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This blog was featured on 04/13/2019
Ann Beattie on Listening, Changing and Planning Not to Plan
Written by
She Writes
March 2019
Written by
She Writes
March 2019

Ann Beattie, a long-time short story contributor to the New York Times,  is known for her unique brand of disaffected minimalism, described by Richard Locke in a 1980 New York Times review as “deadpan” with “deliberately banal” subject matter rendered in a style that is “super-realistic… I am not a camera but a videotape machine.”

This month, she releases A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, a novel that has been named a Most Anticipated Book of 2019 by Vulture, The Millions, The Observer, and O, The Oprah Magazine.

In Beattie’s new novel — her 21st book published — she explores the complicated relationship between a beloved teacher and his students, and the secrets we keep from those we hold dear.

On Dialogue

Beattie has confided over several interviews in years past that she is not a talker, but rather an observer and listener. Her work, however, often evokes a sense of community with a comfortable, local feel. Here she addresses the difference between her writing style and her approach in real life"

“I tend to listen, rather than talk,” she said. “My husband came into my undergrad class on the contemporary short story (when I still taught) once — it was a two-and-a-half-hour seminar, and I talked my head off — and he said to them, ‘Do you realize that when your teacher walks out that door, she never says another word?’ They thought he was kidding. Leaving aside the exhaustion of teaching, he was telling the truth. Like everybody else, if I haven’t seen a friend for a long time, I blither away, but when I meet new people or, frankly, people who don’t interest me, I say very little. I guess I should confess that I think only very limited things can be gotten from conversation.”

“Similarly, in my fiction, I think of dialogue primarily as filler, not as something to ‘advance the plot.’ I don’t think that people do address things of substance head-on, and even when I listen to them in less anxious states, I both listen and don’t listen. I don’t think it’s only in fiction, of course, that meaning appears between the lines and off the page. I almost always assume there’s a disconnect, and a significant one, between what anyone is talking about and who they are, what they’d ideally talk about, what they mean to hide, what they don’t even realize they’re hiding, etc.”

This excerpt was originally published in Interview Magazine. Read the full interview here.

As one writer for The Nation put it, Beattie’s stories are a master class in narrative technique. First person or third; present tense or past; one story line or several; intercutting time frames or A-to-Z chronology; single scenes, impressionistic fragments, long unfoldings. The effects are precise, understated.

When it comes to her characters, they don’t talk past each other; they talk against each other, grappling for position.

“Short stories could hardly exist,” Beattie has written, “without the way power shifts within them.”

On Progress & Evolution

When asked about tracking progress as a writer, Beattie says that’s not her approach.

“Of course, I realize I’ve changed (I started publishing in the early ’70s), but I also sort of figure that whatever I’ve learned in one book isn’t easily transferable to any other book. Technically, I guess, I’ve made myself hold to higher standards. For example, no more asterisks just because I can’t figure out how to transition from one scene to the next. (They’re still in my work, but they’re not a fail-safe, and they’re not habitual.)”

She accepts that not all growth from experience is universally accepted as positive growth. Still, with every hint of change and progress is an opportunity to observe and grow.

“I suppose that since I write so many stories, I hope and assume some will be collected, but I also know that gets harder and harder. The odds are against me.”

“As far as I’m concerned, books can seem like protoplasm until the second you focus the microscope just a little more clearly, and then you see something you didn’t realize was there. I rarely add, more often I throw stuff out.”

This excerpt was originally published in Interview Magazine. Read the full interview here.

On Related Stories

Much of Beattie’s work takes place in Maine, where she and her husband reside. So it would be reasonable to expect old characters to re-appear in newer works, or perhaps the name of a local restaurant or pub. But reasonable, as we've learned, is not Beattie’s style.

“I never have ideas. I don’t plan or plot,” she said in an interview with The Millions. “I resist writing related short stories has to do with my writing method, which is not to pre-plan a story. If I knew characters were hovering in the wings that should be incorporated, I’d worry that it would determine, too much, what story I wrote next. “

“I’m quite aware that things reappear in my stories, such as Patsy Cline songs. I deliberately take something — some object — and see if it looks different, or works differently, from story to story. Like everyone else, I also take the chair in the living room and see if I like it better in the bedroom.”

On Revisions

How does Beattie, with more than 40 years of writing experience, know that a project is complete?

“I pretty much know how much work will be necessary and also can make a good guess about how difficult revisions will be the minute I finish the rough draft of a story,” she says.

"Sometimes I’m wrong, but only sometimes. I think writers use a different part of their brain to compose and to revise. I try to be an outsider as much as possible as I re-work the story, and I also try to make sure I’m neither excluding my ideal reader nor writing only to that person. Then I give the final draft to my husband, and he tells me if it’s ready to submit or not.”

This excerpt was originally published on Electric Literature. Read the full interview here.

Photo Credit: Sigrid Estrada

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