Annette Sanford




November 5, 1999:

"She will tell you that she is not a prolific writer," Kathryn Lang, Annette Sanford's editor at Southern Methodist University Press in Dallas, told me when I called to ask her about this unassuming, purposeful writer. "I think I look at life in the small picture," is how Sanford puts it, but either way, this is what they are both saying: Annette Sanford writes in miniature for the large effect. She squeezes adventure from the most still, humdrum days. In "The Oil of Gladness," perhaps the short story most emblematic of Sanford's writing in her latest collection, Crossing Shattuck Bridge, the narrator, Anne-Marie, cleans houses for bachelors, but only for bachelors "who get up and leave and get out of my way." It's Friday, and one of the bachelors has not gotten out of the way. "They're supposed to be out. That's in the contract. And there he was sleeping when I unlocked the door. That isn't all. He had a girl with him. Do you know what I did? I backed straight out and sat on the buzzer. Tat-a-tat-rat till the rat poked his head out." Anne-Marie's 24 hours in "The Oil of Gladness" are full of inconveniences like that, inconveniences that Sanford propels into an alternately hilarious and stirring narrative about the curious ways we arrive at small, unexpected moments of grace.

"It's idyllic on the one hand and shot through with wormwood on the other," Lang says of Sanford's writing. "Things are not as limpid as they seem on the surface and I think her gift is that incredible lack of segue, that she is able to have characters built around what they say to each other. I mean, whole relationships balloon out behind them based on the very simple things, the repartee between them." Sanford is a deceptively simple writer. "What looks to be on the surface a story that has an inch depth I think if you scratched some, you're gonna find that you are way miles down in the lake," Lang says. Like the first paragraph of "In the Little Hunky River": "In the summer of 1968 when she turned fifteen, she made up her mind to get the canoe out of the storehouse and put it in the river, the way her parents had done when she was twelve. When they tipped over in it and fell out and drowned."

It's apparent from Lasting Attachments, her previous collection of stories, and Crossing Shattuck Bridge that Annette Sanford seems to have followed the writer's edict of writing what you know, but in an almost inverted fashion. A woman who taught high school English for 25 years in the tiny town of Ganado, Texas (100 miles west of Houston) and who still lives there should know better than to write a nonsensical sentence: "One thing that happened, the very next day after I phoned Champ." But there's a logic (minus the confining rigor) to that sentence, as there is to all of Sanford's sentences. "When I work with some authors," Lang says, "they can be very easily amenable to making rather significant changes. Annette's work is such close work, like petit point, that when she sees that there is obviously a problem, I mean she obviously takes those things into account, but she is very, you know, protective because she has worked closely, closely with the work and every word is freighted not just with its sense but with its sound in the sentence." As any of the characters in her fiction might say, God bless Annette Sanford. Her stories make a critic feel saddened for other readers who are uninitiated into her priceless evocations.


Annette Sanford will be a panelist on the "Deep in the Heart of Texas: A Literary Journey" panel on Saturday, November 6 at 11:15am in Capitol Extension Room E2.014.


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