“You know you always think about audience. I grew up in a small Midwestern community in Wisconsin. Education is not a given there. People live quiet and traditional lives. Lots of people don’t finish high school. College is not something they necessarily do. My thinking and my sense of audience was very much shaped by these people. Then I got into academia and traveled to big cities. I realized how different people live and how different people think, how unaware they are of anything outside of what they’re looking at at that moment. I always thought of small town people as being kind of provincial, but I think that provinciality occurs no matter where we are.”
A. Manette Ansay received her MFA from Cornell in 1991. She is the author of three novels, Vinegar Hill (Viking 1994), Sister (William Morrow, 1996), and the upcoming River Angel (William Morrow, April of 1998). Her collection of stories, Read This and Tell Me What It Says, won the 1994 AWP Short Fiction Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. She is the 1992 winner of the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Prize and a 1993 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant; other awards include a 1995 Friends of American Writers Prize, the 1996 Paterson Prize, and the 1997 Great Lakes Fiction Prize. Her stories and poems have appeared in many publications including The North American Review, Story, and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. She teaches fiction in Warren Wilson’s MFA program.
The interview was conducted in Manette’s office at Vanderbilt University in April of 1997, when she still taught there.
Camille Renshaw: Joyce Carol Thomas once told me that to write you have to love words. You must be passionate about words.
A. Manette Ansay: Yes, you must love words, and you have to love the story.
CR: How do you shape your story and get to know your characters? What process do you use?
MA: I’ve been reading about Flannery O’Conner’s method. She said, “I write to discover what I know.” I learn about my characters by writing about them. Most of what I write doesn’t actually appear on the finished page. It’s both organic and very left-brained, critical. I work from an impulse, but then I take out a part and ask, “What’s happening rhythmically?” “What’s happening in terms of imagery and diction?” “Is there any symbolic potential in this image?” And then I move to the next sentence. Sometimes I get a rush and write two or three pages, but then I go back into it and figure out what each sentence means and why it might be there. If it’s just there gratuitously, it has to come out. Through that process I get to know my characters and what they’re about. Once I get three or four or five, or twenty things consistent about them, the choices that they make after that are easier to discern because they are better motivated. You know a little bit about this person, so you know how they’re probably going to react. And if something appears on the page which contradicts that, you have to think, well, is this a mistake? Is this some new insight into the character? Is this a deliberate juxtaposition of a rational process in an irrational moment and how is that going to function? So I always have a lively dialogue going on between the critical and the creative sides of my mind.
CR: Can you imagine how much of the complexity, the juice that keeps the story interesting enough for a reread, would be lost without the critical?
MA: It has shocked me how many of my colleagues at Vanderbilt don’t recognize the critical side of the creative process. They think the writer just goes out into a field somewhere and emotes. [Laughter.] They sometimes comment, well, I’m sure the writer didn’t mean to do this here, but this is what’s really going on. My response is always, “Well, hmmmâ€¦ Of course the writer meant to do this.”
CR: Of course.
MA: This is a funny story: I got into a conversation with a colleague about a chapter in Sister, “Distance.” [Abigail is the narrator.] Abigail’s father has this habit of shaking hands really hard with his kids until they wince, and the kids have to try and come up with a handshake to match. And of course they can’t; they’re kids. The father thinks he’s doing this in fun; he has no idea how this upsets them. The only way he knows how to interact with them is to tease them. It’s the only way he can get a response because they’re very focused on their mother. The father feels somewhat isolated and rejected by that, even as he acts to further isolate himself from the family circle. So they come out of church one night, and Abigail has just soloed in the church. The father shakes her hand, but when he tries his usual trick of squeezing too hard, she bends his thumb back “like she’s snapping a carrot.” This colleague of mine started telling me all about the castration imagery in my fiction. I said, “What are you talking about?” He named that scene and explained that the thumb was a phallic symbol and Abigail had in fact castrated her father. I said to him, “If I wanted her to cut his dick off, she would have cut his dick off.” She sprained his thumb. It amazes me that so many people are still under the thumb, I guess I’ll use that in its phallic sense, of Freud. Somehow this [psychologist] who lived way back when is determining how we think of a man who came from a particular culture and a particular economic class in a particular time if he dreams of circles. I find it ludicrous for people in the 1990’s to make the Freudian assumption that this is castration when I’m writing about a thumb. The girl does not want to castrate her father.
CR: But you do, obviously, feel some sort of responsibility politically for what goes on in your narrative. It upsets you when people misjudge your motives.
MA: Absolutely. I think about these elements when I’m writing, but ultimately everything is in the work. It’s not anything you need to apply Freud or theory to. It’s there in the work. It’s organic. You read genre fiction and you get these cardboard characters who are sacrificed to the guillotine of plot or some other end. My characters come first. I hope that my work is representative of the complexity of the human condition. I marker a very small territory in which to work. I use, primarily, the landscape of the Midwest, real people, and real families. It saddens me to realize how many people have this neat idea of literature as a story, or everything is politics. I mean right wing as well as left wing politics. Then your story, its narrative qualities, are stripped away, so the thing that was artful and living and human and wonderful is gone. It becomes, “Well, what does this mean politically?” “Did these characters make the right choices?” or “What is he saying?” I think that loses the passion of fiction, the glory of imagery, the wonder of figure of speech, and the magic that makes prose wonderful.
CR: I know Francine Prose begins her writing projects with one sentence. Then she builds on it one more sentence at a time using no outline or diagram. I once heard her argue with Mary Morris about this process of hers. Mary thought this was absurd. She said this is impossible, that Francine, along with every other writer, must have some sort of structure that she works from, no matter how unconscious. Francine said she did not recommend this process to anyone but that, no, she does not have any plan when she goes to write and once she begins she rarely looks back. Towards the end of a work Francine finds ways to reconcile her characters and story. She looks for a means to end it. Sometimes her first drafts have characters whose names are different in the first and second halves. She often throws out sections or whole manuscripts because they won’t coalesce.
MA: Francine doesn’t like to be contradicted. That must have been good. [Laughter.]
CR: Yeah, she’s always fun to observe.
MA: I really like her.
CR: I do, too.
MA: That’s very similar to how I work. Just kind of build. Once I near the end of a work I have an idea of its overall shape, but it’s not superimposed. I throw away a lot, but I learn a lot, too. When you outline too closely and you solidify patterns, you get very efficient at one way of working. But I think you, or at least I, would miss the serendipity of discovering new things.
CR: I felt a big jump between Vinegar Hill and Sister, in terms of your writing. Did a lot of work take place in between those two projects? Sister just leapt off the page for me.
MA: Yes, it’s a more lyrical book.
CR: Part of its force or momentum is in the way it begins. “Listen to me!” The first person also really works for you. They’re both terrific, but Sister had me by the collar. I read it in one day because I couldn’t put it down.
MA: Wow. It’s funny that you mentioned the first section. So many people wanted me to take that out. It’s a risky way to begin a book because it screams “Literary Fiction!” Anybody who wants something else, like action, is going to put it down. But the section’s not long. Vinegar Hill was an interesting book. Viking published it, and it had a relatively small print run. The publisher had no interest in the book whatsoever. But it got over fifty reviews internationally. Sister has been reprinted four times. It’s being translated. It’s a much more “successful” book in that people have read it and can get access to it, the paperback’s about to come out, but it didn’t get nearly the critical attention. The different reactions interest me. The opening of Sister began with reading reviews of Vinegar Hill which talked about the strangeness of the world of Holly’s Field, Wisconsin. The reviewers either marveled at it or speculated where I came up with it or talked about the gothic, moving it to the Midwest and why I made that choice.
CR: Reviewers primarily from big media centers, big cities?
MA: Exactly. And sometimes I forget how divided we are as a country between city and rural. Most people who tend to champion books and get them out there, maybe those people don’t know they’re city books. Originally Vinegar Hill was set in the late eighties, and my publisher wanted it moved back to the fifties. Eventually we settled on the seventies. But you know the book could take place and is taking place today. It’s not something we’ve all grown out of and worked our way through. So I began Sister. I began by describing a rural church. It’s an answer to some of the questions I came across in the reviews. Also I have a really great editor now. I have a two book contract, River Angel being the first, with William Morrow. My editor is Jewish, she’s from the city. I’ll write something and she’ll say, “What does this or that mean?” It’s been really good for me to realize the contrast between rural and urban backgrounds. You know you always think about audience. I grew up in a small Midwestern community in Wisconsin. Education is not a given there. People live quiet and traditional lives. Lots of people don’t finish high school. College is not something they necessarily do. My thinking and my sense of audience was very much shaped by these people. Then I got into academia and traveled to big cities. I realized how different people live and how different people think, how unaware they are of anything outside of what they’re looking at at that moment. I always thought of small town people as being kind of provincial, but I think that provinciality occurs no matter where we are. My editor helped to broaden my sense of audience. So hopefully Sister was a more accessible book to people outside the Midwest, people outside a rural environment.
CR: You fed the urban reader more. It all comes back to Sister‘s narrative qualities.
MA: Yes! I gave them an explanation of the set. I had the first person narrator to do it.
Books by A. Manette Ansay available for purchase online: