American Literary Review: I loved the brevity of sections in your first memoir, Safekeeping—the way each section seemed to pop off the page, as well as the poetic feel of the book. The sections in your second memoir, A Three Dog Life, are longer, and your voice feels more resigned. I wonder if you can talk about the trade-offs and benefits of such short sections, and why you chose to write in longer sections in your second memoir. Also, were sections orchestrated to talk to each other?
Abigail Thomas: Safekeeping was written after the fact (if fact is the right word). The pieces came flying out of me after my second husband, Quin, died, and I realized, as I think I wrote, that I now had a past. Something was over, there was no changing or fixing it. I needed to face it. The pieces came willy-nilly, one often spawned the next. I think the first piece might have been apple cake, but I can’t remember now. I had originally believed the book, if it were to be a book, would end with the death of my old friend, but realized after a few months that although he had died, my life continued without him, and I was left with the fallout and questions and grief and guilt and rubble I found around me. Plus I was alone with it. Quin was gone. This realization dictated that the thing (whatever it was) fall into three sections and three sections are often a very useful way to look to what I’m doing, to try to order it somehow. I don’t know why.
Nothing is really chronological, past and present melt into each other, but when I was done I hoped what I’d made was the portrait, messy though it was, of a girl born in the nineteen-forties, who lived through the changes of her times. It is partly as an explanation to my children, and certainly as an apology to what happened to their lives, but that wasn’t all of it either. I needed to make sense of it for myself. I also needed to find a way to begin to forgive myself. The pieces were moments I vividly remembered, and writing them I hoped would finally make some kind of sense. Sort of like a constellation. The book was meant also to be an apology, in the form of an explanation, of what had made me who I was, and who I had failed to be, who I was still becoming.
A Three Dog Life was written as it happened. There was no looking back, it was all happening as I wrote it, although it took six years to write. The experience was so tragic, and so precious, and parts of it so mysterious, I didn’t want to lose any of it to imperfect memory. It is far more chronological than Safekeeping, given I was describing, recording, events as they occurred. The business of guilt was huge, I had to face that as I was in the midst of it, very difficult. It was also extremely painful in Safekeeping, especially when I wrote about my son, Ralph.
Also the endings were just gifts. The last bit of A Three Dog Life, when Rich collapses time into a happy year, was a conversation I wrote down verbatim, and realized that was where I wanted to end the book. The last piece I wrote for that book, is the opening chapter. You never know.
As far as orchestrated to talk to each other, that wasn’t a conscious thing. If they do, great.
ALR: I am also drawn to the ambiguity, the subtlety, in Safekeeping. Some sections veer off into strangeness or mystery, like a poem. Other sections (I’m thinking of your father swimming with a school of bluefish) ask the reader: What is this? Where does it fit? And I love that you don’t feel the need to answer these questions, or edit out memories for seeming irrelevance. I wonder what the criteria is for what material stays and goes.
AT: There is not much point to memoir if you don’t surprise yourself somewhere along the way, often banging up against material you’d rather skirt. No skirting allowed. You can’t really fool yourself/ it saps all your energy. If that’s what you’re after, a pretty picture with angel wings and fairy dust all over you, or a picture in which you were a victim, go mow the lawn.
Of course I don’t mean YOU.
As for what I put in and what I leave out, and don’t explain, that is entirely a question of taste. If it interests me, it goes in. If it makes me feel whole, it goes in. Bluefish and Daddy? It was who he was. As good an example as I had.
ALR: Follow-up question: I am curious about the function of seemingly ambiguous or irrelevant details/memories. In what ways do such details help readers experience what you want them to experience? How do they work the reader’s mind? Another way to think about this question: Many sections of your books give us the whole memory, rather than only the logically relevant part (e.g. most of the section “Watching Her Father Eat Cake” details you making cake, and only at the end do we see the brief interaction with your father). Why is this?
AT: Cake. I wanted to write about making cake because it was the high point of my day back then. All that delicious batter! The miracle of cake! Making a cake! It was only after that I realized the pleasure of watching my father eat it that was the end result. (The cakes were terrible.) I don’t know about [the effect of such a section] on the reader, nor am I sure, in the process of writing, that I give a shit.
ALR: Safekeeping uses first, second, and third person. Did the sections just come out this way, or was this a calculated move? It seems that the intimacy of second person is balanced out by the distanced third-person sections, and this exc