The first thing Carol Anshaw tells me when I arrive at her office for a visit is that she’s just found out she’s been awarded the Carl Sandburg Award for fiction. Her barely contained enthusiasm is modest, though. The texture of our conversation quickly signals that it’s not as much the honor, it’s the money—$1,000—a meaningful windfall for a writer who’s stuck to the struggle for so long.
Her novel “Aquamarine,” published last year by Houghton Mifflin, is an extraordinary accomplishment. It explores three versions of the same life, each starting at the same defining moment and diverging down separate paths. Such a heavy structure could easily overwhelm the narrative; it’s a testimony to this novel’s facility that it enhances it. The Tribune’s veteran book critic, Joseph Coates, called it “the most original American novel I’ve read in years.”
It’s a book that’s changed Anshaw’s life, with all the new attention she’s received. (In addition to the Sandburg prize, she won the Midland Authors Award and was nominated for the Lambda Literary Award). But change is part of life for Anshaw, in a way that no political slogan could portend. And changes, and the multivariate consequences of the decisions leading up to change, is really what “Aquamarine” is all about.
“Aquamarine” is a book largely without or outside of politics. Yet ask Anshaw if she’s a political person and she nonchalantly describes herself as a “leftist.” Then, realizing that such an answer is not typically floated so easily these days, she elaborates. “Actually, I’ve stayed in the same place for 20 years. And whereas I used to be considered a left-liberal, everything’s shifted to the right underneath me.”
It’s probably the only spot Anshaw’s stayed in over the last 20 years. Her life—taken in rapid riffs, reads like a made-for-TV take on the birth of a novelist: left Michigan home because she never fit in with parents or peers—came to Chicago the very week of the ’68 Democratic Convention—took her first job, writing catalog copy, in a modern Dickensian sweatshop where someone was fired every day—moved 10 months later into a “great job” as associate features editor at Advertising Age—started backing up Roger Ebert at the Sun-Times as a movie critic—married and divorced somewhere along the line—shifted from heterosexual to lesbian—started writing novels—and so on.
“Movies. Showing how love and romance are supposed to play. Then you get out into the real world and no one’s written all the good lines for you.” (They Do It All With Mirrors)
Anshaw’s office is in a Lincoln Square neighborhood that still clings to the traditional notion of neighborhood, holding on to such unfranchisable enterprises as Douglas the TV Giant, the Alps Restaurant and Cole’s Appliance and Furniture Co. The Lincoln National Bank building boasts a gorgeous old lobby, with a high, ornate octagonal ceiling. Anshaw’s anonymity in her upstairs office is relatively assured, nestled among a coterie of dentists, credit unions, and chambers of commerce. The elevator that whisks to the top of this neighborhood skyscraper, the fifth floor, sports timeworn fake-wood aluminum paneling and years’ worth of impatient key scratches around the floor buttons. It could be stuck in the seventies. Stepping off, you step further back in time, into a long, dark corridor lined with hand-painted frosted-glass hall windows advertising businesses that may have closed thirty years ago. Anshaw’s small office, all the way at the end of the hall, betrays the time capsule by its desktop Macintosh. Among the books, papers, and disks, she displays pictures of loved ones and images of Albert Einstein. Her blinds are closed to shield the computer screen from glare; hidden is a beautiful corner view of her neighborhood.
Anshaw’s physical presence—somewhat intentionally frumpy, shy but friendly—belies the enormous mental and verbal energy inside. She’s the quiet girl in high school that nobody ever got to know. Affable and eloquent, her conversation, once invested with enough time to build familiarity, is frequently punctured by a razor wit. Her tired eyes signal an earned visage, a struggle waged to do the only thing she’s ever wanted to do.
The daughter of a now-retired builder and his wife, Anshaw was raised in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, what she calls “a schnitzy suburb outside Detroit; a terrible place.” Although she remains close to her only sibling, a younger brother, she barely speaks to her parents. “They’re terrible, they’ve been mad at me for years. I’m not on their program. They’re racist Republicans and they just hate everything I am.” Like all good incubating novelists, she always wanted to write, even from the age of six when her muse exceeded her vocabulary. But hers was not a world that encouraged the development of a writer; she never understood “that a novelist was a person, that a novelist was somebody you could be.” Without guidance, without mentors, she followed an unconventional path to writing. She received terrible grades in high school and terrible grades at Michigan State, where she majored in communications arts. (She started out in English, but dropped out after a few classes where they discussed symbolism in Eudora Welty. She was afraid they were going to “ruin books for me.”)
Thankfully, they didn’t. By the time she had established herself as a fill-in critic at the Sun-Times, she knew she was ready to write books. First a novel, then a memoir of her high-school years. Her second novel, “They Do It All With Mirrors” (written under her then-married name, Carol White), was published in 1978 by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, an imprint of Putnam. “It got me kind of nowhere.” It’s a work that seems to embarrass Anshaw: a rougher, younger voice that she finds so foreign that she’d almost rather not call her own. And read after “Aquamarine,” it does speak volumes about her growth and maturing as a writer.
“Mirrors” is a sassy first-person tale of twentysomething urban angst, relentlessly witty yet lacking the depth and control of her new work. It’s as packed with attitude as much of the brat pack/generation x fiction of today, a body of work that it fits into both aesthetically and qualitatively. That being said, it’s far from a bad book. It’s just so far from where she is today, the work of a young writer still learning how to write, as she says. It’s like going back and reading your high-school term paper, except her book is in the library for anyone who wants it. Anshaw describes her younger self as someone “I really wouldn’t like to know.”
“There comes a time—much earlier in life than most people will admit—when one should be wary of getting drunk enough to think one can still boogie.” (They Do It All With Mirrors)
Fourteen years and a lifetime of metamorphosis passed before Anshaw published another novel. Neither of the two novels she wrote following “Mirrors” got published. She describes the time and accompanying frustration as beating her head against the wall: “These books didn’t take six months, they took two or three years.” (When I compliment her that I consumed “Aquamarine” in one sitting, she thanks me and notes, painfully, that what lasted hours for me, took her years to create.) She says that she read somewhere that seventy percent of the people who write first novels never get a second one published.
Fortunately, Anshaw’s agent turned her onto something that would sustain through those lean, discouraging years: she’s written twenty paperback novels for teens under her maiden name, Carol Stanley, or under series names (many best-selling series authors are in fact “brand names” that stand for various writers contracted to add a volume to the series), the adolescent melodramas that get devoured by young girls. She says it’s been some of the best money she’s made as a writer and doesn’t seem to mind doing it—that much.
Although she had given up reviewing to focus her creative energies on fiction, she later decided she wanted to review books for the Village Voice. She’s been so successful that she won the 1990 National Book Critics Circle citation for excellence in reviewing. The attention garnered her reviewing assignments from all over: the Tribune and Sun-Times, LA Times, the Washington Post and NY Newsday, although she’s since winnowed it back down to the Voice and the Tribune. Recent Voice pieces include an essay on Albert Einstein and a look at gender blending. Although she seems content with her role as a book critic, reviewing “shapes her life,” it forces “dead time” where you have to do the reading—she reads at least fifty books a year in this capacity—and sometimes she’d rather be thinking about “Ulysses or Jane Austen than Mark Leyner and Tama Janowitz.”
Anshaw describes herself as an autodidact, a self-description that yields much about her persona. She’s extremely articulate and well-read, yet equally unpretentious. And her development and influences are somewhat unconventional. She speaks with uncontrolled enthusiasm about her literary idol, Shirley Hazzard, who is “one of the writers who made me want to write.” Not long ago they met: “She had me for tea, I probably overwhelmed her.” Hazzard even contributed a promotional book-jacket blurb to “Aquamarine.”
“I worry I was my best self then, my best version of me. And I can never get back to her.” (Aquamarine)
“Aquamarine” is the story—or rather the stories—of Jesse Austin, a onetime Olympic swimmer whose moment of night-before tenderness with her chief rival, Marty Finch, cost her the race, as well as a lifetime of longing. The book’s three main sections are three variations on the same life at the same point in time, each reflecting the consequences of a single, seminal decision made long ago. In the first, Jesse’s gone back and settled down with a nice local boy in New Jerusalem, Missouri, her hometown; stumbled into a strange, platonic love affair with a skywriting UPS driver; and yearns for a soap actress who reminds her of Marty. She yearns too, for what might have been had she taken a different path, had she left town. “Living her whole life in this one place sometimes makes Jesse feel as though she is holding the heavy scrapbook of her friends’ pasts, while they’re able to move streamlined into unfurnished presents.” In the second, parallel story, Jesse did leave and lives in New York as an English professor, in the throes of a passionate romance with that very soapstress. In the third, she’s also moved away, but lives a “Florida shabby” lifestyle, trying to keep her son out of jail and to sustain a covert romance with a divorced black man. Her own marriage, to the man who rescued her from small-town life, fell apart under the sagging weight of reality. “I think I thought that with Tom everything would be different. Instead, it was the same, just in a different location.” Anshaw describes this as a “fanciful” book and it is; posing the type of what-ifs that tend to inevitably tap the reader’s own memories and conjectures.
Each parallel story is tightly rendered and independent of the others; yet taken together they weave into each other with a rewarding cleverness. Throughout, Anshaw displays an extraordinary mastery of the language; whole characters leap fully developed out of a single sentence or two: “Earl and Thelma Thompson roar by on their Harley, which is nearly as large as a car and painted candy apple red and blaring out from its radio one of those songs from the Christian station which sound like bland love songs, then turn out, a ways in, to be about Jesus. Too much friendliness with Earl and Thelma is an invitation to get proselytized, and so Dell just nods at them and Jesse waves, both in minimal ways.” But even more, she has that enviable ability to combine simple words in such a way to unleash a rush of tone and wit far more rewarding than any other combination of those same words could.
“At some point probably too early on, Jesse could feel herself throwing caution out the window and running all her internal red lights.” (Aquamarine)
In our conversations, lesbian themes don’t come up until I bring them up. Anshaw makes no attempt to hide her sexual orientation from me, a relative stranger, she just doesn’t wear it on her sleeve. She says simply, “I was married, and I was straight, and then over a period of several years I wasn’t straight so I had to redesign my life.” She describes the change in her sexual identity as a shift, not an unchaining of suppressed tendencies nor a long-delayed closet-busting or anything like that. “I think probably there were always lesbian elements in my character, in my self. But I don’t think they were suppressed so much as they were in recess, in abeyance. I was pretty heartily heterosexual when I was, and then it shifted.” For obvious reasons, her marriage failed, but she remains on good terms with her ex-husband (Anshaw is her mother’s name). In any case, she credits Albert Einstein for her coming out: “I had this book, ‘Einstein for Beginners,’ where you can understand the theory of relativity for fifteen seconds; it does it with trains and mirrors and stuff. In the book it said he was kind of a schmo from Kokomo; he didn’t have any big degrees; he dropped out of that Polytechnic. When he came up with this theory, in order for his theory to be right, all of physics from Newton on down had to be dead wrong. Now this has got to be kind of daunting for most people, they would just kind of crawl back into their hole. But that’s how I felt about my life when it finally reached that point. In order for me to be who I really am, my whole life is wrong. And I’m going to have to change it. And that’s kind of an overwhelming realization when it hits you but then you begin by small awkward steps…,” she pauses as if briefly reliving in her mind a few episodes from those years, and continues. “So what I’m relating to you now seems ever so smooth, but it was not at the time. So here I am.” Still, after “running the gauntlet,” she’s settled into a long-term monogamous relationship. “I think I got lucky,” she says.
Similarly, there is a pervasive lesbian theme of varying proportions that runs throughout “Aquamarine,” but it doesn’t assault the reader. It’s simply there, a characteristic of the protagonist Jesse and nothing more. Anshaw describes it, and its seeming ambiguity, as just part of the “mechanism” she set up, although it represents an interesting manifestation of her view of human sexuality: “I think it is more like a spectrum than a big dividing line. Of course, it’s not a free spectrum in that there’s a lot of societal pressure to be on the straight side of it.”
While Anshaw takes certain pride in adding a story to the dearth of “our stories,” and while her next novel, which has just been contracted to Houghton Mifflin, includes a lesbian protagonist throughout, she insists that she is working toward the opposite of the ghettoization that still plagues so much lesbian and gay literature, where books are channeled to the gay press and to gay bookstores and pretty much remain unknown to the rest of the world. “My entire life I’ve noticed that what I feel are reasonable hopes for the culture aren’t borne out. But what I hope is that literature is wide enough to accommodate books that have gay characters or gay themes in them in the way that they accommodate so much else. That it doesn’t have to be a ghettoized, specialty kind of literature. I went with Washington Square [who just published her book in paper] because they really saw the book in its widest and its broadest terms rather than its narrowest. That’s how I see my little mission—of course I’m hoping that I reach gay readership—but I’m also hoping that I can push the walls a little further out in terms of what amount of gay theme or characters the larger literature can easily accommodate.”
Anshaw’s mission has finally brought her to a place that many aspiring writers would envy. She recently took an MFA at Vermont College—”one of the best experiences of my life”—through their low-residency program. It’s something of a highbrow correspondence program geared to writers who are “in the middle of a life” and can’t afford to pack up and go to Iowa for two years. She spent ten-to-eleven-day residencies in the summer and winter, and worked with her advisor through the mail the rest of the time. It helped her develop a network of mentors and peers she can draw upon in the future. It reduced her isolation. She had finished “Aquamarine” and sent it to her agent; her revisions on the novel after Houghton Mifflin bought it constituted her thesis project.
In addition to her reviewing and writing, she teaches at Chicago’s Columbia College and at Ragdale. “I suppose what I try to do is offer criticism that enables the writer to do something with it. One time I showed my ex-husband something I was working on and he said it lacked deeper resonance. This is the kind of criticism I try not to offer. Because the writer then is just feeling bad and they can’t go anywhere with it. Where are they going to put that deeper resonance, on page 16?” She enjoys teaching, but harbors the same type of superstitions that knocked her out of an English major back when she was in college. A highly evolved stylist, she rightfully believes that she is pretty good with images. For a writer’s conference this summer where she’s been invited to teach, she considered and decided against lecturing about imagery because she “didn’t want to mess with it.”
Yes, at the age of forty-seven, Anshaw epitomizes the successful writer. Her book won awards, has been published in paperback ($10, 197pp), has been optioned to the movies, has been selected by the Quality Paperback Club. Except financially she still struggles. It’s a sad irony that she’s quite conscious of: “Poor as I am, and I am just so beleaguered by debt, according to National Writers Union statistics, I am incredibly successful at what I do. But I’m not anywhere close to being able to make a living at serious fiction yet.”
“Those who come to writing too early seem drawn to poetry, to the illusion that not having enough to say can be more easily camouflaged in verse. Those who get around to it as late as my mother lots of times seem to be looking to catalog their life as a way of making sense out of it.” (They Do It All With Mirrors)
Anshaw takes a few minutes to figure out her impulse to write—it’s been there so long and so unequivocally that she seems to take it for granted—she talks about the fun of two lives, the one she’s living and the parallel one living in her head, she dismisses the expressive impulse and finally settles on a primitive impulse to tell stories, “like the Ur story-telling gene.”
Like any good writer, Anshaw has a savvy sense for telling autobiographical moments. So she tells me the story of when she won the critics’ award and went to see a book-review editor in New York the day of the ceremony, an event she awaited with considerable trepidation. “Why,” Anshaw asked the editor, “is it I spend all the peak moments in my life just hoping I’ll be able to get through them? And she said. ‘Honey, your peak moment was when you wrote that stuff.’ And that’s the truth. It never gets better than that.”
Literature is a solitary art. Books are written in isolation; books are read in isolation. “This woman with purple hair came up to me in New York after my reading and she said ‘I’ve read your book twice.’ And I was on the plane coming back to Chicago and I said there’s a woman in New York with purple hair who has read my book twice. And it wasn’t at all who I had in mind. I was glad to know she was out there.”
Carol Anshaw will read from “Aquamarine” at the Printers Row Book Fair on Sunday.
—Published June 17, 1993