Ann Beattie: “Starlight” in The New Yorker 09/19/2011

New Yorker Art: Photo by Hank Walker, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

But what happens if you’re a Rockette and you have a cold? You go out there onstage and take your position, that’s what. A bit of medicine to bolster you would make sense. But, medicine or not, out you go. Out we go, indeed! When have we not rushed ahead, despite any protests made to Dick? You smile the family smile, and you try to get through the minutes, the seconds, until the helicopter takes off, and if people want to photograph that, which they no doubt will, they’ll see nothing but a machine, rising, flying, becoming smaller, disappearing. They’ll read a lot into that.

They might have. But the vicious double peace sign made everything else insignificant.

I’m a complete sucker for innocent-bystander stories, and Pat Nixon was an innocent bystander if ever there was one. This book excerpt (you can read it online) gives us vignettes of her (fictionalized, of course) thoughts at crucial and private moments: the last photograph in the White House, the release of Nixon’s memoirs, the acquisition of a stray dog, a late night walk through San Clemente close to the end of his life. At the time, I always thought Clemente sounded like clemency, and that both comforted (because we all need clemency sometimes) and annoyed (because some things should not be forgiven). From the vantage point of 2011 – the outrage of the 70s seems almost quaint.

Anyway, the story. (isn’t it interesting how a story about Pat Nixon turns into a rant about Nixon? I think that’s the point – one of the points – of the book) Which is not a story, it’s a collection of sections from the forthcoming book, “Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life.” It is perhaps as much a book about Ann Beattie as it is about Mrs. Nixon. In fact, the Book Bench interview is just as interesting as the story.

On her use of varying POVs and distances:

…words weren’t enough. I wanted to act like a person who really could move, the way a person moves a camera. I wanted to see through her sometimes, like an x-ray, but at other times I wanted to see around her—to see her as others might have seen her. There are many perspectives on Mrs. Nixon in my book, and I can’t say that I was “right” when I took the long view or when I came in close.

On the use of a historical personage, blending fact with fiction:

Well, the facts grounded me in reality. I’m as appreciative as anyone else to be informed and enlightened, but facts are only facts and I’m not sure we live by facts. I interspersed some of those facts with whatever my instincts and intuition led me to…

On her unusual choice to include herself in the work of fiction:

And perhaps because it was I decided to admit that and to appear in the text myself. I decided to analyze why I was interested in Mrs. Nixon’s story, what strategies were available to me to reveal her, or anyone, in fiction. I admitted to my games, showed my cards, only to question (sincerely) whether I had found my subject and discovered something about her essence: whether I’d drawn the ace I needed in order to put down my cards and depart. Mrs. Nixon is not the only one who walks away at the end of the book, seemingly sure of a few minor things, but also a bit lost in the universe.

It’s clear to me now that the purpose of including these excerpts is to increase interest in the book, and ultimately to increase book sales. It’s also clear to me that it works. It’s an interesting approach to a book, to a story, to a character, and Beattie makes interesting choices throughout.

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