An Interview with Abigail Thomas 

Interview conducted by ALR Staff 

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 exchange gives the narrative a different feel than one written only in first person. The variety allows us to distinguish shades that would otherwise be overlaid. I wonder if you might speak to this point—the benefits and trade-offs of using multiple voices, how you see these voices working in your book, etc.

AT: The option of first and third persons wasn’t a conscious choice…to write certain things in first person made me sound either saint-like or a victim. I also wanted to see myself from time to time through what I imagined my children’s eyes had been. Some pieces were written over and over both ways to figure out how to get at what I wanted. I chose the voice that seemed to be the most honest. The third person was also necessary when I had no connection anymore to the girl I’d been. I knew who she was, but she was no familiar or part of me. I wish I had [a more] intelligent answer about using first second and third persons. Mostly it just felt right.

My memory is poor for interstitial material, long years went by with only a few vivid memories, but  those were the ones I wrote. The piece that took me longest, almost as long as the whole book, was the last one about my daughter Sarah, and the birth of her daughter Abigail. Once that first bath happened, I knew I wanted to end there, but it took months and months and months to get it right. It’s helpful when you discover where you want to end, then all you have to do, besides write it, is earn it.

ALR: How do you see the title “Safekeeping” (and the section by the same name) instructing the reader on how to read the book? How did you decide on this title?

AT: My editor named the book “Safekeeping.” I wanted to call it “Short Controlled Bursts” and had a little semi-military paragraph to go with it, which I’ve since lost. I love the title now.

ALR: On your website, you also describe painting: “I’ve been trying to make an ocean. For some reason it never works. So I make another forest which also doesn’t work, but I don’t give up on forests, so I scrape and add various blues and greens to make more trees, but it’s still not to my liking. Some days are like this. I do a little halfhearted scraping, turn it over, and presto, there is the ocean, beautiful, many colors blue, deep water, no sky. I love the way this crazy shit works. When you’ve given up, when you least expect it there it is.” Does writing (or the pursuit of truth) work like this? Do you know where you’re going when you sit down to write? What happens if when you least expect it, it is not there?

AT: I don’t know where I’m going when I sit down to write. I think I know where I’m going, but often end up elsewhere, which is the thrill of it. It’s just much easier to see with the paintings.

When you’re writing and expect it to be there but it isn’t, you take a nap. Naps are key. All kinds of stuff swims to the surface. And if it doesn’t, you haven’t beaten your head against a wall, although that may come next. What I try to do is make something else. A painting. A cake. A caramel sauce, something humbly creative so your mind can wander (and you can eat it at the end). But too often you have to wait years to find what you’re looking for, usually when you’ve stopped looking.

ALR: “I think that’s what we’re all after, truth, although I’d never have said such a thing when I was young.” You say this on your website. So is this a guiding concept in your writing process? Do you use “truth” in the editing/revising process as a filter of sorts? What does “truth” look like? And why is it that you wouldn’t have said such a thing as a youth?

AT: I never talked about big concepts when I was young. Truth? Who was I to talk about truth? What did I know about anything? And it’s truth in terms of honesty, I guess, that I really mean. There’s no such thing as Truth, although there’s good and evil, but there’s scouring your dark places for the honesty you’d perhaps rather avoid. That’s personal truth. Not facts, of course, that’s a whole different category. We’re stuck with the memories we’ve got, they are stored any which way, but that’s what’s made us who we are, don’t you think? I don’t use truth for much, no. When I’m stuck, I use grace as a filter. What awful means is sometimes the deliverer of grace? A little Flannery O’Connor in there, I think.

ALR: Your writing is such a pleasure to be with. Thank you for your contributions, and thank you for your thoughts here.

AT: These are marvelous questions. Thank you. If you need more, please ask me. I wrote this very quickly, as I have hideous asthmatic bronchitis, and I’m flying high on prednisone. But your intelligent questions make me look forward even more to coming down to Texas, despite which way it might go.

Abigail Thomas, the daughter of renowned science writer Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell), is the mother of four children and the grandmother of twelve. Her academic education stopped when, pregnant with her oldest daughter, she was asked to leave Bryn Mawr during her first year. She’s lived most of her life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and was for a time a book editor and for another time a book agent. Then she started writing for publication. Her memoir, A Three Dog Life, was named one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. She is also author of Safekeeping, a memoir, and Thinking About Memoir.