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On interviewing Francine Prose, Susan Straight and Mona Simpson

May 4, 2011 |  4:25 pm

Francineprose_2011 "These are the heavy-hitters," Susan Straight overheard a ticket-holder say of the panel, simply called, "The Art of the Novel," at last weekend's Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the USC campus.

"Does that mean they think we're overweight?" Francine Prose wondered just before the panel began, "or just really old?"

None of the above. The three writers on the panel-- Straight, Prose and Mona Simpson-- are at the top of the list of the best writers working in America today. They talked about their latest novels, each of which reflects the obligation they feel to illuminate some corner of American life.

In “Take One Candle Light a Room,” a novel set in her beloved Southern California, Straight took on a woman who thinks she has left her past behind.

Prose, inspired by travels in Eastern Europe, and by wanting to think deeper about immigration and what it means to become an American, put herself in the mind and heart of a young Albanian woman as she tries to become an American citizen ("My New American Life").

Simpson had her ear to the ground when she was raising small children -- she listened to the conversations of the women in West Los Angeles who cared for so many of those children and, in "My Hollywood," wrote about a young mother and the nanny who works for her family.

These are political novels -- in all three the writer must imagine the lives of immigrants struggling to make it in America. Could they have written these novels in their early years as writers?

"In my 20s I was less interested in plot," Simpson said. "I thought everything with a plot was a sellout. Now I see what a great way it is to tell a story. Also, I didn't know what I know now about raising children."

In her research, Simpson found letters in the Library of Congress from domestic servants to Eleanor Roosevelt. "These were like messages in a bottle," she said. "Are there better ways to reach people than writing fiction? Sure. But in fiction you can capture a time and a place -- the beauty and the difficulties."

Prose felt she had more perspective on her character than she might have had in her 20s. "You don't really make choices in your life," she laughed. "What I love is creating characters that people think they know. When I talk with someone about characters in books it's as if we had all these friends in common."

Straight referred to a quote her daughter showed her -- something along the lines of a "sigh becoming a novel." She remembered a story she heard about a man in Louisiana moving to California when he felt his beautiful daughters were threatened. She told a story about how much she has enjoyed putting Riverside County on the literary map -- at a talk she gave in Mecca, Calif., some grape pickers were thrilled to find their town in her book, "Highwire Moon." "It's been a big joy in my life to write about that one place," she said.

In answer to a question from a young mother in the audience, about how long it took the writers to complete their novels (you could hear the voice in her head shouting: "how will I ever have time to WRITE"), Prose answered practically: "No more than five years. If it goes on that long, something's wrong." For her part, Straight recommended using wakeful hours between 12 and three in the morning."

When I asked about posterity -- Straight said: "Why do you want us to talk about death?"

Three heavy-hitters in the best possible sense sharing their combined wisdom.

-- Susan Salter Reynolds

Photo: Francine Prose. Credit: Stephanie Berger / Harper

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