A story form the Guardian. Helen Simpson is a writer from the UK. Her collection of short stories, Hey Yeah Right, was about the early years of mothering. Her latest book, In Flight Entertainment, deals with climate change. Here she talks about how there is now more being published about the mothering experience, but the experience hasn't changed. This is writer I want to read.
Helen Simpson: 'I stuffed it with sex and violence'
Beneath their tame domestic settings, Helen Simpson's stories teem with brutal truths. She talks about her new collection
o Sarah Crown
o The Guardian, Friday 28 May 2010
o Article history
Helen Simpson . . . 'It seems ridiculous that describing domestic work and life is seen as letting the side down.' Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
Invention comes easily to Helen Simpson – in fact, it landed her her first job. In her mid-20s, halfheartedly engaged in a PhD in Restoration comedy, she entered a competition for a work experience placement at Vogue. She'd always liked clothes. "You had to write the story of your life in 700 words," she explains over coffee, sitting opposite me, neat and handsome in a cool green dress. "My first try was straight – lots of homework, lots of helping my mother – and boring as hell. So I made the whole thing up. I had us living in Yorkshire" (Simpson grew up in Willesden, north London) "and my father was a market gardener who used to leave every day at 2am to take narcissi down to Covent Garden. I had four brothers who were paratroopers. It owed a bit to Wuthering Heights. Lots of savagery and drama." When Vogue kept her on, she spent a year or so blushing through awkward encounters with people who stopped to ask how everything was at home.
Simpson spent five years at the magazine, long enough to see them run her first published short story, about a woman besotted with her new bed. A debut collection, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, followed in 1990 and snagged her both the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award and a place on Granta's Best of Young British Novelists list. Since then, she has published like clockwork – a new collection every five years. Her fifth, In-Flight Entertainment, is just out.
Over the last two decades, Simpson's reputation has flourished; her spare, up-close scenarios and glassy prose have seen her compared to, among others, Flannery O'Connor and Alice Munro. But the question of veracity, of where the boundary between autobiography and fiction lies, continues to dog her. Such is the frankness and force with which Simpson writes about her chosen subjects of motherhood and the family that people find it harder than normal to accept she's not transcribing from life.
"People always ask if my stories are autobiographical," she nods. "I think it's down to a confusion between fiction and journalism. Because journalism has taken the confessional route, there's an assumption that fiction is just being lazy – doing the same, but with the gloves on." In one story in her new collection, Squirrel, the central character, a mother, contemplates her office affair while sitting at the kitchen table with her husband and daughter. "It ran in the New Yorker," Simpson says. "I went to a party afterwards and a man who knew me slightly came up and leered, 'I see you're writing about adultery now . . .'. I thought, yes, but it's not a lonely hearts ad, for God's sake. I'm not interested in writing a confession. That's what teenagers do in their diaries."
Still, Simpson freely acknowledges that her own preoccupations have inspired, if not the specifics of her stories, then their emotional weather. Her ability to pinpoint and draw out the common experience is nowhere more evident than in her barnstorming third 2000 collection, Hey Yeah Right Get a Life, in which she describes the state of early motherhood at the turn of the 21st century. Ten years on, when it can seem as if everyone who's ever reproduced is busy writing a column, novel, memoir or blog about the experience, it's difficult to convey the impact this had, the sense that Simpson was singlehandedly uncovering a seething pot of exhaustion, resentment and deep, sticky love, "domestic rubble", both physical and emotional. In stories that manage to be both blackly witty and shockingly caustic, she paints a bleak picture of life after birth. "You get to 37, married, three kids," says Dorrie, the central character in the title story, "and you look in the mirror . . . and you realise – it's a shock – you realise nothing else is supposed to happen until you die. Or you spoil the pattern."
The praise poured in – "brilliant, painful, funny and courageous", said Esther Freud in the Guardian – but reactions weren't uniformly positive. In an otherwise respectful New York Times review, Jay McInerney mentioned "a militantly childless English friend who calls this book the ultimate contraceptive, and sends it to any of her girlfriends who are considering the mommy track." Simpson is unapologetic. "Until very recently, literature drew women's experiences through childhood, teenagehood, courtship, up to the point of marriage – and after that, they disappeared," she points out. Partly, she believes, this is because motherhood is "so hard to write about. It was the first time I'd found you could be very happy and very miserable at the same time, and it's hard to describe that state." But she yearned for something that expressed her new reality. "When I had a child myself, I found everything was mirrored up to that point and then, whoosh! Nothing. There's much more writing on the subject now, thank goodness."
But if we've become better at talking about what happens after the white dress is folded away, in the decade since she published Hey Yeah Right, Simpson sees precious little else as having changed. "This business of bringing up children is still in its infancy," she says. "I'd have thought things would have improved by now, but I wonder what to say to my daughter, because they don't seem to have got much easier. We're at the point now, it seems, where as a mother you have your child and your work, and that's fine: you're allowed to juggle those two things. But say you want to waste a bit of time, or sit in the sun, or get drunk, all the things you used to do – any pure pleasure that isn't directed either at work or family – you're seen as a selfish so-and-so. And we're forced, like the sisters in King Lear, to protest our love. Every time you say you're exhausted, you have to follow up with 'But of course it's all wonderful . . .' Why?"
What's more, the sudden flush of housebound novels has been accompanied by an inevitable backlash. In 2005, in their introduction to New Writing 13, co-editors Toby Litt and Ali Smith complained that "on the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic". In 2007, Orange prize judge Muriel Gray groaned over the "sheer volume of thinly disguised autobiographical writing from women on small-scale domestic themes, such as motherhood, boyfriend troubles and tiny family dramas". Earlier this year, Daisy Goodwin – also in her role as Orange judge – bemoaned the fact that, in her view, "there are an awful lot of books [by women writers] which had not a shred of redemption in them."
Simpson's own work appears at once to lend weight to, and refute, the criticisms. On the one-hand, Gray's lament perfectly describes the nuts and bolts of her territory; on the other, she takes these "small-scale themes" and jacks them up into operas. But she rejects the premise. "I did a book tour in America and there didn't seem to be the same issue," she says. "Think of Anne Tyler or Lorrie Moore; it's not held against them. To me, it's often a political rather than a literary judgment. If someone happens to set a story in a kitchen but writes well about it, you're objecting to the lives described, not the writing. And it does seem ridiculous that describing domestic work and life - the daily reality of most women in the world – is seen as letting the side down." Again she mentions Squirrel, a burnished gem of a story in which husband, wife and daughter discuss the Tudors, and all that turbulence and adultery is subtly refracted through their own lives. She wrote it "partly in response to the suggestion that women write only on tame, indoor subjects. I thought, OK, I'll show you. I'll put everyone around a kitchen table, and I'll absolutely stuff it with sex and violence. That was my brief to myself."
In In-Flight Entertainment, the settings are once again domestic, but Simpson's gaze has lifted to the skies. The theme of the collection is climate change, and our refusal, as a species, to confront it. A woman ends a long- distance relationship because she can't bear the environmental cost; an ageing climatologist and an aggressively unconcerned businessman debate the issue at 30,000 feet. "I can feel when a subject's going to be good," Simpson says. "It tends to be when it's touchy. You notice it in conversations: whether you're suggesting that motherhood isn't all bliss, or it's a good idea to cut back on air travel for the sake of the future. The room bristles. I'm interested in exploring the discomfort in the area, the touchiness. That's when the fun starts."