Money, Meryl and a Movie Contract Can't Spoil Acclaimed First Novelist Mona Simpson

updated 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/16/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the breathy world of New York publishing, where a potentially commercial first novel is as coveted as the right table at The Four Seasons, Mona Simpson suddenly sizzles. That's right, Mona Simpson. If the name doesn't ring an immediate literary bell, think back to Jay McInerney and Sue Miller. Like those other recent rookie sensations, Simpson, 29, came out of the great mass of aspiring writers and can now do no wrong in the eyes of other authors, critics—even Hollywood.

Simpson's ebullient portrait of a sparring mother and daughter, Anywhere But Here (Alfred A. Knopf, $18.95), boasts glowing jacket quotes from Walker Percy, Jayne Anne Phillips, Alice Munro and Louise Erdrich. It has been crowned "stunning" by the New York Times and has collected celebratory reviews all over the country. The paperback rights were bought by Vintage for a hefty sum, and Disney Studios reportedly has snapped up Simpson's novel for the movies. Meryl Streep even has expressed interest in playing Adele, the beautiful, often cruel drifter who drags her 12-year-old daughter, Ann, on a cross-country odyssey to Hollywood.

All of this is a bit baffling to the earnest, down-to-earth woman who for years supported her writing by taking tickets in a Berkeley, Calif. movie theater and working as an acupuncturist's assistant. The Disney deal, says Simpson, is "nice," but she is doubtful that a movie will ever hit the screen. The money, however, is a relief. "For the first time," says Simpson, "I really do have enough so I can just write." She might even consider moving out of her two-room Manhattan apartment, where chunks of plaster fall from the ceiling with daunting regularity. She's also shopping, at last, for a TV set.

The characters Simpson writes about are considerably more calculating and mercurial. Though she claims Anywhere But Here is not autobiographical, the parallels are unmistakable. Like Ann, Mona grew up in Wisconsin and was raised largely by her mother, a speech therapist. Mona's father, a college professor, left home when Simpson was 13, and she hasn't seen him since.

The on-the-road theme of Simpson's novel also reflects her family's decision to shift westward. Moving to Beverly Hills with her mother and older brother in 1970, Mona found her high school classmates dropping acid and having sex. "It was total culture shock," recalls Simpson, who turned slightly rebellious to fit in. "I didn't do anything terribly wild," she says. "I got scholarships and stuff to college and knew I couldn't screw up that much or I might not be able to go."

After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Simpson won a scholarship to the Columbia University graduate program in writing and received a masters in 1983. She then began turning out short stories. Eventually Simpson's work was accepted in the Iowa Review, Mademoiselle and George Plimpton's Paris Review, for which she is also a part-time editor.

With the success of Anywhere But Here, Simpson suddenly faces a whole new set of expectations for the novel she's now writing, tentatively titled A Regular Guy or Stories From the Lives of My Friends. Currently unattached, Simpson hopes to have children someday, but for the time being she is concentrating on her writing. "I'm amazed that I can make a living doing something I like," she says. The title of her book notwithstanding, Mona Simpson is happy right where she is.

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