By Brian Hieggelke
Carol Anshaw is kinda tickled. Tickled in a good, can-you-believe-it way. “I’m being called a breakout writer,” she says. Anshaw’s latest, “Carry the One,” is getting rave reviews and high-profile attention. The New York Times has loved it twice, both in Michiko Kakutani’s weekday column, and in the Sunday Book Review. Entertainment Weekly led off its book section with a full-page rave and A rating; People magazine gave it four stars, and so on. “Who knows,” she says. “Maybe for the first time I’ll make some money at this.” That’s why she’s tickled. In spite of the sense of discovery being conveyed in all this press attention, she’s hardly the fresh-scrubbed twentysomething wunderkind that the term “breakout writer” conjures. Though she’s certainly not cashing Social Security checks yet, it has been twenty years since her proper debut, the acclaimed “Aquamarine.” I interviewed Carol extensively at that time, and we’ve become friends over the years, so our conversation about this new book was informed by a greater understanding of the challenges she’s overcome to earn this acclaim.
Ironically, this new novel proved to be one of her most challenging to get published, and it comes a decade after her last novel hit the shelves. In the process of fending off publisher rejections, she changed agents. Her new agent suggested some significant changes—most notably shortening the novel by a hundred pages and changing the tense. Somehow, the magic worked and the book, an economical epic that spans most of its author’s adult life, is this spring’s critical and audience darling and is into its fifth printing. When we caught up recently, we discussed this particular journey.
Tell us about “Carry the One.”
The premise, which doesn’t say that much about the book, is an accident occurs. Some people are coming back from a wedding in Wisconsin. They are variously drunk and high and sleepy. And they hit a girl who runs across the road—a ten-year old girl. And they kill her. Then the book branches off of that and follows the people in that car for the next twenty-five years. I really just wanted to explore time. To make time a character, to see how it changes some things completely and other things not at all. And I was reading a lot of astrophysics; one of the characters is an astrophysicist. I became fascinated with time. Physicists think time might just be a grid, an overlay, that we put on everything that’s happening at once so that we can accommodate it. I needed an event to generate this propulsion of twenty-five years. And some really smart writer, I wish I could remember who it was, said that everything that follows violence is interesting. And so that was the premise that I was operating on. The aftermath of the accident would be interesting and the characters are very different people.
So talk about the characters.
I had these sisters [Carmen and Alice] in mind for a long time; I had them rumbling in the back of my head. I knew I wanted to make a big picture, a big novel, but not necessarily in a lot of pages. Actually, I thought 350 was pretty concise for how much I was putting in. But I then shrunk it to 250 in the end. So I think the experience for the reader is a big sweep of time, but not so many pages. I’m hoping that it’s a delightful feeling to move through all those years and move through them and move from character to character with agility.
The brother, Nick, is a troubled character.
Well Nick has my brother’s addiction. Before he died, I asked my brother if it was okay if I made a character who wasn’t him, but had his addictions. And he said, “Sure. The more the stories get out there the better.” So I did and then during the course of my writing the book, he did die. Michiko Kakutani, in that review, said that the parts about him and his addictions and the hookers and all of that were kind of unbelievable. And they’re really the only true thing in the book, but that’s okay if they weren’t. That’s what I always tell my students when they say, “This really happened.” That doesn’t make any difference. If you don’t make it real to the reader, then it has no more validity than something you make up. But I think I hadn’t seen very much in fiction before about what it’s like for the family of an addict. How far down it can drag you to really gruesome scenes as you try to pull the person you love out of that abyss.
How many siblings did you have?
Him. I miss him every day, but he was not thriving as a living person. He used to love to get really high and drive. I always worried …I used to put the club on his car. Then I had to go hide his car. I would hide it by a factory near the Ravenswood tracks, where I knew he would never find it. He was madder than hell when he would come out of a bender and realize he had no car. I wasn’t going to let him drive though. And after he died, I thought at least he’s not going to kill anybody else.
You set the book in ’83, but you originally set it earlier.
I started it in ’73 originally.
Were they teenagers then at that point?
No. I just had them cover more years. I just had them be older at the end. Someone asked me if I found it harder to write them old or young. And I think young, because every once in awhile something will come up, I’ll be talking to someone that I knew at that time, and I’ll realize how ignorant we were. We weren’t stupid. We were so ignorant about life. Astonishing.
You make Chicago a big character in this book too.
I love Chicago. I do, I really love it. It’s always changing and it never runs out underneath you. The change that was interesting for me to put into the book was to show how it changed from the eighties to now. It’s a very different city.
Do you see the child who is killed as a metaphor for something that happens to everybody—does every life have some sort of transformational event that one spends the rest of one’s life coming to terms with in some way? With “Aquamarine,” the moment that the main character could never overcome was that Olympic moment and this book has this much more violent, negative thing, but is that a view of life that you have?
Not necessarily, but I do think things stand out in relief, that you wish you could go back and change things that haunt you. People that haunt you. I knew someone who had been in an accident and nobody was killed. They didn’t kill anybody, but somebody in the car was paralyzed when they hit the tree or whatever, and I think it was where I got the idea, that she said she always felt connected to those people no matter who’d moved away or whatever—there was an event that had bound them. I think I just carried that idea with me. And then I know somebody who hit and killed somebody and I asked him to read the book for me and he said he would and then he wrote me and said, “You’ve written a great book, but I can’t talk to you.”
The gay character, Alice, has very vivid sex scenes, the straight characters not so much.
The whole thing about sex scenes must show my age, because I grew up on Philip Roth and John Updike. I think you’ve got to have a few good sex scenes, but a lot of people don’t have any anymore. It’s like sex is kind of passé, but I am going to try to keep it alive. I had something between Nick and Olivia, but I don’t know… I didn’t think the sex between Carmen and her second husband was going to be anything to write exactly. You always know when you finish a book you could have written an entirely different book about these characters. You are being so selective about what you tell the reader about them that you could have told them a whole other sequence of things.
Are you done with these characters or do you feel the desire to write them again or do more with them?
I don’t know. I thought about that the other day. Boy, it would be easy if I could write another book about these characters and, actually, I imagine them going on into an interesting phase in their lives. I guess I wouldn’t rule it out. I know them pretty well by now.
Talk about your writing process a little bit. Has it changed over the years?
What’s changed for me is that I don’t have to work every single day. For so many years, I had to write movie reviews and young-adult novels and edit business books. I think I did every kind of freelance writing imaginable in order to buy myself a couple days a week to write my own fiction. Which meant that I wrote seven days a week which was hard. Now, I can take time off. I do a lot of my writing in Amsterdam, because I live over there part of the time. We have an apartment in Amsterdam. It’s really small and nice. Amsterdam is a wonderful place.
How did that come about?
We went there once and on the way in from the airport Jessie [Anshaw’s partner] said, ” I want to live here.” So she looked for an apartment and found one. It’s fabulous. At the store, there’s only five kinds of cereal. We have beater bikes, and ride bikes everywhere. It’s a small city. The bike riding is really crazy though. I’ve been there so much that I’m better. But I did fall four times and I broke a rib. It’s all on cobblestone. These are people that have been riding since they were two. They’re carrying a cello and three kids. Basically, I just let them watch out for me. That’s what I discovered is my best shot. It’s a very simple life for me. I know three thousand people here, because I’ve been here so long and three people there. So I can write and write and write. But I do write here too and I have an office outside my house, which I’ve always had, even when I was so poor that I couldn’t justify it.
You’ve become a painter as well?
I think it’s easier than writing but I’ve learned not to say that around painters. I work pretty hard at it. I make a lot of mistakes, but I don’t make as many mistakes as I did. When you’re painting an oil painting sometimes a mistake means that you just have to repaint the painting. Although, when I go to museums, sometimes I can see another leg off to the side on some masterpiece, and he just painted over it, but you can still see the sharp line of some limb, some phantom limb. I love painting. I definitely steal time from my writing for it and that makes me feel guilty. But I suppose I have to have something to feel guilty about…
The character Alice–does she paint like you, or is she doing something else?
She paints a little like me.
So, is there a little bit of a fantasy in that character for you?
I don’t know. The great thing about painting for me is that nobody cares if my paintings are any good. I’m at a place that I no longer can be in writing, because people are going to look at what I write and make judgments on it. I’ve discovered with this book that there is a correlation between people who knit and people who don’t care for the book, because I’ve had two reviews by people who describe themselves as a knitter and a blogger or a knitter and a reader. Maybe it’s the same person. Neither of them care for my books. I am judged for this work. I don’t ever have to be judged for my painting. I can paint anything. Sometimes, when I’ve really messed something up, I just take an X-acto knife through it and use the stretcher for something new. And nobody cares. No one is ever going to care about my painting. Isn’t that great?
Was there a point in your entire life as a writer that you felt the same about your writing?
Well, my teacher, Sharon Stark, says that the best place to write from is obscurity—the greatest freedom. And I always tell my students that they are never going to be as free as they are now, you know, to fuck up.
Is astronomy something you just picked up for the book, or has it always been an interest?
Yeah then I started getting really interested in it. It made me an atheist, because I thought, whoa wait a minute you know if there are 100 billion stars in our galaxy with all of their attendant planets and 150 billion, and now they think more, galaxies and we’re on some little remote arm of our galaxy then, really? Are any of these gods that we make in our own image credible? I think something is going on, but it’s much bigger, and we’re clueless.
For much of your career, you’ve been dealing with the issue of being branded as a lesbian writer and though that certainly is a part of this book, it doesn’t seem to be as forceful a part of it.
The culture has changed and probably changed because of queers beating against the wall of the old culture. They said, “Open up this room! We’re here! Deal with it!” I noticed that the reviews just don’t even mention it. It’s so great.
I wonder what that means over time for things like gay and lesbian newspapers. Do you see this all blending together?
That’s a very interesting question. I think that for some people being gay is very inconvenient. They’re squares or whatever, and this has been a jolt to them, and they have to go through all of this business of coming out to their families and disappointing them that they’re not going to be in a straight marriage or whatever, and then some people, like me, were totally rebels from the get-go. I was a supporter of this or that downtrodden minority, so when I came out, I was so happy, because I felt I’m a downtrodden minority, I get to support me. But I think also after you’ve come out you, in most cases, stop being so fascinated with your queerness. You kind of get over yourself. And that just recedes and becomes just another aspect of who you are. And I think the world is accommodating that more. You don’t have to hide at work or whatever people use to have to do. They would empty out the gay bars here and print the names of all the guys they got coming out and what their jobs were, where they were employed, to get them fired, to scare them. That doesn’t happen anymore. So it’s not as big an issue in terms of society and once it stops being an issue for you and your personal life and having had your train pulled off one track and put on another one. So, I think in my writing that was where I was at. My world was everybody. I think I wanted to be more a chronicler of the culture. I just wanted the room to be bigger.
In the book, the characters of the parents are not very sympathetic.
No, they’re terrible.
And I know when you and I did the interview twenty years ago, you were somewhat estranged at the time from your parents.
My parents were terrible.
So, your feeling hasn’t changed…
No.They were terrible. Although, when my dad got old, I actually took care of him and made some sort of peace with him. He had to be nice to me; he was dependent on me, and also he went through a big depression and they put him in a mental ward. This was so astonishing to me; my parents were so conventional. And they started putting him on meds, and he was a different person on the meds. Doesn’t that make you wonder what my childhood would have been like if he had been on those meds then if they had them? I think he was a mentally ill person who self-medicated with liquor. So he was not only crazy; he was drunk most of the time. A really terrible combination. He was really bad. My mother went along with him. So she was de facto bad too. I should be jibbering in some back ward. Somehow it didn’t land me up there.
This is your fourth novel under the name Carol Anshaw, right?
But I wrote another book called “Fast Ride with the Top Down,” and I liked it and I couldn’t sell it and eventually did sell it under a pseudonym, because “Seven Moves” was coming out at the same time, and my publisher didn’t like the idea of another book by me coming out at the same time.
What was the author’s name?
Harper Grey. I had to come up with it in a minute on a phone call, and I like Earl Grey Tea. I don’t know. I thought Harper Lee or something. Harper Grey. She is one of my favorite writers.
Do you have other books that haven’t sold?
I have one called “All Night Radio,” which I never sold.
A recent book or older?
These were all in that long, dark tunnel that I was in before, after “They Do It All with Mirrors” [her first published novel, under the name Carol White] got published. I thought I was on my way. I was on my way to nowhere. I was on the road to nowhere. It was another fourteen years until “Aquamarine” got published. And in that time, I wrote “Fast Ride with the Top Down” and “All Night Radio”—not good enough.
Did you ever look at it again? Is it something you would ever go back to?
No, I was teaching myself how to write novels. I teach mostly novelists at the school, at SAIC, and it’s something that I really think I have something to offer, because writing fiction is one thing, but writing a novel is a whole other thing, and I think they are only beginning to realize how difficult this is going to be. Much more so than they ever thought. And they are so desperate to succeed, and even though they are really smart, after banging their heads against the wall they will listen to me and that’s great. They’re trying to figure out how to do this difficult thing. And the only reason I have something to offer is that I’ve done it so many times.
What do you tell them? What’s the secret?
I say, “I never told you this was going to be easy. You just have to keep at it.” I think that perseverance is just worth so much more than people give it credit for. You have to push a million words around. Then things start to become easier for you. It’s like with a sport. It’s like with tennis. You have to get to a place where you’re not thinking about your feet. If you’re still thinking about your feet, then you’re not there yet.
Your books are all economical, right? None of them are real long.
Are you like a sculptor who has a big block of words and you carve it down to get to that exact combination so…?
I am. Like Michelangelo has a big block of stone and he takes away everything that’s not, “The Pièta.”
Exactly. Your beneficiaries are your readers because there are a lot of books that definitely could use a trimming.
I think in some cases, with male authors writing big books, it’s to their benefit commercially to make the books as big physically as they can, so I think they are padded out a bit to be honest.
You think it’s a gender thing?
Well, I guess women writers of historical romances would fit into that. There are some books where the publishers want some big book, physically big. Then there are some writers like Murakami, who is a good writer, but he has created a patience in me for reading him, because if someone is making their lunch, you know every little scallion that went into that stir-fry. I always would feel that that would be imposing on my reader, but he doesn’t and I still love him.
We talked about your relationship with your early novels. What about the stuff that has been published from “Aquamarine”on. How do you feel about those books now looking back on them?
I don’t think “Seven Moves” is… I mean if there is a lesser book, it’s that one. But the other three, they seem really good to me. I spent a lot of time on each of them. I guess if I read them over, I’d look at sentences and say,”Oh, I can make a better sentence than that now.” I think “Carry the One” is more ambitious in scope, in number of characters, in time periods, in cultural commentary, in addition to personal stories, I don’t know. I guess you, the reader, will have to be the judge. A writer always likes to think that they’re trying something new and doing something better and never want to write the same book. The book that I’m writing now is very dark—funny, but very dark.
Why is that, you think?
I don’t know. I think that the darkness fascinates me.
How far are you into it at this point?
I’ve got about eighty pages written, but I’ve had those eighty pages written for awhile. In revising this book, though, I was revising it through second-pass galleys even. So, it isn’t very long since I’ve actually finished the book.
You mentioned this book took seven years to write. Did it take seven years from conception to completion, or was a big part of that shopping it to publishers?
A couple of years it was shopping, but a lot of it was just writing it. As I told you, my whole family died during that time, so I had a lot of care-taking to do and all the legal stuff to do, so that took up some of my time during those years.
You changed the book a lot in order to get it published.
I did. I think I bettered it. I don’t think I sold it out in any way. I looked back at it, shortening it, tightening it up some, so I think it has a taut feel to it, packs a lot into 250 pages.
Then you changed the voice?
I changed the tense to past tense.
What did that do to the book?
I don’t know. But somebody thought it would make the tone less harsh, so fine.
It worked I guess, right?
Yeah, but I’m back to writing in the present tense. I always have. That seemed to be liberating when I first started writing when people were using it. It seems so immediate. It never presumes you’re sitting in a chair, like I am now, like Alistair Cooke, turning from the fireplace and telling you about something that happened long ago and they’re so wise to tell you.
Carol Anshaw reads from “Carry the One” May 16, 7pm, as part of a local authors night at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 North Lincoln, (773)293-2665.