A. Manette Ansay » Blog

Mar 07 2010

Writing and Obsession

Thinking today about the old chicken-or-the-egg question:  do we choose the stories we tell, or do the stories pick us out of the crowd, follow us home, demand our attention? I just finished reading Rebecca Skloot’s extraordinary first book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and it reminded me afresh of how important it is for those of us who write to always be listening, as Stephen Dunn puts it, “with that other, inner ear.”  A student in a community college biology class, Skloot first saw the name HENRIETTA LACKS written on the board as part of a lecture on cell division.  HeLa cells, named after Henrietta, were the first cells to survive–and reproduce–for more than a few days within a lab environment, making possible everything from polio vaccines to cancer therapies to gene mapping.  But who was Henrietta Lacks? Skloot wanted to know.  “No one knows anything about her,” her instructor replied. “She was a black woman.”

That was the inciting incident.

“What does your character desire?” we often ask our writing students–or are asked, in turn, by those who read our own works in progress.  “What does this person want?  What is his or her obsession”

But an equally important question might be:  What is the writer’s obsession with the story he or she sets out to tell?  For if it’s less than an obsession–if it’s mere inclination or, god forbid, calculated choice–the deep, primal heartbeat that drives a book’s creation for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, cannot take meaningful root.

Sometimes when a book gets uniformly good reviews, the small, winged cynic on my shoulder begins to mutter and twitch.  “Can’t be that good,” it grumbles.  “Probably disappointing.”  Within minutes of beginning The Immortal Life, said cynic was reading as voraciously as I, captivated by the unlikely marriage of personal interest story–the emotionally impacting story of Lacks herself, which unfolds in step with the developing relationship between Skloot and Lacks’s living daughter–and the story of HeLa cells themselves: their discovery, their commercial development, their impact on modern medicine and, as a result, every person living today.  Technically speaking, what makes this book a lasting masterpiece is the skill with which Skloot is able to portray both the personal and the scientific, making each story equally engaging and, through that process, strengthening each.  One might argue that Skloot, who earned her MFA at The University of Pittsburgh and is a contributing editor at Popular Science, is uniquely suited to write this particular story, skilled as she is in both in the portrayal of human pathos and the analysis of scientific fact.  But Skloot’s interest in Lacks began long before she’d developed this particular skill set, and it lasted through long years of disappointment in which Lack’s descendants–burned by past experiences with both reporters and the medical establishment–refused to be interviewed.  It lasted through self-financed research trips, broken relationships, job changes, life changes.  Through it all, beneath it all, that primal heartbeat pumped out its question:  Who was Henrietta Lacks?

Thank goodness Rebecca Skloot never stopped listening.

2 responses so far

Feb 18 2010

Do you think you have to be unhappy (or lonely) to produce?

This question, and others listed below, emerged from a discussion run by K C Culver, who leads the Literature Group at the University of Miami’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.  The Literature Group consists of smart, witty, and well-read retired professionals, some of whom have participated in the group for more than ten years.  During the Group’s last six-week semester, they read Good Things I Wish You and Vinegar Hill, as well as poems based on myth, and discussed topics such as the challenges of writing (and reading) contemporary writing based on history and myth, how the music of the Schumanns and Brahms reflects their biographies, and how to distinguish a good book from a great book.

A bit about K C: she’s a senior lecturer in the English Department at the University of Miami. She earned her MA in English Literature from Auburn University, and her MFA in Poetry from the University of South Carolina.  Her poems have been published in several journals, including Peregrine and Gulf Stream Magazine, and are forthcoming in Word River.

1.  Do you think you have to be unhappy (or lonely) to produce?

I find it nearly impossible to write when I am unhappy, unsettled or ill at ease.  And loneliness, for me at least, is a form of unhappiness.  But what I do require is a fair amount of solitude.  To write well, I need to be alone in my house or in a public place (such as on a plane or in a coffee shop) where I feel that no one knows me or might interrupt me. I suppose I also require a certain amount of emotional solitude as well.  I could never last long around someone who was constantly asking, What are you thinking?

2.  Did your view of Clara or Brahms change after writing this book?

I started writing about Clara and Brahms in 1994, when I co-wrote a screenplay with Stewart O’Nan.  But I’ve loved Clara Schumann since I first learned about her in high school; I’ve read everything about her I could over the past thirty years.  Writing Good Things didn’t change what I believed so much as make visible, make tangible, the connections between men and women living today and the lives Clara and Brahms lived then.  I knew the story was relevant; I just didn’t know how relevant until I began to collage contemporary fiction with historical fact.  If you click on my home page, scroll down and then click on Author’s Statement, I go into this in detail.

What did change–unexpectedly–was my view of Clara’s father, Friedrich Wieck.  He is often portrayed as a tyrant (or worse), and while this is true in some ways, he was also a feminist–far more so than his daughter, despite what some revisionist historians suggest.  He was absolutely right about what the demands and duties of marriage and motherhood would do to her career as a composer, and I saw, while researching the book, how deeply and sincerely he mourned the loss of what she might have offered the world through composition.

3.  What made you decide to write the novel as collage, which is very difficult? Did you have models?

I had read Maureen Seaton’s memoir Sex Talks To Girls in manuscript, and I was impressed with how much forward momentum she could generate out of short chapters, some of them hardly a page.  But I didn’t so much as decide to write a collage novel as find myself writing one.  Two things happened to facilitate this.  The first was that I went out on a blind date–pretty much the one I describe in Good Things–and the fictional story that evolved began to harmonize with the historical pieces I’d already written.  The second was that I started to photograph my desk and then pull the images into the text as a way of carrying my research with me on my three and a half hour commute (by public transportation) from the town north of West Palm, where I live, to Coral Gables, where I teach.  Initially, I did this to jog my memory, but gradually I began to rely on the images themselves to tell pieces of the story.

4. We’re interested in the role of L. We were split about whether he represents the stability/happiness that she doesn’t really want or whether he’s a Brahms figure.  Can you speak more about it?

L– is the guy who would always be asking, What are you thinking? In other words, Robert Schumann.

5. Does it worry you to have imagined details about Schumanns’ lives?

No, because that’s what you do in fiction.  You make things up.  I was pleased that the metafictional structure of the book allowed me to publicize the best nonfiction book about Clara, which is Clara Schumann:  The Artist and the Woman by Nancy Reich.  As you may recall, my contemporary characters reference this book in their debates.

6.  How did the people in your life react to this semi-autobiographical novel?

In an upcoming blog, I am interviewing my mother on this very topic.  It’s a question I get a lot, because my writing style is deliberately intimate; I want you to believe, as Anne Sexton said, “It was all true when I wrote it.”  However, the people in my life know the difference between the generative facts I’ve plundered for my own devilish purposes and the fictional lives that result.  The line, for those who know me well, is always a very clear one.   I have never written about something that someone has asked me not to write about.  Incidentally, my ex-husband did the design for this web site.  Isn’t it gorgeous?

7. We noticed that the names Heidi and Hochmann appear in both novels—how do you choose and use names?

I tend to use and reuse names that were common in the area of Wisconsin where I grew up.  “Heidi” in Good Things was actually my daughter’s choice; I told her about the character and asked her to pick a German-sounding name, and she picked Heidi.

8. We’re also interested in the name Salome, which seems unusual for a strict Midwestern Catholic community.  Where did that name come from?

I actually knew of a Salome where I grew up, though we pronounced it to rhyme with “Shalom.”  I chose the name because I wanted something associated, ironically, with a temptress.  Poor Salome.

9.  We’d like to hear your thoughts on the scene where Mary Margaret and Salome think the babies are being reborn.  Is it a symbol of rebirth?  Old age?  Trauma?

It’s more a concrete enactment of this idea:  that the secrets we keep do come back to haunt us, will continue to haunt us until they are brought to light.

10. What do you imagine happens to Ellen and the kids after the novel ends?  Have you ever considered writing a sequel?

Vinegar Hill is the only novel I’ve written that inspires this question, which I get a lot.  I really don’t know what happens to Ellen and the kids, which is probably a good reason to write a sequel. However, for the time being at least, I keep getting distracted by other, more urgent projects.

11.  We’re interested in the difference between the two novels in terms of style—what are you more comfortable with?  Where do you see yourself going next?

Each novel I write tells its own unique story and, as such, demands its own unique structure.  The book I am working on now–at least for the moment–has no chapter divisions (yes, on purpose) to facilitate the linear thinking of my first person retrospective male narrator, though it does have brief pauses, represented on the page by asterisks.


Thanks for the questions!  I welcome question lists like these from classes and clubs everywhere.  Those of you in the Miami area interested in taking a class through OSHER, here’s the link:  www.miami.edu/olli

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Feb 09 2010

Parent/Child Collaborations

I enjoy Caroline Leavitt’s blog at carolineleavittville.com Today she posted an interview with writer Dawn Raffel, who offers these thoughts on the work/life balance:  “I’d like to tell you that I am very disciplined and write every day but I’m not and I don’t. I write when I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t write. At that point, a missile could be coming through the wall and I might not notice.”  Her latest collection is called Further Adventures in the Restless Universe.   The cover is quite striking and–here’s the detail I loved–it was done by her son.

I used one of my daughter’s drawings in Good Things I Wish You.  She was asked by her pediatrician, at age 4, to draw a picture of her family.  She refused.  After that, she periodically (and gleefully) mentioned the fact that Dr. Ivy had asked her, and that she’d refused.  About 5 months later, she came home from school one day with a drawing that included 17 people, each of them labeled phonetically, plus a note from her Montessori teacher saying she’d worked on it all week.  The striking thing about it is that all the figures in it are smiling except me.  The teacher said, later, she’d been told it was because I was “lonely,” but what she didn’t know what that my daughter used “lonely” as a synonym for “different.”


That same night, after my daughter was in bed, I wrote what became Chapter 17, one of the shortest patches in the overall quilt that shapes the book.  Even typeset, it’s less than a page. I wonder if Raffel’s collection gained focus after she saw her son’s drawing, or if she’d already completed the collection when she chose his artwork for her cover.   Also, I wonder how many other writers have been inspired by their children’s art (or words) to the extent that they’ve physically incorporated those images/ideas into their own projects.  I can think of one other writer, William Maxwell, who used his (grown) son’s artwork for the cover of So Long, See You Tomorrow, and as I mull this over, I’ll probably think of more.  In ways I can’t explain, this thought is connected to a relationship in the novel I’m working on now between a mother, who is an architect, and her grown son.

An obvious writing prompt here, but for those of you with young children, take a closer look at what’s hanging on your refrigerator.  Choose one detail–or one section–of one masterpiece and re-imagine it in words.  Just because it is a child’s drawing doesn’t mean you need to work from a child’s point of view.  In fact, a more incongruous point of view might indeed be more effective, more surprising and, therefore, original.

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Feb 04 2010

Emerging Writers Network

Emerging Writers Network  just posted a guest blog/essay of mine on “the experience of being edited.”  This site is a wonderful resource for new and emerging writers, not to mention those of us who have been at it for awhile.  Great topics plus a wonderful set of links to all the major literary journals, which makes researching which story to send where a breeze.  To read my essay and others — including one by Dawn Raffel, who speaks warmly about Robley Wilson,  also a mentor of mine — click here or visit www.emergingwriters.typepad.com

A brief excerpt from my essay: (I’m talking about my current editor):

“She’s brilliant.  Her literary ear is pitch-perfect.  She doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  She edits the way Annie Dillard’s miner might, working her way slowly through dark and potentially dangerous spaces, tapping with her pick to make sure each step she takes will hold, pausing when she hears something different, something potentially hollow, false, thin.  Of course, these are exactly the places that I’ve moved through swiftly on tiptoe, hoping that no one will linger here, hoping that no one will notice.  She always notices.  .  . “

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Feb 03 2010

Found Poem

It seems my German friend Winfried (who give me all my best lines:  see Author’s Statement regarding the writing of Good Things I Wish You) has downloaded Dragon, a voice-recognition app, onto his iPhone.  All I had to do was break his email into stanzas.




Hi minutes. Hello minutes. Couldn’t talk my net. Hey in the net.
Nanette, how are you? Minutes. What is going on? Man net you doing
well? Minutes are you asleep already? Minutes your names to test.


Minutes can you believe that? Men at this program can not learn your
name, however, it turned my name. Incredible, isn’t it? Made by Lynn
freed and Dragon. I was trying to say you need to pay Winfried and


Dragon. No, I was trying to say you need to body Winfrey and Dragon.
Wrong again, I was trying to save me into body Winfrey and Dragon.
Stupid blogger, I am trying to say you need to buy bling free debt and

Dragon. What’s wrong with this problem? I think I’m just I’m just
trying to hard. I am trying to save going on me into buying Winfried
and Dragon trying again. I think if I try to hard this program can

understand me. What’s I tried to say is needed by Winfried and Dragon.
I’m just trying to say made by Winfried and try for her. I’m just
trying to save me but Winfried and Dragon. Noah. I am just trying to

say and made by Winfried and try again. Not try it again. Made by
Winfried and Dragon. Finally got it. Noah, I said finally it got it. I
never said no why I said no. I didn’t say no one I said no. Enough of


that nonsense.

One response so far

Feb 01 2010

A Controlled Pause: Thoughts on Dani Shapiro’s “Devotion”

First, a happy update: book club members in Washington, Wisconsin, Indiana, Hawaii, Florida, New York and Maine have requested a free signed hardback of Good Things.  Scroll down (or click on Book Clubs) for more details about this promotion, which will continue until we have one hundred requests.

Projects such as corresponding with book clubs require managing details, and though some claim that God is in the details, I always find myself racing around, yet getting nothing done, when I have lots of things–the domestic mashed up with the professional–clamoring for my attention.  Reading Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, Devotion, was a controlled pause, a deep breath. If you feel as if you’re foundering under a thousand post-it sized to-dos, if you find your mind working like a hamster on a wheel, if you can’t be easy, be quiet, be still, the process of Dani’s own struggle to find a spiritual center and silence will completely engage you. “I was always racing,” she writes on the second page. “I couldn’t settle down. I mean, I was settled down–I was happily married, and then mother of an eight year old boy. But I often felt a tremendous sense of urgency, as if there was a whip at my back.”

Shapiro’s search for peace leads her to revisit the life-threatening illness of her son and to reconsider her mother’s death.  She immerses herself in yoga retreats and follows the sparked trail of coincidence. Along the way, she reconnects with the Orthodox Jewish teachings of her childhood. Yet, rather than providing herself–and her reader–with easy answers, the book unfolds, in short collage pieces, as a series of questions that reveal the beating heart of human nature. Why do things happen? Is there a reason for the way life unfolds? Shapiro writes about being “complicated with Judaism,” a phrase that has helped me understand my own relationship with Catholicism. I wrote about this relationship, and its gradual transformation, in my own memoir, Limbo, and though the experience of illness led me to different conclusions, I loved being witness to Shapiro’s own journey.

“My bookshelves were filled with books I had bought with every good intention,” Shapiro writes, “important books containing serious insights about how to live. Over the years, they remained unopened. Taking up space. What would happen if I opened the books? If I opened myself–as an adventurer, an explorer into the depths of every single day? What if–instead of fleeing–I were to continue to quiver in the darkness? It wasn’t so much that I was in search of answers. In fact, I was wary of the whole idea of answers. I wanted to climb all the way inside the questions and see what was there.”

And so she does with eloquence and grace.

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Jan 26 2010

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words (or Several Hundred, Anyway)

The inclusion of images in Good Things evolved out of a happy accident. I commute long hours by train to my academic job–as does my narrator, Jeanette–so I started photographing my desk (laden with research) and importing the photos into my text documents. It was the closest thing to carrying all my books and papers with me that I could come up with. I’d sit on the train, writing, and then when I got stuck, I’d study the images. After a few months of this, I realized these images were fast becoming cornerstones, essential to the story I was trying to tell.


Incorporating images into my writing (which I’d never done before) made visible what had been previously obscured: the relationship between the novel’s historical figures (Clara and Robert Schumann; Johannes Brahms) and its contemporary echoes (Jeanette and Hart.) Each story became more thematically resonant–and more personally meaningful–as a result.

Want a writing exercise? Collage/combine your own contemporary images (let’s say, for argument’s sake, your oldest child’s birthday party) with a seemingly unrelated historical event that has held your imagination/fascination (let’s say Austin de Iturbe y Green, the two year old Heir Presumptive to Maximilian von Habsburg, who was installed by Napoleon as Emporor of Mexico.) Does a third story–somehow greater than its parts–suggest itself?  Begin.

2 responses so far

Jul 09 2009


Filed under News,Reviews

A roundup of the latest reviews.

  • Fiction Writers Review
    The honest passion to Ansay’s writing is one that I haven’t encountered in a while, one that pleasantly reminds the reader that it’s okay, at times, to be a little earnest. It is Ansay’s dedication to truth, both emotional and historical, that keeps the novel from reading like a stale formula of past and present, but rather a story that is very much alive, rich with imagery and text, transcending boundaries of time and narrative.
  • Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)
    Ansay is an adventurous writer whose work evades easy categorization. But if “Midnight Champagne” is primarily a comedy, brimful with character and incident, “Good Things I Wish You” is something else: darker and quiet, a meditation on art and love in the European mode.
  • BookList (July 1, 2009)
    Spare yet sumptuous, precise yet lavish, Ansay nimbly sifts historical fact through an admittedly autobiographical filter to deliver a richly textured study.

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May 23 2009

My Daughter Speaks Her Mind

Filed under Interviews,News

A round-up Mother’s Day article/interview that mentions Good Things I Wish You, plus my daughter’s ideas about having a writer for a mom.

2 responses so far

Jan 16 2009

Some Interviews

Filed under Interviews

Some interviews from various sites.

PIF Magazine

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