Author Interview ~ Carol Anshaw

Carol Anshaw is the author of AquamarineSeven Moves, and Lucky in the Corner.  She has received the Ferro-Grumley Award, the Carl Sandburg Literary Arts Award for Fiction, and a National Book Critics’ Circle Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. She lives in Chicago.
Author Photo Credit: John Reilly

Tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in a deeply conventional suburb of Detroit. Reading novels made me aware of a world beyond those regulation lawns. From the time I could read, my father drove me to the library every Saturday and I took out the maximum number of books allowed. My parents were not educated and had no way to guide me in my reading. When we moved into our new house, they filled the family room shelves with books from a place that sold them by the pound. I read all those books.

My fantasy was being kidnapped by a motorcycle gang, then dropped off in a city where I would live in a boarding house with colorful characters. [I’d scoped out both the gang and the boarding house in movies.] Unfortunately, none of this happened, but after college, I was able to get as far as Chicago. I found a newspaper job, then a few years later, quit to start writing fiction seriously.
To support myself I did a ton of freelance journalism, mostly movie reviews [at the Sun-Times, where I backed up Roger Ebert for several years]. Later I began writing essays on books for the Village Voice. I won an award for these [see above]. I published a regrettable first novel, then went 14 years before Aquamarine was published. I was in the tunnel that whole time, teaching myself to write.
I was married for several years. Then, in my thirties, when evidence started mounting that my sexual orientation was shifting [this time it wasn’t movies that provided the clues], I got out of my marriage and started life again from scratch. I got a cheap apartment. The first morning I woke up with a roach crawling across my mouth. The people above me fought through the night, throwing furniture out the windows, threatening to burn down the building. None of this really mattered; I knew I was moving in the general direction of authenticity, and this was thrilling.
Now single, I needed more money to live, and started writing paperback novels for young adults. I think I wrote over 20 of these, all under pseudonyms. I could write one in 5-6 weeks. This was better money than reviewing, but still, I was broke most of the time. I was using everything I made to buy myself time to write. At one point my savings totaled $72. I had a dinner for four I could make for $10. I wrote Aquamarine by maxing out a credit card.
Belatedly, I went back to school for an MFA as a teaching credential, but the experience turned out to be much bigger than that. For the first time I had a community of fellow fiction writers. I also found a great teacher and mentor, Sharon Stark, who still works with me. Later I returned to the program [at Vermont College], this time on the faculty. I also taught part-time at local schools and in community fiction workshops. I taught in Vermont and Missouri [for a short stretch simultaneously]. I was bouncing among too many different places. Finally I found my way to SAIC. Fifteen years later, I am still there, still happy to be part of its sparky, clangy, pinball energy. One of my great rewards there has been helping my students with their novels, seeing those books through to being born.
After Aquamarine, I wrote two more novels—Seven Moves and Lucky in the Corner. These won some awards. I wrote a handful of stories. Two made it into Best American Short Stories. Then I began Carry the One and worked on it very hard for a long time.

We understand you’re a painter?

All my life, but more intensely for the past 10 years or so, I’ve been painting as well as writing. My partner says it’s like I’m having an affair, slipping up to the studio at 11pm and painting into the night. I think it helps me with my writing by providing a counterbalance to working with words. With painting I’m making narratives in a different language that’s all about color and light.

How did you come to write Carry the One?

I wanted to make a story that has sweep but feels concentrated. I wanted to make a book that is recognizably a novel, but also something a little new.

Someone once said that in terms of narrative, what follows violence is always interesting. Setting up the violence in the book as a death, an accident, but one that could probably have been avoided was a layer I applied to the story, to give it moral shading. The characters feel greater and lesser degrees of responsibility, and have very different responses to what happened, but none of them can outrun its shadow.
I also wanted to write a story that covers a significant span of years, to examine the part time plays in love and obsession, in relationships among siblings, in political convictions and the struggles of an artist. And in the case of one character, the way addiction can trump everything else. I see a lot in literature about addiction, but very little about what it’s like for the family of an addict, how one member can create a centrifuge, pulling the others into the spin, how much energy is spent trying to retrieve the person hurtling downward.

Alice, one of the main characters in Carry the One, is also gay and a painter. Do you see a lot of yourself in her character?

A little, maybe, but Alice is really her own bad girl. She was enormously fun to write.

Tell us about the title.

This is a book about so many things, with so many characters and storylines and time frames that coming up with a title was tough. Carry the Onehas several shades of meaning for readers to discover.

What are you up to these days, in addition to writing and painting?

I read all the time. I’m still catching up on all the books I should have been reading instead of those books that came by the pound. I’ve been in the same relationship for 15 years now. This has been just a really lucky break, finding this extraordinary person and being able to hold her interest for so long. We live most of the time in Chicago, some of the time in Amsterdam. We have a dog who is a fabulous maniac. Among other mischief, he enjoys chewing quite a bit. I no longer have any hairbrushes. I have hairbrush stubs and a few bristles. I volunteer at a food pantry. I take French lessons. I am trying to master crow position in yoga. I like to have friends over, and I can now afford to serve dinners that cost more than $10. I can even put flowers on the table.

Are you still hoping to be kidnapped by that motorcycle gang?

At that point in my life, I desperately needed transportation out of where I was. Now I can be who I am while standing exactly here.

(Interview courtesy of Simon & Schuster)