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"My Hollywood" Author Mona Simpson Studies the Help  

By Michael Aushenker
Special to The Lookout

August 31, 2011 -- “My Hollywood” author Mona Simpson appeared at the Santa Monica Library this month to celebrate the August 9 paperback release of her latest novel.

Larry Wilson questions Mona Simpson.
Photo by Michael Aushenker

The Santa Monica resident discussed her latest work in an hour-long on-stage interview conducted by Larry Wilson, a journalist at the Pasadena Star-News.

Wilson revealed that he and Simpson, who also authored “Anywhere But Here” (source of the 1999 Wayne Wang movie starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman), are old school buddies. Back at college, they co-founded the Berkeley Poetry Review.

“It’s about the Hollywood in our mind,” Wilson said of Simpson’s latest. “It’s set where the real people are, right here in Santa Monica, the Palisades, Brentwood…”

Parts of “My Hollywood” are told through the vantage point of Lola, the Filipino babysitter for upper middle class music composer Claire, mother of two. Simpson made Claire a music writer rather than an author because, she admitted, “I’m so sick of reading about writers.”

Since Filipino live-in nannies become surrogate mothers to these privileged kids, the caretakers employ ‘their different notions of discipline.” Simpson added that she befriended Filipino nannies at a local park where she took her young kids.

When she wound up traveling to the Philippines to research her book, she sought out friends and relations of these Santa Monica-based nannies, who often sent money home to support their families and put their own children through trade schools.

One of the key phrases employed by Lola in the book came from when a real-life live-in nanny was let go by an academic couple whose son had come of age: “They chopped me!”

“There was this illusion where it feels like you’re like part of the family, which isn’t true,” Simpson said. Then the nanny is discharged. “You don’t fire your grandmother!”

One of the dads in “My Hollywood” works in television (as does Simpson’s ex-husband). Wilson described the character as “A husband who goes to work in the morning and essentially never comes home.”

She recalled dinners with local Little League parents where “one of the big discussions is all the husbands worked late.”

The mothers would conform their entire nights around the dads' arrival at the end of the evening “and then it’s as if Santa Claus [arrived].”

“The successful men of our generation work 30% more than our fathers worked,” said Simpson, whose book explores the stresses and strains of such factors on contemporary family life.

She went into detail depicting mothers working hard to take care of the kids while juggling their careers and accommodating their husbands. “Fathers loomed above it; high trees,” she writes.

(Fun fact: If you’ve ever wondered watched the cartoon family “The Simpsons” and wondered if it was a coincidence that Homer Simpson’s mother is named Mona Simpson, it turns out that the “My Hollywood” author was once married to TV writer Richard Appel, who wrote on the show and named the character after his wife in the episode “Mother Simpson.”)

Ultimately, her new novel, as Simpson put it, is about “what it means to have a child, an exploration of what we owe when we have a child.” It's also “an unconscious response” to literature that has traditionally downplayed the help.

“My Hollywood” aside, the pair discussed the rapidly transitioning nature of publishing.

“A lot of the book business seems to be book-club driven,” the novelist said. When Wilson asked Simpson how she felt about e-books, she responded, “I’m just a classic middle-aged person troglodyte!”

(This reply might seem ironic when one realizes that Simpson’s biological brother is Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs.)

On the plus side, Simpson recalled reading about a 20-year-old writer who became a phenomenon online with an e-book about a zombie/alien romance.

“Authors might be able to break through in new ways,” she said.

“It’s the book as object that we’re going to be missing,” Wilson observed. After all, he continued, one can sign a book but try autographing a digital download.

“I don’t know how that works,” she said, chuckling.

To which Wilson quipped, “I guess you can sign my Kindle.”


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