What We’re Reading with Mona Simpson

April 10, 2023

Professor Mona Simpson’s new novel Commitment (Knopf, 2023) is available now. Mona will read from and talk about her new book at the Hammer Museum on Thursday, April 27. Enjoy a sneak peak of this event with our interview with Mona below!

Can you tell us what your book is about?

This is the most commonly asked question and I’m so bad at answering it. “About” is a very hard word when it comes to novels in general, one’s own in particular. The book flap reads “Commitment is a chronicle of the lives of three Southern California children in the 1970s who have to somehow construct lives when their single mom has a breakdown and is committed to a state mental health hospital.” I’ll have to go with that.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading this novel?

I hope readers tuck away a few paragraphs from the book and keep them as emotional referentials in their lives, the way I carry movements, bits of dialogue, even internal thoughts, from books I’ve read: the short scene in which Madame Rostov, in War and Peace, quietly slips money to her old friend to outfit her son Boris for his post; the afternoon when the heroine, in Alice Munro’s eponymous story “Carrie” realizes her lover has made up a vendetta to extract money from her; in Middlemarch, Dorothea’s slow, clear understanding that her husband will never be able to finish his book. The pulses from Commitment that I think of at odd hours are: Lina’s date with a young man whom she wants to marry; Donnie’s attempt to persuade a grocery store manager to accept his penance and his own realization that he will carry certain regrets alone and forever; Walter watching the woman he loves hold the paper she’s reading a poem aloud from, her wrists shaking; and Walter sitting all night next to his mother in the hospital and knowing he is, for once, exactly where he should be.

I hope, too, from the larger movements in the background, people may feel their vision nudged open a bit, of what might be possible for an asylum.

You recently shared with the Los Angeles Times that it took about six years to write this novel. What advice do you give your students to keep writing?

I told Mary McNamara (at the LA Times) that it had been six years since my last book, but when I actually googled Casebook, I saw that it had been published nine years earlier. I’m horrified! I don’t want my students to learn from this! Of course, there’s a balance. I teach students that revision is writing, that sometimes a first draft or even a fifth draft is a compilation of clues gesturing towards the real meaning of the piece. I’m less concerned with whether a student “sticks with” one piece; my real goal as a teacher is to start them on a daily practice of reading and writing. If one writes every day, there’s less pressure on any given hour. I suppose the same could be said of publication.

I kept this book at home a long time. I knew it had a quietness, at its center was someone who could no longer communicate her experience – one definition of madness. There was a substantial component of research and really, just of understanding I needed to grow into.

Do you have any other projects on the horizon that you’d like to share or talk a bit about?

One good thing about Commitment having stayed in my house so long is that, for the last few years, I’ve been writing another book too. So now, I’m almost finished with a two-part short novel, called Help and Its Sequel. I’m always interested in class and class movement. A good friend of mine, after reading Help, said “College means a lot to these people.” And in that moment, I realized I really had changed worlds. For me and for the kids I knew growing up, in a paper mill city in the Midwest, college was the ladder out. It was the one chance for social mobility. We all knew that. And yet, it was very hard, when the moment came, to actually take that ladder. Poverty, even relative poverty, creates a culture. When kids became old enough to work, there was something magical, empowering and irresistible about a paycheck. In Help, a young journalist is beginning her life in New York, and finds herself expected to help her cousin’s daughter, just out of the hospital. At the same time, she’s asked to write the college entry essay for her landlord’s granddaughter. The book questions the nature of help, to whom we owe it, and why some people are so difficult to assist. It’s also the first book I’ve written which directly contends with complicated sexuality.