A. Manette Ansay grew up in Wisconsin among 67 cousins and over 200 second cousins. She is the author of six novels, including 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. In June of 2020, she retired Professor Emeritus from the University of Miami and moved to the Kansas City Area, where she lives with her husband and daughter.
The Long Story:
I was born in Michigan, outside Detroit, but I moved to 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 and the Milwaukee Conservatory. 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, cared for by my parents, until spring of ’87, when I was able to get around again using a wheelchair, then (as things improved over the years) a scooter and, finally, a cane. My health seems to have stabilized and though I have occasional mild flare-ups (and chronic eye strain) I am basically in good health. There’s a theory that I had some kind of immune reaction to something, but this is speculation: I still don’t really know what happened to me, I’m just grateful that it has eased. But back when I was 22, it was clear to me that I needed to find something I could do sitting down. I completed a degree in Anthropology from the University of Maine, where Dr. Edward (“Sandy”) Ives handed me a book of poems and said, “What do you think about this?” And I thought: Maybe I could do that.
On January 1, 1988, I made a New Year’s resolution that I would write for two hours three times a week, and this was a decision that led me to attend the University of South Florida, where I earned a second undergraduate degree in Creative Writing. Along the way, I’d learned about MFA programs. I applied to Cornell and what still seems like a miracle occurred. James McConkey read my first stories and saw something in me. I was accepted.
I attended Cornell from fall of ’89 until spring of ’91, during which time I married my first husband, Jake Smith. I 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. Other awards include the Nelson Algren Prize from the Chicago Tribune and the Great Lakes Book Award (twice.) My memoir, Limbo, documents my life up until this time, including the moment that my first novel, Vinegar Hill, was selected as an Oprah Winfrey Book Club Pick in 1999. In 2000-2001, Jake and I bought a blue water sailboat, and we live on it, off and on, until our daughter was born in 2003.
In 2004, I took a Visiting Professorship at the University of Miami and discovered how much I’d missed having colleagues, students, an academic home. I ended up staying there 15 years, and while academic life was increasingly in conflict with my writing career, these years were also some of the most rewarding of my life. Though my first marriage ended in 2006, I married Winfried Reichelt in 2013, and through him I have three step-children and a grandson, in addition to my biological daughter, now 17. During this time I wrote three more books and published two of them: Blue Water, about a couple who moves onto a sailboat after the death of their son, and Good Things I Wish You, which collages a contemporary love story with the story of Robert and Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Blue Water was chosen by both Target and Lifetime as their book-of-the-month pick. Good Things won a Florida Book Award and was one of USA Today’s summer reading selections. The third book, also a novel, was provisionally accepted for publication by HarperCollins, but a combination of work, family and unrelenting eyestrain made me drop the ball on the revisions. In the end, I let it go. I think about returning to it at some point, but for now I am working on something new, based on something old. Who knows where it will lead? But it’s wonderful to be writing again and to have the time to do it.