British short story writer Helen Simpson lives in London. Knopf published her newest collection, The Driver’s Seat, on this side of the pond. PW talked to Simpson just as she’d arrived on the West Coast of the U.S. for the first time in her life, and talked to her about the Red Sox, "the autobiographical question," and an unlikely boom industry in the U.K.
You’ve come from England. Where are you now?
I’m in San Francisco. It takes longer to fly from Washington to San Francisco than it does from London to New York. I’ve been enjoying every minute of it. I started in Boston, got off the plane, and because of the time difference, I found myself walking along Commonwealth Avenue at midnight—my time—in broad sunshine. I was there two nights. I saw the Red Sox fans. One night they were very happy, and the other night they all looked very glum. I had a reading at Harvard book store with lovely Ben Dolnick whose book is called Zoology. He said to me "half the audience is going to be my relatives." I don’t know whether that was true, but I do the first question that was asked—I was thinking Is that his uncle or some in-law? He asked one of those questions like "so how much of your book is autobiographical?" That is always an unfair question I think to ask a first time writer. I backed him up. I just came in and said who cares? You’re just nosey. All that matters is whether it’s a good piece of writing or not. Then I went to New York. A wonderful first night there: heavy rain storm and it was also very hot, so the night was tropical and gothic between these canyons of skyscrapers.
And you did an event with Lorrie Moore?
I did. Lorrie Moore of course is a rock star of the literary world. There was a huge audience at Barnes and Noble in Union Square. It was the biggest audience I’ve even seen at a book store. She was great—she’s got such wit, and such good delivery. She was reading from Anagrams. She held up a copy of the book, which had an attractive abstract painting on the cover, and she said, "ah well, I approached my publisher at the time and thought it was a good idea to say, why don’t you use this painting by my artist boyfriend." Then she paused and said, "Time moves on." She then tore the cover off the book, tore it in half, and read from the book after that. There’s something really shocking about seeing the cover of a book ripped off.
What did you read?
For the firrst time I read my darkest story—I like farce and black comedy, and this one was a story with lots of cancer in it, and the woman ends up getting run over and losing a leg. It’s supposed to be funny, but I’m always worried people might find it too much of a downer, but not with a New York audience—they laughed all the way through, which I was really pleased about. With stories it’s quite interesting. I’m think I’m reading a different one in each place.
Are you noticing big differences from city to city?
The New York one was much bigger; it was a very young audience, in their 20s, lots of them. In the Harvard book store in Boston they were all ages really. In Washington it was a very good audience because it’s this shop called Politics and Prose, run by Carla Cohen, who’s obviously a complete local fixture. And she runs a reading every night apparently—I’ve never heard of a shop doing that. I read with Nathan Englander. She’s got her regulars. It was a real community feeling in a way because lots of the audience knew each other.
Is touring in the U.K. very different from touring in the U.S.?
They’ve stopped doing nearly so many book shop readings now. When you’ve got a new book, we used to get the train up to Manchester or fly to Edinburgh, but now it’s just festivals really. For this last collection, which was called Constitutional in England—they changed the title here—I got asked to 14 different festivals and I went to all of them. They’re springing up. Any seaside place or attractive countryside place thinks, Why don’t we have a festival. It’s a boom industry.