Creative writing professor Ann Beattie recently published Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, an exploration of the elusive first lady, Pat Nixon.
You’ve been repeatedly credited—despite your protests—with being a “chronicler of the zeitgeist” of those coming of age after the cultural tumult of the 1960s. What were your early influences?
I was in graduate school when I started writing seriously, and later publishing, and I was reading Wordsworth. About as recent as I got was Virginia Woolf. What did influence me a lot was watching the televised Watergate hearings every day. It was a constant refrain; it sure wasn’t funny, in the conventional sense, but the lying, circuitous way people talked was amazing. I found the self-justifying, sanctimonious tone of Nixon’s Six Crises pretty darned funny.
I wasn’t reading many contemporary writers because I had no time and no money. I was well aware of some of the writers Gordon Lish published when at Esquire, though. I first read Raymond Carver there and Joy Williams, and went from there to DeLillo—whom I admired early on and forever—and Barry Hannah, who can be really, really funny. He can do the literary equivalent of lighting a firecracker, having it explode and simply relighting it.
Would you describe a few other books you find funny?
I think Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes is funny, as it means to be. It’s a “fictitious memoir” about a sports fan’s obsession, alcoholism and stints in mental hospitals. I completely love Geoff Dyer, particularly Out of Sheer Rage, which I once found in a Barnes & Noble in the “Self-Help” category. It’s about Dyer’s assignment to write about D.H. Lawrence, and his failure to do so. This is in the tradition of another great, not so much mentioned writer, Gay Talese. Some of his essays are hilarious. I also always read footnotes, which, in general, can be quite amusing, whether or not they intend to be—and they often do intend; what a waste that few people check them out, unless they’re written by David Foster Wallace.
Amusing can definitely be as good as funny, and it’s harder to pull off. I think Frederick Barthelme’s short stories are often highly hilarious, about the pointlessness of everything, with even the smallest creature compromised and so-called adults having no ability to function as anything other than self-absorbed, pain-inflicting children. He’s really great and not enough talked about lately. I also buy old cookbooks, which I think are funny—particularly ones from the ‘40s and ‘50s with Jell-O molds and a lot of worry about whether “The Boss” will like the meal enough. They often have inadvertently hilarious illustrations, too.
Who are some of your favorite living women writers?
I admire Janet Malcolm, especially her book Reading Chekhov, about her readings of Anton Chekhov and her travels in post-Soviet Russia. And, of course, Joan Didion, who raised the bar for writing the personal essay into the clouds. Alison Lurie can be extremely funny, in a satirical, pin-‘em-to-the-wall way. Alice Munro is one of the two or three best short story writers of our time, in my humble opinion—and in the opinion of most every writer. Mavis Gallant has written some great stories.