For over a decade, novelist Carol Anshaw has been quietly yet steadily winning over readers both lesbian and straight. Perennially celebrated in literary circles, Anshaw caught the mainstream’s attention in 2012, earning a place on the New York Times Bestseller list with Carry The One, an astute exploration of the ramifications of a tragedy on a group of siblings. AfterEllen spoke with Anshaw about what it means to be a “lesbian writer,” her favorite scene in The L Word, and why writing is like falling off of a building.
AfterEllen.com: Congratulations on being a Lambda Literary finalist.
Carol Anshaw: They nominate every book I write but they never give me the award. I’m like the Susan Lucci of the Lammys. Which is to say I’m grateful to be on the shortlist but my expectations of actually winning are very low.
AE: You’ve been writing and successful for decades but this year you hit a new level of recognition. What’s been the most surprising part of that experience?
CA: It’s surprising on both ends. I was astonished at how long I had to live in poverty and write out of obscurity, and I’m equally astonished at having so much success with this book.
AE: What would you say to writers just starting out who crave instant celebrity?
CA: I don’t know, I guess maybe forget writing and move on to a cross country bank-robbing spree. Really, almost anything else would give you a better shot at speedy recognition. You could make a YouTube video with your yodeling cat and hope it goes viral.
AE: Has your writing process changed over the years?
CA: It’s kind of like playing tennis. At first when you play tennis you spend so much time worrying about where your feet should be, and then you reach a certain point where you don’t have to think about your feet and then you can get into killer cross-court ground shots. It’s the same with writing. A long part of the apprenticeship is you’re just trying to create realistic dialog. Or luscious imagery, and then when imagery starts becoming more second nature, a pathway in your mind, you can start doing other things, setting up tougher tasks for yourself. Writing is endlessly intriguing and endlessly difficult. So I think my process is the same, but I can achieve better results now than I could then.
AE: Students and newer writers are often very concerned about plot. My feeling is that plot grows from character, so the best thing to do is to focus on learning more about your characters. What are your thoughts?
CA: I suspect your students are looking to plot as a scaffold on which they can hang their ideas. I think the beginning writer wants to think, there’s a way to do this and I just need to learn the pattern. It’s hard for an apprentice writer to bear that this not going to be a learnable formula. It’s much more like letting yourself fall off a building, and hope a net shows up beneath you.
AE: Of the characters you’ve written, who’s your favorite?
CA: Maybe Alice in Carry the One. She’s a little bit my avatar. And she has a great sister. I don’t have a sister and have always envied people who do. So I made two sisters who love each other immutably.
AE: What level of responsibility do lesbian authors have to present positive representations of lesbians?
CA: I think I’m aiming more for truth rather than positivity, you know, for the huge roiling jumble of life being lived. Positivity seems like something on an inspirational poster.
AE: I heard you described recently as “one of our best lesbian writers.” How do you feel about that?
CA: It was part of my goal when I started writing to write fiction about queer women that weren’t lesbian novels and stories, that were just novels and stories, but the important characters in them were lesbians, because that’s how I see life. My hope was to offer something for lesbians readers who don’t see their stories enough, and at the same time eventually wear down resistance by straight readers. And that’s pretty much what happened. In Carry the One, there’s lesbian sex on like page four, the central love affair is between Alice and Maude, but the only review that mentioned that was by a gay reviewer. Queerness is just not a big issue anymore. Isn’t that great?
photo by Patty Michels
AE: What lesbian characters are you drawn to and why?
CA: I really like some of the early dyke novels. Ann Bannon’s Beebo Brinker, Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt — all that thwarted longing, everyone so broody and closeted. Bars with small windows in the door and you had to be buzzed in. I know that generation suffered, but they also had the thrill that comes with forbidden fruit.
AE: Who’s your favorite L Word character?
CA: Bette when she was having the affair with the carpenter. It was so great. A lot of that show was ridiculous, but there was a scene that was so subtle where they’re all at some opening and Tina is across the gallery from Bette, and the carpenter walks past Bette and they briefly link fingers as they pass each other, and in that small gesture Tina sees everything that’s been going on. Very cool. Then the show jumped the shark and Bette and the carpenter wind up in a jailhouse wearing inmate suits.
AE: Favorite lesbian movie?
CA: I guess The Hunger. I mean Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, ritual vampire blood exchange — I mean, what more could you ask for?
AE: Speaking of movies, if you were to cast Carry the One, who would play Alice?
CA: Maybe two sets of actors to play the characters both young and older, because the novel spans 25 years. So for Alice I’d have Keira Knightley for her young version and Ally Sheedy for her the older version. Maybe Claire Danes for Maude.
AE: What are you working on next?
CA: A new book. I’m a ways in now. In a sentence I’d say it’s about the trickiness of being a hero.