Helen Simpson was born in Bristol, England, and grew up in London. Her first collection of short stories, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, was published in 1990, followed by Dear George and Other Stories (1995), Getting a Life (2000), and In the Driver’s Seat (2007). Simpson writes about the tough stuff: how children sometimes change your life for the worse, how even a happy marriage can feel stifling, “why so many women are the way they are,” as she puts it in her short story “Early One Morning”: “stymied at some point; silenced somewhere. Stalled. Or, merely delayed?”
I loved Simpson’s wry, lyrical stories even before I became a mother. I found myself quoting Simpson’s work—her take on things was often more apt, and hilarious, than my own. When I had my first child and my life exploded, Simpson’s stories took on new resonance. I re-read her collections, seeking out guidance, some way of making sense of the new country I found myself living in. A few weeks after my second child was born, I was able to catch Simpson on her U.S. tour promoting In the Driver’s Seat. Helen was in a Washington, D.C., hotel room when we spoke; she was reading with Nathan Englander that evening.
I had completely lost my voice the day before our interview. I related to the protagonist of Simpson’s story “Heavy Weather” when she says of motherhood, “I’m being mashed up and eaten alive.” But my sitter arrived and I handed over my son, drove to a friend’s quiet office, popped a cough drop, and called Simpson. We spoke for an hour and a half. I wish we could have spoken for longer, but I had to go home and nurse the baby.
—Amanda Eyre Ward
I. “I’M FINDING [IN AMERICA] YOU’RE ALLOWED TO WRITE ABOUT DOMESTIC STUFF AND IT’S NOT SEEN AS SOME LOSS OF STATUS.”
THE BELIEVER: Can you talk about how a short story works for you? What’s your process?
HELEN SIMPSON: I seem to spend longer thinking about it than actually writing. I seem to take an awful long time once the idea has come just reading around and letting the thoughts settle around it and trying to work out what I’m actually writing about. You sometimes come up with an idea and you know it’s alive, but you’re not sure what it is. The actual writing, that’s two or three weeks and sometimes longer, but the run-up’s the thing that takes the time. You’ve got the run-up like an airplane on the runway and then you’ve got the time to actually get the thing done.
BLVR: Your work has sentences that are slow and poetic and then sections that move quite quickly in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner. Do you find that there are times in your life or days when you are more inclined to write these poetic sentences, and at times you are better at hammering out the faster sentences?
HS: No, I just noticed that that sort of creep and then lurch is how thoughts seem to happen. Much of the time, it’s like an internal monologue. It sort of unfurls, but then it’s punctuated by these dramatic moments as you have in real life, where you’re just thinking of something in the car and you go suddenly, “Boom!” and you have a realization. With a story you can be a bit more stylized, I think, than in the novel; it can take a bit more extreme style.
BLVR: I wanted to talk to you about that, about how you can juxtapose real-time action with your characters’ interior monologue, and you do that so beautifully, where you’re snapping back to the present moment and then you let us into your characters’ thoughts. Do you consciously decide, “Now it’s time to go into the interior monologue,” or does that just work for you?
HS: In the story “Early One Morning,” I wanted to show that dipping in and dipping out. That was a story where you’re beyond the stage you’re at now, with a baby. You’re not dipping in or dipping out, you’re just out, really. But there comes a point when your children are older where your thoughts are allowed to follow their own train for a while. They’re interrupted very often, and I wanted to get that rhythm and I tried various sorts of ways and in the end that seemed to work best.
BLVR: Your earlier work featured mothers who felt trapped, but some of the mothers in your new book have the sense that it’s running out, this hidden time, and they feel wistful and sad that their children need them less.
HS: It seems to be the story of all mothers’ lives, though. I knew people even with new babies, who had lots of toddlers, who would still be saying,“It goes so fast.”
The interesting thing is that over here I’m finding you’re allowed to write about domestic stuff and it’s not seen as some loss of status, you know? And in the U.K. at the moment, there’s this ridiculous… every now and then somebody pipes up, usually a woman, actually, and says,“Oh, so boring, so domestic, women writers.”
BLVR: Do you really think that it’s more accepted here?
HS:Yes! Look at the writers Anne Tyler, Alison Lurie, Alice Munro, Carol Shields.They weren’t criticized or called “chick lit” because they dealt with the indoors. It seems to me so idiotic to assume that if it’s a domestic subject matter, it doesn’t matter. It can be extremely political. If it’s dealt with rightly, you can tell the economic, the social… you can tell all sorts of things from a small domestic scene.Where’s the money coming from, what are the ideals these children are being brought up with, and so on.Think of some of Katherine Mansfield’s stories, where it’s just family life, or it seems very domestic, this life, but it’s not. You can track all the way along the lines of suggestions to find out a great deal about the society and where the power is.
BLVR: And the relationship between men and women comes from that power.
HS: Completely.And I like stories again partly because you can do them in a limited time.They’re a nervous form. Sort of adrenalized, and I like that.That seems to suit whatever I can do. They don’t mind wit, some inversion, some wordplay… they shift from sentence to sentence. And that’s what makes them rather exciting too.
II. “THE ONLY RULE I CAN COME UP WITH FOR SHORT STORIES IS SOMETHING’S GOT TO HAPPEN, BUT NOT TOO MUCH.”
BLVR: Do you think that there are some ideas that are meant to be short stories and some that need the space of the novel?
HS:That’s a good question. Probably, yeah… Over the years, I’ve read so many stories and loved them and tried to come up with some sort of formula because people say, “How do you write a short story?” and you’re dragged into Creative Writing stuff all the time. Well, you should say no, but you try and be honest and say: the only rule I can come up with for short stories is something’s got to happen, but not too much. That sounds pathetic, but actually it’s the only one that I know for certain. You can’t just have a mood, that’s not a story. On the other hand, you can’t really have a subplot, either, not if it’s a decent story. Whereas, with a novel, I think, yes, well, imagine, you could have subplots, you can expand and elaborate, you can give all the gossip. I think stories don’t give you gossip in the same way and quite often you don’t want to know the people’s names in a story. I’ve been working toward trying to cut names out, actually, because sometimes you think it’s a bit more like songwriting. You’re trying to find what’s typical in any particular experience. As in a song, you want it to reverberate and get to the heart of it.
BLVR: I’m confused by that comment about trying to make characters typical.
HS: Not characters, but the experience. When you think of a love song, it’s not the individual moments so much—the character in a love song or the individual— but it’s actually the universal experience.There are certain things that we have in common, and I want to pull on those.
BLVR: Do you think using names creates a space between your reader and the character in the story and not using names enables a reader to relate more? That’s really interesting. I guess I’ve always been taught to make characters as unique as possible.
HS: To individualize. Creative-writing books all say that sort of thing. If you don’t use names, if you don’t use too many details, it seems to me you waste less time about getting down to what matters, whereas in a novel, you need to know all the names. The sort of story I start where I know their names, where they’re living, their income, et cetera, et cetera, before I’ve got three pages in, I just start feeling very tired, because if I know all this about them, then I might as well be reading a novel. Having said which, you always break your own rules. I love John Cheever’s stories and he does a great deal of particularization.
BLVR: But, you know, it does feel false, sometimes. I am starting my fourth novel now, and here’s another character who’s me, but I’m going to give her another fake name and a fake background and she’s going to be worried about motherhood, obviously, but let’s say she’s from Kansas instead of New York… [Laughter]
HS:And then you have to do all that research!
BLVR: It’s sort of a false construct at the end of it. [Laughter]
HS: I’m saving all that time, I suppose. I’ll tell you what would tempt me, apart from the fact that life changes. When your children are at school, your whole routine will be different again, and mine, you see, are fifteen and seventeen now, so it’s changed again. You never know, I might get back that time. I found when I had children, I hadn’t realized that your time is not your own. Of course, you can pay help, you can do this, that, or the other, but actually, it’s not fair on them, is it? You’ve got to be with them. You can’t read like an irresponsible teenager again, not for a while anyway. You can’t just sit and read for hours the way you do before your life started. I’m just wondering, maybe old age, maybe that’s when we’ll get back that time to read like a teenager.
BLVR: It’s interesting to me that the first story in your new collection,“Up at a Villa,” is told from the point of view of a teenager.
HS: I like that because I did that with Getting a Life, as well. The first story,“Golden Apples,”is from the point of view of Jade, a teenager, because I want to slightly undercut what people… when you’re dealing with this subject matter, what you don’t want is to seem like an ungrateful or moaning person who resents their children. It’s not that at all. Of course one feels grateful and adores the children, but that starts me feeling like Cordelia in King Lear, “Love and be silent.” I don’t like having to be forced to say what I feel about my children. But it’s looking around at everybody else as well.You just think, But why do people have to keep quiet? Why shouldn’t it be said that this is difficult? Not that we don’t want it, but it can be hard at times. It’s very sensitive, contentious subject matter, this, and it’s wincingly tender, the area of how women combine or do not combine paid work with motherhood. And how even the blindest of bats must see eventually that it’s parenthood that gender-politicizes relationships. I don’t see how anyone can really quarrel with that. It’s that which sorts out the men from the girls, isn’t it? And it seems such a shock to every couple, as well. It is.That’s the slightly comic aspect of it.
BLVR: And it is something that people don’t talk a lot about.
HS: No, because it’s quite painful. Can you afford to be honest with yourself on it as well? And very often, it’s the first time they see their partner in quite an unattractive light, just when they thought everything was going to be up in the clouds and rosy.
BLVR: Do you think the fact that you’ve been honest and straightforward in your fiction over the years has made it easier for you? Or has it made it harder?
HS: I’ve been very lucky, in a way, being able to work from home, you see.
BLVR: I mean saying these things, saying them to yourself, writing them on the page.
HS: That’s always been my watchword since I was a teenager and I knew I wanted to write. I used to try and think what was my artistic creed, and I’d just think, Be honest. Tell the truth. Be brave. Tell the truth as far as you know it. And those are the writers I admire, the ones I like, the ones who have got enough honesty, and it tends to make them funny as well, if they can do that.
BLVR:Who are some of those writers?
HS: There’s Lorrie Moore, of course, she does it. She has great wit and emotional power and pleasure in language. That seems to be something that short-story writers seem to… it’s the succinctness of it. The more you condense something, the more you’ve got to examine the language in it, really. You can’t get by with sloppy language.
BLVR: It’s also true that when someone is reading a novel, it is too exhausting to have sentences that are working so hard for two hundred pages.
HS: Absolutely. I do agree. When you think of Nabokov, though… I’m trying to think of writers who did both, who had that very rich style, and I prefer Nabokov’s stories, really, I suppose, in the end. I know Lolita’s a great book. Angela Carter is a wonderful writer, but I prefer her stories.
BLVR: I’ve never read a novel by her.
HS: Read her stories, The Bloody Chamber, they’re wonderful. She’s got that very rich, very over-the-top style, but it works for her in stories. I remember her talking about the difference between writing stories and novels for her: the difference between chamber music and symphonies. They were just very different, she felt completely in control in a story. D. H. Lawrence, he’s another one. The novels can get wildly out of control, but the stories are great. Kipling too.
III. “THE LURKING POSSIBILITY OF DISHARMONY BETWEEN A COUPLE”
BLVR: I wanted to ask you about one of my favorite stories, which is “Cafe Society” in Getting a Life, about the two shattered women trying to connect over coffee while their toddlers sabotage their conversation. I was so interested in this sense that motherhood even insists that women might give up something as essential as a connection to another adult. Did you find that to be the case?
HS: If you’re looking after young children and you’re doing it on your own all the time, then it’s very hard to talk to another adult, including your partner, if the child is awake. Generally, the child won’t like it very much, they want the attention themselves. I don’t know why, but we find it hard to gag them or tell them to go in another… it’s the attention thing, isn’t it?
BLVR: You write about how once you sort of sink into the child’s world all day, it’s hard then to snap back to the adult world, to interact on both levels, perhaps.
HS: It can be. It depends on your temperament, it really does, and how much you want to snap back. I’ve known some people who actually breathed a deep sigh of relief when they had a baby, and thought,Well, I don’t have to do any of that chatting anymore. They can go back for a while into the world of the nursery. And then there are others who are very keen to go to the theater and read books, not so much to keep your mind alive, just because there’s, like, an appetite.
BLVR: You’re still the same person.
HS: Yes. I found I wanted that. You keep a book in every room, in case.
BLVR:That is so true of me, I have one in the car too. I never know when I’m going to have to park and read for a while. [Laughter]
HS:That’s very good advice for later on.You have soccer moms over here, haven’t you?
BLVR:Yes. Do they call them that in England as well?
HS: No, it’s a school-run thing. I thought you had buses, you see, I thought you were luckier.
BLVR: Some places do.
HS: But some don’t. I just think the bus system sounds very good.
BLVR: I’m in Texas, we drive everywhere. In our big cars.
HS: That’s another reason why stories are good. If you’ve got a book of short stories, there’s a chance you might get to the end of something. Whereas with a novel… I had a bet once with a woman when we had a three-year-old and a one-year-old, and we both bought Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and it’s a great, long book,as you know. And we were racing each other very, very slowly and I still, if I see her now and then, say,“Have you got to the end of that yet?” and she says, “Not yet.” [Laughter]
BLVR:What is your work routine? Do you write best in the morning, or in the afternoon?
HS: I know some women writers in England and they’ve got small children and they just manage. They say, “I have three hours in the morning and that’s all I need and I just concentrate and that’s wonderful.” I can’t seem to work like that. I work around their school hours, basically, and now that they’re older it’s so much easier, really.
BLVR: Do your children read your work?
HS: My daughter’s read some. They’re not terribly interested. I don’t really talk about my work at home. It’s just something I go off and do in a little room or scribble at, and I have got a married name and a writing name. I’ve kept my passport in my writing name.
BLVR: If you leave the country, you’re Helen Simpson.
HS: Yes. [Laughter]
BLVR: Do you have a room in the house where you write?
HS: I do now, yes. I’ve got a little writing room.
BLVR: And what about it makes it the writing room? Do you have any particular talismans, or ways you arrange it? A lock on the door?
HS: My agent told me to lock the door, but somehow you don’t want that. You want them to be able to interrupt at any point. You do and you don’t. I always leave my door half-open.
BLVR: You do?
HS: Yes. But mine aren’t yours’ age, you see. I think when they were younger, when I had someone in in the mornings, I’d shut the door because I would be so involved otherwise in “Is that so-and-so crying? Has she remembered to give them the broccoli?” and so on.The trouble is when I’m really into something, I’m not really interested in anything else, and that makes me feel a bit bad, but I just get very involved and absorbed and dreamy in what I’m doing.
BLVR: And certainly taking care of toddlers and being dreamy can fit together. It’s nice to have something in the back of your mind while you’re playing blocks.
HS: Yes. Except, I’d keep scribbling something down and my daughter would always put her hands over my mouth as though I were talking to a friend.
BLVR: You write about a “marital black dog.”What is that?
HS: A black dog is what Churchill used to describe as his depression. It used to sit on his shoulder. It’s an oppression or depression. I think Black Dog as well as in Treasure Island, a very sinister pirate who follows you around. It’s something that’s not great, and it’s the villain, the lurking possibility of disharmony between a couple.
BLVR: In your stories, some of the characters come close to it or they fall into it.
HS: Well, every marriage… looking at the temperaments of the two, both will have their strengths and weaknesses and it’s whether or not they try to keep each other happy over the years. It’s watching how one is flourishing and the other’s not and that’s gone on for a long time. It’s OK for a while, but you’ve got to have this feeling that you’re both on each other’s side or the black dog wins. And as long as you feel you’re taking turns at some point or your time will come.
BLVR: I’m inspired by your ability to take on marital disharmony, to write about it so truthfully.
HS: Well, thank you.You’re in danger of losing “caste” if you’re not careful. The mumsy doing the mumsy stuff. On the other hand, it’s ridiculous to say that describing domestic work in life is not important, because it’s the daily reality of most women in the world. I’ll tell you another thing, though, it’s very hard to make it interesting. I think it’s a real challenge.