categories: Cocktail Hour / Table For Two: Interviews
Debora: Annie, if we were really here at Bistro C.V. here in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where I live, you would be able to see how edgy this place is. It’s a good pairing for your new novel! Let’s go sit at the bar. My friend is bartending this evening. She knows all about the wines—which are fabulous here. And we’ll have the opportunity to sample a nice variety, since I want to find out everything about you and your book. But first, Annie, welcome to Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, cheers and congratulations on All We Had.
Annie: I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you for inviting me and I can’t wait to try a little wine!
Debora: Let’s begin with your narrator, Ruthie Carmichael. She was totally unexpected, a 13 year old as the story opens. And what a voice—aware, blunt, observant. She definitely speaks her mind. Where did she come from? How did you land on her?
Annie: To me there is nothing more refreshing than the perspective of a spunky teenaged girl.
Ruthie has an unfiltered voice, a voice that has yet to be tempered by the self-consciousness of adulthood. There is simplicity to her wisdom. How did I land on her and where did she come from? There are some hard truths in this novel, and I couldn’t imagine telling it from any other perspective. She has a blunt honest way of seeing the world, which is often humorous, and I hope her humor makes it easier for the reader to digest the some times harsh realities of this story.
Debora: Oh you’ve crafted Ruthie perfectly. She could easily have been one of my inner city eighth graders. In those first pages when Ruthie starts telling us about the latest man in her mother’s life—Ruthie sitting there watching that mustache of his—I was laughing so hard as she lays it all out for us, and I knew this girl would be talking straight and this book was going to be very, very interesting.
Annie: Yes, I want the reader to get a sense of who Ruthie is right away. I want them to hear her voice. Her voice, in many ways, carries this novel. It’s dark, sardonic and humorous. The entire novel rides the line between comedy and tragedy. In fact, all of my work, both visual and literary, is infused with this sensibility. I’ve often referred to it as, “comic realism.” It’s a perspective that feels imbedded in my DNA.
Debora: Every character certainly holds her and his own in the way you’ve written them. But Miss Frankfurt was another favorite of mine. Just exactly how much does she know? Does she know or guess, for example, what happened to Peter Pam? What accounts for her change of heart toward Peter Pam’s overall transgender experience?
Annie: Miss Frankfurt knows everything. She’s got eyes in the back of her head. She’s the principal of Fat River High School and in many ways Fat River is her town. Despite her off-putting manner and the fact that everyone is scared of her, she cares deeply about the community—much of which is made up of her former students. Peter Pam was once Miss Frankfurt’s favorite student, but she never approved of Peter Pam’s transgender identity. When the economy collapses, when businesses close, when neighbors begin to lose their homes and tragedy befalls the elderly couple across the street, the town pulls together. What matters most comes into focus and Miss Frankfurt softens her views.
Debora: Fat River. What an interesting place. Nothing is quite what it seems here. Fat River isn’t fat, it’s mostly dried out. The Olympic hopeful is wheelchair bound. The female waitress isn’t female. And junk turns out to be treasure. It’s an entirely skewed construct. Can you enlighten us?
Annie: The comedian George Carlin once said that “…. language is a tool for concealing the truth.” And the truth is often the opposite of what we initially see. Things are never what they are purported to be and if they are, they lack dimension and dimension is a premium in all forms of art. What makes characters and images compelling is this tension between opposites. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa captures our imagination because her expression is conflicting; it’s at once innocent and devilish. Similarly, the photograph of Marilyn Monroe standing over the subway vent is iconic because she’s trying to hold down her dress, but why then is she deliberately standing over something that is clearly blowing it up? The message is contradictory. Opposites create tension and tension is what interests me. I hope I managed to build everything—my settings, my dialogue, my characters—with this same construction.
Debora: Yes, in my opinion, you are very successful in this. In fact my favorite moment occurs about a third of the way in when Salvador Dali shows up. Without giving everything away, I’ll simply mention that what Ruthie has to say in this moment not only teaches me something important about Salvador Dali but also encapsulates for the reader—in a kind of comical, certainly surprising, but also a devastating way—what, for me, becomes the most important and very universal theme regarding the ways we are able or unable to construct our lives. Annie, as I’m thinking on this, I’m wondering if it’s fair to say that the very themes are in conflict with each other?
Annie: It’s all about order and chaos. On the face of it, these motifs seem in conflict with each other, but they have a synergistic relationship, which is evident and necessary in all aspect of life. Art and science alike depend on the interplay between order and chaos.
Debora: There are so many funny moments in this book. You write it all in so subtly that the reader really has to be there intellectually participating in the scene. I love it, for example, when those binoculars show up. Hilarious! And then all the spying that is going on already, escalates. So many other things that you present us with are about seeing and interpreting. Will you talk about this idea?
Annie: I think what you’re talking about is sight and insight. Insight is the capacity to gain a deep intuitive understanding of a person or thing. It is through sight that we have insight. It’s why when we see someone fall we flinch as if we’ve experienced the fall ourselves. Mirror neurons or “empathy neurons” fire off in our brains and these neurons are directly linked to seeing, either with the eyes or in the reader’s case, with the eye of the imagination. If as a writer, I just told you that someone fell, it would have little effect, but if I described it in a way so that you could see it, you would more likely have insight into how it felt. Humor works the same way. Saying something is “funny” does not make it funny. Presenting the reader with deliberately crafted visual details in order to garner the specific insight, “that’s funny” is the best way to get your reader to laugh.
Flannery O’Connor once said that “Everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.”
Understanding this was part of O’Connor’s brilliance. It’s what allowed her to write about the Misfit in her famous story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” with such compassion. He kills an entire family with no remorse. But because O’Connor wrote that character so we could see him, we feel for him. We have insight into him and our hearts break for him, even if just a little.
Debora: Earlier you mentioned that you present us with some hard truths, and indeed there is a roughness to Rita Carmichael, Ruthie’s mother. I imagine readers will have a lot to say about her. But you know the most memorable thing for me comes late in the pages when she says I’m tired Ruthie. It’s all in there, Annie. A lesser writer would have embellished here, or worse, not realized. But you know Rita inside and out and you know exactly what words give expression to her. One of the great strengths in your writing overall is the dialogue, it’s completely authentic—pitch perfect.
Annie: It makes me so happy to hear that. Who a Character is, what makes them tick, how they are damaged and what their coping mechanisms are should be apparent in everything they do and say.
Debora: I’m really into minimalism in general. Those single word chapter headings! They totally rock, and I must confess that, as a writer, I’m very jealous of them. Because it’s not just the title but how it represents what follows—like the title of a piece of art—which I liken your scenes to be. Installations of a sort.
Annie: Yes! Thank you for noticing that. Much like the title of a painting or the artistic statement at the beginning of an art exhibition, my chapter titles are meant to nudge the reader into interpreting the section a certain way. They are meant to serve as the intellectual framework through which to experience the work that follows them. I do like to think of my novel as a collection of paintings, each one capturing a specific mood with the entire body of work culminating into one grand expression.
Debora: Annie I came to know you as a writer, but many people likely know you first as an artist. I’m always a little startled by artists, like yourself, who successfully cross over into other artistic realms. I mean I know for certain that if you handed me some brushes and tubes of paint, the only thing I could render is a big fat muddy mess. How did you come to be a writer?
Annie: I knew from a very early age what I was meant to be. And that was not a writer. I was meant to be a visual artist. My mother claimed I was born with a paintbrush in my hand. My bedroom where I grew up was a revolving installation. There were always streamers and colored shapes hanging off the ceiling. In high school the room was taken up with art supplies and this ridiculously giant easel. In addition to all that, I’m dyslexic. I grew up not knowing how to read and spent my early childhood devising ways to hide it. But in fifth grade when I got my first creative writing assignment, it was as if a secret door opened up inside my brain. The assignment was to write two paragraphs describing something we loved. So I took my pad of paper and pencil and went outside to the creek behind my house. To me, at the time there was no question what a pencil and paper were for, they were meant for drawing pictures, so I simply drew a picture with my words. The teachers actually kept me after school to ask me where I’d copied my paragraphs from.
I ended up going to Rhode Island School of Design. For many years I earned a living sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters for Nickelodeon, DC Comics, Warner Brothers, Pixar and others. Because of my dyslexia and my aptitude for visual art, I never took my prospects as a writer seriously, but that early experience stuck with me.
What I’ve finally come to realize is that fiction writing is many things. It is a mining and sifting through of the raw material of life until something of substance emerges—a story line or character worth pursuing. But the true task of a writer is to elicit an image—a rich and expansive picture of the world written on the page. As an artist, the craft of writing for me has less to do with the study of literature, or even with writing proficiency, and much more to do with the disciplined skill of seeing and seeing is what I do best. At some point I realized that writing was just an extension of my visual art.
Debora: I do believe that we can all learn to write at higher levels of skill and proficiency. But on the other hand, in the area of creative writing, I think there is also a component of a certain something that we say is talent. After all, there is writing and then there is writing. Have you ever thought about what it is that looms inside you and how you mange to get it on the page? What your special skill set might be? Can you try to identify some of that for us?
Annie: Having dyslexia can often feel like a kind of deafness or blindness, especially for a writer. There’s a whole segment of the world that feels out of reach or off limits to you. Although I am a much better reader than I ever was, I still at times feel this very deeply. It took me my whole life to appreciate it, but dyslexia, I now realize, has hidden powers.
Dyslexics are often highly visual and creative people. People with dyslexia see in 3D, very little registers as flat, which is in part why printed letters cause such difficulty. My writing is inspired largely not by what I read, but by what I see. Seeing is not simply registering the name of thing one sees. It’s a very complicated skill or to use your word, “talent” and I have been honing this talent all my life. I mourn my difficulty with reading but I see a richness and level of detail most people miss. Reading may be difficult for me, but I have a catalogue of images stored in my brain, and as a writer these images have become my vocabulary.
My sharpened sense of sight has taken me to astonishing places. Most incredibly to this one.
Debora: What goes through your mind at the start of a new artistic project? And what is your process as you go to work on it?
Annie: Fear and anxiety are always lurking about, the trick is to control them and the only way to do that is to do the work. I learned this through my career sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters. Each project would start the same — with an intimidating block of brown clay. Eventually it would end up as a fully realized character. Batgirl, Superman, Jimmy Neutron, Darth Vader, Big Bird, Bugs Bunny, Marge and Bart Simpson—hundreds of my original prototypes line the shelves in my studio. It was only by facing the block of clay over and over again, that I learned to quell my self-doubt.
Almost everything I know about writing, I learned by understanding the process and the language of visual art. As an artist, I was trained how to capture the nature of my subject by amplifying the qualities that make that subject distinct or noteworthy. When I paint or sculpt a character I need to recognize what gives a face a certain expression or a body a certain gesture. I need to decide which features to accentuate in order to fully capture the character. When I write, I do the same thing.
The process I use for unearthing a character in a hunk of clay is the same process I use as a writer. A sculptor would never fill in the details until the structure underneath has been fully formed, so as a writer I work each piece, crafting it from all directions, leaving broad impressions everywhere. I jump back and forth from section to section in no particular order. I don’t write in complete sentences. I don’t bother with spelling until the shape of my story and the authenticity of my characters have completely emerged. Painters build their canvases much the same way, layering in color, laboring on the drawing underneath, sketching in the composition before tightening it up. My life as an artist has taught me how be alone and how to maintain focus. I’ve learned to be patient, persistent and disciplined and to sometimes let a character emerge on its own.
Debora: I used to be the curator of a fine art gallery. Once, two of the artists that we represented out of Denver—very developed painters—came up to Steamboat to do some plein air work. The big laugh that evening was how one of them completed his painting then threw it across the highway in disgust. Will you talk for a moment about artistic evaluation? Is it important or not? And how do you, Annie, who is a painter and a sculptor and a writer, make evaluation over your work?
Annie: Artistic evaluation is an integral part of the creative process. Without it, the process is more like occupational therapy—a mindless busyness lacking a deeper goal. As a visual artist I am constantly stepping back from my work and asking myself these questions: Does it look right? Does it feel right? What does it mean? As a writer, I do the same. Honest artistic evaluation is a disciplined practice, one that requires the artist to detach from their work because your ego will inevitably warp this process. It requires an uncluttered objective vision. Understanding and evaluating criticism from others demands the same thing. Of all the lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime as an artist, this lesson has been the most valuable. Moving the ego out of the way takes conscious effort. It lessens the angst and eases the process not just in creating art but also in living life.
Debora: Annie, you seem to have brought us to the perfect place to finish. And you are leaving me—all of us, I should think—with an enormous amount of bright energy to carry forward. What a great time it has been hearing about your book and your artistic ideals. Thank-you so much for being with us. Can we end by you sharing with us a last thought that is important to you regarding All We Had?
Annie: I do hope readers enjoy the book and that it delivers a larger message about the damaging effects of economic inequality. Artistically, I hope the book is understood within the context of my entire body of visual work. To begin that conversation I invite readers to visit my website http://www.annieweatherwax.com and read my artistic statement.