Mona Simpson on the Role of Research in Novel Writing
Jane Ciabattari Talks to the Author of Commitment
Mona Simpson’s Commitment is a family saga that offers an empathetic portrait of Diane, a mentally ill single mother, and Julie, a fellow nurse and dear friend who helps knit together the lives of her three teenage children after she is committed to a Southern California state mental hospital. Her oldest son Walter and daughter Lina head off to college, embarking upon independent lives, with the specter of hope for her recovery always hovering nearby.
The reality is, she is unlikely to ever come home. And both of them will need to find financial support elsewhere. Her youngest son Donnie stays close, his future limited by her confinement. Commitment is rich in sensuous detail, emotionally powerful, astute about the haves and have-nots of La-La Land as it covers the passing years, the gathering struggles and losses and discoveries.
The opening section, as Walter arrives on the University of California at Berkeley campus, brought back memories. Mona wrote an article for me when she was a student at Berkeley and I was just out of Stanford, working as a magazine editor in San Francisco. She based her piece on research about an incest therapy group. “You were the first editor ever to publish me, Jane,” Mona reminded me as we connected by email. “You may remember how I research. I think I drove to the Peninsula over eight months for the piece we did on incest treatment.”
Mona and I moved to New York at the same time. I worked as a magazine managing editor; she was an MFA student at Columbia. I urged her to use her research on incest in writing fiction. Her first published short story, “Lawns,” came out of that conversation. I knew its origins. But some assumed it was autobiographical. “I was on a radio show once and the interviewer was so disappointed I wasn’t an incest survivor that we could barely continue the conversation,” she noted.
When her first novel, Anywhere But Here, was published I went to the first reading, and to her jammed book party at George Plimpton’s. The last time I saw her IRL was at the Brooklyn Book Festival, pre-Covid. We reconnected on Pacific time to discuss her seventh novel.
Jane Ciabattari: How have these past years of pandemic and turmoil been for you? At what stage was your new novel when COVID first hit? Your teaching, your work as Paris Review publisher, your parenting?We each bring ourselves and our habitual expectations to every encounter.
Mona Simpson: I was still revising Commitment during COVID. Someone asked me why I took so long between books and so I checked to see when my last book was published. I’d been telling myself it had been six years. But it’s been nine years. TOO LONG AGO! Well, clearly, this is just going to have to change. For this once, though, I have a head start on the next book which should be finished by the time Commitment is fully published. It’s called Help and Its Sequel.
The Pandemic was so recent, it’s feels barely right even to speak about it in past tense. My world became smaller, more focused and urgent, a lens closing in. There were the first frenzied weeks of getting my daughter home from college. Things felt dire. A dear friend’s father died in the hospital and she wasn’t able to see him.
When my daughter came home, we started living on Zoom. She participated in her classes at one end of the dining room table and I set up shop on the other. When I taught, she decamped to her bedroom. Sometimes, in the first weeks, I’d get locked out of my own classroom and have to call her to get me back in.
I felt like a hunter-gatherer, trying to track food….My ex-husband (though we’ve lived apart twenty years now he still refuses my offers to teach him to cook a few basic meals) came over for dinner every night.
I was teaching Middlemarch and that Zoom screen view, like a dollhouse, with its back wall removed, seemed to characterize the pandemic. Most of my students had moved back home and the illusion of equality that college imposed, with its identical dorm rooms and big cafeterias, was peeled away. Some students zoomed from ancient computers in the corners of rooms shared by too many family members. Others sat through class in pajamas in their childhood beds, their teenage idols still tacked behind them on the walls.
A few lived on estates; one young woman sat outside, with mountains in the background, and horses moving gracefully in the distance. Several students had lost their jobs in Westwood restaurants and could no longer afford rent. Two had no homes to return to. Lydgate’s fever hospital, and all that made it go wrong, assumed as prominent a place in our conversations as Dorothea’s and Celia’s marriages. One student’s mother had COVID and entered into the hospital.
People were suffering. It was an anxious time. We were fortunate in all this, able to find what we needed. We radically overpaid for rice. We tried out New York Times recipes. I made pho for the first time. I baked bread. Los Angeles birds proliferated in the trees. Coyotes trekked down from the mountains. Traffic evaporated.
That class stayed close that first long summer, maintaining a check-in session, which served as a job board and a place to swap practical solutions and lingering thoughts about Middlemarch’s characters’ lives after the book ended.
Our beloved dog, Bartleby, was diagnosed with leukemia in the summer of 2020…. The sharpest quality of the pandemic for me were the glaring contrasts, reminding me of what’s true every day: while I was lifting a loaf of sourdough bread out of the oven, someone was dying. While we watched our dog run into walls at night, turning around and around, unable to sleep, someone was asking another person to marry them. I received the unexpected gift of an adult daughter keeping house with me, eating dinner together every night, and tending to our beloved dog, during the last months of his life.
JC: What aspects of your own life and work inspired Commitment, which deals with a single mom, her three children, and the seismic shift that comes when she is committed to a mental hospital, Orchard Springs, near Norwalk?
MS: I always use bits and bobs from life, though this time not much in terms of the basic family configuration (I’d grown up as an only child), but of course I’d lived in Southern California during those years so I know the moods and weathers of the place.
I was raised by a single mother and for most of my children’s lives, I was a single mom, but with the significant difference that my kids had an involved, joint-custody dad.
But if my own life didn’t inspire the characters of Commitment, their trajectories may have been conjured by my imagining an alternate world for my mother, who was given to illusions, the interpretation of signs, and depression. I was moved to tears the first time I read Oliver Sack’s 2012 essay, “The Lost Virtues of the Asylum.” He described some of the old state hospitals as refuges, allowing a safe, smaller world for those who struggled too much in this one.
JC: I’m curious about your structure, a handoff from one narrator to the next, beginning with Walter, Diane’s eldest son, as he’s heading off for his freshman year at Berkeley, shifting to Lina, who ultimately heads east to Barnard, and then to Donnie, the youngest son, who stays in Southern California and ends up being closest to their mother? What brought you to that approach?
MS: Sometimes siblings, with the same parents, or employees, with the same boss, have different experiences. We each bring ourselves and our habitual expectations to every encounter. Some daughters identify with their mothers with an intensity their brothers may not feel. For example, Lina fears that the remoteness in her mother may be inside her, too, only waiting. Her older brother, Walter, doesn’t consider that for a moment. He only wishes he were stronger, older and more successful, so he that could save his mother and sister and brother from the losses that threaten to crush them.The beauty of the novel form lies in the way it intrinsically mimics, captures and refracts time.
JC: Your point of view also includes “flash forward” moments in which each narrator makes a comment on how this stage of life looked years later. How did this element of the novel evolve?
MS: For me, the beauty of the novel form lies in the way it intrinsically mimics, captures and refracts time. While reading War and Peace or Remembrance of Things Past or Middlemarch, the reader lives in a world with specific people, and their hopes, tensions, and disappointments. For the reader this experience can last for days or weeks or months, while the characters pass through years. Jumps forward, or prolepses, offer perspective and irony.
One of the few advantages of reaching late middle age (along with the fractures from decades of daily running) is that one has finally witnessed true endings, in one’s own life and in the lives of our friends. These closures and their symmetries yield resonance and consolations one could hardly fathom, much less believe, at twenty.
JC: How much research was involved in writing about Lina’s art, which has ties to her mother’s gardening? And the work of her MFA classmates (her best friend, Troy, other classmates?) Were you able to draw in part on your own experience in Columbia’s MFA program in creative writing, which generated your first novel? And your own teaching?
MS: I made lifelong friends at Columbia, but they were writers. We never hung out on the visual artists’ floor. I sublet my New York apartment, though, and went to artists’ colonies many summers during my twenties and began to know artists and see how they worked. At Bellagio, where I got shockingly little done (I was pregnant and the kind Italian cooks brought me sumptuous nap-inducing midafternoon pastas a few hours after lunch) I met Judith Shea, whose sculptures Troy and Lina go to see. Teaching sparked some scenes, too. Of course, being around students is fascinating, especially students in fields as uncertain and unwelcoming as art and writing.
JC: Did any of Walter’s experiences as an undergraduate at Berkeley mirror yours?
MS: Yes, I didn’t have to research Berkeley; the romance of the place was all right there. Writing Walter gave me the chance to inhabit the other sex, the young men, who’d seemed so mysterious to me at the time. It’s amazing what a few decades of life can do. I felt sympathetic to Walter’s pressures; I understood his sexuality and his ambition.
JC: Are there real-life models for Donnie, the youngest of these three siblings? Or did your portrayal of this loyal and sensitive young man who falls into the surfing culture require extensive research?
MS: Surfing culture did require research and that was a real pleasure. I’ve lived in Southern California for much of my life and never learned to surf. My relationship with LA has been a volatile love affair. I would have never picked it, I was moved here as a child, later came back after years in New York, didn’t feel I fit in, and then slowly woke up and realized I was happy.
I used my teenage memories of nights on the beach around bonfires and then driving to Ships for deep dish pie a la mode. Donnie is cooler than I’ve ever been and his experiences felt compensatory for all I’d missed, in person. One of my colleagues, who grew up poor in a Chinatown household, once told me, “We never gave ourselves permission to fuck up.” Experimenting with danger when you’re young is a kind of privilege, indulged in, she meant, by kids who had nets. I knew I had no net.
But being cautious carries its limitations. Sometimes you have to be brave to experience joy.
JC: Your descriptions of the shifts in mental health care over the decades (and centuries) in various parts of the world are fascinating. What sort of research did this take? Is there a “real” model for Orchard Springs, the state-run mental hospital in Norwalk where Diane is committed?
MS: I went to Metropolitan Hospital in Norwalk, California many times while I was writing the novel. I listened to an oral history someone made of the institution, I read all I could and most of all, I learned about its history from two retired nurses and a retired psychiatric technician. The three women helped turn the old fire chief’s house on the grounds into a hospital museum. They still go to the hospital regularly to order the archives, now in boxes and crates, in the old vegetable peeling room of what was once a huge institutional kitchen.You simultaneously feel the satisfaction of the ending you dearly wanted along with the pang of the realistic truth.
JC: What was the most difficult aspect of writing about this family?
MS: The writer Michelle Huneven describes the kind of book she thinks all book clubs secretly want. “A family comes together (perhaps in an ancestral beach house); terrible secrets are revealed; it’s very hard and someone walks out and threatens to tear the family apart forever, but in the end there’s some kind of big gathering, a coming together and you know what? Things are even a little better than before.” What she means, I think, is that we all crave myths of redemption.
Edmund White said that fiction derives from two Freudian impulses: wish fulfillment and the repetition compulsion. Romance novels use the former, experimental literary novels the latter. This may explain the deep resonance of certain endings, such as that of Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. You simultaneously feel the satisfaction of the ending you dearly wanted along with the pang of the realistic truth.
The characters in Commitment endure a loss that can’t ever quite be redeemed; it stays with them like a small stone that has to be carried, assimilated, into whatever lives they make for themselves. It will be there with them, inside their efforts and pleasures.
JC: What are you working on now, in all the realms in which you work? How do you find time for writing fiction?
MS: It’s more a matter of how do I find time for anything else? How do any of us? I’m working on a short novel in two parts based, loosely, on my early years in New York, when a cousin of mine, who’d been ill and suffering in the Midwest came to stay with me and how I was and wasn’t able to help her and how I was and wasn’t able to help another girl.
It’s a delight to be involved again with The Paris Review, where I worked in my twenties. George Plimpton threw my first book party when Anywhere But Here came out, in his apartment above the magazine’s tiny office. In those days, I mostly wrote rejection letters. Now, the Paris Review’s editor Emily Stokes and her brilliant staff do all heavy lifting.
Teaching, besides providing a steady income, is a way to stay happy and sane. One of the great discoveries of college, that I’ve never grown out of, is the delight of sitting around a table and talking for hours about a book you’ve just read. I belong to a book group, and many of my friends are writers and readers, but still, chances are the book I’m reading now, one friend will have read five years ago and another will have on the bottom of a stack on his nightstand. We can’t have the same kind of intricate conversation.
Once a week, I talk to students my children’s age who have all just read the same short story three times. They’re dying to figure out what makes the story tick. I’m dying to figure that out. too. I like having relationships across generations.
Commitment by Mona Simpson is available from Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.