Like many writers, I feel centered when I write, or it might be better to say, when I don’t write, when I can’t write for whatever reason, I feel, frankly, de-stabilized. It’s dangerous for me not to write.
Mona Simpson’s first novel, Anywhere But Here, explores the complicated relationship of a mother and daughter as they go in search of their own strangely American dreams.
We used to drive around at night, we didn’t have anything else to do. We didn’t like to be in our apartment. There weren’t places we could sit and do things. If I read my homework on the bed, there wasn’t anywhere for my mother to go. The sofa in the living room was old and uncomfortable. I didn’t like both of us to be on the bed. So we drove around in the dark. We drove down Sunset and slowly through the quiet northern streets in Beverly Hills.
Sometimes we parked and beamed the headlights over one lawn. Houses in Beverly Hills still amazed us. After we sat for awhile, peering out trying to see movement inside the frames of fuzzy, lighted windows far back on a lawn, my mother would sigh and turn on the ignition.
“Someday,” she’d say.
“I believe it. We’ll have a house. And clothes. You’ll have everything a teenage girl could want, Puss.”
She’d reach over and slap my thigh. I’d move closer to the door, stiffening. “I just have to meet the man and catch him. Should we stop and get an ice cream cone quick before bed, for a little energy? Maybe it’ll even get us up and working. That little sugar in our blood.”
—From Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here
Like many of the characters in Anywhere But Here, Mona Simpson grew up in Los Angeles. She went to college at Berkeley and then worked as a freelance reporter for several small newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area and for the San Francisco Examiner. In the Fall of ’81 she moved to New York to study at Columbia’s MFA Program.
Anywhere But Here is her first novel. Narrated by four voices—Adele, her daughter Ann, her mother Lillian and her sister Carol—Anywhere But Here is the story of a mother and daughter’s search across the western landscape from a small paper-mill town in Wisconsin to Los Angeles for their own, peculiarly American, dreams.
Ameena Meer In Anywhere But Here, your characters start off in a fictional Middle American town. Have you spent much time in the Midwest?
Mona Simpson I was born there. My cousins and aunts and uncles still live in small cities in Wisconsin and Michigan and Illinois. That’s my mother’s family. My father is Syrian and most of his family lives in a village in Syria called Homs.
AM But Simpson’s not very Syrian.
MS It’s my step-father’s name. My real name is Mona Jandali. I’ve wanted to switch back, but it seemed too late when I decided. Mona is an Arabic name.
AM Yes, it’s actually a really common Muslim name.
MS I should learn Arabic. It’s terrible. My brother doesn’t know it either. None of us do.
AM That’s the American story.
MS We’re very American kids. My father came here from Syria when he was 20, so Arabic was his first language but he spoke to me in English. My Syrian uncles all speak English beautifully. I ate Syrian food as a kid and I’ve been there and that’s about the extent of my cultural identification.
AM You mother’s American, how did your parents marry? Weren’t your grandparents horrified?
MS They weren’t happy. It wasn’t that he was Middle-Eastern so much as that he was a Muslim. But there are a lot of Arabs in Michigan and Wisconsin. So it’s not that unusual. My mom met my dad at the University of Wisconsin. He was her teacher. They were the same age but he’d gotten his PhD really young.
AM How much of Anywhere But Here is related to your own life? It’s the story, in part, of a woman’s relationship with her mother, something most women are concerned with.
MS The places are all based on places I’ve lived and grown up in, so the geography is all taken from my life. But the people and their relationships are invented.
AM Adele takes Ann from their small Midwestern hometown on a search for a better life in California. Much of the story of their life in California is narrated by Ann. Other characters in the book—Lillian and Carol—narrate sections about the life they left behind in Wisconsin, the texture of the daily consolations and sorrows. Lillian and Carol seem to be speaking to Ann, the daughter, in the chapters they narrate, while Adele, her mother, speaks directly to the reader. Was that a conscious decision?
MS It seemed to me the other characters would be talking to Ann. She is the granddaughter, niece, daughter—the one who grows up measuring her mother’s life in California and the life left behind, in Wisconsin. It seemed important to me that not only the reader, but also Ann, knew the daily secrets of the slower life kept by her aunt and grandmother. Because Ann will ultimately have to choose, in a way, between this other life and her mother’s. Though that is a choice that is like choosing between the 19th and the 20th century. Once you have seen and lived in a city, you cannot exactly go back. Even Carol and her family are very different, very changed from the moral universe of Carol’s parents’ lives.
AM Would you say that Ann is your protagonist?
MS No, I think of Adele as the protagonist.
AM When Ann narrates, she portrays her mother with a longing that at once depends upon her, believes in her, and sees through her. Her mother’s behavior, her ambitions, her failures, humiliate Ann. Adele leaves Ann in her lover’s backyard so she can make love to him. Five minutes later it starts to rain. She drags Ann along while real estate agents unwittingly show her mansions she cannot hope to buy. She claims her psychiatrist is going to marry her even as he refuses ever to see her again. And yet, Adele has great dignity and Ann loves her. Where do you think this dignity lies?
MS Adele is a believer. She has a gentle side, she is capable of great tenderness, true sympathy. And she wants things, she wants things very deeply, very badly. She is a literalist. She wants a big house, a fancy car, a handsome husband, a pretty well-behaved daughter. She’s never cynical, no matter how many times she’s stopped in her course.
AM What was the reason for having the other characters speak?
MS I felt the fighting, the intensity between Ann and Adele needed to be broken, so part of it was just a kind of narrative pacing, a rhythmic decision. But thematically, I wanted to set Carol and Adele up as two sisters who took very different paths—the one who left and the one who stayed at home, one person who believes in acting, the other in responding, taking a passive role in life. I wanted a kind of balance, a fairness—so they had to have equal time.
AM As sisters, it seemed like Carol had a better understanding of Adele than vice versa. So many families have one person who is the “movie star,” either in a positive or negative way. Whenever any of them is on the phone talking to someone, or seeing someone, they always end up talking about this person. Adele is that person in this family—the one everybody talks about, measures their lives against, rails against. But they are also envious of her. So I think Carol does understand a part of Adele comprehensively. Adele figures much larger in Carol’s life than Carol does in hers. Adele doesn’t think about Carol much at all.
AM Recent young writers tend to be apocalyptic in their books. They deal with the things that are most frightening to us now, like AIDS and the bomb and nuclear holocaust. I didn’t see that in Anywhere But Here.
MS There are many ways to write about a community and one of them is to look at the political symptoms, like the bomb, but other methods are more subliminal. In this book, I wasn’t really writing about the political realities of 1987 because a good part of it takes place before that. I wanted to write about American mythologies, American yearnings that might be responses, delayed or exaggerated but in some way typical, to the political and social truths of our part of the world in our century. But I wrote very personally about one family. I think it takes a long time before a crisis—like AIDS—enters the culture to a point where responses exist in a character, where personal gestures are both individual and resonant in a larger way.
AM Which American myths?
MS Myths about class and class change. And invention, self-invention. So many myths about the self-made man, positive and negative, involve men. The shining or the dark sides of the American dream are peopled with men; Willy Loman, Jay Gatsby, Horatio Alger’s entrepreneurs. So I wanted to write about an ambitious woman, a woman who re-invents herself.
AM Do you think she’s successful?
MS Yes and no. Not in the terms she sets for herself, exactly. But she’s alive, she doesn’t die by the book’s close, so she’s more enduring than some characters of her sort. She never gives up.
AM Willie Loman killed himself when circumstances forced him to look his American dream in the face. Adele, also a great American character, refuses to let go of her dream. This is the source of her resilience. Do you think it is also the source of her madness?
MS Yes. I think in all of us, the source of our greatest strengths is always inextricably bound with our weaknesses, our deceptions.
AM What will happen to Adele when her time is up?
MS I don’t know what you mean.
AM It seems like the new genre, the idea of alienation. Rather, the idea of alienated young women as opposed to young men.
MS I don’t really think of my characters as alienated. Alienation seems to me, as a theme and subject, to come out of a fundamentally urban vision. I don’t think of myself as having that turn of mind.
AM Adele never really becomes part of society.
MS But she wants to. She’s not disaffected or bored. Angst has not hit these people. It never will. Theirs is not a particularly existential, self-conscious sort of problem. They are still striving in more physical, external ways.
AM Adele concocts stories to make the two of them seem more socially acceptable to landlords, neighbors, potential boyfriends, school friends of Ann’s… Don’t you think this is a source of alienation? She has to keep people at a distance so that they won’t discover her lies.
MS That’s true. And that makes the two of them, Ann and Adele, partners, deeply connected, trusting each other and no one else. But of course that changes as Ann grows up.
AM In what way?
MS Ann has to join a larger community and slowly begins to trust other people and other versions of reality—not just her mother’s.
AM If you made your book into a movie, who would you have direct it?
MS Well, the book has been optioned, by Disney Studios. And I won’t have much control over who directs it.
AM Who do you consider to be literary influences?
MS I don’t know about influences. But I tend to read 19th century and early 20th century writing. I’m sure there’s influence. I don’t really see much of it in my writing. I just re-read Madame Bovary. I read a lot of Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekov, George Eliot and Proust.
AM What do you think about American literature now?
MS That’s hard. I don’t read enough of it to make general statements. I tend to read what I like, so I feel good about what I read. I like Alice Munro’s work, William Maxwell, Marilynne Robinson. I love Primo Levi and Gabriel García Márquez.
AM Have you read Steve Erickson? He’s a new writer who I think is absolutely brilliant. He wrote two books, the first is Days Between Stations and the other is called Rubicon Beach.
MS I like that title, Days Between Stations.
AM The America of the ’60s was this huge amazing place where anything could happen, anything could be done, like the Horatio Alger story; a homogeneous country to the extent that people were working at the same equally accessible goals. I think that’s an anachronism.
MS It seems to me that there’s less class mobility. The country is less affluent. Hopes aren’t as high. Going to public schools, in 1960, you said the Pledge of Allegiance and believed anything was possible for you; as a white girl with a clean face, law abiding family and a lunchbox of nutritious food.
AM Did you like school as a kid?
MS I was a real good student when I was little. I had a small family so I liked being around all the other kids. I always had a lot of friends and I was very noisy, always talked back. Just on this book tour, I’ve run into people, my first grade classmates would show up, my old teachers would come out of retirement. My nun from first grade came. Anyway, they all said I was sort of a clown—I mean, they were trying to say nice things, but, apparently, I was a smart aleck who used to make jokes in class. I did get in trouble a lot when I was older and then I didn’t like school so much anymore.
AM Well, you made it to UC Berkeley.
MS Right. I wasn’t from a rich family so basically I knew that I had to get scholarships. I could not afford to screw up to the extent that I wouldn’t get into college. So it was really sort of a mild rebellion.
AM If things were working out in Berkeley, why did you want to move to New York?
MS Well, they weren’t exactly working out. I was working all day at this job. And then I did journalism nights and weekends. It was really satisfying but I’d get maybe 200 dollars and there was just no way to make it more. Then there was a job which I really wanted for the Richmond Independent Gazette, which is a little paper there. I was up for it and I almost got it but didn’t. So instead, I went to graduate school. If I’d gotten that job I would have stayed there and worked as a reporter.
AM When you studied at Columbia, did you find it really changed your writing style?
MS I’m not sure. I was 24 when I started, and before that I had written a lot but very fast, without much going back and changing things. I think what it did more than anything, which was good, was make me concentrate and put writing at the center of my life.
Ameena Meer is an editor at the EYE in New York City, a short story writer and a social parasite.