A Conversation with Mona Simpson
Q: What is Casebook about?
A: Casebook is about boy named Miles and his best friend, Hector, who spy on Miles’ mother as the family is falling apart. It’s a mystery and it’s also my attempt at a love story. Maybe love stories are all mysteries.
I’ve tried to give some of the vivid pleasures and discontents of romantic yearning, with its intermittent satisfactions. But at the same time that the book is about love, it’s also about watching love, seeing signs and scraps of it and learning to recognize its force, that it exists and that you can’t control it, that it could hurt you, before it’s even a possibility that you might find it for yourself. Before any of its pleasures are available to you.
Q: What inspired you to write about a family after a divorce?
A: What I want to find, through fiction, are answers to the ancient questions of how to live: What is a good life? What choices do people have? How can they, wherever they happen to find themselves on the economic ladder, find beauty and meaning?
I think the family is the base of everything. When Henry James published What Maisy Knew (his novel about a family coming apart) a little more than a hundred years ago, the divorce rate in the United States was 7%. Now, it’s closer to 50%. Marriage is no longer until death do us part, and fictionally, there’s no way to make that come out right. What we’ve lost is permanence, the forever after of fairytales. If a man sleeps with a young woman in Shakespeare or Cervantes, you know that by the end, he will have been tricked into marrying her. Divorce is sometimes unavoidable, we know, yet for ourselves and our children, we don’t want it. We don’t want even that weird modern almost-oxymoron, a good divorce. For ourselves and our children, we want Jane Austen love. We want permanence. Rightness.
Q: What do we learn from Casebook about how children respond to divorce? Are there ways in which the divorce benefits Miles and his sisters?
A: The central question they face from the divorce and from the mystery in this book and its resolution is what position romantic love should have in their lives. Will they live driven by suspicion? Or will they trust the high notes, the lures?
I don’t think that their parents’ divorce benefits Miles or his sisters; it’s a fact of their life and in understanding the sorrow and confusion it causes them, they eventually gain depth, and an acceptance of different, equally vivid realities. They grow up anyway.
Q: Why did you decide to write from a young boy’s perspective? How did you get inside his head?
A: This book started for me with the boy’s vantage. I thought of it as a door open only one small wedge. I wanted to limit the love story, to set in within a family, within a larger life and among people whose main concern was not the lovers’ happiness. I have a boy, I love a boy, and though in most of the central parts of this novel, he’s not represented, I’ve used his lingo, his friends’ diction and slang and some of the games they played. The boy I’ve created, is, in some ways, a mother’s fantasy. Only a mother could dream up a boy who is obsessed with...his parents.
Q: What were the challenges of writing about divorce from a child’s perspective, rather than a parent’s? What can we learn from Miles that we wouldn’t learn from an adult narrator?
A: In my life, I’ve been the person watching lovers more than I’ve been one of the lovers myself. Does everyone feel that way? That we watch love? That we aren’t usually the lovers ourselves. (Maybe that’s why love feels like such an absolute mandate when it is finally your turn.)
I needed a filter for the love story and I wanted a fairly naive one. We have all kinds of cultural assumptions about parting that we absorb: People get hurt. It’s no one’s fault. He or she is a grownup. I wanted someone young enough and uncool enough to emit a gigantic roar of WAH when he feels pain.
Q: Miles and his best friend, Hector, embark on a mission to find out more about Eli. They even hire a Private Investigator. Why does Hector insist on doing this?
A: They want to nail down the truth. They are at an age when they still believe that all the nuances of love can be subjected to a true/false paradigm, one of good/evil. Yet as much as they want that kind of a game, they are shocked to discover actual lies, actual evil in the adult world.
Like many mysteries, this one started out with something external, but was finally driven by a deeper compulsion that even Miles himself doesn’t understand.
Q: Miles joins a school’s LGBT support group with no fear that other students might think he’s gay. What were you saying, if anything, about Miles trying to discover his own motivations (sexual and otherwise)?
A: Miles finds himself in a situation many heterosexuals find themselves in. For most of the time covered in the book, though his sexual desire settles on a female, his closest and most daily relationship is with another boy. It’s an interesting syndrome. In many heterosexual marriages, despite sex, the two parties find themselves most engaged, most juiced, most intricately involved with other people of their own gender who are involved in their central project—for many men, that’s work, for many women, childrearing.
Q: Casebook makes readers think about how well we really know our parents. How do parental secrets impact who we become, and the decisions we make as adults?
A: I think very few people understand their parents as much as they’d like to. Often, by the time you know what you want to ask them, it’s too late. I think secrets impact everyone and usually terribly. National secrets, family obfuscations, most secrets.
Q: You tend to be reticent in interviews about the extent to which your fiction borrows from the details of your life. Why is this? Does your fiction borrow from your life? Should writers draw on their own personal lives as fuel for their fiction?
A: My fiction uses life only when life is better than what I can make up. I think writers should draw on everything for their fiction—their lives, the lives they know through reading and from being in the world and the vast realms of the imagined, by which I don’t only mean the fantastic.
Much of what is called realism in fiction is highly imagined. It’s life with a soft deep light inside it.
*Starred Review* Simpson’s latest ensnaring, witty, and perceptive novel of family life under pressure in Los Angeles mines the same terrain as her much-lauded last novel, the immigrant-nanny-focused My Hollywood (2010). Here she puts a clever spin on domestic surveillance as young Miles begins spying on his mother, Irene, a mathematician, just as fault lines begin to appear in her marriage to his father, a Hollywood lawyer. Wily Miles, the overweight older brother of twin sisters he professes to loathe yet watches over tenderly, sets up phone taps of increasing sophistication, opens e-mail, eavesdrops, and paws through drawers, aided and abetted by his friend Hector, who is highly suspicious, and rightfully so, of Eli, post-separation Irene’s increasingly enigmatic and elusive lover. As they muddle through middle school and high school, Miles and Hector become an adolescent American variation on Holmes and Watson, with the help of a kind, handsome private eye, Ben Orion. They also embark on a crazy entrepreneurial scheme involving troublesome pets. Simpson’s opening gambit is a “Note to Customer” from the publisher of Two Sleuths, the best-selling comic created by Miles and Hector, but she wisely uses this framing device lightly, allowing this exceptionally incisive, fine-tuned, and charming novel to unfold gracefully as she brings fresh understanding and keen humor to the complexities intrinsic to each stage of life and love. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Simpson is a great literary favorite, and this winning novel will be supported by a cross-country author tour and plenty of publicity. --Donna Seaman