Novel Material: Ann Beattie, Voice Of The Boomers, Turns Her Focus To Millennials

Apr 6, 2019
Originally published on April 6, 2019 12:09 pm

Ann Beattie has been hailed as the voice of her generation, but she's never taken that distinction too seriously. Beattie's short stories began appearing in The New Yorker in the 1970s. In her latest book, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, the voice of the boomer generation focuses on a new generation — the Millennials.

Beattie has published more than 20 books over the course of her career, both novels and short story collections. She says short stories come more easily to her. Novels, she admits, are "endlessly fascinating," but more of a struggle.

"You just can't imagine how much I go wrong in a novel versus how much I go wrong in drafts of a short story," she laughs. "It's really astonishing, I'll never get it down."

Beattie says getting started is always hard, so she tries to jump off from an image. The image that inspired A Wonderful Stroke of Luck was a boarding school.

It's completely fictional — "I went to public high school in Washington, D.C., what do I know?" says Beattie — but she does readings at boarding schools, and has found them "extremely beautiful" but "incredibly mysterious."

Beattie's Bailey Academy caters to smart, rich kids with troubled backgrounds. One group within the school, the honor society, falls under the spell of a charismatic and elusive young teacher, Pierre LaVerdere.

Eventually we learn that LaVerdere insinuated himself into his students' lives in some damaging ways. This is revealed as Beattie follows Ben, one of those students, into young adulthood. Ben meanders aimlessly through life, working at jobs he doesn't care about, falling into relationships that are going nowhere. He leaves New York City and moves upstate to the Hudson Valley. It's the kind of place, Beattie writes, that Millennials flocked to in the decades after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Once you know something of that magnitude, you can never not know it," Beattie says. "I think it's always there as a kind of refrain, or as a kind of conscious or subconscious awareness."

But just as she rejected the idea that she was ever the voice of her own generation, Beattie insists that she did not set out to make sweeping observations about Millennials. "I never really think that I'm defining a generation," she says. "I at least want to think that what I am doing is talking about individual psychology."

Beattie leaves a lot unsaid in her novel. She believes dialogue can be misleading and unrealistic. Her favorite punctuation mark, especially when writing short stories, is the asterisk. It allows her to leap forward without filling in too many details. It's better if the reader fills in the blanks, she says.

"There's what's there and then ... what's not there. ..." she explains. "You want to give a cue to the reader that there's a lot not here."

Beattie says she doesn't necessarily know at the outset whether she's writing a short story or a novel. She doesn't have an outline, and she never knows how it will end.

At the moment, she is working on something that might be a short novel ... but she's not sure yet. All she can say for certain is: She has written up to the point where there's an asterisk.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ann Beattie first made her mark as a writer when The New Yorker began to publish her short stories in the 1970s. Back then, she was hailed as the voice of her generation, a distinction that she never took very seriously. In her latest book, "A Wonderful Stroke Of Luck," the author turns her attention to a new generation, millennials, as NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Ann Beattie has published more than 20 books over the course of her career, both novels and short story collections. But she prefers writing short stories. Novels, she admits, are more of a struggle.

ANN BEATTIE: But that isn't to say that I don't find novels endlessly fascinating, especially because of my inability to cope with them. I mean, you just can't imagine how much I go wrong in a novel versus how much I go wrong in drafts of a short story (laughter). It's really astonishing. I'll never get it down.

NEARY: Beattie says getting started is always hard. Even when she feels compelled to write something, she worries that she doesn't know where to begin. So she often starts with an image. For a wonderful stroke of luck, it was a school.

BEATTIE: I think I was thinking about just the grounds of a boarding school somewhere. And it's a totally fictional boarding school. I went to public high school in Washington, D.C. What do I know? But as a writer, I've gone around and given a lot of readings. And they tend to be extremely beautiful but, to me, incredibly mysterious places.

NEARY: The school is called Bailey Academy, it caters to rich, smart kids with troubled backgrounds. One group within the school, the honor society, falls under the spell of a charismatic and elusive young teacher, Pierre LaVerdere.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) Considering that LaVerdere seemed to like to hang out with them, there were endless things they didn't know about him. And even the boldest hesitated to ask. Who were his friends? What did he do in the summer? No teacher had his or her age listed in the faculty directory. So there was no way to check that. Almost every teacher and staff member used an informal snapshot. Dr. Ha (ph) was the only one who used a formal photograph. Jasper (ph) discovered that the photograph LaVadere used was Spalding Grey's.

NEARY: Eventually, we learn that LaVedere insinuated himself into his students' lives in some damaging ways. This is revealed as Beattie follows Ben, one of those students, into young adulthood. Ben meanders his way aimlessly through life, working at jobs he doesn't care about, falling into relationships that are going nowhere. He leaves New York City and moves upstate to the Hudson Valley. It's the kind of place Beattie writes that a lot of millennials flock to after 9/11, an event that inevitably shaped their lives.

BEATTIE: Once you know something of that magnitude, you can never not know it. I think it's always there as a kind of refrain or as the kind of conscious or subconscious awareness. And all the talk about the - overt talk about the world changing, too, you know, is very destabilizing. So depending on individual psychology, everybody suddenly had to play a different ballgame.

NEARY: But just as she rejected the idea that she was ever the voice of her own generation, Beattie also insists that she did not set out to make sweeping observations about the millennials.

BEATTIE: I think I have something invested in not thinking that I'm writing in those terms or for those reasons. I never really think that I'm defining a generation. I, at least, want to think that what I'm doing is talking about individual psychology.

NEARY: Beattie leaves a lot unsaid in her novel. She doesn't like too much dialogue. She thinks it can be misleading and unrealistic. Her favorite punctuation mark, especially when writing short stories, is the asterisk, which allows her to leap forward without filling in too many details. She thinks the readers should fill in the blanks.

BEATTIE: I mean, I think with anything that you look at visually or that you're reading there's what's there. And then, at some point, it begins to occur to you that, since this is orchestrated by the artist in some way, what's not there? Or why exactly was it put together this way? I think that is the important thing. You want to give a cue to the reader that there's a lot not here.

NEARY: Beattie says when she starts writing she doesn't necessarily know whether it will be a short story or a novel. She doesn't have an outline. She never knows how it will end. At the moment, she's working on something that might be a short novel. But she's not sure yet. All she can say for certain is she has written up to the point where there's an asterisk. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.