The Beatrice Interview

A. Manette Ansay

"I'm not a believer, but I understand the desire to believe."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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When A. Manette Ansay develped a muscle disorder in her early twenties, it forced her to find a new career. She had never been much of a reader before, she says, but settled upon writing because "I needed to find a way beyond the body, to live a life bigger than I was. This is the way I found to do that, to have access to many experiences and many lives, to do things through my characters that I couldn't do myself." Four novels and a collection of short stories later, she's proven herself quite a success.

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 party?

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 would play.

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 of it.

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 disabled?

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 nonfiction.

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 power.

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 who's responsible.

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 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.

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All materials copyright © 1999 Ron Hogan