An Interview with Carol Anshaw

December 9, 2008

posted by Caroline Picard; the original site for this post can be seen here. I thought I’d post this today, since a) Carol is going to be reading for The Parlor this spring and b) it’s always great to read about       how authors do what they’re doing. Mystery’s unveiled sort of thing.

Carol Anshaw

Questions and Answers
An Interview with
Carol Anshaw
by Greg Shapiro
Windy City Times

Carol Anshaw’s new novel, Lucky in the Corner (Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY, 2002, $23), opens with a bang. Literally. A jealous and jilted lover crashes her car into the parked car of her girlfriend’s new lover. The crash wakes Nora, the new lover and main character of the novel, and draws the reader into her world. Lucky in the Corner is Anshaw’s third novel, and her most domestic (and I mean that in a good way!). Anshaw introduces us to the new American family, and the members (including Nora’s daughter Fern, Nora’s lover Jeanne, and Nora’s brother Harold) are the kind of people you wouldn’t mind running into at a family reunion.

Gregg Shapiro
: In addition to being a respected novelist, you are also renowned for your work as a journalist. You wrote movie reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, and book reviews for the Village Voice’s literary supplement, the VLS.

Carol Anshaw: Well, I did movie reviews for the Sun-Times for years. Also reviews of plays, circuses, country music concerts, restaurant brunches. I had a professional relationship with eggs benedict. This was when I was in my 20s and didn’t mind all the running around…like seeing a movie, then rushing down to the paper to review it until 2 in the morning. The work I did later for VLS was sometimes book reviews, but mostly literary essays. VLS had a great editor then, who taught me tons about essay writing. I loved doing those; they used every one of my brain cells.

GS: I discovered, online, that you have also written some young adult books.

CA: Oh man, I wrote, like, 23, maybe 25 of them. Under pseudonyms mostly, mostly series books. About cheerleaders or girls in boarding school. Near the end, I got into teen horror, which was my favorite genre. The Claw. I have to confess, I am the author of The Claw. I’m grateful to have had this work. I could do those paperbacks in a few weeks and the money would buy me a few months’ time for my own writing. I was always struggling then to buy time and keep a roof over my head.

GS: Your novel Aquamarine is ranked at No. 37 in the list of 100 best gay/lesbian novels by The Advocate. How does that feel?

CA: I was blown away when I saw that. It’s like Aquamarine has its little niche in history.

GS: You are also an educator, having taught at both School of the Art Institute Chicago and Vermont College. How do you see your role as a teacher? What do you like best about teaching at the graduate level?

CA: I only teach at the School of the Art Institute now. I am so lucky to have this job. All grad students, already committed to their craft, really smart. Basically, my job is I go downtown and have these great conversations about writing. It’s the best sort of teaching, the opposite of being Professor Thuckleberry or whoever, some authority…THE authority on whatever, lecturing in stentorian tones. I don’t have a lectern; I’m never even standing at the blackboard. What I do is sit with students and their stuff and say, OK, I’ve been working over this puzzle of writing for years and I’m still trying to figure it out myself, but here’s something that might help you. And because it’s such a giant puzzle and they are looking for pieces, they will listen to me.

GS: Earlier this year, About Face Theater (in Chicago) produced a stage adaptation of your novel Seven Moves. Did you see the production? How do you feel about stage or potential screen adaptations of your work?

CA: I saw the play twice. The first time was opening night and it was overwhelming. Words I’d put down on a page years ago suddenly leaping to life, spoken by actors. Scenes that had only existed in my imagination now happening on a sofa on a stage. And being with an audience…hearing and seeing their reactions. The whole thing was just overwhelming. I came home and told my girlfriend, “I can’t even talk about this.” Then I saw it a second time and I could just relax and enjoy it. They did a good job. Of course, they have to take out nine-tenths of your book or the play would be 102 hours long. I didn’t realize that. But the one-tenth they kept was good.

GS: In Lucky In The Corner you present the reader with the new contemporary American family: Fern lives with her mother Nora and Nora’s female lover Jeanne.

CA: I think the family is undergoing both huge and subtle changes now…the shape it takes, what makes a family. What used to be connection only by blood now also includes connection by love, affinity, friendship, partnership, marriage and remarriage, adoption. I wanted to capture this vibrant human enterprise, and so I created a family going through a lot of change. Fern used to live with her mother and father; now she lives with her mother and her mother’s partner, Jeanne. Her mother, Nora, is queer and Fern is straight. Fern finds a boyfriend; her mother finds a girlfriend. As you may have noticed Nora already has a girlfriend, so quite a bit of trouble ensues. Fern’s uncle, Harold, her closest confidante, is straight, but he also likes to fool around with personas. On Thursday afternoons, he’s Dolores, a vamp from the ’40s; Dolores hosts a little canasta club.


GS
: Your portrayal of Harold and his cross-dressing male friends is insightful and nonjudgmental. Can you say something about the genesis of this character and his preference for women’s clothing?

CA: The genesis was a dream. In my dream, four guys were dressed like vamps from ’40s films noirs, sitting around a table, drinking cocktails and playing canasta. This was when I’d first started writing Lucky and I knew this had to be an image in the book. In fact, the working title of the book was Canasta. And so I gave Harold an affinity for drag and an alter-ego, Dolores. When Fern wants advice to the lovelorn, she always talks to Dolores, which is a little different from talking to Harold.

GS: The relationship between Nora and Harold, the sister and brother in the novel, is complex and wonderful. Is it a reflection of your relationship with your own brother?

CA: I have a close relationship with my brother. We are very different now, but we were allies through a rough growing up and so we’re sort of war buddies. We were in the trenches together. I’ve written about sisters and brothers before and I suppose it’s always some kind of nod to my own brother. He’s not into drag, though. He’s not even into jeans, doesn’t even own a pair. He’s a very khakis and loafers guy. Monogrammed shirts. I don’t know, maybe that’s a kind of drag.

GS: In the book, Lucky is a dog. What role do dogs play in your life and in your writing?

CA: Dogs are huge in my life…my dogs, my friends’ dogs, the dead dogs whose ghosts I can still hear clicking around my bed in the night. No one in this book is from my life except Lucky, who is my great old dog, Sebastian. He was a total character through his life and so I thought, why not make him a character in the book? I only changed the color of his fur, from blond to red. I don’t know why. Fiction writers, they’re always fiddling with reality, I guess.

GS: Infidelity is a familiar theme in your work. What makes it such a compelling topic?

CA: Well, fictively, it’s a more dramatic topic than fidelity. If you’re a writer, you want to throw a monkey wrench into the works and see what happens. But, more than infidelity in this book, with Nora’s character, I was interested in exploring obsession…the way it can drag someone out of the perfectly reasonable groove of her life and yank her this way and that and hurtle her down a black hole and turn her into someone she doesn’t even recognize in the mirror. Ain’t it grand? If you’re only writing about it, that is.

GS: Lucky In The Corner is your most “Chicago” novel, populated by neighborhoods and streets and businesses. Chicago is more than just a setting for this novel; it is a character. What does Chicago mean to you?

CA: I love that you got that, that I want the city to be much more than backdrop. I’ve lived here since I got out of college and I just love this place, the way it’s such a jumble of the hip and corny, the layers of ethnicity in almost every neighborhood. The Swedish herring shop next to the Chinese vacuum cleaner repair shop, that sort of thing. In Seven Moves and in Lucky and in the book I’m working on now, I think what I’m doing is trying to create a fictional Chicago that exists parallel to the real one, with its own population, inhabitants that appear majorly in one book, minorly in another.

GS: Have you begun work on your next novel?

CA: Yeah, but it’s an amorphous mass at this point. I know how it begins and where it ends, but what’s in between is still undifferentiated protoplasm. This place used to scare me, but I’ve written enough books now that I can live with the not-knowing until I do know. The best place for me is being in the middle of writing a book, when I’ve got enough that I know it will all come together eventually, but that eventually is still a ways off. I don’t have to show the book to anyone; it’s still infinitely perfectible. The place where I am with Lucky in the Corner is a harder one. It’s done. I took all the time I needed. It’s the best Lucky I can write. Now I can only hope readers will like it.

[interview first published in Windy City Times]

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