RH: Where did you get the idea to write about a wedding?
AMA: I've been married for nine years, and my father when I
was back in Wisconsin last, had taken me to the dance hall where he
and my mother met. It had been remade into a nondenominational
chapel with a little motel attached. My father kept walking around
the building, shaking his head, saying, "We had some times here. Boy,
we had some times."
So I was thinking about what I wanted to write for my next novel,
and thinking that I wanted it to be a novel that looked at marriage
and relationships. The setting became available to me, so I was
working with this idea. And then I came across the Chekhov quote:
"If you fear loneliness, marriage is not for you." I understood that
immediately, and I asked myself why I understood it, and would I
have understood it before I'd been in a long-term relationship. The
book began to take its shape after that.
RH: Had you always envisioned it being in that tight time frame,
from the start of the wedding ceremony to the end of the
AMA: I knew there would be a polka dance. I wanted to play
with some of my childhood memories. I'm one of 60 cousins, 100
second cousins. And when we had weddings, they'd be at the Belgian
community center, where there was a bowling alley and a bar open
to the public, a game room with air hockey, and a big room with a
stage where they'd push out the tables with the creamed foods, we'd
eat, and they'd push the tables out of the way and the polka band
I thought I would structure the novel like a polka. It begins slowly,
and there's a bit of shyness. Then the band begins to play. People
warm up to each other, they have a bit to drink, the sawdust on the
floor starts to fly and by the end, everybody's caught up in the spin
RH: How hard was it to juggle so many points of view?
AMA: I killed off a lot of them because it was getting out of
hand. I was just picking up characters, picking up speed, and I
realized at one point that I was going to have to find a way to catch
them all and edit it. There's over twenty different points of view,
including stuffed bucks and a ghost, and there's a authorial voice as
well. I found it really fun, once I got control of it. The books that I'd
written in the past were either third limited or first person. This is
the first time I'd ever written in a true omnsicient voice, and I had a
great time with it.
RH: How long did this book take you to write?
AMA: I started it in the spring of 1997. I put it aside when I
went on a book tour, then got back to it in the fall. I wrote the bulk
of it in the fall of 1998 because it was due (light laughter); I'd
been just poking around at it for a long time and it was at a point
where it finally came together. So I wrote about 200 pages in that
four-month period and the rest was kind of there.
I have a character named Darien, and when he appears--and he's
been in all of my books--I know I'm in for trouble. I'm going to take
a wrong turn and write for a long time and it will come to naught. He
tortured me. I thought, like I always think, that this was going to be
the book that would finally accomodate this character, but no. It
didn't work out, and it took a long time to pull him and get back to
the rest of this book.
RH: Has anyone ever tried to get you to write about being
AMA: Yes. I had a disabled character in River Angel, but
overall it really hadn't interested me. I've been more concerned
about establishing myself as a novelist, and haven't wanted to write
I have just signed a contract to write a memoir, but that will be more
about living as a disabled person and an atheist. I've never
read a book about long term illness that isn't about "triumphing"
over it, that doesn't at some point thank Jesus or somebody, that
doesn't resort to externalized spiritual gratitude. It would have been
helpful to me to have read something that did not do that. Probably
the best advice I've ever gotten was to write the sort of book that
you'd most want to read. So I'll write about disability in this memoir,
but it's about believing that life is precious not because it's infinite
but because it's finite, about how I still feel that I'm a hopeful and
moral person despite not having a belief in the afterlife or a higher
There's such a better market, too, for nonfiction. It just seems, at this
point, I've published five books of fiction, and if somebody complains
that I've shifted to nonfiction for this one book, I feel that I can
justify it to myself. I'm an established novelist, and I'm interested in
seeing where the nonfiction can take me. And I'm also under contract
for another novel, so I don't see myself writing two nonfiction books
back to back.
RH: Let's talk some more about your outlook on life, and how that
fuels your observations as a writer.
AMA: It's funny, because many of my characters are deeply
religious people, and I have to get out of their way, let them be the
people that they are. My own philosophy is in the author's note to
River Angel and the coda; I'm not a believer, but I understand
the desire to believe, and I live every day with the weight of that
desire. That very much sums up where I am. I grew up learning the
habit of faith, of reaching out in crisis for someone to help you, to
save you. As a woman, I think that's particularly dangerous. As a
society, we're just going through this incredible era of blame.
Somebody must be at fault whether you trip over a loose rock on a
sidewalk, or your child is hurt sledding, or you open up a product
and somebody's tampered with it. That's the flip side, I think, of
faith. There's somebody who will help, so there's got to be someone
But sometimes things just happen. And the grace that we find in life
is the way in which we cope with those things, that we take these
things and turn them to our advantage, and when we can't, we accept
them as a new experience and try to make something good come out
of it. I think it's dangerous, too, that when we do something good,
we're so quick to credit something outside ourselves. We stop
drinking, or do a good deed, or whatever it happens to be, and we
thank a higher power. But if we do something bad, or don't live up to
our expectations, or other people's expectations, we apologize. I think
it indicates some larger state of self-loathing that I'm really trying to
understand in my books and in my life, and to step away from.
RH: Two characters in the novel, Barney the ex-fiancé and the man
in the Western Suite, feel that self-loathing, and both try to prop
themselves up with arrogant pride. And their vacillation between the
two ends up leading to violent outbursts...
AMA: ...which are the last things either of them would want to
do. Yet it occurs, and that fuels their self-loathing, and they become
more arrogant. It's an interesting dynamic.
There's a lot of similar echos in this book, where one character will
echo the other. Mary Fran and Hilda, for example, both getting
pregnant outside of marriage. I really wanted to have shadows--
after all, there's a ghost in the story, and there's my shadowy
authorial presence working its way through the novel. And I liked
having "ghosts" in the living characters as well.
RH: One of the things I liked is that the ghost is just there, with no
particular attention paid when she arrives. No "spooky ghost!"
announcement. If you pick up on it, you do, and if you don't figure it
out until afterwards...
AMA: She only seems to be appearing to people who have
been drinking a lot, too. So there's some doubt as to whether she's
real or not. I had fun with that.
RH: It's an interesting supernatural twist for an avowed atheist
and, presumably, materialist.
AMA: More and more in my life, as I come to terms with my
lack of belief in a deity or an afterlife or this particular form of
spirituality, I play with that mysticism more and more in my books.
It goes back to that habit of belief, the longing for belief. When
you're raised in a very religious home, you're told that the worst
thing that could happen to you is losing your faith. So you always
have that emptiness; the thing you believed for so many years, that
you held so precious, is gone. Even though you don't believe in it in
the same way...it took up a lot of your time, it soothed you, it rocked
you to sleep at night. This is my way of filling that void for myself.
But I always do leave it ambiguous in some way. It's art, rather than
pedagogy or a didactic statement.