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Standout Storyteller & Gifted Painter: An Interview with Carol Anshaw

In her latest novel, Carol Anshaw presents us with a sizable group of friends, and an unforgiveable accident. She ensnares us and them in a net of gut-wrenching guilt, twisted families, fierce addictions, love, lust and everyday life. Carry the One then proceeds to lure us into closely following these people for thirty years. What an amazing ride…

MaryAnne Kolton: First off, I have to tell you I think Carry the One is certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year. The characters are so finely etched and layered. I ended up lost in their lives and loving each and every one of them—despite their many flaws, or maybe because of them. Your writing voice is incredibly knowing and easy to listen to. What a great story this is.

Will you tell us if your childhood and/or family experiences encouraged you to write?  What books were your favorites early on?

Carol Anshaw: First, thank you for your praise.

 My early love of books was a lonely pursuit. My parents were not educated; they had no way of knowing what to recommend. My father did take me to the public library and waited while I picked a pile of books, whatever the limit was. Also, I was in Catholic school with 40 or 50 kids per class, all reading together. Very slowly. I read those books upside down just to give myself something to escape the boredom. High school was more boredom, so I stayed up through the night smoking and reading novels. I didn’t have a way of knowing what was good. I didn’t know there were classics. When we moved into a new house, my parents bought some books by the pound to fill the shelves in the den. I read all those books. They were mostly terrible. Mysteries like Another Mug for the Bier. I read books from the library like the Hardy Boys mysteries, but also books from Bob’s Drugs, which would sell anything to you. I picked up a lot of Harold Robbins there. The Carpetbaggers. The Adventurers. Big, sexy stuff. When I babysat, I’d reach around behind the books on the bookshelves. That’s where I found Peyton Place, and a couple of marriage manuals—illustrating sexual positions like “while dancing” and “while sitting in a chair”. I was a little explorer. And I think what my early reading gave me was a much bigger sense of the world that lay past the lawns and deadly conventions of the suburb where I was growing up.

MAK: Who did encourage you to begin writing and when?

CA: My mother says I tried to write a novel when I was six, but had to ask her how to spell so many words that she finally told me I wasn’t ready; I’d have to wait. My parents got me a desk for my bedroom so I’d have a place to write. They got me a typewriter. One nun in high school took an interest in my writing and entered a couple of stories in contests for young writers. In college I was too busy being depressed and playing pinochle and smoking pot and skipping classes to write. As soon as I was out, though, I began writing fiction in earnest.

MAK: I’ve read that you cosseted several of the characters from Carry the One in your head for many years. I can’t say I’m surprised. They are all so absorbing. Which ones were they?

CA: I first wrote a story about Carmen (and Rob and Heather]), in the hammam. Later on I wrote a story about Alice (and Jean and Tom Ferris) called “Elvis Has Left the Building.” Both of these made it into Best American. I was writing other books then, but in the background, I had in mind a novel that covered a long stretch of time, to show how time both makes a great deal of difference, and no difference at all. I wanted it crammed with people, the way a city is. When I rode the el past the backs of houses and apartments with their lights on inside, I felt euphoric with the idea of making this book. I wanted to call it “In a Taxi, Honey,” from the old song. Here is a good example of how something can be dazzling in your mind, then you see what reaches the page and you have to get serious.

When my brother was going down, I told him I wanted to write a character who wasn’t him, but had his addictions and he said to go ahead, the more the stories get out there, the better. And that’s how Nick came into being.

MAK: We should probably explain here that a hamman is a traditional Moroccan “bathing retreat.” A spa or steam bath.

Since you mentioned your brother, I’m wondering what you think about the theory that family of origin is somehow the jumping off place for most writers? A base from which to build?

CA: My family was not a base from which it would have been possible to build anything. By the time my brother and I were teenagers, our parents hated us. They were contemptuous of everything about us. That seems harsh to say, but it was true. It was us against them. The best we could hope for was staying under their radar. I remember telling my brother that I’d been to friends’ houses and they were nothing like ours. I told him that I would get out, then get him out. I did get out, but could never entirely extricate him. He had Stockholm Syndrome; he was in thrall to his captors. The father in Carry the One is the only character I’ve written who even has aspects of my father. I guess because life under their rule was such a terrible experience, I haven’t wanted to relive it by writing autobiographically.

MAK: Unfortunately, yours is a story not unlike those we’ve heard from so many writers. And yet, you seem to weave a delicious, wry, sense of humor into the doings in Carry the One. It plays off the serious issues your characters live with—a perfect counterpoint. Here are two examples:

(Rob)
His politics were not that great. He wasn’t a Republican, nothing out-and-out repulsive, but he was shifty on certain issues—like welfare and the death penalty. He thought people ought to work harder, the way he did. He thought it was okay to fry certain criminals. He picked the least sympathetic examples. Guys who chopped up their victims and served them in stews. That sort of thing.

(Carmen and Matt)
“How’s it going?” she said.
“Big doings here.” He was talking not in a whisper exactly, more like a TV golf announcer during an important putt. “The twins started a fire in a new house going up on the next block over. Then they stuck around to watch their handiwork. The cops picked them out of the crowd right away. The toes of their sneakers were melted and charred…Those girls are so sweet looking but they are total criminals.”

Is this just you, Carol, or a dedicated effort to mix sweet and sour, tragedy and comedy?

CA: This is just how my mind works, in writing, also in life.

MAK: How do you feel about the birth of the eBook, especially when coupled with more and more publishers’ reluctance to fund tours. Who knew authors would have to be masters of self-promotion with degrees in marketing…

CA: As someone who has a cabinet full of cd’s and a stack of LPs in the basement—all unplayable on any device I still own—I worry about the impermanence of the eBook. If my work was only to be available as a data file, I don’t think I would write anymore. But as long as there are still also physical books, I’m okay with eBooks. So many of my friends love their eReaders, particularly those who travel a lot, or live in remote places.

 As for promotion, Simon & Schuster has done so much for Carry the One that I am just hugely grateful, and try to do my part whenever they ask. I’ve never had this sort of treatment, and know I’m lucky to be getting it now.

MAK: Carry the One feels like a book that would make an intelligent, engrossing film. Has anyone expressed an interest in optioning it for that purpose? If that were to happen, how would you be affected emotionally and intellectually.

CA: Yes, I think it could make an excellent movie, but both good and bad movies have been made from good books so it’s nervous-making. One of the best aspects of novel writing is the nearly complete control of your work. Sell the movie rights and you can kiss that goodbye.

MAK: One of the most compelling characters in your book lives an openly, so-called, alternative lifestyle. Isn’t it glorious that no longer means that bookstores won’t put it on the shelves, people will whisper about it, but not read it, and haters will make placards about it and ban the book from the library. Thrills me to death.

CA: Oh yes, the landscape is much prettier; no fires in the hills. I am queer and have always had queer characters in my books, and I think at first that limited my readership and sales. When I started out, I read at a women’s bookshop that had a back room with all the lesbian books. So no one passing by would see your interest. Those days are gone. We’re ho-hum now. Only one of the reviews of Carry the One even took note of the lesbian stuff, and that was a queer reviewer praising it.

MAK: And look how it all happened overnight! Final question. Questions. Are you working on something new? Still decompressing from Carry the One? Will we hear more from the endearing, eclectic characters in this book?

CA: I am working on a novel called The Map of Allowed Wandering. I also have a story coming out in the 2012 Best American. I think it’s the best story I’ve written. It’s called “The Last Speaker of the Language.” I am also closing the gap on a painting project—a series of paintings of Vita Sackville-West. You can see some of these at my website, if you like. I’m making a biography in paint. And funny you ask about the characters in Carry The One. I might need to check in on Carmen and Alice later.

Carol Anshaw is the author of the novels Seven MovesAquamarine and Lucky in the Corner. She has won the Carl Sandburg, Society of Midland Authors, and Ferro-Grumley awards for fiction, and has been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award three times. Her latest novel is Carry the One, from Simon & Schuster. Her short fiction has been anthologized and published in various periodicals including VLS, Story and Tin House. Her stories, “Hammam” and “Elvis Has Left the Building” were chosen for inclusion in Best American Short Stories of 1994 and 1998 respectively. “Hammam” was read on NPR’s “Selected Shorts” series. Her latest story, “The Last Speaker of the Language,” has been chosen for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2012, to be released in October of 2012. Anshaw is a past fellow of the Illinois Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She lives in Chicago and Amsterdam with her partner, Jessie Ewing.

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MaryAnne Kolton
MaryAnne Kolton’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary publications including the Lost Children Charity Anthology, The Toucan Magazine, Lost In Thought Literary Magazine, Anatomy, Her Circle Ezine, and Connotation Press among others. Her story “A Perfect Family House” was shortlisted for The 2011 Glass Woman Prize. Author Interviews with Leah Hager Cohen, Siobhan Fallon, Charles Baxter, Alice Hoffman, Dan Chaon, Tupelo Hassman, Carol Anshaw, Lyndsay Faye, Kathryn Harrison and Charlotte Rogan have appeared most recently in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Her Circle Ezine, The Literarian/City Center and January Magazine. MaryAnne’s public email is maryannekolton@gmail.com. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter and at her blog site maryannekolton.blogspot.com.
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