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A Conversation

The Joys and Sorrows of Staying Put

Mona Simpson's new novella examines lives spent in one place.

November 29, 2000|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than a year ago, in the middle of writing her fourth major novel, Mona Simpson, 43, took some time off to write a novella, "Off Keck Road."

She sent a draft to her editor at Knopf, Gary Fisketjon, who wanted to publish it on the spot. Simpson wasn't so sure; the novella was a departure from her other books in both size and subject matter, and she'd been planning to include it in a collection of shorter works.

Fisketjon wasn't so equivocal. Last spring, Simpson received a copy of Knopf's fall catalog and discovered that "Off Keck Road" was listed among the offerings--never mind that there wasn't even a contract at that point. Outfoxed, Simpson capitulated; she again set aside work on her ambitious novel-in-progress, "My Hollywood," and gave "Off Keck Road" a good polish. The book was published last month.

Simpson's first three published novels, "Anywhere But Here," "The Lost Father" and "A Regular Guy," are extensive meditations on the nature of family. Where these books are deep forays into family and the first two have journeys at their core, the novella is a rumination on place and staying put.

"Off Keck Road" follows the lives of three unmarried women in Green Bay, Wis., for almost 40 years. Simpson's three main characters are not held in place by the conventional ties of marriage and children. Bea, a privileged college-educated career woman, leaves her job at a Chicago ad agency and returns to Green Bay to care for her ailing mother. Bea becomes an avid Realtor and, seemingly immune to romance, flirts with her boss, goes to movies with a priest, knits coveted afghans, and relies emotionally on an ongoing, deeply satisfying conversation with her friend June Umberhum.

June, also educated but less affluent than Bea, has returned to Green Bay with her daughter Peggy after the breakup of her marriage. Cramped by the limited options in Green Bay, she will eventually leave again.

Finally, there's Shelley, who was one of the unlucky few to contract polio from the vaccine; her subsequent limp marginalizes her, but also liberates her. Nourished by a grandmother's focused love, physically strong and unsentimental, Shelley's directness and abrupt Midwestern locutions pepper "Off Keck Road" with small, pleasurable shocks.

Simpson was born in Los Angeles and graduated from Beverly Hills High School, but much of her early childhood was spent in Green Bay, her mother's home. I have known Mona since she moved back to Los Angeles from New York about five years ago. She and her husband, Richard Appel, a writer-producer for the Fox TV show "King of the Hill," and their two children, Gabriel, 7, and Grace, 9 months, live in Santa Monica.

This interview was conducted mostly by e-mail; Simpson was in Santa Monica and I was out of town.

Question: You're working on your fourth novel. How did it happen that you produced a novella in the midst of such a major, absorbing project?

Answer: The novella was one of those books more or less "given" to me. It was comparatively easy and a pleasure.

Q: In a season with several slim novels on the shelves-- Denis Johnson's "The Name of the World" is 130 pages; Mark Salzman's "Lying Awake" is 180--"Off Keck Road," with its 168 pages, 40-year time span and broad emotional canvas, surely might've been dubbed a novel. Was there a reason for calling it a novella?

A: I tend to write very long novels and I could tell that "Off Keck Road" was not the same thing, in the same way that I definitely have the sense that "A Simple Heart" by Flaubert, even though it covers a woman's entire life and death, is not the same as "Madame Bovary." Similarly, with Tolstoy, who wrote such large, ambitious novels, it's clear that "A Happy Married Life" (also translated as "Family Happiness") is not a Tolstoy novel. Writing this book felt different from writing a novel. Maybe it was too pleasurable.

Q: Speaking of Tolstoy, in the process of writing "Off Keck Road," you were working on an introduction to the Modern Library edition of "Anna Karenina." What traces and intimations of Tolstoy found their way into "Off Keck Road?"

A: There's a scene where Levin's brother almost proposes to Varenka on the mushroom hunt, and then he doesn't, and for no good conclusive reason, which leaves you with this lingering feeling of what if? What if things had gone a few degrees to the right, a few degrees to the left, and the two had ended up together? I thought of this scene when I had my character Bea miss out on a similar moment. I wanted to maintain that sense of ambiguity, that a situation could've been different if a single moment had gone a different way.

Q: Also, as you were finishing "Off Keck Road," you were very busy with caring for a new baby. (Grace was born in February.) How did that impact your writing life?

A: I get asked that a lot. And something makes me think that they aren't asking Saul Bellow that question!

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