From wild turkeys to 'The Secret Garden,' author shares her life

  • Article by: LAURIE HERTZEL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 15, 2011 - 5:23 PM

Novelist Ann Beattie's latest work uses fiction to bring former First Lady Pat Nixon's life into focus. Here, she answers 10 questions.

Author Ann Beattie

Photo: Sigrid Estrada,

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Beginning with the publication of her first novel, "Chilly Scenes of Winter," in 1976, Ann Beattie established herself as a keen and dry observer of her generation. She's received a PEN award and been honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and her collection "The New Yorker Stories" was named a notable book of 2010 by the New York Times.

Her newest book, "Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life," which was published this week by Scribner, is a fascinating departure -- fiction based on fact, in which Beattie reconstructs scenes from Pat Nixon's life, trying to understand and imagine her point of view.

Sadly, Beattie is not coming to the Midwest on her tour, but she did agree to subject herself to our 10 questions for an author.

Q: Describe your writing room.

A: I live in three places, but right now my writing room in Maine looks like this: It was painted Band-Aid pink when we bought the house 20 years ago, and I've never had it painted. My desk is an old table bought in Virginia in 1976, missing one board. There are piles of books on the floor; the "system" makes sense only to me. I trip over them in the dark. I write with my computer raised up on the "Webster's New Universal Unabridged Dictionary," and when my computer's electronic dictionary fails me, I have to move the computer aside to consult the book. There are too many small things on the desk to describe, but among them: cabinet cards [with photos] of children, bought on eBay; the "calendar of birthdays," sometimes even opened to the correct month; three pill bottles, one bottle of water, one huge bottle of Lancome "O" cologne, which smells to me like Paris, where I first bought it; two pictures of my husband; one picture of me with my mother, both in ballet costumes; a vase of the year's last cosmos, mixed with some mint and lemon verbena I picked hours before the first frost; a little brass bird my husband gave me that has big feet, like he does; piles of papers in a landslide to the left and also the right ("system" not even known to me). A mouse pad, a mug of chai tea made by my husband, many pens printed with my friend Bob Adelman's name, and then there is the annex to the desk: an overflowing footstool. Photograph on request.

Q: What is your writing strategy -- do you have rituals that you maintain?

A: I don't have a writing strategy. I hardly maintain anything, including myself.

Q: How do you get past writers' block (or the distraction of the Internet)?

A: To me, they're two different things. For writers' block, just read books and read more books and try not to worry. For the Internet, it all goes haywire often enough that I can't even log on many times if I try.

Q: Do you have a favorite book from childhood?

A: The Mary Poppins books. Or "The Secret Garden." I also really liked a book called "Bertram and the Ticklish Rhinoceros." I'm not sure if it holds up.

Q: What books do you re-read?

A: I re-read a lot of poetry, because it's so often alluded to in things I'm reading. For example: poetry by Eliot and Auden; Virginia Woolf; Joyce's "The Dead"; "Gatsby." Depending on what I'm thinking about, I re-read a lot of different things. Right now, "The Fall of the House of Usher." Last week it was some Richard Bausch short stories.

Q: What's on your desk?

A: Described above, at some length!

Q: Where are you right now? Describe what you see.

A: If I look to either side of my computer monitor, I see the dirt road that stretches to the York River, also glimpsed in the distance, but only when the leaves are off the trees (they are). Some snow on the ground. Many telephone wires. If I'm lucky, the 15 wild turkeys that peck along the dirt road.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I'm reading "Pulphead" by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and I just finished a novel in manuscript called "Misfit," by Adam Braver, that is superb. Last night before bed I read Poe, an article in Bon Appétit about how to make "fricassee of chanterelles," a letter mailed to a friend in the 1970s, which he mailed back to me this week without explanation, and started "The Blackwater Lightship" by Colm Toibín, given to me by my friend Jean.

Q What's been the best place so far to do a reading?

A: Probably a reading at a private school in Connecticut, Hotchkiss, where the students gave the high five and laughed uproariously when I read a dirty word, took me for a canoe ride, and had baked chocolate chip cookies for me. Also, a student photographer took pictures of me I used for years.

Q: What authors have inspired you?

A: If you mean inspired me to be a writer, that's different from keeping on. I suppose seeing Alice Munro go from Great to Super-Great has inspired me. And Margaret Atwood, also. Certainly, years ago, Donald Barthelme. If there was any one person I'd like to read my new book, it would be Donald.

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