Authors / Features / Fiction / Interviews

Q&A With Abigail Thomas

by Amy Weldon

Amy Weldon: Can you talk about your father—the doctor, scientist, and writer Lewis Thomas.  Did he have an influence on your own work?

Abigail Thomas: My father had a rhythm to his writing, and in his conversation, and a simplicity that might have rubbed off on me. At least I hope it did. He wrote as if his hand scarcely touched the page. The opposite of heavy-handed. A light touch. And he was a lovely man.

AW: How did you get started as a literary agent? How has that experience shaped your writing life?

AT: I didn’t start out as a literary agent. My career in publishing began as the slush reader for Viking, back in 1978. I had no college education (kicked out of Bryn Mawr for being pregnant in my freshman year) and no real work experience of any kind, but my father was published by Viking and that got me an interview. Five years later I was promoted to assistant editor, and I fled. I only liked the part of publishing where you could fall in love with a book and work on it with none of the responsibilities of the business end of things. Soon after that, Liz Darhansoff was looking for someone to read for her, and I got that wonderful job. As an agent I could take on anyone and work with them on their writing, then send it off to any number of places. What I learned was that if you had a spark, the good work could be drawn out of you. That was my favorite thing to do.

AW: Bloom is about writers whose careers “bloomed” after age 40. This is a culture that teaches us (especially if we are women) to fear age–yet on the threshold of 40 myself, I find I wouldn’t go backwards by even a year, as a person or a writer.  What are your thoughts on the relationship of age, maturity, and creative and imaginative scope for writers? Women or otherwise? Does it get easier to take certain risks, for instance?

AT: It gets easier to separate what’s trivial from what’s important, in my case anyway. If I had had the nerve to start any earlier, I think I might have written the verbal equivalent of marshmallow fluff. As far as risk goes, it’s scarier not to take a risk, really. After all, what’s the point if you don’t write what you need to write the way you want to write it? Take up knitting.

AW: You’ve written a novel-in-stories, as well as memoirs and novels. Can you tell us about the pleasures and challenges of each of these genres?  Are there some experiences that “want” to be memoir or “want” to be fiction, for instance?

AT: Oh, god, yes. I wrote fiction for a while, three books of it, mostly drawn from my own experiences. As memoir they would have been ridiculous and coy. As fiction I could slant the stories in more interesting ways than I had actually lived them.

But then things happened that could never have been written as fiction. After my second husband died, so many small stories came popping out of me. What was going on? What were these little things? Safekeeping turned out to be a way of explaining to myself, as best I could, how I’d gotten here from there. Of course, when I started, I knew neither the here nor the there. That became clearer as I went on.

AW: Your style in your two memoirs in particular feels at the same time casual and yet, in retrospect, inevitable, as if it couldn’t have been put together any other way–small chapters centered on memorable moments or images. That is so difficult to pull off, and it’s beautiful. How did you develop your memoir-in-fragments form?  Did you ever try more conventional narrative structures, and if so, what happened?

AT: Well, I have a bad memory, except for the moment or times that I remember well. It wasn’t really a choice; it’s the only way I can write. If I tried to use a longer narrative I would bore myself sick with myself. I am also not enamored of chronology. This happened and then this, and then this, is just plain boring. But one vivid memory and another really punctuate a life, or mine, anyway. The interstitial stuff, like what were my jobs, are uninteresting. Unless, of course, they are. So you have a lot of pieces, many of them quite short, and the hard part is figuring out what constellation they are forming.

I wrote A Three Dog Life pretty much as it was happening. I needed very badly to ground myself, try to make sense of it. There was no sense to it finally, but I learned a hell of a lot about myself, and I think the book is helpful to others in similar situations.

AW: How does the experience of loss shape the way your written accounts of it emerge? I have found myself that writing about difficult times is often easier in small fragments or glimpses, as seen in Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life. What form do you think is most receptive to the types of feelings that come at such times?

AT: I can only speak for myself. You search for meaning in times of great loss, and it’s the process, the process of writing and searching that eventually begins to matter. I can’t write any other way. I just try to make a virtue of the flaw.

AW: I love the end of Safekeeping, when you place your brand-new infant granddaughter into warm bathwater with her mother and realize, as she responds to immersion in the water, that you are looking at “the face of the unborn child.” Miraculous. How did that come to be the final scene of the book?

AT: Well, that miraculous moment happened long before I finished the book, but I knew immediately that was where I wanted to end it. It took me longer to write that piece than the whole rest of the book. But I knew I had to earn that as an ending, and I hope I did.

AW: So many interesting objects, and your relationships with them, appear in your work. What is the power of the object, for the writer? What current objects are you most interested in having around you?

AT:  Oh, god, way too many objects. I keep seeing wonderful things or picking them up off the street, and then I have to remember I’m 72 and supposed to be divesting myself. I love everything my eye rests on in my house. I bought a sign that says REPENT, and I have a piece of stone that looks like a Madonna, and bits of wire and iron with weird shapes.  I also love things that make you want to touch them. Anything. Tiny pebbles on my mantel from somewhere or other.

AW: What draws you to “outsider art”?

AT: It’s right there smacking you in the face. It’s direct, it’s got no pretense, and so much of it just whams me with color or oddness, and it has nothing to do with history; it’s just right there, this minute, all by itself. I bought a Bill Traylor piece years ago for almost nothing, and it’s one of my favorite things. But I also bought from the Northeast Center for Special Care a piece of writing by someone with “left neglect,” which means he starts in the middle of the page because he doesn’t see the left, and the writing is over and over itself, so most of it is just black except for two words you can read: FORGIVE ME.

AW: I really enjoyed looking at and reading about your own paintings on your website–they are really wonderful and evocative. Something about the paint on glass makes really great tree textures.  How long have you been painting, and how did you discover this method?

AT:  By accident. I had audited a course in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight fifty million years ago, found a mirror, and wanted to paint green fronds and branches so it would look as if you’re looking at yourself in a pool. I ran out of mirrors and started with glass, and how interesting the accidents were. All I had to do was enhance the accident, or leave it alone. House paint, oil based, and glass. Along the way I discovered interesting things to do, but it was all by accident. Thank you for liking the trees.

AW: A common issue for memoir writers seems to be fear of “betrayal” of those they are writing about, or even of betraying themselves.  What are your thoughts on memoir and risk, including but not limited to those worries about “betraying” others?  What about when someone you’re writing about is dead?

AT: I don’t think memoir is the proper place for revenge; that’s better served by fiction. I’m pretty careful. If something absolutely needs to be in there, so I’m not making a three legged table, I will use it. But I’m very careful not to write something that will hurt someone just for the sake of hurting someone, and there’s a lot you can do without breaking that rule. For instance, the best revenge sometimes is just to leave someone out completely.

The people I write about who have died aren’t suddenly fair game.

As far as betraying myself goes, if you mean that I write about the darkness in me, that doesn’t seem like a betrayal. If I can’t write about things that shame me, what use am I? Besides, it’s me doing the telling. Also, it takes much more energy trying to hide things than it does to bring them to the light.

AW: How should you write about someone you used to be married to or romantically involved with?

AT: Very carefully, and with more respect than you might have had when with them. You never want to write a memoir where you come out smelling like a rose. When it’s working, though, you usually find you are in some way at least half responsible for what went wrong (if something went wrong), and if you don’t cop to it, you aren’t learning much. That’s the great thing about memoir. You learn things about yourself along the way. Granted, there are some things you might prefer never to have known. If you don’t, you’re doing something wrong. I realize this is the answer to a different question. Never lose your sense of humor.

AW: Who’s a writer you think everyone should be reading but nobody is (or too few people are)?

AT: Gosh. I have to think. I only read detective stories.

Bloom Post End

Click here to read Amy Weldon’s feature piece on Abigail Thomas.

Homepage photo credit: Patrick Feller

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