It's been 10 years since Ann Beattie, author of "Chilly Scenes of Winter" and "Mrs. Nixon," last delivered a collection of new stories. The arrival of "The State We're In: Maine Stories" finds her ruminating on loss, longing and loneliness in Vacationland and beyond.
The author will appear in conversation with novelist Nick Taylor at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Wednesday, Sept. 23.
Beattie made a literary name for herself at an early age, publishing her first story in The New Yorker in 1974 at the age of 26. Sometimes described as "minimalist," a classification to which she objects, her stories were often about disaffected, upper-middle-class young people dealing with the fallout of the '60s and '70s while navigating the treacherous social landscape of the '80s. During one 10-year period, she published 35 stories in the magazine.
Her scope has widened considerably since those early days. What has remained constant, though, is the precision of her language, her willingness to experiment, her keen grasp of characterization and, perhaps most of all, her sly and engaging sense of humor, one that's rarely cruel and yet almost always well targeted.
The title of the new collection is open to a variety of interpretations: from geographical to psychological, cultural to existential. The majority of the selections are set in coastal Maine, and most of the protagonists of the 15 stories are women -- widows, wives, daughters and mothers.
Via email, Beattie said she wrote the stories in "The State We're In" in a concentrated period of time but without a specific plan in mind.
"I wrote them about a year after I quit my teaching job, and I can't help but think that after all those years of reading extremely long stories (at the University of Virginia), I needed an antidote -- even if I had to write them," she explained. "Of course, eventually I got into my own set of difficulties, writing several long stories. But to the extent I planned anything at all, it was that simpler, more direct stories (which doesn't mean to me that they aren't complicated) were the way to go."
Three stories -- "What Magical Realism Would Be," "Endless Rain into a Paper Cup" and "The Repurposed Barn" -- focus on a teen named Jocelyn, exiled to Maine to attend summer classes and live with her Uncle Raleigh and Aunt Bettina Louise Tompkins (unkindly known as "BLT") while her mother recuperates from a hysterectomy -- or perhaps Lyme disease. Jocelyn is by turns sympathetic, irritating and confounding, a young woman confused by life, family, school and her own murky intentions.
"I wrote a big chunk in rough draft and quickly realized it was too heavy for the book's balance," Beattie said of the sequence of tales about Jocelyn. "My husband had the bright idea of breaking it up, somehow. In revising, I more or less threw out the middle, wrote a new section ("Rain"), but kept the initial ending -- which I moved to the end of the book. I hope people won't just see her story as interrupted, but as something that's going on while other stories orbit her planet."
Asked whether it was a challenge to write from the perspective of a teen protagonist, Beattie said, "I don't have trouble remembering being a teenager, but teenagers are also all around me. The world is full of them. No problem (I don't think) to channel them."
The older, more experienced characters in "The State We're In" also struggle with loneliness, stagnation and uncertainty.
"The Little Hutchinsons" is narrated by a woman whose refusal to open her home as a venue for a neighbor's wedding has disastrous consequences. In "Yancey," a poet forms an unexpected bond with an IRS agent when he arrives to check whether her writing room qualifies for a tax deduction.
In "Missed Calls," a widowed writer is visited by a younger man interested in her one brief encounter with Truman Capote. He's researching "a book about people who have adversely affected other people." He's also trying to comfort his goddaughter, who was supposed to graduate from Bowdoin College but seems to have gone off the rails somehow.
Beattie clearly understands the setting she's chosen for most these stories. The details feel right, whether she's writing about an octogenarian who finally dares to change his nickname after his 103-year-old father dies, or about the meaning of overturned Adirondack chairs on a front lawn.
Of writing about Maine, Beattie said, "It's slightly unusual for me to write a story based where I'm currently living. I'm not trying to look out the window and take a snapshot. When I write, I discover what my characters think. Sometimes they think what I think; more often they don't."
Beattie's best stories are unpredictable in their plotting, with epiphanies large and small arriving from unexpected directions. A sentence from the end of "The Repurposed Barn" -- "The night started one way and ended another" -- might be seen as emblematic of the collection as a whole.
Beattie spoke of some of the lessons she has tried to impart to her creative writing students.
"One thing I found myself often remarking upon was that I thought ideally, reading was a participatory process," she said. "You can't exclude the reader and just write a hermetically sealed story, with no way for the reader to infer, or to project, or perhaps dream. You have to work hard to deliver your story, but it also should become in some way the reader's.
"Readers are smart -- or, ideally they are," she added. "Let them in."
Those who enter the world of Beattie's "The State We're In" will find themselves amply rewarded.
What: Ann Beattie in conversation with Nick Taylor
Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 7:30 p.m.
Info: Go to keplers.com or call 650-324-4321