A. Manette Ansay grew up in Wisconsin among 67 cousins and over 200 second cousins. She is the author of six novels, including Good Things I Wish You (July, 2009), Vinegar Hill, an Oprah Book Club Selection, and Midnight Champagne, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as a short story collection, Read This and Tell Me What It Says, and a memoir, Limbo. Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, a Pushcart Prize, the Nelson Algren Prize, and two Great Lakes Book Awards. She lives with her daughter in Florida, where she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Miami.
The Long Story:
I was born in Michigan, outside Detroit, but I moved to Port Washington, Wisconsin — a small town north of Milwaukee — when I was five. There I took Suzuki piano lessons with a wonderful local teacher, traveling each summer to music camps. In high school, I went on to take lessons at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. After graduating from Port Washington High School in 1982, I attended the Peabody Conservatory of Music as a piano performance major, but I was forced to leave in 1984 as a result of increasing health problems. By the fall of ’85, I was unable to walk, and at that time I was (mis)diagnosed with MS. I wound up bedridden (I lived with my parents) until spring of ’87, when I was able to get around again using a wheelchair. My health improved through the late ’80s and seems to have stabilized since the late ’90s. Though I have occasional flare-ups, I am basically in good health. There’s a theory that I had some kind of immune reaction from a series of inoculations I’d received, but this is speculation: I still don’t really know what happened to me. At any rate, by the time I was 23, it was clear to me that I needed to find something I could do sitting down. On January 1, 1988, I made a New Year’s resolution that I would write for two hours three times a week. In the summer of 1988, I won a “scholarship” to a summer writing conference. (Later, I found out that my tuition had been secretly paid by an older woman who thought I had talent.) At the conference, I learned about MFA programs; I applied to Cornell and was accepted.
I attended Cornell from fall of ’89 until spring of ’91. During that time, I married Jake Smith and began publishing short stories. After graduating from Cornell, I held a lectureship there from ’91-’92. From ’92-’93, I was Writer in Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and it was there that I learned my first novel, Vinegar Hill, would be published in 1994. From ’93-’97 I was an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. During that time, I published two more books—a story collection, Read This and Tell Me What It Says, and my second novel, Sister—and in spring of ’97, I resigned from full-time academia in order to concentrate on my writing. Over the next few years, I published two more novels—River Angel and Midnight Champagne, a 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist—and I taught as a visiting writer at Warren Wilson College (in Asheville, North Carolina) and the University of the South (in Sewanee, Tennessee; fall ’98), as well as spending a semester at Marquette University (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), where I held the Women’s Chair in Humanistic Studies.
A major impacting event in my life was the selection of my first novel, Vinegar Hill, as a 1999 Oprah Winfrey Book Club Pick. After completing a memoir, Limbo, in the spring of 2001, I was able—thanks to the financial side of the “Oprah effect”—to concentrate exclusively on improving my health. I spent nearly a year as an outpatient at Beth Israel Hospital’s Continuum Center for Health and Healing, an integrative medical center which combines traditional western medicine with so-called “non-traditional” medicine, such as acupuncture, meditation, and diet alteration. I also worked with Dr. Erika Schwartz, to whom I am indebted for the birth of my daughter in 2003—another major event. In 2004, I took a Visiting Professorship at the University of Miami, and to my surprise, discovered how much I’d missed having colleagues, students, an academic home. Folks at UM seemed pleased with me as well, and I remain there to this day.
In 2006, I published my seventh book, Blue Water, a novel that draws on experiences living aboard a sailboat, which Jake and I did—he more consistently than I—during the years leading up to the birth of our daughter. Lots of things come clear when you live with someone on a 38 foot boat, isolated from distractions and excuses. We were divorced—a third major event in my life—at the end of 2006, though we remain friends and, of course, active and loving parents to our daughter. Jake, in fact, did the artistic design for this web site.
No doubt, the collage structure of Good Things I Wish You is, in some way, a reflection these recent life changes. Certainly, it is a departure from my earlier novels, though it builds on what my long-time editor Claire Wachtel calls “the broader canvas”, moving beyond the Midwest and outside of the United States, as I did in Blue Water, only this time, it leans backwards out of the present world and into the 1860s. I’d been trying, off and on, to write this book since the end of the 1990s. But I’d conceived of it as a traditionally-written historical novel, and it was hard to let go of that initial impulse, even when it became clear that I wasn’t getting at precisely what I most wanted to address: the contemporary nature of the story. Then, in January of 2007, I went on a blind date with a man who, it turned out, had been born near Leipzig. My memory of that ‘date’ is that we spent it disagreeing with and misunderstanding each other as we debated, among many other things, the nature of the relationship between Clara Schumann and her husband’s young protégée, Johannes Brahms. I remember him saying, “There are things about men and women that do not change,” and this struck me as both obvious and revelatory. When I got home, I wrote the sentence that would become the opening line of the novel: My first date in nineteen years was nearly an hour late. I wrote it as a lark, the way I wrote the whole scene—after all, I was working on a historical novel, a serious novel—and this was, well, I didn’t know what this was. But soon the story of the contemporary couple branched and broadened into a fiction all its own, and I realized that I’d stumbled upon exactly the connection between present and past I’d been looking for. Now, instead of inviting the reader to step back into Clara’s life and time, I began projecting her nineteenth century life into the present day. Indeed, there are things about men and women that have not changed, that do not change, which makes the possibility of friendship between us even more remarkable—and even more necessary.
So what comes next? My goal for 2009 is to figure out a better work-life balance, a way of making time for my daughter, my academic work and my writing, while still trying to get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. I’m superstitious about discussing new projects in depth, but I’ve got several chapters, set in the Pacific Northwest, about the family of a private pilot who disappears. Perhaps this will be my next novel. I also have the book I started five years ago, set in the 1860’s at sea, during the transition between sailing ships and steam. We shall see.