- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2000

Writer Ann Beattie is emphatic. She does readings, not lectures, and never participates in writers’ conferences. She gave up college teaching voluntarily after brief sojourns at the University of Virginia and Harvard to become one of few American authors who actually make a living from their work.

That depends, of course, on what is meant by “a living.”

The District of Columbia native, who this past Friday picked up a PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, divides her time between Maine and Key West, Fla. She admits somewhat ruefully that she has had only one story published in the top-paying New Yorker magazine in 10 years the Nov. 20 issue this year. And this is the magazine credited with having discovered her in the 1970s.

Another story in her latest collection (“Perfect Recall,” published by Scribner) just sold for $125, she volunteers in an interview while reflecting on what she calls her “roller coaster” income.

Small literary magazines are the mainstay of the author that Publishers Weekly, the bible of the publishing trade, dubbed “one of the most underappreciated of major contemporary writers” in a rave review of “Perfect Recall,” her 13th book to date.

But don’t pity the lady who, at age 53, is considered what a local literary savant calls one of the “old masters” of modern American literature and of the short story in particular.

The description makes her smile, but she doesn’t dispute the label.

Why should she? The PEN/ Malamud Award, given annually in honor of the late writer Bernard Malamud, has a noble history. Previous award winners have included John Updike, Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty and William Maxwell.

In addition to recognizing an established name, the award which is based on a bequest from the late Mr. Malamud is shared with a beginning writer who, this year, was Jerusalem-based Nathan Englander, author of “For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.”

By coincidence, Miss Beattie had voluntarily given Mr. Englander’s book his first collection of stories a valuble endorsement when it was sent to her out of the blue by the editor in chief at Vintage, his publisher. “I fell all over it and bought 20 copies for friends,” she says.

• • •

The two awardees met for the first time last Friday at a reading and reception given by the Washington-based PEN/Faulkner Foundation in the Folger Shakespeare Library. The money wasn’t the point the two writers split a $5,000 sum but the prestige factor is high, Miss Beattie acknowledges. It was her first prize in 20 years, the last being an award for general excellence given her in 1980 from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

“It sets you apart,” she says, “and even within your own publishing house it is a kind of shot in the arm. They think, ‘How wonderful it has some outside attention.’ People do look to this, whether wisely or foolishly, in terms of sales and morale particularly in terms of morale.”

Friday’s gala event was also the occasion to renew her ties to Washington. Her parents moved to Florida several years ago, leaving an uncle as her only relative in the area. But she has many friends here, among them Frank Turaj, an English literature professor at American University where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1969. She went on to the University of Connecticut for a master’s degree in 1970, won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1977, and in 1983, at Mr. Turaj’s urging, A.U. gave her an honorary doctorate.

She calls Mr. Turaj “one of the greatest teachers of all time,” then adds, “I never studied writing, I studied literature.”

Mr. Turaj, in turn, says he recognized her talent from the very first paper she did in a freshman class. “It didn’t fit the assignment at all, but I thought, ‘This is a nice piece; this has got flair.’ I thought there was no way to stand in the way of her development.”

He judges her today as “a wonderful person [and] a fine delicate artist with considerable depth… the ultimate voice of that strange kind of skeptical melancholy that is sometimes comedic a detached ironic attitude she is able to incorporate especially in dialogue. It is that complexity that invests so much psychological truth in her characters.”

• • •

Miss Beattie’s personal life is complex as well. Married to Lincoln Perry, a painter whom she met during her time at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the couple maintains two houses, flying south like birds each winter from the village of York a mile and a half from the seacoast in Maine to a home in downtown Key West. They share the latter address with a man who uses the ground floor for business.

The Maine idea came about because her husband likes sailing, but Key West, she says, feels more like a main base. “Where I write doesn’t matter,” she adds.

When too many tourists and writers descend on the place in season, she has been known to take herself elsewhere. Last year she retreated to Sanibel Island on Florida’s west coast for five days to escape what she calls “a dreary number of writers conferences.” She hung out there with an old friend from Bethesda, one of her classmates at A.U.

Key West, as she knows it, is “a very fragile but very functional writers’ community.” The place famously attracts famous names, such as Annie Dillard, Joy Williams, and Alison Lurie. “We like one another,” she says. “Every one of our group sees everyone. Sometimes a larger group, sometimes the core. It’s relentlessly social, which has its ups and downs.”

Competition comes from a younger generation weaned on the computer with its deceptively facile delivery of thoughts and words. She has gone along reluctantly, cursing the machine as she goes. Two of her recent stories are available in what she dubs “an Internet book, or whatever you call it. I’ve never seen them, but I recorded them.”

The electronic mode definitely affects writing, she says.

“It depresses you, or me anyway … You don’t have that physiological rapport. The stories get longer. You don’t have the control. Stories are harder to fix. You can print out but it isn’t the same.” Many of her stories in their final form are longer, too, she says.

“There is so much writing going on now for many reasons,” she observes. “In sheer numbers, the submissions are so enormous. Writing schools turn them out in such numbers. The New Yorker distinguishes itself by discovering me. Another magazine will distinguish itself by discovering whoever. The way I see it I’m incredibly squeezed. I can’t possibly compete with 25-year-olds who have new work to give people new style. I’ll never have I don’t want to have it.”

The obsession in publishing with a newer, younger market is a problem for young writers as well, Miss Beattie says, hinting at the irony involved. “Because even by the time their second book comes out, they are not quite as young.”

Her next book is a novel due out in the spring called “The Doctor’s House” a title supplied, like most of the others, by her husband. It will be number 14, with no end in sight and plenty of her past titles still in print.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide