Commissioned in 1917, it was a gift from a local philanthropist to the city. An American artist spent the last five years of his life on it, then an Italian finished the job. It was then cast by Roman Bronze Works of Brooklyn, N.Y., and shipped to Charlottesville, Va. Once atop the granite pedestal in a whites-only park, this horse and its rider, Confederate general Robert E. Lee, stood 26 feet tall. Days before its official unveiling, the Ku Klux Klan, feeling celebratory, lit a wooden cross on fire and marched it around town.
A century later, Ann Beattie joins a Zoom call from her home 40 miles west of there, with the help of her tech-savvy artist husband, Lincoln Perry. This is Beattie’s first interview for Onlookers (Scribner, July), her new collection of stories, all set in Charlottesville, about the greatest generation living in the long shadow of General Lee.
“This is a very different kind of book for me,” Beattie says of her 22nd publication. “That’s just the reality of publishing now. They’re not going to publish a collection of stories, at least by me, without a common denominator to talk about.”
Several common denominators twine the six stories of Onlookers, but the heaviest is that 12-ton specter of America’s bloodiest conflict. In 2017, the statue put Charlottesville in the national spotlight when a white supremacist rally organized in response to its proposed removal ended with the murder of a counter-protestor by a neo-Nazi. The monument, which Beattie passed hundreds of times while teaching at the University of Virginia, never failed to surprise her with its appearances in these stories. “I never moved it,” she says. “Once in, it was immovable, and the characters and I would have to get around it, or cope with it, or the story would go on and take its own direction.”
Beattie’s stories are themselves full of stories. They can be amusingly digressive, showcasing her keen ear for the way people talk. And they never end up where the reader expects. But she is perhaps best known for writing fiction that is rich with deeply layered imagery. “For me, there are two things always going on in a story at the same time: the words and the visuals,” she says. The clearest visual is an Alice in Wonderland motif threaded through the book.
It becomes overt in “Alice Ott,” Onlookers’ sole first-person story; this POV and the story’s central placement make Alice a hinge, the all-seeing eye of an octopus whose tendrils extend in all directions. Alice’s niece Leticia relays this tale of her aunt, “an embarrassment to the family,” who was given a house containing an original Diane Arbus photo and a topiary garden replete with Lewis Carroll’s characters. At the end of her life, Alice falls “down the rabbit hole of assisted living” at Solace House, a nursing home that figures in multiple stories (most notably the last), and her politics and surprising life story send Leticia into her own wonderland. “Unfathomable,” she thinks, dizzied by all that lies outside her grasp.
Confusion, befuddlement, and misunderstandings abound. Onlookers is a pandemic book, taking place and written almost entirely during Covid. Beattie, always a deft chronicler of liminal spaces and states, captures precisely what it felt like as the world held its breath. Characters are locked down and lost in thought.
In “Pegasus” and “In the Great Southern Tradition,” writers are stuck in homes that are not their own, bubbled with peripheral people. In the latter, a young actor regrets spending time with his dysfunctional uncle and aunt, Monica, whose mother died at Solace House.
The aunt leaves the periphery for her own ruminative story, “Monica, Headed Home,” dragged by the nephew into the drama of a friend whose lover has just killed himself. “Every day is filled with mysteries,” Monica thinks as a protest forms around her in the park. But no, it’s not real; it’s a shoot for a film starring Frances McDormand. Monica “wondered what any of the figures on the statues would say, in the twenty-first century, about America’s having turned into a nation of joking, unreflective people... whose patron saints were Disney characters.”
Almost 50 years have passed since Beattie received an encouraging note from legendary editor Roger Angell informing her that she had been rejected by the New Yorker; she had no idea that a professor had submitted her work. After 22 months of submissions and rejections, Beattie made her first appearance in the New Yorker with “A Platonic Relationship.” She was 25, “and not a mature 25,” she says. “Really. Nothing special there.”
Her first book of stories, Distortions, followed in 1976, and her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, came out in 1979. Between the age of disco and the decade of greed, Beattie was immediately embraced as “the representative young American novelist and short-story writer,” according to Richard Locke, writing in the New York Times; her novel, Charles McGrath wrote in the same publication, had become “a kind of bible among 20-somethings.”
Since then Beattie has published with metronomic consistency—22 books in 47 years, including 2011’s The New Yorker Stories (containing 48). She’s received the PEN/Malamud and Rea awards for achievement in short fiction. She’s a member of the American Academy of Arts & Letters. She’s been in O. Henry Award collections and in Best American Short Stories of the Century.
From the outside, it looks as if Beattie has had no problems since the beginning of the Carter administration. When this assumption is made out loud, Beattie laughs. “Oh, Ann’s had a lot of problems. There were always insurmountable things.”
In the early days, these had to do with knowing no other writers, a lack of community. Today, Beattie feels “relegated to this new world of publishing—we all are, it’s not just me,” she says. “It’s odd to have written so much and to feel like such an outsider, you know? I should have felt like an outsider when I was one.”
Though Beattie lived in Charlottesville for years, she wrote Onlookers in Maine. Locked down at home with her husband, at a remove from her supercharged setting, she felt a loneliness creeping in. “I was very moody, unpredictable to myself,” she says.
She still feels keenly the loss of time—“Those years felt longer than they were, not shorter”—and thinks she was altered by the pandemic. “I feel more self-conscious now, after so much time alone, and having written rough drafts of things that will never go anywhere,” she says, shaking her head. “Then you think, life is difficult enough, do I really want to embark on another hypothetical book? The answer: no.”
Solace came to her in nature. Beattie took long, silent, solitary walks. On one of them, she happened to meet a neighbor’s horse. How fitting that at the moment when one horse—symbolizing a divided nation—was being torn from its granite base and shipped to the smelter, another—living, breathing—entered Beattie’s life.
“I still don’t want to ride it, I’m afraid of horses,” says Beattie, who has just finished an essay about the experience. “But I became fascinated by how expressive I thought this horse was.” She smiles. “Maybe I was projecting.”
Mike Harvkey is the author of In the Course of Human Events and was the researcher/reporter for the bestselling true crime book All-American Murder.