If you’re interested in having me join your club’s discussion of Carry the One, contact me through this site. If you’re in my neighborhood, I can drop by. If you are in rural Mongolia, I can join by Skype. I very much enjoy meeting readers.
Here’s a reading group guide your club can use, followed by an Q&A with me.
Carry the One begins in the hours following Carmen’s wedding reception, when a car filled with stoned, drunk, and sleepy guests accidently hits and kills a girl on a dark, country road. In that moment, the future lives of those involved, including Carmen and her brother and sister, are transformed. They are bound and burdened by this shared tragedy—in the arithmetic of their lives, when they add themselves up, they always have to carry the one. Over the next twenty-five years—through friendships and love affairs; marriage and divorce; parenthood, holidays, and the modest tragedies and joys of ordinary days—each passenger moves forward against the press of guilt and reacts to this shared and catastrophic moment in different and unexpected ways.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
- At her wedding reception, Carmen, in a moment of doubt about marriage, thinks: “Still, there was nothing to be done about it now. Forward was the only available direction.” How much of life is lived on this principle—taking the step that seems to come next? How often does this turn out to be following one bad decision with another based on the first? How does this apply to the characters in this book?
- How do Carmen, Alice, and Nick change over the course of the novel? Which of them changes the most, which the least?
- Even before the accident, the lives of everyone involved were entwined (by marriage, sex, family, friendship). Discuss how the nature of these relationships is affected by the accident. Does the accident strengthen any bonds? Does it weaken others? How does each character’s perceptions of the others change throughout the course of the novel?
- As the driver of the car, Olivia is the only one who serves prison time for Casey’s death, and as Nick enviously reflects, “prison was forcing her to atone.” Do you think the others try to atone in their own ways? Do you think Nick’s envy of Olivia’s punishment is justified? Do you agree that, in a way, Olivia is the one who suffers the easiest punishment, because even though prison is brutal, it’s a physical, finite sentence for what they collectively did?
- Nick’s is the only life that eventually falls completely apart. Do you think his drug use is related to his guilt, knowing he could’ve prevented Casey’s death? Why or why not?
- Mourning and loss are themes of the book. How do the characters grieve differently? How does this grief affect their choices? In what ways can mourning be a selfish experience? What do the characters mourn besides the loss of Casey’s life?
- Discuss the way parenthood and parent/child relationships are portrayed in the novel. Think about Gabe and Carmen; Rob and Heather; Nick, Carmen, and Alice’s relationships with Horace and Loretta; and even Terry and Shanna Redman.
- Romantic relationships seem to be tough for all of the characters. Alice spends her time yearning for Maude (who cannot seem to decide what she wants) and sleeping with other women to fill the void, but once they are finally together, they fall out of love. Carmen’s first marriage fails, and she looks at her second as a “small mistake.” After Olivia leaves, Nick turns to prostitutes and never has a meaningful relationship again. Even Tom finds that his affair with Jean was the thing keeping his marriage together. Discuss these relationships and the dynamics within the couples.
- Alice is deeply affected by her visit to the Anne Frank house, but when she tries to talk about it with Anneke, the curator politely changes the subject. “Anne Frank is complicated,” she says. What is it about the house that you feel touches Alice so deeply? Is this exchange applicable to Alice’s feelings about the accident?
- When Kees Verwey sees Alice’s paintings of Casey, he says to her: “…You are honoring her with these, giving her a kind of life. What if these are the best paintings you will ever make?” Alice replies, “Then maybe not showing them is the terms of my atonement.” Do you agree with Verwey or with Alice? Do you think she should have shown them? Or do you think it would have been wrong to profit from Casey’s death, the way Tom profited from the song he writes about the accident?
- When Nick visits Shanna Redmond, she says to him about Casey: “She was such a careless kid…Never looked both ways like I told her. You can tell them that. The others. Not that it was her fault. But it wasn’t all theirs either.” Do you think Nick ever passes this message along? Do you think it would have helped the othersto hear it? Or at that point, was it meaningless, given all they had been through?
- Alice feels Casey is dictating the paintings of her unlived life. Do you think she is? As with the ending of the book, do you feel information sometimes passes between the world of the living and that of the dead?
- How much of our present is shadowed by our past? How long do we carry regrets forward?
Enhance Your Book Club
- Visit the author’s website, http://www.carolanshaw.com, to learn more about Carol Anshaw’s writing and to see her paintings.
- Discuss which character each member related to most. Then have each member select their ideal cast for the movie version of Carry the One.
- Read one of Carol Anshaw’s previous books (Aquamarine, Lucky in the Corner, Seven Moves), or another novel that explores the complexities of choices, family relationships, love and loss, such as Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home. How are they similar? How are they different?
A Conversation with Carol Anshaw
Where did the idea or inspiration to write Carry the One come from?
I wanted to make a story that has sweep but feels concentrated. I wanted to make a book that is recognizably a novel, but also something a little new. Someone once said that in terms of narrative, what follows violence is always interesting. Setting up the violence in the book as a death, an accident, but one that could probably have been avoided was a layer I applied to the story, to give it moral shading. The characters feel greater and lesser degrees of responsibility, and have very different responses to what happened, but none of them can outrun its shadow. I also wanted to write a story that covers a significant span of years, to examine the part time plays in love and obsession, in relationships among siblings, in political convictions, and the struggles of an artist. And in the case of one character, the way addiction can trump everything else. I see a lot in literature about addiction, but very little about what it’s like for the family of an addict, how one member can create a centrifuge, pulling the others into the spin, how much energy is spent trying to retrieve the person hurtling downward.
This is your fourth novel. Was the process of writing Carry the One new or different in any way, compared to that of your previous novels? Do you have a specific writing method you like to stick with? Where is your favorite place to write?
My favorite place to write is in my studio. I have a really quiet space, a quick bike ride away from my home. I don’t hear a sound except the clatter of my own thoughts.
There’s detailed information on a variety of topics in Carry the One, from art to cats to astronomy. Was there a research process involved while writing the book?
Well, I am also a painter, so that part was easy. My brother was an addict, which was hard to live through with him, also hard to write about but I think it’s important to show what happens to an entire family around one member’s addictions. I did a ton of reading about astronomy and astrophysics and talked with an astronomer.
Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Do you have a favorite character or a character do you identify with most? Are any of the characters based on people you know?
Alice is the character most like me, but she is not me. Nick’s addictions are those of my brother, but the character is not my brother. Carmen is an amalgam of a lot of women I’ve admired over the years. The way I write is like cutting up real life into tiny pieces of confetti, then taping them back together again in a wholly different pattern.
The siblings are named after characters from famous operas: Carmen, Lucia, and Nabucco. Why did you choose those particular names for them? When you begin crafting a character, what tends to come first for you—name? Personality? Physical attributes?
The names Carmen, Alice and Nick came to me. Later I made these nicknames from pretentious names their pretentious father gave them. The personality comes to me first with every character. From there I have to give them names and figure out what they look like.
You’re from the Chicago area, where the book is mostly set. Was the setting important to you? Do you see it as playing a significant role in the story?
I live in Chicago and most of my novels and stories are set here. It’s a complex place. Idiosyncratic and interesting. I’ve come to think of it as one of my characters.
Although the novel alternates viewpoints and follows each character, we don’t really get to see their lives from Tom’s or Maude’s perspectives, even though they were in the car. Was this simply because you felt that Carmen, Nick, and Alice were the main characters of the story? What made you decide to use Olivia as the character who brings the novel to a close?
Yes, the siblings are the main characters. I had more of Tom, also of Jean, in earlier drafts, but in compressing the book much of them got squeezed out. The novel has to end with Olivia; that’s all I can say about that.
Does the story end for you where it does for us as readers? Or have you imagined their futures in your mind, beyond the pages of the book?
This is always a question I love getting from readers, what happens afterward. I think it implies I’ve brought the characters to life. If the characters live beyond the last page, they do so in the reader’s imagination.
Who are your writing influences? Any books you are currently reading that you would recommend to your readers?
I’d say my biggest influences are Shirley Hazzard, Alice Munro, and Don DeLillo. I’m reading half a dozen books at the moment. When you’re a writer and teach writing, you are always reading the books of your friends and students and former students, books you might use in a class, books to fill one or another gaping hole in your reading history. Then, once in a while, you get to pick up a book and read it purely for pleasure.
What’s your next project? Are you working on a fifth novel?
I am working on a novel about the trickiness of modern urban life. It’s called The Map of Allowed Wandering.