Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #10: Ann Beattie (1986)

Author Ann Beattie in 1986.

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

One area of the book concerned the legacy of the sixties. It’s difficult taking into consideration the political landscape of the eighties without examining aspects of the sixties. Many ghosts from that period (i.e. Vietnam, the Cold War, civil rights) continued to linger as unresolved arguments that underscored actions in the eighties. If cynicism became more common twenty years after the idealism sparked by JFK’s 1960 Inaugural address, the voices included in this chapter of Talking Out of Turn set to uncover what the political lessons of the sixties were.

In the work of fiction writer Ann Beattie, questions were raised as to whether those of us who were part of that decade were now trapped in nostalgic reverence for our lost youth; or, were we slowly coming to terms with the hard political lessons of that era? One of her key novels that delved deftly into those issues was Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976), which was made into a 1979 movie by Joan Micklin Silver re-titled Head Over Heels. The story revolves around Charles, a civil servant, who is struggling in the seventies with his ideals from the sixties while trying to maintain his relationship with Laura, the love of his life. With his droll best friend Sam, Charles comes to grips with the ghosts of the past which is where I began my talk with Ann Beattie.

kc: Your first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, certainly struck a nerve with those who came of age in the sixties only to become disillusioned later.

ab: I was only trying to be ironic about that. Looking at that book now, I can see why it struck people as strongly as it did. I was writing it in the early seventies and I didn’t quite have that perspective on just how dramatic the sixties were. At the time, I didn’t think it was a social history. I actually hope that isn’t what it primarily is. I think it’s about people who are kidding themselves and who know that they are kidding themselves. The sixties become a convenient backdrop for that.

kc: Even as a backdrop, though, you can still feel the pop culture of the sixties seeping into the characters’ lives. The main protagonist, Charles, is like a walking jukebox of the era.

ab: So true. But he does have the personality of someone who does what is expedient. Charles is obsessive, and that transcends the particulars of the time. That’s a psychological problem that he has and it’s maybe masked by the fact that many people had so much in common in the sixties.

kc: Those masks have definitely slipped away since then.

ab: Sure. For instance, if I were to mention a record, or a book, to you from that time, you certainly would have read it. In the eighties, the mere quantity of pop is so abundant that if I knew about the Eurythmics and you knew about Duran Duran, what would be the meeting point? Cyndi Lauper, perhaps? In the sixties, there were The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Dylan, and you could really say that everyone heard and shared it. It was the same with books. Chilly Scenes of Winter is about that, too. It’s about somebody who ironically stumbled into a time that masked his own problems from himself and that allowed him to function pretty logically.

kc: I remember one part in Chilly Scenes of Winter where Charles played Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and he started finding these connecting points in his life. He thought about Dylan having his kids in Malibu and thought about whether he’d have kids as well. As much as your characters do have an inner life, that shared culture of the sixties also fed it.

ab: That makes sense. Sounds good. I don’t think I ever wrote about a character the way I wrote about Charles. And he was totally hooked into the culture because he was petrified to be otherwise. He needed a lot of touchstones so he got them altogether and made a big rockpile.

kc: The music of the culture is certainly a thread that runs through many of your stories.

ab: In Chilly Scenes, there were a lot of records being played. I had to pay something like $500 to get permission to quote from some of those songs. The publisher wouldn’t even pick up the bill because there were so many songs mentioned. The truth is, at the time, I was married to a musician who played music all day long on the stereo. I just put in the novel whatever I remember him playing. I did use some selectivity however. After all, I didn’t put in the song “Hand Beats All Meat” without realizing what the literary implications would be. But people think I have this rarefied sense of music so DJ’s keep sending me these priceless records and tapes. And I don’t even know what they are!

kc: Whether the characters you write about are having difficulties or not, they come from an era that is anything but boring.

ab: Their lives are full of surprises. How they cope with those surprises is what interests me. I don’t sit down knowing what the surprise is going to be either. When I wrote “The Burning House,” the title story from a collection of short stories, I had no idea what would be revealed there. I was pretty appalled when I found out. Even I’m open to surprises.

kc: In the two books that go into the eighties, The Burning House and Falling in Place, we have the same generation as the one from Chilly Scenes, but the problems are now domestic ones. They’re now the older generation. Did you consciously set out to trace their disillusionment?

ab: No. I didn’t think of doing something that was au courant where everybody is having a baby this year. I do suppose that it does creep into my thinking because I’m always writing about what’s right under my nose. It’s a logical extension of what I have always been trying to do.

kc: In your short story, “Jacklighting,” you have some people of the sixties who lose someone who matters to them – much like in The Big Chill. It seems that you view this generation as one that is constantly trying to define and measure themselves by what is valuable to them.

ab: I would take that even further. Once again, I come back to irony. In the sixties, what happened a great deal among the people I knew was that they made heroes and heroines of each other, as well the cultural icons that were raised to that level by the media. That game was being played for the first time in a big way in the sixties. The outcome of that was that people started to mythologize each other. Most people will now tell you – often with great embarrassment – who they thought was worth listening to circa 1965. Then you wonder about the further ironies of them telling you those stories over coffee on Wall Street.

kc: Your latest novel, Love Always, certainly demonstrates that different aspects of pop culture do drive you and your characters.

ab: Yes. Eccentricity, too. What put the whole thing in my mind was the fact that I’m addicted to the National Enquirer and The Star – you know, the tabloids – and not for the same reason that a lot of people are. I don’t watch television at all. So I know all about the life of Victoria Principal, or people that I haven’t even seen, so it’s a doubly vicarious existence. And I think without realizing that my obsession would find its way into my fiction, I just noticed that here was all this hype and junk culture all around. So I found myself writing about a forty-year-old unemployed soap opera star. It was frightfully easy to get inside the mind of such a person after numbing myself on all that junk (laughing). I couldn’t even make polite conversation. Just ask my friends.

kc: Isn’t it also true that pop culture itself has changed dramatically in the eighties?

ab: Oh yeah. The most telling aspect is that things are now obvious parodies. People know it and love it. I mean, just look at Boy George! There was a time when I had to look for irony to put in my stories. Pop culture in the eighties is playing right into my hands now.

 -- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. An interview with Kevin about Film Noir can be heard on CBC Radio's Fresh Air. An article in the Torontoist on the Noir series by John Semley is here. NOW Magazine's film critic Norman Wilner highlights Roads to Perdition here.

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