Photo by John Reilly
I first encountered Carol Anshaw’s work at a Milwaukee library. Just out of college I’d moved to Wisconsin for a relationship, was peripherally trying to initiate an acting career, maybe for an audience of dairy cows. I’m forever moving to the wrong place for the wrong reason, case in point, a few years later I would relocate to LA for another relationship and fall into a job as a sales consultant. Next thing I’ll head to Sweden in January to beat depression. At loose ends in Milwaukee, I was compelled by Anshaw’s deftly crafted characters, drawn into their imperfect world. What truly enthralled me though, was Anshaw’s voice, this amalgamation of finger-on-the-pulse authority and hot chocolate hominess. I felt certain I knew exactly what Anshaw’s life would look like, her relationships, her home.
In 2006 I prepared to move cross-country to pursue an MFA rather than a girl. A few months before the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s semester began, I spoke to a counselor. Had I chosen an advisor? he wanted to know. Thirty floors above downtown Los Angeles, I swiveled in my office chair.
“Who are my options,” I asked.
“Well, we have Carol Anshaw.”
“Wait, I’m sorry who?” Though my heart accelerated, I couldn’t initially place the name. “She’s written, oh let’s see, Lucky in the Corner, Seven Moves, Aquamarine.”
“You’re scaring the clients,” my boss tapped me on the shoulder. “Stop shrieking, did someone die?”
“I’m sorry,” I mouthed. Then into the phone, “I’ll take her,” as if Carol was a purebred dog or a shiny Corvette.
Six years later, Carol and I live within walking distance, a coincidence, I swear. We go to yoga together (She’s the type who cracks jokes during class.) and she and her partner spoil my dog with steak dinners.
I probably shouldn’t say this, because authors get huffy when readers claim to know them based only on their work (as if what one writes is somehow separate from one’s truest self), but turn a couple dials a few notches and Carol’s what I imagined, more caustic, more generous but otherwise the same.
Her much lauded new book Carry the One comes out March 6th and it was my absolute pleasure to sit at her kitchen table and discuss it while she made fun of my tape recorder and a storm whipped up outside.
Carol Anshaw That thing looks forty years old.
Our Town I think it is.
CA Does it take a cassette? I just got rid of some old ones; I wish I’d known.
OT It’s okay. Walgreen’s should be getting a new shipment from 1982 any day now. So, writing was a lifelong ambition for you-
CA As soon as I could read I wanted to write books. Where did that come from? My parents were not educated people. They could take me to the library but they couldn’t point me in the right direction, so it was just innate.
OT When did writing begin to seem achievable?
CA I was blessed with my ignorance. I wasn’t like you; I didn’t have all this information going in. I was kind of groping around in a cave. It was a whole different process.
OT Your early work-
CA First I wrote a novel that never saw the light of day, but it taught me about scene structure and all that. Then I had a novel published in seventy-eight and I thought, well, I’m on my way! But I didn’t have anything published till Aquamarine fourteen years later.That’s why I tell students until you’ve been crawling through a tunnel over broken glass for fourteen years don’t come bitching to me. During that time I wrote a lot more, I wrote a second book that went right into a drawer. Then I wrote something under a pseudonym, but it was a long tunnel.
OT Whenever I interview a writer I ask about their writing process-
CA What writing process?
OT Do you have one? Do you sit down at 2:01 p.m. exactly with your cup of earl grey just to the left of your parchment and-
CA No! I think people think that. I was reading an interview with Alice Munro and she writes from nine to one every day and I thought wow, that must be so great. I just write when I can.
OT When Aquamarine was published I assume having a lesbian main character was still a potential stumbling block. Have things changed?
CA I think so. Nobody blinked at my new book. But also in ninety-two it was a good kind of exotic, a sort of curiosity. Maybe I got in through that gate.
OT In feminism and gay rights we always talk about benefiting from the work of those who came before, but with a long career like yours, is there a way in which the work your earlier books did pushing the envelope in terms of gay acceptance or at least a queer presence in literature is something you yourself have come to benefit from?
CA Maybe. I don’t know if my books had enough reach to influence anybody about anything.
OT Take credit.
CA When I started, there was more of a cultural assumption that many readers would find gay characters irrelevant or repugnant. I was only one of many queer writers out there trying to cut through all that antagonism. For whatever reason, I don’t think it’s that big a deal now. In the beginning you just had lesbian novels about women being lesbians—that was all they did. But now you have people who are queer, but living lives that are about a million other things.
OT Speaking of change, the literary world itself has changed significantly during your career. Are the changes positive?
CA There used to be only three routes: mainstream publishers, university/small presses and self-publishing. But self-publishing was on a really low rung. Now not so much, now you can instantly publish your book, you can get an ISBN number and be on Amazon and eventually get a publisher and wider distribution. I think publishing is going to be split into more little pieces. But this fragmenting of the market has really been helpful. More different kind of books are being published. I don’t know where everything is going but I’m pretty confident that people like books—the objects. So I’m going to go on that—they’re not going to disappear. For instance, we’re talking about your really tragic cassette player, the tape you’re making here, you can’t play on any other item in your house, probably. You can have all these old LPs but you might not have a player. But my books are right over there on the shelf; I can pull them down any time I want.