MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
On page 125 of the new issue of Granta - that's the British literary journal -there's a paragraph that goes like this...
Ms. HELEN SIMPSON (Author, "Night Thoughts"): So it was generally agreed that men were nicer than women, less selfish, more caring. Men had been awarded the moral high ground. Big deal. And was that supposed to make everything all right? He twisted in the dark, the acid reflux of injustice rising in him. The world wasn't going to change just because he wanted it to, though, was it? The world was woman-shaped. Get over it.
KELLY: That's Helen Simpson, reading from her story "Night Thoughts," in the new summer issue of Granta. The theme of the issue is women and power. And as you just heard, Helen Simpson decided to come at that theme from an interesting angle.
We've asked her to come to the BBC studios in London to tell us more. Welcome.
Ms. SIMPSON: Thank you.
KELLY: So your story, Helen Simpson, as we just heard there, is narrated by a man, and it deals with all of the things that keep him awake in the wee hours of the night, things like work-life balance, whether he looks fat, whether he should go part time to spend more time with his kids - all issues that, I think it's probably safe to say, are better known for keeping women awake at night. Were you writing with your tongue firmly in cheek here?
Ms. SIMPSON: Well, yes, in a word. But the commission, you see - when I was rung up by the editor of Granta, he said, this issue is going to be called The F Word, which - and you can guess what the F word is; it's not what you think it is. It's feminism.
KELLY: It's not the one that we cannot mention but...
Ms. SIMPSON: It's the one that we're not, you know - and writing something on feminism, but I tend to be a comic writer. And I tried all ways 'round this, but it all came out sighing and moaning and, you know, depressed. And then I just...
KELLY: Terribly earnest, hmm?
Ms. SIMPSON: Yes. And then I thought well, actually, all you have to do is what I've - what I do in my ordinary life when I hear some woman being talked down. I think, well, I wonder if they'd talk to a man like that? So I just thought, OK, I'll reverse everything in this story. We'll have the man worrying about whether he's a good father or whether he's feeding the children right, whether he can go part time. And we'll have the woman being the one who leaves the bathroom in a state, and belches and farts, and so on.
KELLY: But - well, let me ask on behalf of all the men who will be out there listening and saying, now hang on a second - you know - we worry about work-life balance and whether the kids are doing all right as well. I mean, surely these aren't concerns unique to women.
Ms. SIMPSON: They're not. But it - in my experience, and watching friends and so on, it's not generally the man who kicks off those conversations about - now, honey, we need to sort out the work-life balance in this family. How about cutting back a bit on your work?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SIMPSON: And you know, the big unspoken is, when you've both got jobs - say you both enjoy your jobs, and you're both ambitious. It's a sort of dirty word -ambition - but say you both are. Whose job is going to come before the other one's, you see? And that causes a lot of rows.
I mean, when it comes to it, if one of the children is sick, who is going to take the day off work? And as I've seen it, it tends to be the woman.
KELLY: One of the things that struck me as I read this, you know, it begins with the narrator snapping awake at 3:29 a.m. - I think it is.
Ms. SIMPSON: Mm-hmm.
KELLY: And then lying there just worrying, worrying, unable to go back to sleep. Do you think that act of worrying is a uniquely feminine trait?
Ms. SIMPSON: Well, I think it is. But my husband said to me in the past, oh, stop worrying, don't do so much worrying; everything will be fine. But then I've found, when I actually have stopped worrying and I've said OK, and I've sat back and just not worried, everything's rather started to slide, you know, and gone to pot. Actually, the worrying - that's the real work, annoyingly. It's not doing the stuff, is it? The actual work is the thinking and the feeling.
KELLY: You know, in my house the standard is, my husband is happy to pick up the milk on the way home when I ask him.
Ms. SIMPSON: Yeah.
KELLY: But it would never occur to him to check the fridge and see whether we need milk in the first place. It sounds like that's kind of what you're getting at.
Ms. SIMPSON: Yes. Well, it's fun. Just try it for a couple of days. Just role-play. Don't announce it - just see what happens, you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SIMPSON: If when people say, oh, where is the milk? And you look slightly puzzled and say, oh, I don't know. Where is the milk? And just leave it. Because eventually, someone will have to buy it, you know.
KELLY: Helen Simpson, thanks so much.
Ms. SIMPSON: Oh, thank you.
KELLY: That's Helen Simpson. Her short story is called Night Thoughts." And it's in the summer issue of Granta, which will be on newsstands the first week of June.
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