The news of Steve Jobs' passing is hitting many of us unexpectedly hard, but I can't imagine what novelist Mona Simpson is feeling. If you don't know what I'm talking about, well, it's a story stranger than fiction yet not widely known.
Blogger Eric Rumsey (a librarian and web developer at the University of Iowa) does a good job of summing it up:
I find the Steve Jobs-Mona Simpson story fascinating -- biological brother & sister (with a Syrian father) raised in separate families, who never knew about each other until Jobs was 27 - In a nutshell: Jobs, raised in a modest middle-class family in California, becomes the highly successful genius head of Apple, then discovers that he has a sister who was raised by their (American) biological mother in Wisconsin, who is also a genius, novelist Mona Simpson. After meeting, they form a close relationship.
Rumsey wrote the above post in February 2010, citing a 1997 New York Times Magazine article which mentions how Jobs was struck by "the similarity in their intensity, traits and appearance." Also mentioned in the NYTimes piece -- Simpson's 1997 novel, A Regular Guy, which includes a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who resembles Steve Jobs and a young woman named Jane.
An interview between Mona Simpson and writer Joy Press at Salon.com (unfortunately no longer available online) includes a description of the book:
Tom Owens is a go-getting college dropout who impregnates Jane's mother and then abandons mother and daughter. He goes on to create a multi-million-dollar biotech company, but becomes trapped in his own material concerns. He is a self-contained, distracted creature, but Jane's arrival on his doorstep subtly changes his life as she forms a surrogate family out of Owens' friends and lovers.
What makes the novel especially intriguing is that Jobs, like Tom Owens, had a child out of wedlock -- Lisa -- born when Jobs was 23 and had just created the Lisa computer. Lisa was raised by a single mother and Jobs wasn't present in her life until she was older. Was Simpson writing about her brother's own experiences? Did he confide in her his own regrets about past actions?
When Press questioned Simpson about her relationship with Steve Jobs during the course of the interview, she notes that Simpson stiffens and then responds:
I'm always aware that people will look for parallels in real life, but I'm not writing autobiography.... Why are people so interested in the writer's personal life?...
Fiction confuses people because you know there's probably some little nuggets of the person's life jumbled up in their work but you don't know what they are. Artists represent boundary-crossers in our society....But a lot of fiction writers have relatively boring lives....I don't think I've ever revealed anything about my family in this or any of my books. There are no secrets exposed.
When Rumsey blogged about Jobs and Simpson over a year ago, the identity of Jobs' biological parents was not known at the time. It is now, and their story is heartbreaking. They were graduate students who gave Jobs up for adoption but later married and had a daughter, Mona.
Jobs has always been careful to maintain his privacy as does his sister. But with the world mourning the death of a genius who reshaped life as we know it, I've no doubt we'll see intense interest in the story of their relationship.
It's the fantasy of many girls to pretend that they are not ordinary -- that they were born to royalty but somehow ended up in middle America leading average lives. How many books have been written about the girl who unexpectedly learns she's a princess in some distant land and rises from from obscurity to enter a world of wealth and privilege? Mona Simpson's story is a version of that tale turned askew with an iconic sibling instead of a royal title. (Lisa's situation is a whole nother story, but at least she knew of her famous father's existence.)
I imagine that Mona Simpson would have traded any notoriety or glamor by association she may have experienced for just a little bit more time with her brother. And as much as we mourn his loss, I'm keeping in mind how much greater hers is in comparison. Novels are one thing, but real life often fails to bring us the happy ending we hope for or deserve.