I have never met Abigail Thomas, but our paths have been crossing since I was in high school. So I feel like I know her. I met her daughter Jennifer Waddell first. Jen was a senior in high school to my junior. Jen was beautiful, cool and kind. She had long hair, a camera with her wherever she went and the absolutely best embroidered denim jacket in the history of the world. In short, Jen was a Senior. And I was not.
I read a book in high school called The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas and was gripped, for the first time, by biology and medicine. I would learn, forty years later, that Lewis Thomas was Jen’s grandfather, Abigail’s father. His book was one of the dozen or so my husband and I gave away as wedding favors. So strange the unexpected connections discovered in retrospect.
Decades letter when I learned that Jen’s mother was a writer. I went ahead and bought her memoir A Three Dog Life, and fell immediately in love. Her writing was deeply original, and unsentimental about the most moving subjects. I felt about Abigail, as a writer, the same things I’d felt about her daughter Jen in high school – adoration and admiration. I read the book twice. I gave copies to friends. I blogged about it. I used it in my teaching.
Earlier this year Abigail Thomas came out with a magnificent new memoir called What Comes Next and How to Like It. The book garnered recommendations from the likes of Ann LaMott, Anne Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert and dozens of laudatory reviews.
And lucky lucky me, she agreed to be interviewed by me. Here, then, at last, is what she she had to say.
Q: YOUR PROSE IS QUITE POETIC. DO YOU WRITE POETRY?
Well I started with poetry. It was terrible stuff for a few years but then I was lucky enough to have a few good magazines take it, then a small press, now extinct, published a little book of my poems. My name then was Abigail Luttinger. I looked through the book again recently, and found I only shuddered about half the time. Here’s one that I still really like. It was written on the eve of my 40th birthday, but has much more resonance now as I turn 74.
WHILE CLEANING THE OUTSIDE OF MY TUB BEFORE A PARTY
by Abigail Thomas
When I am old and fat and white
all shoulder, rump and ribcage
unable to move any more than this tub
can, I trust someone will hunch
over me with a blue sponge
and attend to my surface as I
am attending to the streaky outside
of this tub, this substantial, curvaceous
unerotic old mother of a tub
and not fuss at me, or ask me
what my memories are, not expect me
to smile or sigh, because I will be
beyond all that, I will have earned
the right to keep still; not murmur
endearments unless they are part
of the job, part of the rhythm
of the work (good old girl,
you are a good old girl)
and if this sprucing up is ritual
so much the better, since I
have always been just surface
everything I know I have always known
first with my skin. And when
company is coming and you want
to look your best, battered is noble
and worn out and beat up
and still able to hold water is honorable.
Q: WHEN DID YOU START WRITING AND WHAT DID YOU FIRST WRITE ABOUT?
It took a long time before I could write prose, thinking I knew nothing. I hadn’t realized you didn’t have to start successfully, you just had to start. The push to write is described in a story called “A Tooth For Every Child”, in my first collection. When I was 48, I went on a wild four day escapade with a young man who asked me out. I didn’t tell him how old I was, didn’t tell him three of my four children were older than he was, I was just a blond headed woman in the front seat of a pick-up truck with a boy whose bumper sticker read TOO CUTE TO STAY HOME, which was the god’s own truth. Having no history must have unlocked something inside me. I remember thinking, oh, it’s like making a piecrust. You fail and fail but after a bit you get the hang of it. Failure is so important to success. the story has to be more important than your ego, you have to be welling to write crap before you get to the good stuff.
Q: DO YOU SOLICIT FEEDBACK ON YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS?
Yes, I almost always show what I’m doing to Chuck. He tells the truth.
Q: WHAT WRITING ASSIGNMENT HAVE YOU USED SUCCESSFULLY THAT YOU WOULD BE WILLING TO SHARE HERE?(Note: there are more writing ideas on her Webpage at the link below)
My favorite assignment is to take any ten years of your life, reduce them to two pages, and every sentence has to be THREE WORDS LONG.
Q: IN WRITING MEMOIR AS YOU DO, HOW DO YOU GO ABOUT REVEALING PARTS OF THE LIVES OF YOUR CHILDREN? MUST YOU GET AN “OK” FROM THEM, OR DO YOU FEEL FREE TO WRITE WHAT YOU’D LIKE?
I always show what I write to my kids if it is about them.
Q: HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT PEOPLE READING YOUR BOOK ON AN ELECTRONIC DEVICE SUCH AS A KINDLE?
I’m happy to be read on anything, but of course it’s nice to be read as a book you hold in your hand.
Q: THE CHAPTERS IN WHAT COMES NEXT AND HOW TO LIKE IT ARE SOMETIMES QUITE SHORT. WHAT WAS YOUR PROCESS FOR PIECING TOGETHER AND ORGANIZING THE CHAPTERS?
All my memoirs have been in three sections. Life seems to divide itself that way, but it’s hard to figure out what goes where. Often times it’s arbitrary. You just want it to make emotional sense. For the last book both Catherine and Chuck and I figured it out.
Q: WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT GETTING YOUR WORK PUBLISHED THAT SURPRISES YOU?
The thing that never fails to astonish me, is that no matter how much we publish, we are always beginners when the next thing comes along. Who do you think you are, we (or at least I) always say to myself. Confidence does not come with publication.
LINKS TO ABIGAIL THOMAS-RELATED GOODIES
- Abigail Thomas’s Website includes information about her writing and her painting: http://www.abigailthomas.net/
- On that same Website, check out this page for great writing prompts: http://www.abigailthomas.net/getting-started/
- You can order What Comes Next and How to Like It: A Memoir directly from Scribner or choose the “INDIE BOUND” link to support your local bookstore
- For a link to Jennifer Waddell’s photography http://www.jenniferwaddellphotography.com/
- For a link to Jennifer’s terrific blog, click here: http://www.cautionarytrails.com/
- Interested in The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas? You can buy it here. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lives-of-a-cell-notes-of-a-biology-watcher-lewis-thomas/1009191160?ean=9780140047431