Nowhere to `Anywhere' - A Writer's Emergence

`BY the time you're in your late 20s, you have seen enough silliness,'' Mona Simpson quips. The novelist, whose first book, ``Anywhere But Here,'' was reprinted six times within two months of its appearance in 1987, recently reflected on the experience of first-time publication in a telephone interview from her New York City home. Ms. Simpson, who was 29 when the novel was published, calls herself a slow writer. ``Yet I do work every day,'' she adds. It took three years for Simpson to complete the revisions on ``Anywhere But Here.'' Her diligence and discipline were rewarded with many appreciative reviews. The Times Literary Supplement of London praised the book for its ``remarkable observation of people'' and underscored ``the utterly compelling way'' in which Simpson recreated commonplace events.

``You spend so many years on novels,'' she says, ``that you want to have some sort of commerce with the outer world, and yet you don't really want to submit the novel before it's really ready.'' To make a connection with the reading public, Simpson did what a number of recent writers have done. She published polished excerpts from her novel-in-progress as short stories.

Simpson holds that early success sometimes stultifies a writer's talent. ``Everyone tells you it's great,'' she says, noting that praise can limit a young writer's sights. ``You hope you can do exactly the same thing again. Patience is crucial.''

Especially with short stories, writers are tempted to finish one and go on to the next without revising. Part of maturing as a writer is to see a story as an ``ongoing exploration or project.'' Simpson thinks that one of the important skills to teach creative writing students is ``not to be afraid that things are not perfect immediately.'' Good writing, she says, is the product of dailiness. It is an ``intense habit,'' not simply an impulse.

As a student, and now as a teacher of writing at Columbia University and New York University, Simpson values perseverance, self-trust, and reading. ``You teach reading if you teach writing,'' she maintains. For Simpson, the most challenging and time-consuming aspect of a writer's life is finding ``a subject deep and worthy, so that one is not stuck imitating whatever the particular fad is that year.''

The pattern of Simpson's career is typical of many in her generation. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1979, she worked at a variety of part-time jobs and continued to write short stories. She did little revision on her stories, however, and did not read as much as she does now. ``It wasn't happening for me,'' she comments.

In her second year of graduate education, an anonymous well-wisher at The Atlantic, the magazine to which Simpson had been sending short stories, brought her work to the attention of literary agent Amanda Urban, who represented well-known writers like Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. Urban phoned Simpson and asked to see more of her work.

Soon after, Urban asked if she could represent Simpson, an encouraging boost to the somewhat-dispirited graduate student, who was living frugally and acquiring numerous student loans. Dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a parka, Simpson sealed the deal with the woman she now calls her ``fairy godmother'' in a fashionable New York restaurant. Although she would not publish ``Anywhere But Here'' for several more years, Simpson credits the idea of having an agent as sustaining her efforts.

She reiterates that it is important for writers to take themselves seriously as writers and to live like writers. Parts of ``Anywhere But Here'' were written in art colonies, like Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where Philip Roth and John Cheever also have worked. Another way for aspiring writers to stick to the task of writing is to join a community writers' project or network. Even lingering in a good bookstore can help, Simpson observes.

Writers, she urges, should think of ``the long haul.'' For Simpson, envisioning the creation of work over the course of a writer's entire lifetime is made easier by her faith in ``the long-range fairness'' of literature. ``There is a lot of room in literature,'' she says, ``more outlets.''

Mona Simpson's new novel, ``The Lost Father,'' which has occupied her for the last three years, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf early in 1991.

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