Mona Simpson, UCLA professor of English and celebrated author, gets the ideas for her novels “anywhere and everywhere.”
“Sometimes good ideas come out of overhearing something,” Simpson said. “And sometimes, just in living your life.”
That’s what happened with her latest book, “My Hollywood,” a story of two women — Claire, a composer and new mother, and Lola, a nanny with five children back home in the Philippines — whose lives become intimately entwined through Claire’s son, William. Told by both Claire and Lola in alternating chapters, “My Hollywood” describes the underground competition for the best nannies and provides a close look at the two women’s endangered marriages: one American, one Filipino.
Simpson’s choice of a Filipina nanny in her novel was anecdotal, she said. When her son, Gabriel, was a baby, Simpson would take him to the park, where she fell in with a group of Filipina babysitters. She herself hired nannies to help care for Gabriel (now 16) and his sister, Grace (10), although Simpson said the character of Lola was not based specifically on anyone who had worked for her.
“I’d been thinking a lot about how we raise children, how that’s changed now that women work,” Simpson said. “We have so few public options in the United States in terms of day care and after-school programs. And then you have this whole core of working women who are often mothers themselves and who come from another place. And this is a way that they actually become professional, so there’s lots of interesting resonance there.”
“My Hollywood” is Simpson’s long-awaited fifth novel. Her first one, “Anywhere But Here,” was published in 1987 and later made into a 1999 movie starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman. Three more best-sellers followed: “The Lost Father” (1992), “A Regular Guy” (1997) and “Off Keck Road” (2000).
Although a native of Green Bay, Wis., Simpson grew up in Los Angeles and attended Beverly Hills High School. Her first love was poetry, which she studied at UC Berkeley. “I stuck with poetry as long as I could — as far as my talent would take me,” she said, laughing. Eventually, she became more interested in writing stories. She received her M.F.A. from Columbia University, during which time she also worked as an editor for The Paris Review.
In 1994, Simpson moved back to Los Angeles with her husband, Richard Appel (from whom she’s now divorced), and Gabriel, an infant at the time. She joined the faculty of the UCLA English Department in 2001, where she teaches courses in fiction writing and literature. She also maintains a teaching position at Bard College in New York.
Graduating UCLA senior Lisa Douglass is taking her final class on creative writing this summer with Simpson, whom she calls her friend and mentor.
“Mona’s generosity of spirit and time devoted to my work was integral to my growth,” said Douglass, who has already won three awards for her fiction. “She has a great ear for dialogue and what sounds right. The most frustrating part of my thesis was making a more believable mother. Mona kept saying it was important, and I knew she was right, even though I didn’t know how to get it done. Finally, I got a more believable mother!
“It was hard for me to do, but Mona insisted that it was what was missing, and I always believe her. Her writing is painfully truthful and humorous at the same time, and I hope to achieve that in my own work.”
In addition to teaching, Simpson is the creator of “Some Favorite Writers,” a free series that takes place several times a year at the UCLA Hammer Museum. Simpson invites writers — friends and others whose work she admires — to talk to her students in private sessions and then conduct readings for the public in the evenings. Participants have included the late David Foster Wallace (“Infinite Jest”), Jonathan Franzen (“The Corrections”) and Marilynne Robinson (“Housekeeping”).
As for “My Hollywood,” Simpson said that her newest novel took 10 years to write because she kept thinking of new things to do to it.
“I wanted to give people literary pleasure and to open doors onto new kinds of relationships, new kinds of unchronicled opportunities for love and generosity,” Simpson said. “I thought a lot about the question, ‘Can you buy love?’ We all want children raised with love. Can you get that by hiring it? It’s an interesting question.”