Between The Lines

How Ann Beattie Came to Write The State We’re In

 

I had no intention of writing a collection of stories—though I must admit that I’d been floored when a writer friend who published an excellent collection recently (on which I complimented him sincerely) mentioned in passing that they’d all been written in one year. Wow! So that was in the back of my mind. Then, as an antidote to having taught creative writing courses to MFA students, which I did for 12 years, I decided to write some very short stories, because every story they turned in to workshop was SO LONG (40+ pages, usually). My husband was traveling in France with his brother. We’d just moved from Virginia to Maine (we’ve had the Maine house for 23 years, though), and I was left with towers of moving boxes. Who can stand unpacking, every day, all day? So I wrote, instead. First two rather short stories (one was “The Stroke,” the other “The Fledgling,” then one about 25 pages … uh-oh: too long. Having no particular plan except to keep things short, I just kept going. It helps to have insomnia and to be lonesome.

I didn’t realize many things the stories had in common, on a surface level, until I had most of the book written. Then, as a little game with myself, I planted a character from one story into another, just to see what he or she would look like in a different context. Sort of the put-the-little-plastic-elephant-in-the-dollhouse approach. Writing can cause a lot of anxiety. It helps to play some games with yourself. But then some of the characters started to really interest me in a new way– even if what I wrote about them on second (or third) presentation was just a sentence, or a little anecdote, or little overheard conversation in which their name was mentioned.

When I had quite a lot of stories, I added in two longer stories I hadn’t sent my agent, because I realized they, too, took place in Maine. I’d written them a month or so earlier. I was almost sorry when I caught on to what I was doing, because I’d been on an un-self-conscious roll. The collection—much to my surprise, when I picked up a neatly printed out copy instead of looking at all my hand-edited pages—ended up having to do with women’s voices. That was so obvious when I read the clean copy from start to finish.

It’s based in Maine, but that’s because that was where I was writing, and it was right out my window. I don’t personally think Maine is a character in the book, though. If anything, it’s sort of the Maine that’s interchangeable with other places, the part of the state you drive through before you get to the more famous Dramatic Stuff. ( It’s clearly not the touristy, beautiful Maine of steep cliffs and bobbing sailboats.) I spent a lot of time shuffling the stories, and different orders also made the book appear very different to me. My husband didn’t think I’d succeeded with a 70-page story that ended the book, and while I was of course dismayed to hear that, he’s hardly ever wrong. I woke up the next morning and already knew what to do: cut out the middle 30 pages, throw them away, and reshape the rest so that the beginning section got juggled into what was now the middle of the book, while another became the last story. So there’s a storyline that has primarily to do with one character (Jocelyn) and her situation, broken up and interspersed with the stories of other people in the town, or even people in L.A. who have a tenuous connection to Maine. Every writer has such stories to tell about assembling a book, and they always sound borderline crazy, but writers, at least, are used to it. But really—no one could have been more surprised than I was that the stories made a book.

 

– Ann Beattie

The State We’re In

The State We’re In

By Ann Beattie