Stephanie Wilbur Ash on small towns, meth labs, and 'The Annie Year'


Small-town CPA Tandy Caide is in a rut. Her husband would rather eat sandwiches in the hot tub than be with her. Her Chamber of Commerce meetings are filled with predictable pessimism. Even the frequent explosions of local meth labs have become ho-hum.

Fireside Reading Series: Stephanie Wilbur Ash

Hamline Midway Branch Library

Then a new vocational agriculture teacher appears, a ponytailed man who wears clogs and doesn’t fit in among the bowling enthusiasts.

As Tandy is told, “Everyone gets to fuck a fool at least once in their life.” Now, it’s her turn…and it’s only a matter of time until the meth labs aren’t the only thing blowing up.

Ash is the former senior editor of Mpls-St. Paul magazine and the current director of editorial services at Gustavus-Adolphus College in St. Peter. She divides her time between Minneapolis and Mankato.

City Pages: In the book, Tandy says, “Do you know what they do in this town to anyone who thinks she is something special? They eat her for lunch.” Has that been your experience of Midwestern culture? That we’re supposed to be meek and keep a low profile?

Stephanie Wilbur Ash: I think that’s indicative of insular communities. And also, it’s indicative of a Scandinavian, Germanic, agrarian way of being. I don’t think it’s an entirely bad thing. Throughout the novel, she comes to some more open-hearted conclusions about the benefits of living that way, but I do think that’s the Midwestern way.

CP: Why did you want Tandy’s rebellion to take the form of sexually acting out?

SWA: ‘Cause that’s pretty fun! It’s a morally ambiguous space, so it makes her unreliable. She’s not a bad person. She has an extra-marital affair with a guy most people in town despise, but you still cheer for her and love her. I think that’s kind of cool. It makes for an interesting woman protagonist, something that we don’t see a lot, something I don’t think we see enough of.

CP: Talk about the inclusion of the meth-making community in the book. What kind of research did you do, if any, to get a feel for that?

SWA: I’m from Oelwein, Iowa, and Oelwein was the subject of a New York Times bestseller called Methland. It was a non-fiction book that used Oelwein as an example of the way that rural economies have collapsed and made way for the methamphetamine epidemic. I had some cultural experiences because that’s my home place. I then did some extensive research on how that came about and how it impacted rural communities. The houses that explode in the town in my novel -- that really happens. Homemade meth labs go bad and they explode. I wrote this novel before Breaking Bad. I was working on this novel before Methland came out. I feel like our culture knows more about it now than they did when I was writing this novel.

CP: Having lived in a city like Minneapolis and in small towns, do you feel like you can be yourself in both places? You seem like someone who has a big personality.

SWA: [Laughs.] That is so funny because at Gustavus, I can’t even tell you how often people have said those words, “You seem to have a big personality.” I love it so much. Can I be myself in both places? Yes, I think so. I have dual citizenship. I have insider-outsider status, which means I can toggle between those two experiences. I have a really deep understanding and deep knowledge and love for rural, small towns and small business people and farmers and agrarian culture. And I have a swooning and unabiding love for Minneapolis. I can stand in both places.

CP: You use the second person at times in the book. Is that because you wanted to speak directly to the reader?

SWA: It started, I think, because I wasn’t that great of a writer. I didn’t know how to tell the reader how my character felt about her position. I wanted to show that my character was aware of what other people think about her in the culture, but I wrote a first-person novel, so I couldn’t do a lot of psychological exposition from a distance. While I was writing, I just fell into telling it, like, “You people, other people not living in rural small towns, I don’t think you get it. You don’t understand me.” And it became very effective because my character has a complicated relationship with her own place.

CP: You’ve been a writer for a long time. What made this the right story and the right time for your debut novel?

SWA: I wrote a short story about this character and it had the “C UNT ITCHEN” joke [kids throw rocks at the illuminated COUNTRY KITCHEN sign until certain bulbs break] in it. I had to read the story in a bar, and that’s why it had a really loud, raunchy joke. The character was really interesting. I knew that person in my mind but I had not seen that character in any literature before. I had not read a novel about a woman CPA. Ever.

Then I set up this blog, like 2005 maybe, where Tandy had an advice column, and people would write in with their tax questions and also their personal questions. So, like, “I still pine for my ex-girlfriend. Can I claim her as a dependent on my tax return?” or “Tandy, do you believe in God? And if so, is He a 501(c)(3)?” I just had so much fun answering these things and in doing so, I really started to develop the voice. The voice came first and then I thought, “Wow. This really could be a novel.” I developed some initial characters. It turned out fabulously. I’m so happy and grateful for it.


Stephanie Wilbur Ash, The Annie Year
Hamline Midway Library
7 p.m. Wednesday, February 1
All ages