The Miseducation of Mona Simpson

Mona Simpson

In a different world, she might have been known simply as doctor.

When Mona Simpson entered college, she was torn between whether to pick up the scalpel or the pen, and eventually settled on the latter. That choice led her to a career an the author with five critically acclaimed books including Anywhere But Here, which was made into a movie of the same name, and Off Keck Road, which was a finalist for the Pen Faulkner award.

But as Simpson tells Opening Lines in this interview, the idea that she would become a writer – let alone a fiction writer – was anything but a foregone conclusion when she was a young girl growing up in a single-parent household.

“I did not grow up in a family that quoted Shakespeare at supper,” she said. “I worked every night of high school, locking up an ice cream store and depositing money in the bank at two in the morning when I should have been reading.”

Yet one could argue it’s these experiences – rather than anything she might have found in a book at the time – that provide the backbone to her work and make it all the more powerful to read.

Today, Simpson isn’t just a mainstay in the literary world, but also in pop culture. Aside from the popular movie based on her work, Simpson’s name was also used for a character on The Simpsons (her husband was a writer for the show.)

In this interview, Simpson speaks with Opening Lines about her failed attempts at writing poetry in school, what aspiring fiction writers can learn from journalism and why novelists should put concerns about fame and recognition out of their minds and just write.

Opening Lines: What was your first attempt at creative writing, fiction or otherwise?

Simpson: I started writing in high school when my freshman teacher showed us a film about wild horses off the coast of North or South Carolina, and he wanted us to write some sort of response. I wrote a poem and he was very excited about it, but for the rest of the year, he would tell me that I disappointed him after that poem. So in a way it was a good start and in a way it was not.

OL: Did you keep writing poetry after that in high school, or did you make the switch to fiction?

Simpson: Well that’s what I did in high school for excitement – I wrote poems. They sort of ranged all over the place. I wrote weird abstract poetry throughout high school, though I don’t have any of it left. I still have many of my college poems and those are embarrassing enough. I wrote one poem about two young people near a magnolia tree and the last two lines are: “Is it? Is it?”

Writing was just something I really liked, but when I went to college, I decided to do pre-med, thinking that I wanted to be a doctor. I had to work pretty hard at the chemistry portion, but I actually did well in it. And then I remember I had this big trauma trying to decide if I wanted to be a writer or a doctor. I was still just an 18-year old college freshman, but I thought I had to decide then and there about the future. So I did, and I decided to go with writing.

I suppose my biggest obstacle was a feeling of shame at my work, shame that it wasn’t something else, something bigger, something better,” Simpson says. “I felt inadequate in my education and this probably has something to do with class.”

OL: What did your family think of this decision? Did they try to talk you out of it at all?

Simpson: I didn’t have a successful family, so I didn’t really have that kind of pressure. In some ways, I think I actually wanted to be a doctor to take care of my family.

OL: Even after you made this decision, from what I’ve read, you didn’t focus solely on creative writing, but instead worked as a journalist for a short period after college. Why did you choose that profession and how did your time as a journalist affect your writing?

Simpson: I applied to go to grad school right out of college, but then I fell in love when I was 21 or 22, and he said if I went off to grad school, we would break up. So I thought I would try to support myself by writing poetry and writing short stories, and I came to think of journalism as another way to do that.  But it was really a ridiculous idea because I was very slow at writing. My journalism pieces would take months and even longer before I would get paid.

Still, I liked it and learned a lot from journalism. It’s a great thing for a fiction writer to do because you learn a lot about the world and do a lot of research that is very much akin to what you do for fiction. You get a kind of access to other peoples’ lives and stories, and you learn to figure out quickly what interests you, what is the story that compels you. In a way, I think most novelists do practice journalism, they just don’t write the article, but they do the same interviewing for fiction that they would do as journalists.

OL: Your first book Anywhere But Here proved to be very successful, especially for a debut. It was eventually made into a popular film of the same name, and is often cited as a modern classic. Were you surprised by this success and did you feel any added pressure for the follow-up book?

Simpson: To be honest, I don’t think I reacted that much to it. I didn’t think of that first book as such a big success at the time, though it seems a bit more like that now, since the book is still around. But I’ve never had a book sell so much that I had a huge thing to follow up.

In general, I guess I’m kind of shy, and every time a book comes out, it seems wonderful at moments, but very exposed as well. To have people talking about your work and writing about your work, it’s all kind of insane to me, and that experience of talking about a work is so different then actually having to do the work the next day.

OL: Last year, in an interview at the Brooklyn Book Festival, you said something I thought was rather striking: “I find life too messy. It’s too dizzying and chaotic, and there’s too much of it. I prefer the structure of fiction.” I wonder if you can elaborate a bit. Is this what has driven you to write all along – that ability to give some structure to the chaotic – or is there more to it?

Simpson: That’s certainly one of the draws of writing for me, but in truth, I don’t know exactly why I write. I suppose the easiest answer is that I want to. I want to leave some record, to make something of this life, outside my children.

To talk about this, I’m thinking of the Tassajara Bread Book and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed. Because they both focus on an art -baking and literature respectively – that has been alive for thousands of years, but they also include stories, sometimes just threads of implication, about the lives lived while pursuing a great passion. The writers are submitting to an enormous discipline – baking or learning the Slavic languages and literature – under the sway of love, but they’re also leaving their fingerprints visible, telling us how they lived with each other, endured early love affairs, insults and breakups, meanwhile.

To simply teach the work – to me, that would be too far from life. It would ultimately be too curatorial, too historical. One wants to leave some sense of our years on earth, to hand along to the next generation with the parcel (that is the ten thousand year old conversation).

OL: Looking back on the early days of your writing career, what do you think was your biggest obstacle?

Simpson: I suppose my biggest obstacle was a feeling of shame at my work, shame that it wasn’t something else, something bigger, something better. That’s what Chekhov meant when he said it took years to beat the slave out of him.

I was born into a precarious family. I had a relatively poor single mother who supported us. She was a speech therapist who had been the first person in her family to finish college. We were very proud of her Master’s Degree, but I did not grow up in a family that quoted Shakespeare at supper. I worked every night of high school, locking up an ice cream store and depositing money in the bank at two in the morning when I should have been reading. I felt inadequate in my education and this probably also has something to do with class.

I managed to overcome this obstacle simply by working, reading, feeling my way towards better work, little by little. I found kindred souls, and I was fortunate to find teachers and mentors who were kind.

OL: Were there any times after you began writing professionally when you considered abandoning fiction in favor of another career?

In a way, I think most novelists do practice journalism, they just don’t write the article, but they do the same interviewing for fiction that they would do as journalists.

Simpson: There have been times where I wished I could write and not publish, or yes, have another job, but I think I will always continue to write. It is to me a hobby in a way first and a career second, something I really need to do and care about personally.

OL: Finally, if you could go back in time and tell yourself any piece of advice, what would it be?

Simpson: I think I worried a lot and questioned my own inclinations, and if I could I’d encourage my younger self to try to enjoy it all more. Don’t worry so much and don’t feel you have to live any particular way. Don’t worry about other people’s progress, other people’s fame. Remember if you feel snubbed at the literary table that every single other person there has the same fear, the same humiliation.

I also think it’s a good idea to find some way to make a group out of writing, the way the McSweeney’s gang did with 826, their literacy project, because writing really is such a solitary thing.

Image by Gasper Tringale.

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