Helen Simpson was born in Bristol, England, and grew up in London. Her first collection of short stories, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, was published in 1990, followed by Dear George and Other Stories (1995), Getting a Life (2000), and In the Driver’s Seat (2007). Simpson writes about the tough stuff: how children sometimes change your life for the worse, how even a happy marriage can feel stifling, “why so many women are the way they are,” as she puts it in her short story “Early One Morning”: “stymied at some point; silenced somewhere. Stalled. Or, merely delayed?”
I loved Simpson’s wry, lyrical stories even before I became a mother. I found myself quoting Simpson’s work—her take on things was often more apt, and hilarious, than my own. When I had my first child and my life exploded, Simpson’s stories took on new resonance. I re-read her collections, seeking out guidance, some way of making sense of the new country I found myself living in. A few weeks after my second child was born, I was able to catch Simpson on her U.S. tour promoting In the Driver’s Seat. Helen was in a Washington, D.C., hotel room when we spoke; she was reading with Nathan Englander that evening.
I had completely lost my voice the day before our interview. I related to the protagonist of Simpson’s story “Heavy Weather” when she says of motherhood, “I’m being mashed up and eaten alive.” But my sitter arrived and I handed over my son, drove to a friend’s quiet office, popped a cough drop, and called Simpson. We spoke for an hour and a half. I wish we could have spoken for longer, but I had to go home and nurse the baby.
—Amanda Eyre Ward
THE BELIEVER: Do you think that there are some ideas that are meant to be short stories and some that need the space of the novel?
HELEN SIMPSON: That’s a good question. Probably, yeah… Over the years, I’ve read so many stories and loved them and tried to come up with some sort of formula because people say, “How do you write a short story?” and you’re dragged into creative writing stuff all the time. Well, you should say no, but you try and be honest and say: the only rule I can come up with for short stories is something’s got to happen, but not too much. That sounds pathetic, but actually it’s the only one that I know for certain. You can’t just have a mood, that’s not a story. On the other hand, you can’t really have a subplot, either, not if it’s a decent story. Whereas, with a novel, I think, yes, well, imagine, you could have subplots, you can expand and elaborate, you can give all the gossip. I think stories don’t give you gossip in the same way and quite often you don’t want to know the people’s names in a story. I’ve been working toward trying to cut names out, actually, because sometimes you think it’s a bit more like songwriting. You’re trying to find what’s typical in any particular experience. As in a song, you want it to reverberate and get to the heart of it.
BLVR: I’m confused by that comment about trying to make characters typical.
HS: Not characters, but the experience. When you think of a love song, it’s not the individual moments so much—the character in a love song or the individual—but it’s actually the universal experience. There are certain things that we have in common, and I want to pull on those.
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