Story teller Simpson ponders life, death 'In the Driver's Seat'

Posted: Friday, July 27, 2007

LONDON - We live in an age of artistic excess. Novels get thicker. Movies get longer, begetting sequels and then threequels.

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Writers such as Helen Simpson, however, appreciate the art of brevity.

Since 1990, the British writer has published a novella and four short-story collections, each greeted with rapture by critics and glee by a growing band of fans.

Simpson's latest, "In the Driver's Seat" (published in Britain as "Constitutional"), joins her earlier volumes in dissecting the lives of mostly middle-class - and increasingly middle-aged - men and women.

These are quotidian tales. In one, a 40-something teacher ponders her father's Alzheimer's and her fertility during a lunchtime walk around London's Hampstead Heath. In another story, a mother driving her children to school reflects on aging, ambition, motherhood and divorce.

Between the lines, Simpson serves up big themes - birth, death and life-altering illness - in small, piquant bites.

"I'm just not long-winded generally," said Simpson, a compact brunette, sipping a strong but modestly sized macchiato in a London cafe.

"Sometimes, you get novels that are so full of padding you feel like saying, 'Come on, come on, move it,"' she said. "Usually, at the end of a novel I think, 'I like that, I enjoyed that. I wish it was shorter."'

Simpson knows this puts her in a minority. Relatively few living authors who write in English - Simpson mentions Canadian Alice Munro and Irishman William Trevor - have built their career on stories rather than novels.

Simpson says each form has qualities that the other lacks.

"I like reading novels, and you don't get lost in stories in the same way," she said. "It's not that same pleasure of sinking down into a warm bath or losing yourself."

Simpson has more stories in the works. She was published recently in both the New Yorker and Granta magazines. And the author, hailed a decade ago as one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, says she may yet write a novel.

"The only thing you can't do in a story is explore character over time," Simpson said. "And that's why, maybe, I'll do a novel as I get older. Because it gets so interesting when you get older, when you notice what happens in people's lives."

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