an interview with mona simpson      
mona simpson


Ihe evolution of a small Midwestern city and its outlying parts is at the center of Off Keck Road. Is this place based on a real town from your life? If so, did you revisit your hometown as it changed or when it was already gone?

I left the Midwest when I was twelve years old and I haven't lived in a small town since. And because I had many important relatives in Wisconsin, I returned to visit many times, both with my mother when I was a child, and then on my own, during college, taking several memorable trips in Greyhound buses and on Amtrak, which, at that time, had a glass roofed car for stargazing at night. I remember coming into my hometown's small, undistinguished bus stop. (By then there was no train station. Only freight trains ran through Green Bay.) In my memory, all my returns take place with me stepping out of a train or bus, under a tent of falling snow.

Often, I think, displaced people imagine themselves leading double lives. So a portion of my identity has always been privately siphoned into what would have been if I had stayed in Wisconsin. A whole imaginary path emerged, who my young loves might have been, where I'd have gone to college, even what I would have become.

And yet the Wisconsin town I imagine has not existed for a long time and, since I left at such a young age, it probably never really existed at all. We all construct imaginary adult cities in childhood, when our parents go off into the larger world together leaving us bereft in the nursery.
My trips back to Wisconsin often leave me exhilarated, giddy and also sad. In some ways, I feel the rare and perhaps superficial ecstasy of belonging? I recognize the daily language, the deep and minute style of speech that imprints on us all as children. And at the same time, I don't know the place anymore, and probably couldn't live there.

I took a vacation there with my family one summer a few years ago, during a heat wave. My son discovered the all-American things we'd somehow avoided in California. He discovered bumper cars and water slides. I took him to Bay Beach, a place I'd gone as a child, but rather than the little train I'd remembered all my life for its enchantments he preferred the huge new miniature golf course.

I found myself, during a horrific heat wave, in the humiliating position of dragging a four-year-old through a cemetery, looking increasingly hysterically for the graves I'd known all my life. As in a story by Kafka or Ishiguro, the path seemed to have vanished. After an increasingly frustrating hour, I resorted to the cemetery's calm simple office, where the dead were organized in something like a library card catalogue. And there simply were no listings for my dead.

Finally, the kind man trying to help me asked, "Are you sure you're in the protestant and not the catholic cemetery?"
I had been in the wrong cemetery all along.

There are two female characters, Bea and Shelley, who remain essentially single throughout the novel. One seems to understand that she's had only one chance for love and perhaps rejected it too cavalierly. The other seems to lack any instinct for love. Are these differences of generation, class or the experience of the love expressed by their parents toward each other?

Bea, the older of the women, starts out with, if not every advantage, then certainly most advantages available in her town. She is a doctor's daughter, from a respectable known home, with a college life of sorority parties and friendships easily offered. Yet when a need arises in her family, as the still-single daughter, she is expected, at least by herself, to be the one to take care of her declining mother. As in many moral situations, who knows what came first? Her being unattached and therefore available to take care of her mother or her considering her mother's care important, putting it at the center of her life and therefore remaining unattached. I could have, of course, made the situation clearer, more extreme, put the mother in dire circumstances, for example, taken the doctor out sooner so that if Bea did not come home her mother would have gone to a dismal nursing home and begun a rapid decline. But I prefer the ambiguity and murkiness of fine distinction, the closeness of cause and effect.

We're never sure exactly why Bea remains alone; is it because she takes care of her mother, is it because of some resistance in herself, is it, as she thinks at one point, simply some lack of symmetry in her face.

There's a proposal that almost takes place in Anna Karenina and then doesn't. I've probably wondered about that scene a hundred times in my life. What if the light had been a little different? What if she had said something else about the mushrooms?

I wouldn't say that Shelley lacks any instinct for love. I would say that she's not romantic in the usual American sense of that word. She doesn't expect romantic love for herself. She hasn't seen it yet and she's not of a character to pine for something she's never known. One of the things I like about Shelley is her ability to create desire and attachment out of what's around her, to truly appreciate and want what she has.

I wouldn't say these are exactly differences of class, generation or parental imprinting. I would say these are differences of character with nuances of class difference, generational style and family culture shadowing over and around the central traits.

Bea had left home for college and a career in Chicago but she returned to Green Bay to take care of her mother even though her father, a respected doctor, told her it was not necessary. Thereafter, she was rooted to the spot for life. Was her mother's unspoken will so powerful or did Bea really want a hometown life for herself?

Her father told Bea it wasn't necessary to move home to take care of her mother, but Bea decided otherwise. A source of humor among the females of the family had always been how little Dr. Maxwell did deem necessary, besides medical emergency. Strictly speaking, in affluent middle class white America, it's almost never absolutely necessary for a grownup to return home to care for a parent. There are nursing homes, there are care facilities, there are people (usually of color, certainly of a different class) to hire to do it for you. Just what kind of care and given by whom is a matter of family honor and moral distinction, often unstated, traditionally instigated and carried out by women. Sociologists have taught us that other cultures, even within America (African Americans for example) customarily take care of their elderly and their children within kinship relationships. Relatives take care of each other.
Whether, in Bea's case, her mother is the excuse for her return home or the reason for her return home is left a bit mysterious by me. On purpose.

Are Bea's fine clothing and imported wools a badge of her career in Chicago after college in the way that her subscription to New York Magazine is her connection to the ad agency where she once worked?

Bea considers herself different from someone who never left her small town. She is someone who left and is back. That implies a deeper level of choice, a freedom to mix and match elements of life. In this regard, she has important predecessors. Alice Munro left her small Ontario town as a young woman and returned to do her most important mature work.

In our national mythology, we seem to include only one-way migrations to the great capitol cities. The journey from the small Wisconsin town or Minnesota city to Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. Certainly for some people that journey is a round trip.

Bea is considered a gossip and a talker. What is the role of gossip and does it relate to the enterprise of fiction?

Gossip is essentially storytelling, storytelling about people whom we know. The word actually derives from "God sib"--sibling of God--and was first used to refer to godparents, sponsors at Baptisms. The OED also lists the term gossip as "applied to female friends invited to be present at a birth."

That's the shading I most like for Bea. She lives alone, she does not have her own births or weddings, but she wants to join into the ceremonies of communal life. She is deeply interested in people in all senses of the word. The only major events she has of her own, are deaths; the deaths of each of her parents and of someone else important to her, and she is in part surprised as to how those events are regarded. She feels, on the occasion of her mother's death, denied.

At the end of the novella, Bea seems to find some peace with herself and a new sense of joy.

Bea does undergo a real change in the course of the novel and I think she finds a kind of exhilaration at the end, after the death of her one chance at a kind of romantic love.

In its strange and angular way, this novella explores our ideas of love, of romantic love and its possibilities, both conventional and more personally invented.

-- Catherine McWeeney
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