In 'The Accomplished Guest,' Baby Boomers Step Back Into The Spotlight
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Ann Beattie has been a voice for her generation, the baby boomers, for 40 years. Her stories were published in The New Yorker regularly and helped pull back the curtain on the love lives, hopes and confusions of the boomers in their youth. In her new collection "The Accomplished Guest," her generation is on view again. And Ann Beattie joins us now. Welcome.
ANN BEATTIE: Thank you.
MCEVERS: The stories are not just about boomers, of course. They're about how boomers interact with Gen Xers and millennials. One reviewer wrote that these are boomers in a millennial world, right? There's a lot of Ugg boots and college experiences, but also, I mean, young people going through real things. How did you conjure some of those characters?
BEATTIE: I think the way I always conjure characters is just by walking around in the world. You know, I do a fair amount of travel, so I'm not always in the same place. And I have a mixture of, you know, friends of different ages, of course. I think most of us do. I can't disagree at all with the way that you describe the work. But age never seems as prominent to me as it does to a lot of the people who think about these stories. And that's perfectly fair. That's perfectly fine. But I'm not so sure that in my mind things are very age-related in that I'm trying to do psychological portraits.
MCEVERS: Yeah. Many of these characters are well off. They - you know, one lives in an apartment in Manhattan. Some have houses in Maine or Key West, both places that - where you live and spend time. But for many of them, the ground seems to be kind of slipping out from under them. You know, some are on medication. They don't always know what to say. Why was that something that was important to portray in these characters?
BEATTIE: I don't think it's given voice to that often. I mean, come on, it's not really a sexy topic, aging, you know?
BEATTIE: Sometimes I would find myself, though, writing about a character of rather indeterminate age. I mean, perhaps in the story "Company," for example, the professor you assume to be older than the students. That's not inevitably true, but it's usually true. And it was true in that story. But when I started writing, I had no idea that there would be these kind of glitches in his own thinking in which he would find himself inexplicably thinking about his own mortality. So that came as quite a surprise to me. When I looked back over the story, I could see that there were only certain possibilities in terms of what I had set up at the beginning of the story. But I had set it up more imagistically. I had set it up with a bunch of lobsters kicking in a bag...
BEATTIE: ...And, you know, his thinking about the future of the lobsters and so forth. So when I got to the fact that this was a more personal story for that character, I did have a little moment myself of saying, oh, aha, that was an issue all along. But that's one of the things I like very much about writing. You do get those moments for the writer. I don't mean them to be epiphanies. But there are these moments when you catch on to yourself and you catch on to why you're creating the psychology of the characters the way you are.
MCEVERS: Yeah, and it's this great moment. He's driving down the road - he's driving home and he's got the lobsters in the bag. And he puts them on the floor because they're still moving and he doesn't want them...
MCEVERS: ...All to spoil. And then at some point he's like, I'm going to go through the rest of my day as if I were dead, right? And so you're saying that sort of came organically. Like, you're just - I'm just trying to imagine your process, right? You're writing that scene and he's driving - you don't really know where you're going. You don't know where he's going either. And then at some point...
BEATTIE: Well, the best thing about anything that comes up that's symbolic in a story is that it is, as you say, organic, that it really seems usual, in a way. You know, that it's not some far-fetched thing, but that it's very related to many people's ordinary life. And the story takes place in Maine, which is where I live for part of the year. And people are walking around with their bags of lobsters all the time.
BEATTIE: I don't know that everyone is suddenly thinking, oh, there I go into the boiling water, so to speak. But...
BEATTIE: ...In that moment of the story I did realize that it was going to be about mortality.
MCEVERS: There's one story called "The Gypsy Chooses The Whatever Card." It's about an older woman named Edith who has a young caretaker named Pru. I was wondering if you could read a passage. Do you have the book with you?
BEATTIE: Yes, I do.
MCEVERS: Oh, great. It's page 191.
BEATTIE: (Reading) Pru comes into the house at her usual rush. She always has a topic the way people at war always move forward with a weapon. She earnestly wants to know what I think of double dating. Does it more or less ensure that the couples will swap partners somewhere down the line? This is one of Pru's favorite expressions. She often uses it when discussing a potential romantic relationship. I tell her honestly that although it was common for groups of people to go out together in my youth, I never double dated. She says, what would be something a group of people did back then?
MCEVERS: And then Edith tells her how they went to see concerts and Pru says, you weren't afraid of getting mugged? And Edith says, I would take my parasol, of course, and twirl it three times 'round to signal my best friend if I liked the boy I was sitting next to. Which, of course - she's joking, right?
BEATTIE: Yeah, of course, just putting her on. Yeah.
MCEVERS: The title of this collection is "The Accomplished Guest." It's from an Emily Dickinson poem. It's the one that I think we all know the beginning of, right? The soul should always stand ajar.
MCEVERS: And that makes me think that while for many of these characters, you know, things might be closing on some level - right? - they're not as physically...
MCEVERS: ...Able and sometimes they search for the right thing to say, they still want to remain open. Is that a fair characterization of the characters?
BEATTIE: Yes. And also, it makes me think that people often focus on the awkwardness of adolescence or their youth, but there's a different kind of awkwardness that intervenes when people get older, also, in part because they often condescend somewhat to older people. So in a story like "For The Best," which takes place on Christmas, my character goes to a party and he's really quite lost because he can't really say anything meaningful except that he runs into a young woman who's gone to Princeton. And they have this wonderful moment of connection.
MCEVERS: I have to say I came up with - came away with so much empathy for these characters. You know, you said...
BEATTIE: Oh, great.
MCEVERS: ...It's not always so sexy to write about people who are getting older. You know, as a Generation X person, I think of boomers as a generation that will be, you know, the last to live as well as they do. You know, the last who will have pensions and Social Security while I'll have to toil until my last days. But I really do. I feel differently about them now. I mean, I don't know that any of these characters are like my parents, but I came away thinking, like, I understand my parents better now.
BEATTIE: That's great if you feel that way, of course. That's what writers are writing for, you know? So that you'll rethink things that you think you know very well until the moment you look at something or read something or have it called into question. So ultimately, that's one of the big things writing is about.
MCEVERS: Ann Beattie, thank you so much.
BEATTIE: Oh, thanks for having me.
MCEVERS: Ann Beattie. Her new collection of short stories is called "The Accomplished Guest." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.