Ann Beattie discusses her new novel, A Wonderful Stroke of Luck, about a group of millennial boarding school students who grow up in the shadow of 9/11—and under the wing of a manipulative teacher.
Ben and his friends at Bailey Academy reminded me of orphans in many ways, as they all have dysfunctional families or have lost a parent to cancer, or in Jaspar’s case, the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Overall, the theme of loss and abandonment is overwhelming. Are you sympathetic to these kids?
I’m an only child and was shy and pretty much a loner until I got to college. Your calling them “orphans in many ways” certainly gets the sense of it, though that way of looking at things might be surprising to them. Kids tend to accept as reality the world around them, including their parents—so it was an interesting age at which to begin the book. They might have technically left home, being at Bailey, but their parents don’t seem uncaring to me, just adults muddling along, at least the majority of them trying to do their best. And then all of this is eclipsed by an event of a different magnitude, of course, which changes not just their families, but the world they live in.
As a writer, I’ve visited many schools. One of my former students teaches at an all-boys school, and when I was having dinner with the students there, one of the teenagers told me that he was at the school because his father had remarried and didn’t have time for him. He said it bluntly and very matter-of-factly, and of course there was nothing I could say because he certainly might have been right. That stuck with me. As a writer, though, I’d also have to try to understand the situation from the POV of the parent. But you know what? I didn’t want to, nor did I think of myself as a writer in that moment.
We learn that Ben was sent to a school for troubled kids with mental health issues, although he was pretty much a normal teenager. Did this odd placement by his father end up being a benefit or a disadvantage?
Well, Ben was overpowered, or outmaneuvered, or however you want to say it. He does sometimes speak as though he was a real participant in the decision (for example, asking a friend what kid wants to live with his parents in a boring place, rather than being away from home), but either some or all of that is bravado. As the reader learns, his father is not at all acting merely on his son’s behalf. I wasn’t trying to have the real circumstances of Ben’s being at Bailey be ambiguous; rather, some truth—because it’s there, somewhere—has been withheld, at least according to LaVerdere. The wrinkle is whether LaVerdere has finally been worn down by the adult Ben, or whether he, himself, is warping the truth. Who’s the authority figure—merely the person who grabs authority?
I kept holding my breath, fearing that Pierre LaVerdere was going to sexually abuse one of his students, most likely Ben. But it never happens, and LaVerdere’s abuse is primarily his power over his young students. Do you view LaVerdere as evil, or do you see him as simply an arrogant academic who enjoyed his role as Master of the Universe to the kids at Bailey?
I assumed, because of the world we live in, that the reader would assume LaVerdere quite probably abused Ben and/or others. But no: Sometimes even terrible scenarios are trumped by different—and more insidious—forms of abuse.
There is a scene early in your novel when I sensed this tension between “town and gown,” when Ben and LouLou hitch their ill-fated ride to a concert. As a reader, I was terrified this guy was going to turn out to be an ax murderer, but it all ended harmlessly enough. But it seemed to me that the driver might have been a symbol of the socioeconomic divide between the wealth and advantages of the kids at Bailey and the poverty and lack of opportunity for folks in the surrounding rural areas. Was that your intention?
Right. (Though I wouldn’t say that there was no harm done; clearly, psychic damage was done, and LouLou ends up in tears, even in the moment.) Again, this lurking danger is related to your question above, and (ultimately) to reversed expectations. You’re right in your reading: Jasper is calculating; he writes a paper about trees and how they’re taken care of in the poor community outside Bailey where and when they become damaged, vs. the trees on the grounds of the school. Binnie and Tessie also figure in. There are many dynamics involving the advantaged and the disadvantaged.
I noticed that Ben’s friends, unlike him, have some very unusual names: Arly, LouLou and Aqua, for example. In some ways, these kids seemed like pets to their families, but I’m not sure if that was your intent. Do you see these millennials from wealthy families in some regard like “trophies” for their baby boomer parents?
I like the question, and sometimes things emerge that aren’t the direct intention of the writer, but I wouldn’t say they’re trophies. However painful, there seem to be real connections between Jasper and both of his parents, and Akemi’s father (while we sense not in agreement with his wife) wants his daughter to have more age-appropriate experiences, rather than starting college at such a young age. Elin, however neurotic, is on her stepson’s side. These people have what’s synonymous with real life, to me: real limitations.
A prevailing theme of cultural touchstones—the Kennedy assassination and 9/11—is present throughout your book. When you were writing your novel, did you see these events as bookends? And do you see the conclusion of the Camelot years and the post-9/11 early aughts as having similarities in terms of the end of innocence?
“Camelot” turns out not to have been exactly Camelot. I’m not sure “innocent” is the word I’d pick. Maybe militantly oblivious, in many cases, and, as a nation, very self-congratulatory. I’m glad you notice the bracketing: presidential portraits that will be recontextualized by the reader, even in the moment of reading. In a larger sense, the novel covertly and repeatedly questions the relationship between how a thing looks (or how we speak of it, whether “Camelot” or “The Peaceable Kingdom”) and what it really is or was.
The village of Rhinebeck is presented as a Hudson Valley utopia for the wealthy on the surface, with a litany of alcohol-fueled sorrows and secrets unfolding behind closed doors. What was your motivation in creating this picture of upper-middle class despair? And will Ben ever find happiness?
Any time you go behind closed doors, anywhere, you find (among other things) secrets unfolding, sorrow, and, right—often alcohol. But obviously, writers won’t get anywhere if they stop just because a door is closed. As for Ben finding happiness, he has found some things—things of value—by the time the novel concludes, hasn’t he?
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of A Wonderful Stroke of Luck.
Author photo by Lincoln Perry