Ann Beattie does not consider herself a “Maine writer,” despite living half the year in York. Nor does she consider herself a “Florida writer,” though she spends the other half in Key West. Geography is beside the point for this celebrated contrarian novelist and short story writer whose 20th book, “The Accomplished Guest” arrives this week. Even in a story collection that revolves around visiting, the sense of place is merely a backdrop for the drama that ensues.

“When the concept is ‘visiting,’ people know that their time together is limited,” Beattie says. “It’s always in the back of their minds. That idea of things being in flux, of this being a transitional state, is also pretty useful literarily. When people are under pressure, they act differently. It certainly cues the reader; the reader is on tiptoes.”

Beattie spoke recently from her Florida home about teaching and humor, predictability and surprise. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: I loved the last story in your book, “Save A Horse Ride A Cowgirl.” That’s quite a title.

A: It’s really true – that was a bumper sticker that I saw on Route 1, in Maine. That was the genesis of the whole story. At The New Yorker, they asked, “How do we punctuate this?” And I said, “You know, there was no punctuation.”

Q: When you sit down to write, what is it that you have in mind – a particular idea, a character, or even a bumper sticker?

A: This won’t make me sound very sane and professional, but what I have in mind is seeing if there’s something that I could tap into that, if I didn’t sit down, I would never know was there. I don’t write with any outline in mind. The stories are never supposed to evolve toward some particular end that I know. My writing process is to keep seeing as I’m going through. I mean, there’s dialogue in my stories, and I do hear it, but the thing that really orients me toward the material is looking, and looking again. So I’m often surprised. It’s not like looking at a mirror; it’s quite the opposite. It’s almost just being there to have a vision and transcribe it.

Q: In what ways has your fiction changed over the years?

A: I’m more willing to put myself in the story, but I don’t mean me, as Ann Beattie. I mean I’m more willing to let it be seen that this story is fictional and that’s it’s being shaped. I’m less hands-off than I used to be. I don’t mind grappling with more.

Q: I remember reading your early New Yorker stories back in the ’70s. They seemed much more hands-off.

A: Yes, it was almost like I was trying to be a camera eye. I wasn’t hiding directly, but I didn’t know how to keep as many balls in the air and still be subtle. Now I think I just can master that better. Not always – believe me, a lot of what I write just ends up in the trash.

Q: You’ve said that you discard about a third of your writing.

A: At least. If I don’t start to get a lot of information back from the text I’m creating, then I don’t want to just be writing something that’s bullish or, you know, a disguised essay.

Q: How far into a piece might you get before deciding to dump it?

A: Sometimes to the last paragraph. I write at the computer, I write quickly, and I’m the only one who sees my rough drafts. But I can pretty much tell whether I can shape the piece in a way that doesn’t just seem predictable.

I’m working on a story now that I’m revising, but that’s only because I judge it viable. The good thing about freelance is that nobody’s sitting there just praying that my manuscript will come whizzing in to them.

Q: What aspects of story writing have become easier or more difficult over time?

A: Well, I wouldn’t say that anything has become more difficult. I’ve always had certain reservations about what I didn’t want my work to be, and if it teeters on that, or if it doesn’t please me, I’ve always had a lot of things that I discard. And that’s fine; it’s my working method. I’m very careful of my perceptions because I don’t want to be so noticeable in my work that I’m repeating myself.

Sometimes people come back to something way, way later. You’ve probably read interviews with George Saunders, who’s had such a success with “Lincoln in the Bardo.” He’s very forthcoming about how many years it took him for this to gestate, and for him to even get to it at all.

Q: I gather you and Saunders are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

A: I’ve never done it that way, in my life – nor do I aspire to. Nor, certainly, does George Saunders aspire to write the way I write! Everybody’s different.

In a lot of ways, writers build difficulties into their life so that they’re not writing. I mean, some writers are helped by daily writing, and that’s great. I don’t write everyday, but there’s no universal rule.

Q: You just mentioned knowing what you don’t want your work to be. What does that consist of?

A: Well, I read a great number of stories, too. I guess I don’t want to read any story and not, on some level, be surprised by it. In other words, I don’t want to just read something that’s well-executed. I do appreciate good prose and complete stories. But my personal sensibility, my personal interest is in something more fleeting than that. I like that moment of being jarred by something you never could have out-guessed the writer on. And if I can apply that to myself, better yet.

Q: In your new book, there are lots of small, surprising, funny touches. For example, there’s a restaurant scene where you write, “Compote basically meant a little cup containing not enough of a substance.” Was that completely impromptu?

A: Yes. That’s one of the delights of writing, really. I enjoy telling anecdotes. I never tell jokes – I don’t enjoy them on any level. But a joke is different than a funny thing, and if I didn’t happen to be writing, I don’t think I would have had any reason to think about compote – ever! Again it’s that visual sense. When I was looking at that little dish, I thought, “Oh, that’s right, there’s never enough. You always want more of that stuff.”

Q: That, and a guy sitting in a restaurant, with a larger appetite, looks at the compote and thinks, “What the hell is this?” It’s just great!

A: Thank you. I laughed out loud when I wrote that. Sometimes my humor is missed, I assure you.

Q: The short story is clearly having a moment right now. Beyond our dwindling attention span, what’s contributing to this?

A: MFA Programs. That is the default form – not novels. The short story is the form because it fits within the seminar period – it’s discussable and it’s convenient. That’s what’s going on. I mean, you have to look at the number of writing programs now versus even, say, 20 years ago. I don’t really know what “MFA workshop fiction” is, but I don’t disparage it because I think a lot of it is within a tradition of newer work commenting on older work.

Q: What’s the most difficult thing to teach students about writing?

A: There are a great number of difficulties – learning to have a distinctive voice, to shape the story. There are all kinds of abstract ideals about what their work might be. But, for my way of reading, the reader has to be a participant, even in fiction. If you’re not allowing for the reader, then you’re just writing a disguised diatribe, as far as I’m concerned.

Q: What makes a great short story?

A: From the writer’s end – and I wouldn’t limit this to short stories – doing something that’s beyond what you’re capable of in that moment, and doing it anyway. I mean, athletes will tell you that happens all the time. They’ll go out to run, and they’ll say “I don’t know why it was a bad day,” and they attribute it to things that can’t be proved or disproved, like psychological resistance or fear of success. I think these things are universally true that people don’t know why they just can’t get things to work some of the time.

Q: From a reader’s standpoint, what makes a great story?

A: My training is in literature, so when I read, I rarely can judge something except in the writer’s own context. When you see that certain things are escaping the context, or are a one-off, that’s often extremely interesting.

One of my pet peeves that I would express in my teaching is that your strengths work both ways – they’re also your weaknesses. Being able to write good prose can also work against you. I hope my stories don’t seem pre-determined when you get to the end. That would be the absolute kiss of death.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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