Biography

The Short Story:manette_headshot-1

A. Manette Ansay grew up in Wisconsin among 67 cousins and over 200 second cousins.  She is the author of six novels, including Good Things I Wish You (July, 2009), Vinegar Hill, an Oprah Book Club Selection, and Midnight Champagne, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as a short story collection, Read This and Tell Me What It Says, and a memoir, Limbo. Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, a Pushcart Prize, the Nelson Algren Prize, and two Great Lakes Book Awards. She lives with her daughter in Florida, where she teaches in the MFA program at the University of Miami.

The Long Story:

I was born in Michigan, outside Detroit, but I moved to Port Washington, Wisconsin — a small town north of Milwaukee — when I was five. There I took Suzuki piano lessons with a wonderful local teacher, traveling each summer to music camps. In high school, I went on to take lessons at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. After graduating from Port Washington High School in 1982, I attended the Peabody Conservatory of Music as a piano performance major, but I was forced to leave in 1984 as a result of increasing health problems.  By the fall of ’85, I was unable to walk, and at that time I was (mis)diagnosed with MS. I wound up bedridden (I lived with my parents) until spring of ’87, when I was able to get around again using a wheelchair. My health improved through the late ’80s and seems to have stabilized since the late ’90s.  Though I have occasional flare-ups, I am basically in good health. There’s a theory that I had some kind of immune reaction from a series of inoculations I’d received, but this is speculation: I still don’t really know what happened to me. At any rate, by the time I was 23, it was clear to me that I needed to find something I could do sitting down.  On January 1, 1988, I made a New Year’s resolution that I would write for two hours three times a week. In the summer of 1988, I won a “scholarship” to a summer writing conference. (Later, I found out that my tuition had been secretly paid by an older woman who thought I had talent.) At the conference, I learned about MFA programs; I applied to Cornell and was accepted.

Manette and Genevieve in France at work on Good Things
Manette and Genevieve in France at work on Good Things

I attended Cornell from fall of ’89 until spring of ’91.   During that time, I married Jake Smith and began publishing short stories.  After graduating from Cornell, I held a lectureship there from ’91-’92. From ’92-’93, I was Writer in Residence at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and it was there that I learned my first novel, Vinegar Hill, would be published in 1994.  From ’93-’97 I was an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.  During that time, I published two more books—a story collection, Read This and Tell Me What It Says, and my second novel, Sister—and in spring of ’97, I resigned from full-time academia in order to concentrate on my writing.  Over the next few years, I published two more novels—River Angel and Midnight Champagne, a 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist—and I taught as a visiting writer at Warren Wilson College (in Asheville, North Carolina) and the University of the South (in Sewanee, Tennessee; fall ’98), as well as spending a semester at Marquette University (in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), where I held the Women’s Chair in Humanistic Studies.

A major impacting event in my life was the selection of my first novel, Vinegar Hill, as a 1999 Oprah Winfrey Book Club Pick.  After completing a memoir, Limbo, in the spring of 2001, I was able—thanks to the financial side of the “Oprah effect”—to concentrate exclusively on improving my health. I spent nearly a year as an outpatient at Beth Israel Hospital’s Continuum Center for Health and Healing, an integrative medical center which combines traditional western medicine with so-called “non-traditional” medicine, such as acupuncture, meditation, and diet alteration. I also worked with Dr. Erika Schwartz, to whom I am indebted for the birth of my daughter in 2003—another major event. In 2004, I took a Visiting Professorship at the University of Miami, and to my surprise, discovered how much I’d missed having colleagues, students, an academic home.  Folks at UM seemed pleased with me as well, and I remain there to this day.

In 2006, I published my seventh book, Blue Water, a novel that draws on experiences living aboard a sailboat, which Jake and I did—he more consistently than I—during the years leading up to the birth of our daughter.  Lots of things come clear when you live with someone on a 38 foot boat, isolated from distractions and excuses.  We were divorced—a third major event in my life—at the end of 2006, though we remain friends and, of course, active and loving parents to our daughter.  Jake, in fact, did the artistic design for this web site.

Manette and Genevieve in Germany
Manette and Genevieve in Germany

No doubt, the collage structure of Good Things I Wish You is, in some way, a reflection these recent life changes.  Certainly, it is a departure from my earlier novels, though it builds on what my long-time editor Claire Wachtel calls “the broader canvas”, moving beyond the Midwest and outside of the United States, as I did in Blue Water, only this time, it leans backwards out of the present world and into the 1860s.  I’d been trying, off and on, to write this book since the end of the 1990s.  But I’d conceived of it as a traditionally-written historical novel, and it was hard to let go of that initial impulse, even when it became clear that I wasn’t getting at precisely what I most wanted to address: the contemporary nature of the story.  Then, in January of 2007, I went on a blind date with a man who, it turned out, had been born near Leipzig.  My memory of that ‘date’ is that we spent it disagreeing with and misunderstanding each other as we debated, among many other things, the nature of the relationship between Clara Schumann and her husband’s young protégée, Johannes Brahms.  I remember him saying, “There are things about men and women that do not change,” and this struck me as both obvious and revelatory.  When I got home, I wrote the sentence that would become the opening line of the novel:  My first date in nineteen years was nearly an hour late.  I wrote it as a lark, the way I wrote the whole scene—after all, I was working on a historical novel, a serious novel—and this was, well, I didn’t know what this was.  But soon the story of the contemporary couple branched and broadened into a fiction all its own, and I realized that I’d stumbled upon exactly the connection between present and past I’d been looking for.  Now, instead of inviting the reader to step back into Clara’s life and time, I began projecting her nineteenth century life into the present day.  Indeed, there are things about men and women that have not changed, that do not change, which makes the possibility of friendship between us even more remarkable—and even more necessary.

Interior (Photo by Michael R. Ansay)
Interior (Photo by Michael R. Ansay)

So what comes next?  My goal for 2009 is to figure out a better work-life balance, a way of making time for my daughter, my academic work and my writing, while still trying to get 7-8 hours of sleep each night.  I’m superstitious about discussing new projects in depth, but I’ve got several chapters, set in the Pacific Northwest, about the family of a private pilot who disappears.  Perhaps this will be my next novel.  I also have the book I started five years ago, set in the 1860’s at sea, during the transition between sailing ships and steam.  We shall see.

36 comments

  1. hi. i have read all of your books.am waiting for the next one to be publish. the reason i am doing this is ,i was born in portwashington left in 71 ex was in the service. had i stayed in port my daughter carol would have graduted with you in 82 instead she graduated here in tx. make a long story short good luck to you and keep the stories coming. so many places i remember.. .. thanks for your time doris

  2. Hi,
    I just wanted to drop you a note to tell you I LOVE your novels. Limbo is such a great memoir too. I cannot find a copy of the Read This and Tell Me What It Says, but I have not looked online yet. Anyway, I think my favorite novels were Blue Water and Sister. But in every novel, you had such a great way of making me feel like I had visited these places before. You paint pictures with words so well. You are not much older than me so I really have enjoyed reading your memoir and comparing your experiences to mine. While our lives were very different, I just think it is interesting to see what the culture of the Midwest was like compared to the culture of Texas during the same time period. (I say Texas instead of a region, because we are not culturally like the south or southwest, but something in between with a twist) I also waited to read Limbo until I had read all your novels. I wanted to read the stories before I found out how you had conceived their story lines. I look forward to reading your future novels.
    Oh, om a side note, my son is finishing up Book 1 in Suzuki Piano, so I really enjoyed reading about your piano experiences. He is gifted, but not really motivated. So I don’t think Peabody is in his future, but I am sure he will play a nice Bartok piece for us some Christmas. I can totally see him pulling a stunt like that! I thought that was so hysterical. Passive aggressive with a sense of humor!
    I have so many other random thoughts and questions. If you ever come to San Antonio I would be happy to treat you to dinner if you would indulge me in answering my silly questions. I cannot wait until July!
    Jenny

  3. Hi,
    I am 58 yrs. old and spent 54 of those years never meeting anyone else with the same name. In the last 4 years I met one and discovered at least 2 more, you are one of them. The interesting thing is that my maiden name was Merchant and your photographer is Preston Merchant. Ironic! I will make it a point to read your books.

    Enjoy!
    Manette

  4. Manette, you probably don’t remember me (though I’d be thrilled if you did), but I studied under you at the Stonecoast Writers Conference in the summer of 1996 and 1997. I am so happy to read that you are a mom and still writing. I am pleased to announce that after many years, I’m finally giving my writing more than a few fleeting thoughts and will be starting my MFA in July. I hope you are well! Rebec

  5. HI, Finally got around to checking out your new book online. Everytime I go to a bookstore and I ask if you have anythinkg new and was so happy to hear that your newest book would be out in 2009. I grew up in Port and loved all your books, you are in fact, my favorite author.
    Take care,
    Beth

  6. Ann,
    Hi, wondering if you remember me from high school? I have read many of your books and enjoyed them. Need to get some of the newer ones. I live in Neenah, WI where you will be next week. Hoping to stop by and say hi.

    Merrie

  7. I have recently moved to Milwaukee and was pleasantly surprised to find that you once lived nearby. I have been a loyal reader even before Oprah caught on. After reading your bio, I was once again surprised to learn that you are now living in Miami–the city where I lived for my first 22 years. It’s like we traded places…you may be the winner in terms of climate, but I truly appreciate the sense of community that comes with living in a midwestern city…despite the bitter cold. I look forward to reading your latest book and to perhaps seeing you at a local book store event.

  8. I just discovered your work and really enjoy your writing and am thrilled to see how many books you’ve written, just waiting for me to get from the library to enjoy. I just finished “River Angel” and loved it!! Now I’m reading “Midnight Champagne”, and I was happy to discover your website this morning and learn more about you. I love your writing style and how it not only entertains, but encourages the reader to reflect upon and ponder our lives…thank you!!

  9. Hi, my name is Jennifer & I am 17 years old. I read your novel Sister for my English class and I have to tell you that I absolutely loved it! 🙂 I will definitely check out your other novels. I love the way your wrote Sister, and it really touched me. I’m not religious at all but it moved me non the less. ^_^

  10. Hi Manette – another former student, from your poetry class at Vanderbilt in autumn 1993 (or was it spring ’94? – I’m getting old). I’m glad to hear you’re doing so well; Rico Blancaflor and I were always happy to hear of your continued success post-Oprah. Your daughter is beautiful!

  11. I have just finished Blue Water and have never been so moved by a book. My son died 18 months ago, not like Evan, but I so identified with the feelings of Megan. In fact I can’t believe that you have not lost a child (although I’m very glad that you have not), as you are so in tune with how a bereaved parent feels. Thank you.

  12. Manette…..Just returned from your reading and presentation at Next Chapter.
    You were, as always, fabulous and I can’t wait to read your intriguing new book.
    My daughter, worked in Foundations at UM, now at Georgetown, and spoke to you
    about appearing at her book club. I would love to audit one of your classes after
    November……might you direct me?

  13. I came across Good Things I wish you on the new book shelf of the wonderful public library in Rangeley, Maine. I spend summers in western Maine. It looks as though I am the first male to post a comment. I did not read it as a woman’s book, although I did order a copy to be sent to my wife, who has to work in the city much of the summer. It is an extraordinary book, perceptive, humane, daring and beautifully written. As a historian by trade, the links between past and present rarely are far from my consciousness. Making them is tricky, requiring steering between antiquarianism and a presentism that distorts the past. So I admired especially the skill with which you navigated. I’ll now look for your other books.

  14. Attended your talk at the Flannery O’Conner home today. Was wonderful to hear you speak, and to meet you. I do hope you will return and do a workshop in Savannah. Thank you again for a very enjoyable afternoon!
    Joyce

  15. I’m just now finishing LIMBO and am excited about reading more of your books. This biography provided a real sense of relief that you have received the right care for your body. Best wishes for continued writing and for vibrant health!
    I’m looking forward to reading GOOD THINGS I WISH YOU and also more your books. (from Central WA state)

  16. OMG..this is so surreal! I can’t believe it’s been over 40 years since we’ve connected!! I remember you and I playing in my little blue pool in Grampa and Grama’s backyard! Grampa has passed. Saddest day of my life. He meant the world to me. Grama will be 90 in May! She lives with mom and dad.
    CONGRATULATIONS on ALL your many, many accomplishments in life! Your mom and dad must be EXTREMELY proud of you!! Genevieve…what a little doll! =)
    In reading about your life events, I am so happy to hear you are in good health now!
    I want to read all your books and hope that we can keep in touch from here on out!
    Many blessings to you and your family! <<>>

  17. I happened upon your book ‘Midnight Champagne’ while strolling through the public library. I picked it up, realized that it was probably a quick read (only 200 or so pages) and decided to try it. I couldn’t put it down (to the chagrin of my husband and 2 children). I read it straight through until 2am, approximately 9 hours after I began. It was FABULOUS! I have bought the book just to have it in my collection to loan out to others. The premise (less than a day in the life) doesn’t sound like it would afford the possibilities of richness that the book was able to achieve. But somehow, you were able to weave an intricate tale that is spell binding.

    Since that time, I decided to research your other novels. I have read Vinegar Hill, Sister and am now starting on Blue Water. They were both such well written and moving novels and I look forward to reading ALL of your works in time.

    Thank you for sharing your talents with the rest of us…. Amy, Tallahassee, FL

  18. Dear Ms. Ansay,

    Sadly, I have just finished Limbo. What a wonderfully written memoir! I am married to a writer and college professor who is struggling with his own memoir. I couldn’t stop reading to him from your book. It is a story beautifully told in a language that is very rich indeed. I look forward to reading more of your work. I actually went on line to check on your health (I am glad that you are doing so well) and to see what else you have written.

    Warmly,
    Donna, Taos, New Mexico

  19. Dear Ms. Ansay,

    I am in high school and one of my required classes in order to graduate is a class called novels, and for our final project for the semester we are required to read a novel off a list that my teacher provided for us. I choose Vinegar Hill out of interest; my teacher had nothing but good things to say about your writing and this book. So I read your story, this book was awesome I couldn’t put the book down I read it in 5 days. I absolutely fell in love with your work. There were so many moments in the story where I would cry, laugh, and cheer on Ellen to leave James. This book touched me in so many ways I loved how you made the characters seem so real and described them in so vivid and understanding details. I honestly had a movie going on in my head when I read this book. I have a prefect mental image of Mary-Margaret in her pink attire. I really do hope I can read all of your works.

    Thanks for writing such good books,
    Courtney Hanko, West Lafayette

  20. Dear Manette
    I recently read “good things” and thought it was one of the very best books I have EVER read. I cannot really tell you what it was about this book that touched me so deeply. I have a “collection” of your books. I have not read”Blue Water” and plan to order it today. I just reread “limbo” which is also wonderful

  21. I have recently discovered “River Angel” and “Midnight Champagne”. I go back over the passages you have written because …they make me laugh (or simply grin…sometimes simply grinning is more memorable – I can actually feel a sparkle in my eye), remember, speculate, wipe my eyes, or grruuump. It’s wonderful. I truly read (not just skim & hope for a moment). ‘Cause a moment in your novels can happen at any time. Thank you. I am looking forward to reading more of your works.
    Jean, Wisconsin

  22. Dear Ms. Ansay:
    I am originally from the Midwest (Michigan) and now live in Portland, Oregon. Until last week, I had not read any of your writings. About 8 years ago, I purchased Read This and Tell Me What It Says, because it won the Great Lakes Book Award, but let it linger on my bookshelf, and only started reading it three days ago… and now cannot put it down! It is so rich, so fantastic. There is a quiet strength and sadness in much of it. I adore your descriptions of the characters’ inner lives, and of course am particularly drawn to any Midwestern settings. Thank you! I just find your stories incredible.
    Now in the near future I’m looking forward to diving in to your novels as well!
    –Kimberly F.

  23. I read Good Things and loved the interplay of history with the contemporary. After attending your fiction workshop in Ithaca (I think it was 1993), I have been more and more drawn to writing fiction, especially historical fiction, and am just finishing up my Masters in Liberal Studies. I did an interdisclinary study of history, fiction and psychology to help me write the story of the woman who bought the property where I live in 1828. I don’t think I would have ever gone down this path if I had not met you and taken that fiction workshop. Thank you.

    Charlotte D.

  24. I just read your “Vinegar Hill”, and it touches so many aspects of my life that I’m still processing it all, and probably will be, for a while. My grandparents lived in Wisconsin, although my dad got to Texas as fast as he could. When I was little, they all seemed so exotic and fun. As I aged and gained maturity, I began to see beneath the surfaces…and it wasn’t pretty. Thank you for making me look at these uncomfortable things.

  25. Dear Ms. Ansay,

    Below is my reaction to “Vinegar Hill.” I posted it on my blog an hour ago.

    I read “Vinegar Hill” today, a novel by A. Manette Ansay. I’ve never read a book when at the turn of every page I wanted to throw it against the wall, burn it, pitch it into the street but couldn’t because I was in such a rage my hands were paralyzed to release it from my grip. I can hardly draw in a breath, hours later. I can’t get the characters out of my heart. Or my head. Or my eyes.

    Do I recommend it? Hell yeah!

  26. Ms. Ansay,
    I was a professional flutist, and lost my career to Repetitive Strain Injury a year ago. I have turned to writing as a release for the emotional pain. My writing instructor directed me to your work, and I can’t wait to read your memoir and novels.
    Best,
    Katie

  27. Hi,

    I too grew up with you in Port (Saukville). I came across Blue Waters first I saw the name A Manette Ansay as the author and smiled and thought to myself “I remember the Ansay’s from Port” I then looked at the authors Bio and it was you. I loved Blue Waters and then read Vinegar Hill and I was hooked on your writing. I left Port after I graduated in 1983 and didnt realize you became a writer until I stumbled upon Blue Waters in a bookstore in Minneapolis.

    I just finished Limbo and loved it. It’s nice to read about your memories of Port, both fond and not so fond. Some of the things you said in Limbo were things thought but not spoken.

    Thank you for sharing your gift of writing.

  28. Manette,
    I found you at last.
    Have you been back to Macdowell? I have not, but one great memory was reading and meeting you.
    Please drop a line. I have much to tell you.
    Helene

  29. Manette,
    Love your books, of course, but hopeless puzzled by my memory of a girl named Adrianne Ansay at Cedarburg High School. One of your cousins, perhaps.
    Karen

  30. Dear Manette, I love all of your books and just reread Limbo. I am so glad that you are doing well. I look forward to reading you again when you write your new book. My sisters and I saw you at a book store in Palm Beach years ago. You were so nice, signed my book and said I had such a pretty name.

  31. I and also my guys came digesting the outstanding recommendations and tricks located on the webpage then quickly I got a terrible feeling I never ever thanked the blog owner for all those approaches. Many of the ladies are actually absolutely thrilled to read by means of them and have now sincerely been loving those factors. Thanks for receiving extremely considerate and for choosing varieties of marvelous subject matter a lot of people are actually eager to discover. My quite personal honest apologies for not expressing gratitude to you sooner.

  32. I have read la colline aux adieux in a french version and very appreciated it. You have the same name as me. May I suppose , in your genealogy, you would come fron Luxemburg or belgian province of Luxemburg.
    The origin of your name is “to live in a sart”, “in sart”, and the sart is the part of the forest, near a village, reeclaimed by the peasants and transformed in cultures.
    Your can consult the web and see the references of my books, I have written a dozen of essays in political philosophy.
    I am a belgian cititzen and live, fort a part, in Montreal, Canada whiw my wife, a canadian citizen, who is prof of architecture in the University of Montreal.
    Yours sincerely,
    Pierre ANSAY

  33. I just read Midnight Champagne straight through. I wish I had written it…you caught so well the odd mix of tacky and wholesome, narrow-minded and kind that I associate with people from my own childhood in Wisconsin. I grew up in La Crosse until age 18, now live in Maui, Hawaii. I especially appreciated your dead on description of many men I know from the midwest. I always said I would NEVER marry a guy from there, but now find myself for the last ten years with a man I went to school with from grade 7 through high school. He is a graduate of U W at Madison, by the way.

    Thank you for a very enjoyable 9 hours. Your other novels are now on my “must read” list.

  34. Manette,
    Enjoyed Vinegar Hill this week. Never read a story quite like it. Thanks
    You talk about a disease that sounds like gyambaray. (Gee-omb- boray) spelled wrong no doubt). I suspect it has been researched but my sister had/has it and it was tough to diagnose.
    I will find more of your work. Say hello to Jean for me

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