines which are really good. If you love this kind of thing, they should be going out in their twenties and starting some magazines and starting some podcasts and starting some book clubs online, starting more public, communal reading experiences.

Zibby: Totally agree. Yes, that would be helpful to everyone involved. Amazing. What is your process when you’re writing a novel? Where’s your favorite place to write? Do you do it by hand? You type? What does that look like?

Mona: I used to write everything by hand. Now I’m sort of the opposite. I still write sections in hand, but then I type them into the computer. Now I do a lot of revising by hand. I’ll print the thing out, and I’ll revise it. In terms of a place to write, no, I actually — I moved back. I do a little office at UCLA, but that’s a ways from home. I used to have a little office. I rented an office in Santa Monia, which I’m now subletting because I moved home when my kids were in high school. I had plenty of time at home when they weren’t here. Now I roam around the house. Often, I’m working at the kitchen table. I just live with one other person. It’s quite quiet.

Zibby: Amazing. Do you have a favorite food? I have no idea why I’m asking this. I’m just curious.

Mona: I live in California, so the produce here is so good. I probably have seasonal favorite foods. It’s funny. Santa Monia has wonderful farmers markets. It’s a great place to shop. I go with one of my neighbors down the street. He carries a huge wagon. He’s Italian. He’s a fabulous cook. I trail along in his wagon. There’s a kind of berry that we all get here called Harry’s Berries, which I saw was in New York just last .

Zibby: They do not taste as good here. It’s totally different. I was so excited. I’m like, this does not taste the same at all.

Mona: happens.

Zibby: I don’t know. Maybe it’s just, eating food closer to where it grows is so much better.

Mona: It’s much better. I’m a true Californian. I have a vegetable garden and everything.

Zibby: I was voting citrus for you. I was seeing oranges and grapefruits. I’m crazy. I don’t know why I’m talking about this. Anyway, congratulations on Commitment.

Mona: Thank you so much.

Zibby: It was really fun chatting and getting to know you. I’m really excited for your event at Zibby’s Bookshop coming up with Amy Ephron. That’ll be lovely. Thank you for all your time this morning.

Mona: Thank you. It’s so nice getting a chance to talk to you.

Zibby: You too. Thanks so much, Mona.

Mona: Bye.

Mona Simpson, COMMITMENT: A Novel

COMMITMENT: A Novel by Mona Simpson

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