With her very first novel, Annie Weatherwax is enjoying the kind of success that more seasoned authors envy. All We Had (Simon & Schuster) was released last year to strong reviews and was an editor’s pick for Oprah’s Book Club—a major coup in literary circles. The attention is only growing: All We Had has caught the eye of Katie Holmes, who optioned the book for a movie the actress hopes will mark her directorial debut.
Not too shabby for a literary newcomer. But to call Weatherwax a “writer” is only half right.
“To me, writing is a visual art,” she says. “Mechanically, something similar happens in my brain.” That’s because before picking up a pen, Weatherwax had already built a successful career as a painter and sculptor.
As a child, dyslexia made reading troublesome for Weatherwax, but writing has always been a different matter.
Her artistic aptitude was developed early, and she instinctively approached a blank page as she might a mound of clay: she visualizes a story’s people and places from all angles—as a sculptor would. She writes in piecemeal passages, gradually smoothing them into a narrative, just as a painter might bounce between corners of a canvas, returning over and over to refine incomplete areas. She uses words as brushstrokes: adding, blending and massaging them until her wholly complete image finally snaps into view.
In the case of All We Had, that image is a fully realized small town populated by a young girl, Ruthie, her mother, Rita, and a colourful cast of locals like Peter Pam, a wisdom-dispensing transgender waitress at the diner where cash-strapped Rita lands a job. Weatherwax’s work can easily be enjoyed simply for its richly drawn, evocative characters. But at the soft heart of All We Had is a larger, thoughtful reflection on socioeconomic disparities. The novel’s nomadic mother-daughter pair teeters on the edge of poverty, surrounded by a chosen family whose support may or may not be enough to help them through the hard times.
“I can’t imagine writing without having some quiet commentary on social justice under the surface,” says Weatherwax, who lives in Boston and, along with her partner, attorney Joyce Kauffman, has been a supporter of various LGBT causes. “I’m a political person, and art is a powerful way to express things.”
It has also been a powerful way for Weatherwax to express herself. “Art has saved my life over and over again,” she volunteers. Weatherwax sees something of herself in her “tomboyish” character Ruthie. And the act of creating has been a form of “salvation” that got her through some tough times—including an “awful” coming-out process.
But, as if a poster child for the It Gets Better campaign, the adult Weatherwax has enjoyed a successful career sculpting superheroes and cartoon characters for such impressive clients as DC Comics, Nickelodeon and Pixar. Amid her good fortune, though, she learned that her brother had been diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease—and he was only in his 30s. It powerfully reminded the artist of life’s fickle turns. And it prompted her to revive a lingering dream.
She put her lucrative sculpting career on hold to tackle the challenge of writing. Weatherwax found literary stimulation in such favourite authors as George Saunders and Flannery O’Connor, who was also a cartoonist. She gathered further inspiration in fellow visual artists—including painter Alice Neel, known for the psychological nuance of her portraits, and photographer Diane Arbus, famous for her affectionate treatment of crossdressers, circus sideshow performers and others thought to be on the fringe of mid-century society.
With the prospect of All We Had becoming a headline-grabbing film, Weatherwax hopes that one of its signal themes, gender identity, will find a broader audience. After all, it’s not often that a transgender character is offered up as a mainstream novel’s moral compass. “There has been a limited representation of transgender characters in literature,” notes Weatherwax, whose newfound celebrity, like the art that has spawned it, could help open both hearts and minds. And, she says, if that means more readers and moviegoers “fall in love with Peter Pam, the novel’s voice of warmth and reason, then I am very pleased.”