Tell the truth, shame the devil

In the US, Helen Simpson would be a literary star, not a mum who also writes stories. Dina Rabinovitch meets a hidden treasure of British fiction
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The Independent Culture

Male novelist slips anchor to New York, leaving in his wake a trail of brave "I'm going to call a spade a spade" comments, and this makes front-page huff and op-ed puff for a week. Meanwhile, still in our midst, we have a short-story writer who does nothing but tell it like it is. Except she'd probably have to go to America to get Rushdiesque attention. We pay little accord to our short-story writers - not the case in the US where (as rebellious sister to the Great American Novel, perhaps) the form is celebrated. Indeed, writers even get paid substantial sums for producing it. Over here, it's something women do while the children are at school.

Male novelist slips anchor to New York, leaving in his wake a trail of brave "I'm going to call a spade a spade" comments, and this makes front-page huff and op-ed puff for a week. Meanwhile, still in our midst, we have a short-story writer who does nothing but tell it like it is. Except she'd probably have to go to America to get Rushdiesque attention. We pay little accord to our short-story writers - not the case in the US where (as rebellious sister to the Great American Novel, perhaps) the form is celebrated. Indeed, writers even get paid substantial sums for producing it. Over here, it's something women do while the children are at school.

So that's how she gets away with it, then. Helen Simpson is moving from south London to north London. In preparation, she has been subscribing to the local newspaper, the Ham & High, for six months. "I just wanted to see what the local issues are," she said. "And it mainly seems to be postmen dropping elastic bands. If they saved the elastic bands, think how much they'd save the country. Certain people are collecting up to 300 a week". Watch out, north London, your cover just blew. Salman Rushdie's busy making daisy chains compared to what this woman delivers - and she's walking around unguarded.

In south London, Simpson masqueraded under her married name and told other women, if they asked, that "oh, I don't know, I write round the edges, I'm so irritated with myself, don't get much done at all, I can't talk about it, literally I can't, it's private."

She is private about her writing. There are no dedications on the fly-leaf pages of her books, not to husband, or to children. "I just don't," she says. "The writing's mine. I don't know why, really but it's a private business. I'm doing it while fitting round everyone - which is how I want it. I want the family content, before I carve time out for myself."

The paradox is, as fans know, that her stories blast privacy to smithereens. Her first collection, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, opened with a woman making love to one man physically, but someone quite different in her mind. Simpson's author photograph on the inside cover showed her in blood-red nails and lips, with her clothes slipping off, as she exposed in genteel language every seething hatred that is the underside of perfectly ordinary relationships.

In her latest author photograph, she has metamorphosed into a cosier, smiling creature, delicate jewellery and arms folded. But she still lays into emotion, like Nigella Lawson tearing roasted flesh off a chicken carcass. She has continued through another two collections, Dear George, and now Hey Yeah Right Get a Life (Jonathan Cape, £15.99). Thrilled to have a baby? Happily married? Yes, all that, but here's how it really feels, the love and the boredom.

Her trademark is exquisite language, which works more often than not, though sometimes there is too much elaboration. It is deliberate, the language: she crafts it endlessly. "The trouble with a lot of this material, it's boring and plodding. That's the challenge for a writer - if you've got something really boring, like a day of average child-care, or a City dinner. You've got to make it truthful, but not boring. When you get to writing about this, it's tempting to plod and sigh your way through the plodding and sighing, so you've got to work hard at it."

The day we meet is her 15th wedding anniversary. She politely asks if it's OK if she answers the phone, only she's using a babysitting agency tonight, and is expecting their call. Between homes, Simpson, her lawyer husband and two children are living in rented accommodation, which she has customised with velvet throws and her son's football videos. Her computer's in storage, but the cook-books are out. Her daughter Julia is 11, her son Jim is eight . She doesn't let the children read her books: "sex and violence", she says.

She was first spotted at Vogue, where she worked after winning their Talent Contest. "It was a worldly education," she says. "Somebody once said, what drink do you like? I didn't know anything about drink, really, but my mother used to like sweet martini and lemonade, so I asked for that, and everybody went eeeugh."

"Once I asked the editor, Miss Miller, for more money, and she said, 'Why do you want more money, darling?'" But in the end, Vogue launched her, when Beatrix Miller asked, "But what do you really want to do, darling?". She replied, "I write short stories." Vogue published her first: "The Bed".

Later that month, she had to commission Julian Barnes to do a piece for the magazine, and left her name and number as the contact. On the phone, his wife, the agent Pat Kavanagh, asked Simpson whether she'd written "that bloody good story". Kavanagh took her on then and there. "Pat was tremendous. I made no money at all for her to start with. She's extremely professional as an agent; you always have the feeling of being taken extremely seriously, and she never says anything she doesn't mean."

But, although she demurs when I say this, the market is such that she's not paid much for her labours, despite several awards. "I support myself," she says, "though it's not enough to keep children on." Now, she makes "anything from £300 to £1,000 a story... but then you can sell them on, there's radio, a book."

Back at school, it all started when she used to write up her day in the style of her set books. She has since played with other forms. Her first book of all, her moneyspinner and still in print, was The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea. She has also written a novella, a play and an opera. Her libretto, Good Friday, was on television. "It was broadcast the same time as When Harry met Sally, which was a real shame. Bad stroke."

She has also done length. The first person in her family to go to university, she did English at Oxford, then stayed to write a thesis. But in the short story, "I get the real truth, I get art, but in a quicker dose."

What she wants is simple. "Tell the truth, and shame the devil" she says. As an adolescent she promised herself she'd put up with it all, but never pretend. Honesty can be misunderstood, she reckons. It's the material - largely, domestic life - that causes confusion, particularly among some reviewers.

"It seems to me if you're mildly satirical, and you write on this sort of subject, it can quickly escalate. The description can be that you're extremely jaundiced." One interviewer, she tells me, wrote of her that she had a remarkably limp handshake for such a writer. Because she isn't jaundiced, she - naturally - spent the evening before our interview practising strong handshakes with her husband.

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