Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Read This Book: A. Manette Ansay's Good Things I Wish You

I've been knocked out by A. Manette Ansay's work for a very, very long time. True confession: I had a writer friend who knew her and I begged for an introduction a few years ago, but was told that Manette was private (I know, I know, it's a code word for "don't bother her.") So imagine how thrilled I was when I saw her on Facebook! I forged ahead and did the introduction myself, and I'm thoroughly happy I did because she's funny, smart, interesting--and of course, a stellar talent. She's the author of six novels, including Oprah's Book Club Selection Vinegar Hill, and Midnight Champagne, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Good Things I Wish You, about love, passion, career, male-female friendship, and the love triangle between Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms has already won the Florida Book Award, and it's truly a stunner. (Manette is also available to chat with book clubs, so contact her at bookclub/fans at www.amanetteansay.com)

What fascinated me is that you’ve said you’ve tried to write this book about Clara Schumann a dozen times and a dozen different ways before finding the right way in. What was that process like? And what really unlocked the novel for you?

I started writing Good Things as a traditionally structured historical novel, using research I’d done with Stewart O’Nan in 1995, when we co-wrote a screenplay that focused on the early years of Clara’s life: her rise to child stardom, her evolving love affair with Robert Schumann, her eventual split from her father and teacher when, over his objections, she became Schumann’s wife, effectively ended her career as a composer. The screenplay made the rounds, but nothing much came of it; we were told that American audiences wouldn’t like the idea of a 13 year old girl in love with a 21 year old man (really?), so we shrugged at each other and shelved the whole project--except I kept thinking about it.In 1998, I asked Stewart if I could novelize the screenplay, and he said, Have at it, which I did, only following a longer biological arc.

I was (still am) taken with the structure of Jane Mendelsohn’s novel I Was Amelia Earhart, and I was thinking I could write something retrospective and--already this was present in my thoughts--metafictional, with a point of view that would bridge the points in Clara’s story which remain a mystery. The trouble was that, after a year--as Jeanette states in Good Things--the pages I’d accumulated were “perfectly fine pages of writing, and not a single one of them right. Not a single one offering fresh insights into questions others had already asked. What was the true nature of their (Brahms' and Clara’s) relationship? Why did the two never marry, even after Robert Schumann’s death?”

So I wrote a different novel, Blue Water, instead--actually Blue Water was supposed to be the book I’m writing now, but that’s another story--and I left what I was calling “the Clara book” to simmer for awhile. No doubt it would still be incomplete if it weren’t for three events that did, indeed, unlock the book for me: 1) a blind date; 2) a long commute, and 3) The Son Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

1. The Blind Date
In January of 07, I went out on a blind date with a man about whom I knew nothing aside from the fact that he spoke German. We ended up in a debate about the Clara-Robert-Brahms triangle, with me holding out for what Clara referred to as her “beautiful friendship” with Brahms and my companion saying, “She was talking about hanky-panky. There are things between men and women that simply don’t change.” That night, I wrote what I thought was a nonfiction essay about men and women and friendship, using this date as a framework. Re-reading what I’d written, I realized that I’d found an original way into the historical material, a path that would emphasize its contemporary relevance, its immediacy. You cannot read about Clara’s life--the challenges she faced, the choices she made--without thinking of women’s lives today. And you can’t read about her friendship with Brahms without thinking of the dance of intimacy/aversion, advance/retreat between men and women that inspire books such as Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus. No doubt about it, Brahms was from Mars. You end up feeling terribly sorry for hm, even as he provokes his own life-long isolation.

2. A Long Commute
Though the book now had a contemporary component (I was alternately calling it a hysterical novel and a historical memoir) I was still envisioning chapters of traditional length, built exclusively of text, with the two parallel stories--present and past--presented in alternating chapters. I worked on the book three mornings a week while riding on the Tri-Rail, which runs from Palm Beach County down to Miami, where I teach. As the book evolved, I found I needed to bring more and more of my research with me, yet it became too heavy to carry all those books, plus the materials that I needed for teaching. I began photographing my desk--cluttered with books, photocopied images, notes, etc--as well as pages from books with my digital camera and importing these images into my chapters. Initially, I did this so that I’d have access to research that I needed while working on the train. But after a few months of this, I began to see that the images made their own contribution to the story. Structuring the novel as a collage came about around the same time as I began thinking of these ‘clutter collages’ as more than just personal props, but a glimpse into the mind of my character, Jeanette, shaping her life and her story, a part of the novel itself.

3. The Sun Also Rises
I know: it’s sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic.(Reminding me of that awful joke: “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”) But. Structurally, The Sun Also Rises is an amazing leap of faith. If you read Hemingway's biography from that time, you can see how acutely alert he is, how absolutely open as an artist. Everything he encounters, everything he experiences, becomes grist for the mill, gets folded into the same narrative. You get the sense of this wild, charmed trapeze act in which the performer simply can’t take a wrong step. At root, of course, is the authority of an author who believes that everything will come together because, by the natural order of things, it must. I entered Good Things through an autobiographical filter, and though it is finally and firmly fiction (the German man points out, over my shoulder, that his hair is not curly nor has he ever been to Switzerland), I am pleased with its broad associative connections, the wide cast of the net, so to speak, which came about as a result of my willingness to include elements from my personal life even when they didn’t overtly ‘fit’, trusting the structural integrity of the book--the organic design of the collage--to support everything I set out to do.

Why do you think Clara and Brahms parted ways abruptly and yet were able to remain friends? It’s a historical mystery that feels very modern. For me, this book is really about all the different kinds—and prices—of love between men and women. You could say Clara Schumann’s life was ruined by love, or at least her art was dampened by her years with Schumann whose work came first. And you could say, perhaps that Clara was saved by Brahms, except that while her work flourished, they may never have consummated their relationship.

If the story of Clara and Robert Schumann is one of history’s most romantic love stories, then the arrival of Johannes Brahms on the scene--and his involvement in Clara’s life during Robert’s final descent into madness (he died in an institution in 1856)--is one of history’s most famous love triangles. Each recognized the other’s genius, at a time when only Clara was widely known. Each suffered from an attraction to the other (Brahms for both Clara and Robert; Robert for both Clara and Brahms; Clara for both Brahms and Robert) that could not or could no longer be, for one reason or another, consummated in any satisfying way.Consummated contains ‘consume’, and it’s fair to say that Clara’s love for Robert consumed her, swallowed her whole, prior to the point in their lives when his madness left him inaccessible, unattainable. Was it luck--good luck--that delivered her Brahms, who would always remain out of reach? Or did she sense, at some level, the safety he offered, as man who would never consummate--consume--the object of his desire? She’d been deeply hurt by her first love, her first marriage. She fell in love a second time with a man of equal genius who could not reciprocate. She was protected--perhaps not quite as alive as a woman--but as an artist, she survived.

One of the characters, Hart, says that there are some things about men and women that don’t change. Do you feel this is true or is that simply the character talking?

I came of age in the 1970’s, when we were all insisting that men and women where “equal,” by which we meant that men and women are “the same,” which, of course, is absolutely ridiculous. We are physical beings, shaped by our bodies, the vessels which carry us through our lives, and these vessels--hello--have obvious physical and chemical differences that make us react not identically, certainly, but in recognizable patterns we associate with ‘male’ and ‘female.‘ Brahms pursued Clara relentlessly until she was free to return his affection; at that moment, he panicked and fled. Throughout their friendship, this was the pattern: with one hand he pulled her closer, with the other, he pushed her away. He did not want to commit to anyone or anything. He did not want to be tied down. He gave his heart in glimpses but never as an open gift. The character “Ellen” is a real-life friend, and the stories she tells in Good Things are all true.

I loved the collections of photographs and notes and drawings throughout the book (one is posted above) which blurred the lines between what is historically true and what is fiction. Is all this part of an ongoing collection? What was it like doing the research?

I enjoyed doing the research for Good Things easier than actually buckling down and writing, which involves going nowhere, reading nothing, and speaking to no one. Right now all three are particularly difficult for me because I don’t have long stretches of time to work. My daughter will be the first to tell you that she doesn’t like having a mother who writes book because she would rather I played with her all the time (she said pretty much exactly that to a reporter), but she does love to travel with me on research trips, and as she gets older, she is able to work on her own projects while I revise or take notes. We went to Germany and Switzerland, where I spent a lot of time reading and re-translating--with help--the letters and diaries people kept back then. I love to read, so getting to sit down with stacks of books for an hour here, two hours there--and have that ‘count’ as writing--was a treat. And then when I started really working on the collages, that was a lot of fun, too, because it was new to me, a different type of story-telling. I ended up eliminating some of the images from the final draft of the book, but they are posted on my web site (www.amanetteansay.com) under Extra Images.

I have to ask, what’s it like to do gliding?

It’s a rush, particularly if you’re launched via winch, rather than on tow. A tow plane takes you up gradually. When you release the tow rope (usually 3-4 thousand feet) there’s a bit of a bump, but then everything is very smooth. With the winch, you are catapulted into the air. Either way, you are looking for lift: rising columns of warm air. It forms under clouds and along ridges of land. Birds hang out in these columns, called thermals, which is what we see buzzards doing when they’re circling, circling, circling. I’ve shared thermals with buzzards; it’s pretty cool. They just open their wings and hang there.

My first flight was in Homestead, Florida. I’ve since flown (always as a passenger, I should add) in north Florida, Tennessee, Oregon, Kansas, and Germany, and though I don’t get nervous, I do get motion sickness when we’re doing a lot of thermaling.Mostly I just like being around glider pilots, being outdoors in these rural places, listening to passionate, interesting people talk about something they love. And gliders are beautiful to watch: a glider is to a small plane what a tern is to a seagull. I am hoping to go up in Minden at some point, and I’d love to go back to Chilhowie, Tennessee.

What’s obsessing you now and fueling your writing?

Small planes actually. And the northwest. And the idea--but if I talk about it, it will change, so I better not talk about it.

How does a writer realize the best way to tell a story?

The best way to tell a story is not to worry too much, at first, about what it means or where it might go. After awhile, a structure begins to suggest itself; at that point, the more left-brained technical side of things comes into play. You can say, No, I need to start bigger, broader; you can say, Actually, this single character, here, is the one who should be telling the story. But I personally find it’s very difficult to make these decisions in advance, without words on the page. I do carry ideas in my head, and I worry them like prayer beads, but when I actually sit down to translate them into language, I learn what I really know about the story--and what I don’t. There has to be a balance: something I want to comment on or share, something I want to find out. Too much of the first, and the novel is didactic. Too much of the second, and it drifts.

1 comment:

Susanne said...

Wow! What an interview! I've long avoided reading fiction about the Clara-Robert-Johannes triangle, having been a musicologist and also interested in things feminist to do with music history. But this sounds like one I really must read. Thank you for posting this, Caroline!