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Carol Anshaw: As Good As It Gets

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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.

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Carol's noble black lab and my mutt take on the blizzard of 2011. Photo by Patty V Michels

OT What about social media? Is the emphasis on an author’s persona helpful? Harmful?
CA I’m not sure how that’s going to shake out. I want my book to matter more than my Twitter personality. I think we are all coming to realize the web in all its manifestations is a sucking time hole.

OT Where else are you going to find your-
CA My pictures of animal friendship?

OT I was going to go darker.
CA Oh, yeah. Did I show you the ad I found for camel toe enhancers? It came in three models; the top of the line was cougar. It’s a wide world out there. Social media probably helps a bit and I really have fun meeting readers and interacting on Twitter. I got to meet a lot of booksellers on this pre-pub date tour, and they’re just such interesting readers, very sophisticated. Now I have to promote this book for a while and I want to. It’s like my kid going off to college—I want it to do well in the world. Your book is like my grandchild, I didn’t really produce it but-

OT You were there.
CA I was there and I get to visit it. But I should be sitting down and working on my new book and that’s what my readers should want me to do too. But talking about wider audiences and more opportunities, [your publisher] Soft Skull is really a cool house. Your book [Herself When She's Missing] is about a relationship between two women but I don’t think now it would be considered a lesbian book. [It’s] like Mary Gaitskill and A.M. Homes. Straight and gay almost doesn’t figure into it. Could be a man and a woman as easily.

OT Okay, but I’m interviewing you. Your new book, Carry the One spans nearly thirty years. It’s the story of an accident’s aftermath and its ripple effect.
CA I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but I started with these three siblings maybe twenty years ago. I wrote about them —two [stories] appeared in Best American-- but I didn’t know how the stories were going to hook up.

OT That might surprise some people who think you need to write linearly.
CA Oh, no. I never write in a linear way. And I tell students not to. You can only know so much about a book when you first start. I try to get all that down, all that’s available to me. And then see what I need. See what I don’t have. If I just started on page one and went to page two-fifty that would be a deadly process.

OT There’s this scientist who talks about using fractals to write a novel, something like that. He calls it the Snowflake Method. Inherent in what he tells people is this idea that if you rewrite you’re wasting time. So he wants you to outline so much that your book is almost there before you begin to write.
CA Oh that sounds terrible!

OT Right? Soul deadening. Is there something wrong with rewriting?
CA I think it’s all in the rewriting for me. I can’t say for another writer. What always surprises me still is how much can happen in the last five percent of work on a book. It’s incredible. That’s when you can start taking your clay and making these little fine cuts.

OT The last five percent for me is when writing feels the way people think it feels.
CA Right, exactly. You’d be robbed of that if you did this guy’s method.

OT But people really like the idea of a formula.
CA There are teachers who tell you those kind of things, like there’s a template for writing a story or a diagram you can put on a black board. When I was writing those YA books for money I made a strict outline. They wanted a certain thing. I wasn’t writing for my own creative expression I was writing to do a conscientious job of filling a formula. I had everything marked out. I knew exactly what had to be in the next chapter. It was a workaday project.

OT How did you get into doing that?
CA I had written a book—and now I can’t even remember the name, isn’t that funny? It was something like Confessions of a Technical Virgin. It was about this crazy Catholic school I went to where no learning ever took place. My agent sent it to an editor at Scholastic and said I know this isn’t for teenage girls cause it’s too racy but I think Carol really has an affinity for that period in people’s lives. You can’t force yourself to write in any genre if you don’t have a feeling for it. Like, I could never write one of these bodice rippers. The people who write them love them and believe in them. And the people who write books for little kids have a special memory of childhood. You might, because you touch on childhood a lot in your writing. I don’t so much, but I do for my teenage years or I did enough to put myself in a teenage mindset. It was easy to write the books and God, I was grateful to have the money to support my own writing. But the scientist and his fractals—those are the only kind of books you could write with that system.

OT Back to Carry the One-
CA Right. I started pulling the stories together into a novel in 2003.

OT But the characters came to you twenty years ago. Is it normal for characters to incubate for that long?
CA That hasn’t happened except with these characters. I could almost write another book with them. To me they’re fascinating.

OT You did a lot of trimming right?
CA I cut maybe one hundred pages.

OT How do you decide what goes and what stays?
CA It’s a real pleasure to take out what I feel is lesser—not bad but lesser, to compress. That’s true not just of this book but of all my writing. Taking the best and pressing it together and seeing what you have left. I never want to impose on the reader. Make them tarry too long with my book.

OT Has the experience of writing a novel changed over the years?
CA What I now can get past is the failure of nerve that occurs at some point. I used to get really scared that a book wouldn’t come together and I think that’s an apprentice thing.

OT So Carry the One is getting a ton of buzz.
CA It’s delightful and overwhelming and a totally new experience. I went up to see my old and brilliant Jungian analyst and she said, "You’ve grown very comfortable hiding behind a fern and now, somebody’s moved your fern." So I do feel more exposed than I’ve been in the past but I‘m so happy that more people will probably read this book. I’ve always felt like more people might have enjoyed my books if they’d only known of their existence. I think in this case they’ll be aware.

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Carol is also a painter. Here's her painting of Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicholson, in the garden at their castle, Sissinghurst, in 1955.

OT Your release party is Tuesday, March 6th at The Swedish Museum. What’s that going to look like?
CA It’s going to look like mini cupcakes because I just ordered them from this place called Sprinkles. A student brought me one once and its been on my mind ever since. And then I went to Costco today and I got cheese and pretzels and nuts and crackers and Mexican Cokes do you know what they are? They’re made of pure sugar and they come in the old Coke bottle. The sales lady at Costco said "Man, you’re lifting that whole thing"-- cause they’re twenty-four glass bottles.

OT In every interview you find a place to mention how much you can lift.
CA I can still leg-press four hundred pounds. It’s not very helpful except when you have to carry a case of Mexican Cokes or when someone wants you to push them out of their parking space in the snow.

OT You talked about publishing your first novel and then having those fourteen years, now for Carry the One to have such an epic debut, how do you not lose faith in those gaps between external validation?
CA Well, I really love to write. For me the happiest part of Carry the One is all over now. People think it’s the literary cocktail party or whatever-

OT That’s just the sweatiest part.
CA Right. The hugest part happens when it’s just me in a room with my computer and I manage to make an excellent sentence. That’s as good as it gets.

Check out Carol Anshaw's upcoming appearances. To learn more, 'like' Carol Anshaw on Facebook.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
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This page contains a single entry by Sarah Terez-Rosenblum published on March 3, 2012 12:07 PM.

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