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In 'Onlookers,' people from Charlottesville reckon with the civil unrest of 2017


The writer Ann Beattie first became popular in the '70s and has often been referred to as the voice of her generation. Known best for her collections of short stories that are quiet and subtle, she's chosen the aftermath of an explosive moment in American history as the backdrop of her latest work. The collection is "Onlookers," and it's set in Charlottesville, Va., in the middle of COVID and in a time when the 2017 racist violence of the Unite the Right rally was still fresh in everyone's minds.

ANN BEATTIE: The book has six stories in it, and the common denominator of all of them is that, in one way or another, the monuments in Charlottesville, Va., that made national news when the Unite the Right rally happened. This notion of people being on the sidelines, being often powerless or confused or whatever, seemed to me a metaphorical concept that united the stories as well in terms of being on the fringe of things, sometimes whether you want to be or not.

FLORIDO: Among those people on the fringe are an aging doctor, a young writer, a writing professor and a handyman at a retirement home. The characters' relationship with the monuments is something I asked Beattie about.

I saw the cover of the book, and I guess my brain expected the statues and the unrest and the violence of that day to be more front and center. But you're talking about it as back of my mind. And throughout the stories, I got a sense that some of the characters more than others - but some of the characters, some of the stories, the statues were really only a glancing thought here or there, you know, as they went about...


FLORIDO: ...Their other business...


FLORIDO: ...Something that came through the periphery of their eyesight, you know? And the degree of that changes from story to story, but it seems like that was an intentional choice.

BEATTIE: It was an intentional choice. And also, I think having done it that way, it does at least mention so much about locales when the protest is not active, when it's not going on, that I hope people had more of a feel for what a certain class of people understand Charlottesville to be in the present day.

FLORIDO: I'm wondering. Were you trying to make it a comment there or trying to think about the way that people of a particular class have the ability to ignore these types of big issues, whether it's the legacy of the Civil war or whether it's what statues of civil war generals say to people who see them every day?

BEATTIE: Of course. They would come up in conversation before all the problems began to be articulated and before the rally happened and all that kind of thing.


BEATTIE: It wasn't that my friends and I never said anything about them or didn't sometimes, you know, stop and surprise ourselves by viewing them. And it was just kind of an ongoing but not desperate discussion about, you know, what, if anything, was to be done. Well, time has proven, rightly so, what was to be done.

FLORIDO: I'm thinking through all the characters in the stories, and I think there's some of them who certainly think more about these statues and what they mean in the aftereffects of 2017. But I don't know if there's anybody who has a real enormous - and I know this is not exactly your writing style, so maybe that's the answer - a real enormous, wow, I never thought about it this way, type scene or moment or, like, a real major mind shift or epiphany or anything like that.

BEATTIE: That doesn't tend to be the kind of story that I write. To me, I try to do things subtly, maybe sometimes too subtly. I'm accused of that often.

FLORIDO: (Laughter).

BEATTIE: But nevertheless, I try to do something, you know, that would create that character and make a potentially inherently not very sympathetic character more understandable. Or at least you would hear that person's point of view in saying, well, that's wrong, but that's articulately expressed. And I didn't know that about...


BEATTIE: ...Her or him or something like that, you know? So I wouldn't be pleased to think that I was writing stories - in fact, I don't think I could write them very well - in which, in effect, the crisis or the, you know, the big reveal was, oh, wow, this is a horrible thing.


BEATTIE: I mean, that's a foregone conclusion to me. Then if that's true and we're living in a world in which that's true, what else maybe hasn't been so directly noticed? What's the fallout from that?

FLORIDO: Ann Beattie's most recent collection of stories is called "Onlookers." It's out July 18. Thanks so much for coming on.

BEATTIE: Thank you very much.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.