Interview: Bethany Ball, Author of The Pessimists

Bethany Ball, author of The Pessimists
Bethany Ball, author of The Pessimists

Bethany Ball attended the Sarah Lawrence MFA program and has gone on to publish two books: the comic novel What to Do About the Solomons (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017) and her new, extremely funny novel, The Pessimists (Grove, Oct. 2021).

Bethanne Patrick praised The Pessimists in The Washington Post, saying: "How do you write about privileged White parents and make it fresh? Leave it to novelist Bethany Ball. In The Pessimists, she throws together three suburban couples, whose children attend a twee private school, and documents their antics over the course of a year ... the novel’s bite and loose structure promise excellent social satire to come from its author."

In our interview, Bethany Ball talks about struggling to fit into mom culture, waking up to herself through meditation, and how, in spite of her book's title, she is working hard to remain optimistic in a world that feels like it is breaking down.

Matt Borondy: Why did you write this book?

Bethany Ball: I wrote the book because I had not seen anything out there that got to the heart of my anxiety as a mom, my struggles and difficulties fitting into mom culture, and my feelings that some things happening around me as a parent were just frankly bananas. When my son was born almost 19 years ago, we had very little money and not much community and no family help. I spent a lot of time on a website called Urbanbaby, which wound up being pretty toxic. There were a lot of wives of i-bankers bragging about their 100k yearly bonuses, which were three times more than we were scraping by on. I had worked in publishing but left to go to a dot com and couldn't find my way back into that industry. I couldn't go back to publishing because the money I would make would barely cover childcare expenses and my husband was traveling all the time. Everything felt impossible. I was terribly isolated. When children are quite small, people are often not terribly honest. It's self-protective. Parenting can often feel competitive and unsupportive. I wanted to write a book that sort of said, “We are all messing up. None of us know what we are doing. Even the people who act like they know—they don't know.” I remember years ago taking adult ed writing classes with a lot of women in their fifties, sixties, and seventies. They didn't have that judgmental attitude. Not because they were better people, but because they'd seen it all. They knew they weren't perfect, their kids weren't perfect. No one can parent perfectly. I wanted to write a book that I would have wanted to read during those early lost years now that I've found good friends, a good community, and my footing. At the same time, I wanted to poke fun at the ideas and practices that had once made me so miserable: attachment parenting, simplicity parenting, to ferber or not to ferber, to breastfeed, to have a natural birth, what kind of bottles to use, organic or not, etc. etc. I no longer believe one can engineer a perfect child. It just isn't how it works. But it’s what’s sold to us.

MB: As a person who has worked in publishing, do you sense a disparity between the number of readers in the over-40 female demographic vs. the number of books written about them? If so, why do you think it exists?

BB: I don’t know if I can say truly that there are less books written about men and women over forty, actually, if I think about it and lately, I have thought about it quite a bit. Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife. Taffy Akner’s novel. Amy Bloom’s Where the God of Love Hangs Out, and a whole bunch I am probably forgetting. And let’s not forget: Mrs. Dalloway.

MB: As I was reading the parts of The Pessimists that poke fun at mindfulness, I was wondering about your relationship with meditation and yoga...

BB: I have had a yoga and meditation practice for twenty-five years now. I'm a certified integral yoga teacher, though I don't teach yoga and never have. I stopped writing for a period of about ten years because my meditation teacher asked me a question that stopped me cold: What use is writing if you are asleep to yourself? In retrospect, I wish I hadn't stopped writing those ten years (or in fact, I never did stop writing but I did stop trying to publish), but that question had a major impact on me. And I think, twenty years after he asked me that question, that ultimately he was probably right. So, meditation work and the teachings and writings of Ramana Maharshi, Jean Klein, the Baal Shem Tov, Martin Buber, the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas and Mary, Gurdjieff and Ouspansky, Pema Chödrön, Yogi Gupta, and others are big influences. Perhaps more so than Virginia Woolf and Roberto Bolaño. In all my work with groups and teachers, I've seen a lot of things—some worth veneration, some worth satire. Some of the practices I'm sort of poking fun of in the book [are practices] I've worked with myself and have helped me. One attribute my teacher held above all others was critical thinking, and I was the student always furious about perceived hypocrisy in my teachers and fellow students and deeply critical of everything going on. But I still gained immeasurably from those imperfect practices, and ultimately, I received the greatest gift of all: a little bit of self-knowledge into my own psyche and flaws, fatal and otherwise. I think that was what my teacher was telling me: how can you know others (create characters) when you don't even know yourself?

MB: Does meditating make you more comfortable writing about situations in which everyone is messing up and there are no "right" solutions?

BB: I don’t know if meditating makes me more comfortable, but perhaps it gains me some insight into the idea that people are operating sort of haphazardly a good deal of the time, myself and my loved ones very much included! I know it’s practically a cliché by now, but the quote “Nothing human is alien to me” is sort of paramount in my fiction. And also, “There but by the grace of God go I.” I think many of us believe we have total control over our fates but actually there’s a lot of accident involved. Accident of where you were born and who you were born to. People seem to think they are extra smart about life, but in many if not most cases, they were lucky. Recently I was talking with my husband about unlikeable characters or characters without morality. I sort of believe my book is talking about the human condition, as people actually are, whether they know this about themselves or not. There is something to be said for reading books or consuming media that appeals to our highest nature. For instance, I loved Little House on the Prairie as a child. They were presenting these sort of white Judeo/Christian values. No one then was interested in hearing that Charles was actually kind of awful in real life and the plight of the native people. If I want to read the higher nature of humanity I’ll stick to the books I listed above. But if I want to think about people as they really are, I’ll reach for less likeable/laudable characters because that’s more our reality.

The Pessimists book by Bethany Ball
The Pessimists is Bethany Ball's second novel.

MB: It seems like the pandemic brought an increased sense of people feeling like they don’t have answers, or becoming overconfident in clearly wrong answers. How do you feel about the timing of your book release amidst what is hopefully the tail end of a pandemic? How does the book relate to this moment in ways that you may not have anticipated when writing it?

BB: I had no way of knowing, when I first began drafting and editing my book, that anti-vaxxers would become almost mainstream. I mean, thirty percent of cops and firemen refusing vaccines feels more mainstream than it does fringe. The idea that the world is ending as we know it is more mainstream than fringe, as everything around us begins to seem like it’s breaking down. Believe it or not, in spite of my book’s title, I have worked so hard to be optimistic about the state of the world, but I’m beginning to fail at that too. I feel contractually bound, however, to hang onto hope for the sake of my children and to remember that the world has been ending again and again somewhere far or close for thousands of years. Revolutions, famines, pandemics, wars, refugees, economic collapse, etc.

MB: Pandemic school closings raised more concern over school policies and awareness of the difficulties of teaching children from home while working, and caused more people to reconsider how their kids are learning. As a parent and someone who attended a non-traditional school and who wrote a book about an even-more-non-traditional school, what does the ideal learning environment look like to you?

BB: Good question! My kids have been mostly happy in the public schools, frankly. It’s far from perfect of course. I dislike standardized testing and the fact that children are rarely outside and have twenty minutes for lunch and hot lunches are made by law by the lowest bidders. But the majority of my children’s teachers have been engaged, happy, and inspired. My school district is a minority majority and I love the diversity of my children’s experience. In my own experience, as a child in a progressive program in a public school, I spent a lot of time doing whatever I liked. I read a lot of novels and didn’t learn much math or history. I was unprepared for traditional high school and college, and I came to feel that a nontraditional learning style wasn’t good for me. I have never felt particularly well educated, and the boring tasks that come with every entry-level job were practically beyond me, and I think it hindered me. Sometimes it’s okay to have kids do boring things. On the other hand, perhaps having the freedom to do whatever I wanted (though my teachers certainly wanted me to do my math and learn history!) led me to where I am now: writing and publishing novels. Who really knows? I believe the public schools do a good job with limited resources and we should invest in them more and double teachers’ salaries at the very least. I believe vehemently that the financial support for schools should be decoupled from real estate taxes. It is entirely against my principles that the quality of a public school is dependent on how much people pay for their housing. I just can’t believe this is normal and that people in this country don’t talk about it more!

MB: I saw in the Detroit paper that you went back to school for an MFA when you were 40 out of a determination to do what you really wanted to do with your life: to really become a writer. How did you come to the decision that writing was what you really wanted to do with your life? What were your feelings about going for an MFA around the age of 40? Did it turn out as you expected?

BB: I have been writing my entire life and wanting to become a writer as long as I can remember. I put far more effort and hours into writing than anything else. I went into publishing to learn the business and (nominally) pay the bills and to have health insurance. I came to New York for that purpose. In my late thirties, before she died, my mother called me to tell me she’d heard on NPR about MFA programs, and she thought I should pursue it. My mother had never had much to say about my writing or me becoming a writer. I’m not sure why at that moment she thought that’s what I should do. It felt almost cosmically inspired for her to reach out to me like that. She offered to give me money towards taking writing classes. My mother, the flintiest person I knew, was offering to give me money! I was shocked but inspired. I signed up for some adult ed classes at Sarah Lawrence and then when our finances improved, I decided to apply to their MFA. My mother died soon after I started the MFA. In some spooky sense, I believe she knew I’d come to the point where I should really and truly go for it. Write a book and do everything in my power to get it published. I loved the MFA. I love being a student. I didn’t have too many friends because I was so much older and shy, and I had a two-year-old and six-year-old who I was always rushing to get back to. But I did make some good friends who have been incredibly supportive and we cheer each other on.

MB: Now that you’ve completed an MFA and published some books, how do you plan to continue to improve your writing from here?

BB: I am a perennial student. I love taking classes and try and take one at least once a year if possible. I was just sitting with my friend Jonathan Vartner yesterday at lunch and we were talking about teaching. He mentioned Jennifer Egan’s "Found Objects" and he was describing what from that story he would be teaching to his NYU undergrads, and I found myself longing to take his class. But now that my kids are older, I’m determined to start teaching and I believe that’s a good way to improve one’s writing. Reading student fiction is a good way to see what works and what doesn’t work. The other new thing I’m doing is listening to audiobooks. I believe it’s the perfect way to read. No skimming long paragraphs or skipping dreams (which I tend to do). You are forced, in the best way, to take in every word. I read far more closely when I’m listening to a book.

MB: Do you have a reader in mind when you write? Is there such a thing as a non-ideal reader for your work—or perhaps someone (or a group of people) you dread reading your books? I suppose I’m ultimately my ideal reader. So, for instance, I never write characters’ dreams, or prologues, or paragraphs that last pages, or sentences that last for paragraphs. I don’t write anything overly philosophical; I try to stay rooted deeply in character. I have a few friends as readers who get me, and so when I’m writing, I hope they will like what I’m doing. I also very much hope my agent likes what I’ve written because if she doesn’t, she won’t send it out anywhere! And lucky me, she is always right.

MB: Over the past year or two, what books have you read that changed the way you approached your life and/or work—or simply helped you to hang on?

BB: I’ve been reading and rereading Tom Drury lately. His characters are fairly down and out and luckless out in the hinterlands of the American Midwest, but there’s a spark there, an instinct for survival that I appreciate and that feels very familiar. I hope Drury will inform my new book, which is set in and around Detroit. He is helping me find that spare language that reflects all the big skies, flat lands, and open spaces of the middle of our country. I also listened to Proust. He’s so much funnier than I imagined. So gossipy. And he is hyperfixated on setting details and that forces me to, as my father used to tell me before school, look around me” when I write During the pandemic Lydia Davis has now published two beautiful books of essays. The second one just published a few days ago and I’m reading them slowly one by one. I’ve also been rereading Toni Morrison—perhaps the greatest of American writers. I try to reread Beloved every couple of years. Additionally, I’ve been listening to podcasts about writers and writing. I love Maris Kreizman’s podcast in particular, Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast, the podcast Once Upon a Time in Bennington with Lili Anolik. For the last thirteen weeks I can hardly wait for Wednesday to come so I can listen to the next installment.

More from Bethany Ball

Find Bethany Ball on Twitter at @bethanyaball.

Visit her on the web at bethanyaball.com.

Read The Pessimists.

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