“What I am looking for, unconsciously perhaps, is for others to match me in my discomfort with the world; I want to see reflected back to me in their eyes a little bit of tragic knowledge, a little bit of somber self-reflection, a little bit of acknowledgement of suffering, a bit of gravitas”.
—Cary Tennis, Since You Asked
Cary Tennis never set out to become an advice columnist. Like many struggling writers, he worked a series of jobs before finally settling into something that paid the bills, a copy editor position at Salon.com. When Salon’s advice column opened up in 2001, Tennis applied and got the gig. While some might call it luck for an unknown literary writer to land a regular column formerly belonging to Garrison Keillor, readers familiar with “Since You Asked” might say the opportunity had more to do with fate. Tennis followed his own advice (“Choose the place that chooses you. That will be your home”) and found an outlet ideal for honing his craft.
Cary Tennis has resurrected the advice column into a relevant, even thriving, literary form. He is the Anti-Dear Abby, with a style more reminiscent of an essayist’s ruminations than the pat responses usually found in print. Since You Asked is a book-length collection of Tennis’s best columns of the same title, and touches on problems ranging from the quotidian to the tragic: domestic dramas (“my brother is cheating on his pregnant fiancé”), office tension (“right-wing literature in the corporate john is offensive”), and mental conditions like depression (“what’s the best method of painless suicide?”), to name a few.
Since You Asked features a more realistic cross-section of people than the stereotypical housewives or whiny teens found in syndicated columns. Tennis’s readers are everyday individuals who face real, yet disturbing, situations: a suburban father with a secret girlfriend in Italy; a woman contacted by her grown biological daughter begat by a rapist; a man who stumbles upon his elderly father’s gay porn. In their letters, the more self-aware readers often offer surprising insight, as if the act of confessing has set them on a path of discovery and they’re just looking for a nudge from an objective perspective.
This is where Tennis shines. Meaty responses full of fresh language and insight set Tennis apart from other Agony Aunts. Tennis is a writer’s writer, with one turn of phrase as unexpected as the next (many of which are listed in the book’s Index: “like a cab in a 1970s television show”, “like a redneck pulling up to the rock pit with a truck full of couches”, “like filtered starlight that came through your bones”.) Tennis uses each letter as inspiration to riff on what he calls “the big questions”:
What is the classic dramatic resolution to the problem of our struggle against our essential nature? Either this: We fail tragically fighting against it; we go mad; we become rigid and monomaniacal; we shut ourselves in a room; we try to kill everything that disagrees with or threatens us. Or this: We make a discovery; a miracle occurs; the thing that threatened us is transformed, through revelatory action, into something beautiful that sustains us.
The success of both this book and the column relies on Tennis’s ability to connect with his audience on a personal level. But it also depends on the connection inherently found in all human suffering, no matter how crushing or insignificant. It reminds us that others suffer tragedy, too, and that we are all here just trying to make it from one day to the next. “We are creatures of flesh and light and movement,” Tennis writes. “We go through life. Things happen. We do things. We remember things. Things hurt us, things delight us, things frighten us. We go on.” This is the oneness that drives people to read advice columns in the first place; to peek in on someone else’s suffering and feel compassion, to see what advice is useful, and on a larger scale, to connect with the rest of humanity. With Tennis, like any artist driven to create, you get the idea this need to connect is what fuels his prose.
For Tennis’s real gift comes across when he himself is singing the blues. A recovered alcoholic, Tennis relates to readers from personal experience, often digging up demons from his past and appearing as naked as his most distraught readers, like “Ready for a Rooftop and an AK47” or “Virgin in Virginia”. The difference is, unlike his readers, Tennis isn’t writing behind the shield of anonymity.
Like a memoirist, he strives for honesty and his best writing flows when it comes from his heart. “And now I am hardly even writing to you, only in the most indirect way; I am really writing somewhat circumspectly about myself all along, how the bones are revealed.” Like a novelist with compassion for his characters, Tennis shows the same respect for the people who write in; without them, there would be no inspiration. So he gives back in the best way he knows how—with words: “You need a guru not an analyst, you need a transfusion not a Band-Aid. You need Buddha’s compassionate ambulance to come screaming down the street.”