Once a Cub Among the Literary Bears, Ann Beattie Finds Her Career Falling in Place
During the 1970s Beattie built a following as a New Yorker short story writer, chronicling the Woodstock generation's blues. Last month her collected works, which include the 1976 novel Chilly Scenes of Winter, got wider recognition when she was given a $4,000 award for excellence by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Hollywood recognized Chilly Scenes earlier, turning it into the offbeat, though not entirely successful, film Head Over Heels. Now Beattie has produced a second novel, Falling in Place (Random House, $10.95), and it has critics comparing her to John Updike and John Cheever. The book records the disintegration of a Connecticut family; the style is flat, unemotional and jarring.
Beattie is both flattered by and wary of the growing attention. She shuns book tours and radio and TV interviews. "People think writers are on to some essential mystery," she once explained, "the way they assume doctors have access to cure-alls. They want easy answers and come on to writers like shrinks at a cocktail party." Beat-tie wonders whether she might be "flypaper for loonies," because of her curiosity about peculiar people. The cast of oddballs in her new book includes an unemployed magician who harasses a Yale Ph.D. candidate, and a 12-year-old boy who pokes a pinhole in his mother's diaphragm.
Beattie burned out two typewriters completing Falling in Place in seven weeks. The decision to write the novel came after an unhappy year teaching at Harvard. "I left without ever meeting the head of the English department," she explains. "I did not feel important at Harvard."
With a $10,000 Guggenheim grant, Ann and her husband, David Gates, 33, settled in a rented house on four acres in Redding, Conn. He is a part-time musician (fiddle, guitar and banjo) who has a job answering readers' letters for Newsweek. When David took off on a cross-country tour last summer with his string band, Ann pushed her desk up against the window and set to work. "Incredibly beautiful flowers were blooming outside," she remembers, "and a hummingbird came exactly at 1 p.m. and stayed till exactly 3 p.m. I didn't have any friends, but people were all around me—at the market and on the commuter train." They became the grist of Falling in Place.
Raised in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a retired HEW administrator, Beattie received a B.A. in English from American University and a master's at the University of Connecticut. While working on her doctorate (she quit two exams and one dissertation short) she submitted 15 stories to The New Yorker and finally had one accepted in 1973.
While at Connecticut she met David, a fellow student, and they lived together for two years on a combined income of $6,000 before Ann proposed. "We played a game in those days," says David. "We had written agreements to do things, and she sneaked it into one of the documents."
The couple has rented a second home, a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. "I am more inspired to write," says Ann, "if somebody is being knifed on the street than if birds are flying by."
Beattie doesn't waste time when it comes to writing short stories. "If one doesn't have a momentum of its own by the fifth page," she says, "it ends up in the trash." Then she waits for another inspiration. "I shop. I iron. I go to the bank," she says. "What I do most is not write."