Soul Search

Midnight ChampagneBy A. Manette Ansay(William Morrow: New York)$24/ hardcoverA Manette Ansay's fictional universe centers somewhere in Wisconsin -- near her hometown of Port Washington. In just four years, the prolific author has produced four novels set distinctly in her part of the midwest, though during most of that that time she has lived in Nashville, where she taught at Vanderbilt University until 1997.Ansay's newest book, (ital)Midnight Champagne(ital), is a tragi-comic look at marriage -- the wedding itself and all the hope wrapped up in it; the expectations of marriage and the sobering reality of life together; and the lengths we will go to in our search for love. "I don't think you can write about marriage without being funny," said Ansay in a recent telephone interview. Ansay comes from a close-knit clan of some 60 cousins and over 100 second cousins, most of whom still live in the same 15-mile radius where she grew up. They, or fictional characters based on them, figure prominently in her work, and it has taken them a while to get used to it."Many of them have been offended by my work. They think my books are the most risque, the most shocking books imaginable," she said, "which, of course, they're not." Her parents, however, have been great supporters. "My mom is my first reader on everything. My dad, who has had a lot of sales experience -- he was a traveling salesman for many years -- always tries to figure out ways to sell the book. When my first novel, (ital)Vinegar Hill(ital), came out, he went to California with a suitcase full of books, and pitched it to some 80 book stores."(ital)Vinegar Hill(ital) was as dark as (ital)Midnight Champagne(ital) is light, though they cover much of the same spiritual territory. Ansay wrote it while a graduate student at Cornell. "I wanted to write a real domestic gothic, about the impact of Catholicism on middle-class women's lives," she said. "I worked on it secretly, quietly, trying to find ways to bring the ceiling down, to make it more and more claustrophobic É so low and tight and dark that this woman could somehow walk through it and be burned clean."A critical and artistic success, (ital)Vinegar Hill(ital) was followed in short order by (ital)Sister(ital) and (ital)River Angel(ital): the first a look at family and what Ansay refers to as the "politics of memory -- who decides what stories we keep and tell" -- and the latter the story of a town where an angel may or may not have appeared after a young boy was thrown off a bridge and drowned."My mother and I were traveling after I received a National Endowment for the Arts grant," said Ansay of the conception of (ital)River Angel(ital). Her travels took her to Neceedah, WI, location of a shrine where, in 1955, the virgin Mary appeared to a troubled housewife and 100,000 people came to see her. In another town, Ansay visited the home of a man who searches out lethal automobile accidents, then sculpts the hoods of the crashed cars into metal angels."I'm interested in the 90s fascination with angels. We have built for ourselves these kind of hand-tailored deities to bring ourselves into balance," she said. "The thing that struck me was that these were places in flux and transition, towns with a downtown that was in transition to either a ghost town or a town that was becoming a suburb to a city. A tragedy occurs [in a place like this] and is transformed by local longing into something else."Ansay's next work will be a memoir, based on her experience as an atheist and a disabled woman. "I have a muscle disorder; there's no cure for it. I became disabled in my early 20s and now use a wheelchair," she said. "I want to write a book about living a life of uncertainty as an atheist with a great deal of enthusiasm and love for the world."Art is my religion. I want to write about more of an internal spirituality -- about finding transcendence, in my case, through writing."In (ital)Midnight Champagne(ital), Ansay draws playfully on memories of experiences with her family growing up -- large community gatherings where the cousins ran wild while the uncles got drunker and drunker."I think that more and more I'm coming to believe life is precious not because it's infinite, but because it's finite," she said. "What we think of as the soul is what we've accumulated in our memories. Claiming your right to remember something as you truly remember it, you find your soul."

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