A. Manette Ansay's first novel, Vinegar Hill, established the writer as a novelist who could tell a difficult story with great grace. Born in Michigan in 1964 and raised in Port Washington, Wisconsin among a huge Roman Catholic extended family, Ansay infuses her fiction with the reality of Midwestern farm life, the constraints of Roman Catholicism, and the toll the combination can take on women and men alike.
Philosophical and cerebral, with a gift for identifying the telling domestic detail and conveying it in a fresh way, Ansay incorporates the rhythm of rural Midwestern life -- the polka dance at a wedding reception, the bowling alley, community suppers, gossip, passion, and betrayal -- into novels that illuminate the most difficult aspects of maintaining any close relationship, whether it be familial or not. In Vinegar Hill, Ansay examines the forces that hold a Catholic woman in the 1970s hostage to her emotionally abusive marriage. In Midnight Champagne, set at a wedding, she focuses her lens on the institution of marriage itself; the story is told through the shifting points of view of the couples who attend the event.
Readers and critics alike have testified to her talents: The New Yorker said of Vinegar Hill, "This world is lit by the measured beauty of her prose, and the final line is worth the pain it takes to get there." The novel was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1999; Ansay's following book, Midnight Champagne, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Like Flannery O'Connor, whom Ansay cites as an influence, Ansay is concerned with moments of grace in which the truth suddenly manifests itself with life-changing intensity. In the wrong hands, her material could be the stuff of soap operas. But Ansay strives for emotional complexity rather than mere bathos, and addresses both suffering and joy with intelligence and sensitivity.
Ansay's life has been as complex and fascinating as the dramas that unfold in her novels. A gifted pianist as a child, she studied at the University of Wisconsin while still a high school student. Later, while a student at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, she was afflicted by a disease that devastated her neurological system, cutting short her dreams of becoming a concert pianist, and leaving her confined for years to a wheelchair. She had never written fiction before, but turned her disciplined ear and mind to writing, promising herself to write two hours a day, three days a week, the same sort of disciplined schedule she had imposed on herself as a student musician.
Limbo, Ansay's story of her struggle with illness, is as evocatively written as her novels. Ansay never descends into sentimentality, but instead confronts her medical problems – and the limitations they impose – unflinchingly, describing both the indignities that disabled people face daily, as well as how her own illness has become a personal test of faith.
Good to Know
Back to Top
Ansay was still looking for the appropriate title for her first novel when, on the way to a meeting with her MFA advisor near Cornell University, Ansay spotted a street sign with the answer. "I happened to glance up and see a street sign that said "Vinegar Hill." It was perfect," Ansay writes on her web site. "I had never turned onto that street before, and I made a point never to do so afterwards. I wanted it to belong solely to my characters. And it does."
One scene in Midnight Champagne, the air-hockey table encounter, was written for a friend of Ansay's. She writes, "A friend of mine had been musing about sex and literature, and she said, 'Why is it that we so seldom read about the kind of sex we want to be having?' I said, 'What kind of sex is that?' She said, 'Fun sex.' I said, 'I'm writing a scene just for you."'
Back to Top