Alumni Spotlight: Mona Simpson '85

September 09, 2014

The Alumni Spotlight is a place to hear from the School of the Arts alumni community about their journeys as artists and creators.

Mona Simpson '85 was born in Green Bay, Wisconsin, then moved to Los Angeles a young teenager. Her father was a recent immigrant from Syria and her mother was the daughter of a mink farmer and the first person in her family to attend college. Simpson went to Berkeley, where she studied poetry. She worked as a journalist before moving to New York to attend Columbia’s MFA program. During graduate school, she published her first short stories in PloughsharesThe Iowa Review and Mademoiselle. She stayed in New York and worked as an editor at The Paris Review for five years while finishing her first novel, Anywhere But Here. After that, she wrote The Lost FatherA Regular Guy and Off Keck Road and Casebook, which have been translated into many languages.

Her work has been awarded several prizes: A Whiting Prize, A Guggenheim, a grant from the NEA, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a Lila Wallace Readers Digest Prize, a Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, Pen Faulkner finalist, and most recently a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. 

She worked ten years on My Hollywood. “It’s the book that took me too long because it meant so much to me,” she says. 

Mona lives in Santa Monica with her two children and Bartleby the dog. 

 


I was twenty-four years old when I arrived at Columbia. I’d flown from California, where I’d lived most of my life, with two thousand dollars in cash, a portable typewriter and a slim folder of stories. I’d been reading since childhood but I was slow: I came east having read under a hundred novels.

I had sneakers and a cloth coat that a saleswoman at I. Magnin in San Francisco had assured me would be warm enough for blizzards.

Coming here was the bravest thing I’d ever done. I knew no one east of the Mississippi. I’d grown up poor, gotten lucky with scholarships for college (the generous University of California system) and had only a partial tuition waver here.

I’d given up a steady job with health insurance, regular freelance assignments with the local Bay Area papers, and an apartment where my mother and I “wallpapered” the kitchen by stapling on a pretty fabric. Most importantly, I’d left a constellation of friends who already threw grown up dinner parties with wine, bread from the Acme bakery, and desserts made from scratch. We stayed up talking until a few hours before I needed to bike to work again.

I had made my first home in California, but it didn’t rest on any sustainable profession. I took a night course taught by a published and inspiring essayist, but the other pupils, all older than I, seemed to write less the further they were from their time at university. Their vocations seemed to be diminishing and I hoped to make mine grow. 

I hadn’t given up love. That had crashed and burned long enough ago so that all that was left was emptiness, with a small streak of hope.

That streak was what lifted me to move.

I’d applied to Columbia once before, two years earlier and then called in August to say I couldn’t accept the scholarship because I’d fallen in love. Dan Halpern must have scribbled “fell in love” on my file, because this time, I’d had to answer the question “What happens if you fall in love again?”

I told the department secretary who asked that that was unlikely.

By October, before the first snowfall, it was clear that the cloth coat was a mistake, not only in material but also cut—wind off the Hudson slid right in through the shawl collar slipping between the buttons of my blouse, that the small collection of books I considered the world turned out to occupy only one tiny corner of the huge library called Literature and that however sensitive and emotionally volatile my family had considered me, there were others who were even more so. 

Here, I was almost completely normal.

Most of my classmates intimidated and ultimately inspired me. It was a vulnerable, impressionable time. Though there were many pressing social issues (these were Reagan years) we were mainly concerned, engage, as Joan Didion wrote, only with most private lives.

The only social issue that truly obsessed me was income inequality. Mine. I studied the white blouses worn (a different one every day) by a talented student from the south and I never once worked up the courage to ask her where she found them. 

I was an idiot: I railed about the Virginia Woolf’s upper class snobbery; Elizabeth Hardwick and the other students kindly looked down and we moved on.

Edmund White was the most relishing reader I’d ever known. I still have my notebooks from his Proust class. He could talk two hours straight about the pain of suffering from unrequited love and make it funny.

Richard Price told us after he’d graduated from Columbia he had his checks printed: Richard Price, MFA.

There was a department secretary who helped us with our work study assignments. She was married to a prominent scientist and had taken the program herself so she trusted her intuition about these placements. I’d wanted to teach with Lucy Calkins’ Poetry in the Schools program, but my friend Rob Cohen got that job and the secretary sent me over to the East River to interview with The Paris Review, then run out of a ten by twelve room which also housed George Plimpton’s bicycle. I was hired. Mostly, I sat in an old chair by the window and read manuscripts. (This worked out well because the managing editor at that time had a “reading block,” which she was working on with her analyst.) We each whispered into our phones, politely pretending we didn’t hear  pleas for money and the fights with overs. We discovered that I could write conciliating letters to her boyfriend that she then signed and sent. Before every party, she dressed me. She was a beauty and also an heiress. 

Cool it, she wrote, in response to two dozen roses which arrived from a young FSG editor.

Later that afternoon a toaster oven was delivered by messenger.

It was like that.

The secretary pulled me aside one day at Columbia. It’s going so well at The Paris Review, she said. Sometimes we take for granted the things that come easily to us. Maybe you should forget writing and become an editor.

At that time, I was not sure I would be able to hold out. My sweaters were wearing at the elbows. My socks were frayed. I renewed by commitment every year the way one would up a lease. My friends and I talked about this. If we didn’t sell a book by the time we were thirty, we’d say, we’d take a job. It says something about our assumptions that we had full confidence those jobs would be always be there, for our taking.

I stayed in at least one extra year just to prove her wrong.

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