The Think Piece Interview: Ann Bauer

Ann Bauer loves the advertising industry. She wants us to know this. She’s worked in the business for many years and has nothing but good things to say about it. And while her new novel Forgiveness 4 You does send it up a bit — it involves an ad agency that markets forgiveness in the form of redemption sessions with a charismatic, fallen priest — it’s a lovingly drawn depiction filled with hard-driving but well-intentioned people. And it’s hilarious. The book is Wodehouse-level social criticism, not industry snark, and it’s deeply empathetic. Bauer got the idea on a snowy day in Montreal and wrote it fast. We’re so glad she did. We got together in Minneapolis recently to talk about the book, the state of publishing today, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonathan Franzen, and why regret plays such a big role in her work.

TP: The book is such a fun read and has a ripped-from-the-headlines quality with all that’s been in the news in recent months and years concerning the Catholic Church. It seems like you must have still been writing yesterday, but we both know launching a book takes a time. How long did it take you to write this book?

AB: I spent nine months working on it.

TP: That’s so fast.

AB: About half of it is that epistolary kind of stuff that I do every day. It’s advertising copy and creative briefs and strategy — that’s my bread and butter. It maximized my time because the narrative portions I needed to write early in the morning when I had the time to channel my characters and get into the story. But the rest of it I treated like a job. So I could whip off banner ad copy at 3 in the afternoon in between actual advertising jobs. It was kind of a fun project that way.

TP: Your dialogue from Gabe the priest, what he would say to absolve people’s pain, seemed really spot-on to me. How were you able to write him so well?

AB: Here’s what is interesting: when you write a book first person, you’re confined, you’re in one person’s head, you can only see what that person sees. You have to be very conscious that everything has to be seen out of that person’s eyes. This allowed me to write a first-person narrative and then bring in information that Gabe wouldn’t have. So by splitting between first-person narrative and documentation I could be intimate and in his head and cover all of these other viewpoints and all of these other perspectives through the materials. That opened up worlds. Then you can be everywhere.

TP: So where did you get this idea? It’s so high concept.

AB: The idea is tied to an event. Every year my husband takes me to a different place for my birthday, which is in March. This year we went early. The only criteria is it has to be some place new. In 2013 he took me to Montreal. There was a huge blizzard and the city just shut down. And we had not rented a car because this is our way of seeing a city, to walk it and take public transportation. So we’re in Montreal and it’s 10 below and we have not brought the right clothes and everything is iced over. This is early March 2013. The election of Pope Francis was in that period of time. We’re both big fans of Leonard Cohen and so we ended up down by the seaport because we wanted to listen to his music and think about the song “Suzanne” and oranges and tea and all that. So we’re just sort of holed up in this hotel and our area was confined to the two or three blocks around the hotel, and we happen to be right in the shadow of the Notre Dame, the basilica, which is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Sunday came and I said, so, we’re not going anywhere, the church is right around the corner, let’s go to church. So we put on the nicest clothes we brought and went to church. And we walk into this beautiful, sacred place, and my husband of seven years genuflected and crossed himself and I looked at him and thought, who are you? We married when I was 39 and he was 44 and had never had a lot of conversation about how he grew up, which was devoutly Catholic. It all rushed back to him in that moment. So we went back to the hotel and talked about it, about confession in particular, what it’s like to step inside there. I was so envious. I said him I want to be able to walk into a little booth and lay down the guilt I carry with me, and he said no, it wasn’t what you think, it isn’t so good, you end up making things up. It doesn’t work that way you want it to. And I said what if it could? I started writing the book the next morning.

TP: And it took nine months?

AB: It did.

TP: There’s a lot of melancholy in the book.

AB: This is my third novel, and every novel I’ve written has been about regret. The first one was about the anguish a parent goes through when you realize you can’t help your child. You have this constant dissonance because you think you must, but you can’t, but you must, but you can’t. You have this constant sense of guilt. My second novel, which I wrote when I was 44, was just at that moment when you realize, Oh my god, half of life is over and I can’t undo all the stupid stuff I did, there’s no way to go back and revise. Things are what they are.

TP: When I was reading this book I kept thinking of a line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie Magnolia: “We may be through the past but the past isn’t through with us.”

AB: Magnolia is one of my top 10 favorite movies. That scene where the song starts? I get breathless just thinking about it. I saw that when I was 32, really in the trenches of a marriage that wasn’t working. I remember watching the movie and thinking, it really is all connected, isn’t it? I’m thrilled that the book makes you think of Paul Thomas Anderson.

TP: I’m always interested in reading about what haunts people. You write about the topic really well.

AB: I kind of hate to say this as it sounds so cliché but I am a person who people tell things. I’m not like Gabe in the book where I walk in and people magically open up. But I think because I’ve been kind of public about struggles as a young single mom and a number of others things, people feel comfortable telling me that their lives aren’t perfect. When I wrote The Forever Marriage, which was a book about a woman in a difficult marriage, who wished her husband dead. I suddenly had people coming to me saying, Can I talk to you about my marriage? It was so interesting what you would hear, what people would actually say? It wasn’t the big things, it was the small things. It was about feeling lonely, or having mental health challenges. It was about not wanting to take care of a sick spouse. It was those small transgressions that people focused on. Not murder, not stealing. It was being unkind.

TP: How has the reaction been in the advertising community to the book? Or what do you expect it will be?

AB: I have loved the advertising community. Deeply loved. I have never met so many genuinely decent people. I went into advertising at a time in my life when things were pretty bleak. I was worried about a kid. Not the kid with autism but his brother who had gone through a dark period in his late teens and I was terrified for him because once you’ve had the experience of having one child go out of your control, you immediately think the worst. But when I started in advertising I was 42, I might have been 90 by advertising standards. People were genuine and sweet and cheerful and hardworking and just kind of good, and I think that’s not what people think. They think ruthless and money-grubbing and all sorts of things when they think of advertising, and really, what I found mostly were creative people knocking around in a building, trying to do good work.

TP: You worked at Olson, yes? What was John Olson like?

AB: We happened back then to be under the leadership of John Olson, who was just a dear human being. I started with Olson in 2009 and I was there three days, and you know they hired me originally as a copywriter, it’s kind of interesting how things unfolded for me there. I’m hired as a copywriter and I’m sitting at a tiny table somewhere with a bunch of 23-year-olds and I got up one of the first mornings to get a cup of coffee and there’s this disheveled guy at the coffee machine and he’s wiping things up and he’s spilling stuff and he says it’ll be just a minute, someone forgot to make the coffee. And I said that’s OK and we started talking and he said, who are you and I said I’m Ann Bauer and I’m a copywriter and here’s what I’m working on. He poured my cup of coffee first and then he wiped up and made everything neat and then he said, I’m John Olson. And I’m like, you’re the John Olson? John had long hair and this sort of drifty Beach Boys-look in his eyes and his shirts were misbuttoned. He just had no airs about him, no pretensions, just wanted to have fun and get together and do good work. That trickled down.

TP: People really loved him, and were so sad when he passed in 2013.

AB: He was lovely.

TP: You made it seem like great fun to work to work on an ad team.

AB: It was such a positive thing for me. It came at a time when I was a little bit dark. God knows the literary community can lead you down that rabbit hole, and I could have been sitting in my house reading Nietzsche and dystopian literature, but instead I went and worked in advertising and I felt buoyed up, more hopeful.

TP: Are you able to spend all your time these days on your books?

AB: These books don’t support me, let’s be clear. Every writer gets told by publishers that their book is going to hit, until they say, Oh yeah, that book isn’t going to hit, and then they go away. I’ve known so many people for whom this is devastating, because we all get the same talk. I was told that my first novel was going to be a breakout for Scribner. The second novel everyone thought would be quiet, it was about math and sex, everyone said no, not going to work, and it did OK. This one, everyone’s like, yeah, this one’s popular, topical, this could go. But you just have to let it wash over you and go away, because six weeks away from publication they’re making decisions about where they are going to put their efforts. Unless you’ve gotten a call from People magazine or you’ve gotten a USA Today review placement or something bizarre happened, like you were in an airplane crash with Gwyneth Paltrow and the book can be linked to her in some lascivious way, everyone goes away. That’s the way it is.

TP: How does your writing life work? Do you give yourself a structure for writing or do you wait for inspiration, like it happened in Montreal?

AB: In 10 years I’ve had three books; what happens is I write a bad book in between every successful book. I wrote most of A Wild Ride Up the Cupboards at the Iowa Workshop. That was mostly autobiographical. And then I spent almost three years on a book that had a really fun premise and just went off the rails. There were literally circus actors in this book, there were heart transplants, there were all sorts of things going on! (Laughs) And my agent finally said, Ann, put it away. It just didn’t work. Then I wrote The Forever Marriage in 10 months, boom, and I really think it’s one of the best things I’m ever going to write. It got no attention, no one read it, seven people. But of all the things I’ve written one of the things I’m proudest of. Then I started this other book. I had written about a mathematician in The Forever Marriage, so I started writing a book, there was a local guy named Leonard Hurwicz, he won the Nobel Prize for an economics theory that I really liked and I started writing a novel kind of around him and people who were involved with him and it included someone who was writing a biography of him, so it was a book about a book, it was very thinky. I worked on that one for a while and my agent said, Well, I don’t know. He basically told me it was boring. So I said to him, you know, I have this other idea, and I sent him the first chapter and a half of Forgiveness 4 You, and he called me and there it is, go.

TP: That reminds me of Jonathan Franzen, who spent six years on a project and was just working on something else for fun, and one day he decided to turn to the side project and that turned into The Corrections.

AB: I love Jonathan Franzen. I know people are way divided on him. And to me, it’s all part of the process. I know I said I wrote the book in nine months, but I feel like I need to add in the time for the bad books. They go together. I know that there’s one scene in Forgiveness4You that I pulled out of the old manuscript, the scene where he walks into the grocery store and it’s sort of tropical in there and his glasses fog up? That’s directly from my economist book. There were pieces of it that I was pulling forward, characters that I was bringing in.

TP: You also write marvelous pieces on the writing life and life in general in places like Salon and the Washington Post and national magazines. How does that writing connect with your writing of books?

AB: I love writing essays. I actually feel I am mostly an essayist.

TP: So what are you writing now?

AB: I’m working on nothing!

TP: Really?

AB: Don’t get me wrong, writing this book was fun from beginning to end. I loved the characters, I love the advertising scenes, I love all that. But we all know what the business is right now. It’s not a great business to be in as a writer. It’s a confusing place. I’m going to take a break from it. I’m going to put everything I have into this one, I’m going to be at Common Good on the 24th and can’t wait. I’ll go all the way to the wall for what’s out there to help the book. But I don’t have any idea what I’m doing next, and I’m completely OK with that.

TP: But you will if you get seized again with an idea you love?

AB: Sure, but I have no desire to write if I don’t have anything to say. I’m going to be 49 soon. I’m moving into a different part of my life. My children are grown. They’ve all been out of the house for two years. They’re really grown-ups now. My youngest will be 21 this summer. My oldest just turned 27. They’re their own people. And I’m realizing it’s not my place to be meddling in their lives, to make judgments. It’s my job to be there if they need me, to love them no matter what, and that’s it. It’s kind of freeing. I’m no longer trying to control the tides. (Laughs) I’m just a little bit more relaxed. Traveling more, sleeping more, eating more. I made a meatloaf this morning.

TP: Sounds like a a good time for you.

AB: It is. We’ll see what comes next.

— This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing