Writing Is Key

Dinah Lenney interviews memoirist Abigail Thomas.

HERE’S THE THING — the amazing thing — about reading Abigail Thomas (I’m thinking of her memoirs, though she’s also the author of a novel and two story collections): you’re likely to come away with this idea that it’s a wonderful life. In fact, I defy you to spend the afternoon with Thomas and not hope for an invitation to dinner (she’s evidently a great cook) — after all, your host is warm, confiding, hilarious, wise, generous, and never boring. As for her world — it’s full-flavored — full of interesting places and people and art and feeling and moment and thought.

And yet, consider: how does she do it? These books are dark. Safekeeping (Anchor, 2000) is an elegy for the second of three husbands, structured in fragments from alternating points of view — gorgeously written, kaleidoscopically vivid — but an elegy all the same. And memoir number two? A Three Dog Life (Harcourt, 2006) was written in the wake of the accident that left her third husband permanently brain-damaged and unable to ever come home again. A whole life — two whole lives — turned tragically inside out in the time that it took a car to run down a man who was walking his dog before bed. Now, these several years later (there have been other works in the interim, of course, including Thinking About Memoir, an engaging how-to), there’s a new book: What Comes Next and How to Like It. How to like it, indeed. In this installment, Thomas takes on mortality among other betrayals. That is, she discovers that her best friend of 30 years (Chuck) had an affair with her daughter (Catherine). And that, though she loves them both, she hasn’t yet come to terms. And he has hepatitis C and her daughter has cancer, and, writes Thomas: “This is my most selfish thought, that if I lose the people I love what is left of my own life will consist only of grief.”

“In my opinion,” said Kurt Vonnegut,

a story written for one person pleases a reader, dear reader, because it makes him or her a part of the action. It makes the reader feel, even though he or she doesn’t know it, as though he or she is eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation between two people at the next table, say, in a restaurant.

Makes sense to me. But what if the genre is memoir? In that case, I’d say, the reader is apt to feel even more privileged: she’s not eavesdropping. She’s been invited to have a seat — it’s as if the writer is telling the story to her and her alone. Especially if the writer is Abigail Thomas.

Failure, grief, disappointment, loss — these are the themes this writer returns to again and again. So how does she do it? How does she manage to make us feel better about the world and ourselves?

“Are you an optimist?” I asked her.

“I think if not an optimist, I’d rather have a good time than a bad one,” she answered. “That seems to be a dividing point between people.”

Speaking of which, because I’m in Los Angeles and Thomas is in Woodstock, New York, we conducted our conversation over email. Almost like being there. Not. I wish. But truly, having read her books again and again, having used them in workshops year after year, I felt as if she were an old friend. And I told her so.


DINAH LENNEY: You achieve such intimacy — it’s as if you were confiding in the reader: I want to insist it’s your fault (my tone, I mean) — but it’s your gift is what it is. Does everyone presume in this way? Do your readers think they know you?

ABIGAIL THOMAS: Well, I hope so, a little. Nobody presumes to know me in a squirmy way, at least not so far. And readers never know everything because we don’t write about everything — that would get boring.

I like it best when people tell me my writing makes them want to write, too.

But has a reader ever surprised you? By getting it wrong? Or even by getting it right?

From time to time, sure. There’s a part in Safekeeping where my husband accidentally steps on a kitten, and a part in A Three Dog Life where a creature is dying on the road, and many, many people were enraged by these scenes as cruelty to animals, and didn’t understand they were about something else — pity, and honor, and horror, and unforgettably painful sights.

But more often, I am so happy when people get it, and find themselves in some way in what I write, and are relieved of some old burden.

Do you have an ideal reader? Does writing with that person in mind help you to find your voice? And for the new book — was that reader Catherine? Or was it Chuck?

An ideal reader. Well, the first one is me. If I read out loud, the parts that aren’t working are obvious because my voice goes dead. Then I have to decide if something else is lurking behind those paragraphs, or if they just plain suck. I don’t write with a reader in mind, but Chuck’s opinion matters. He’s usually my first reader. I wouldn’t say he helps me find my voice because I found it long ago, for better or worse. But he tells me when something isn’t finished, when there’s more to mine. And I trust him.

Did either Chuck or Catherine (or anyone else) object to any of this writing? Did you worry at any point about whether or not that would be a problem?

There were things that made Chuck uncomfortable, of course. But the book is grounded in our long friendship, and was written in that spirit. He trusted me and so did Catherine; and they both read various drafts as I tried to find my way.

I did and didn’t worry about what they thought. I didn’t want either of them to feel uncomfortably exposed, but my motive was certainly not to mess with them, just to figure out how we became even better friends after the hard times.

But to figure that out, you have to expose your daughter. Will you say more about that, please? Or am I poking around where I shouldn’t …?

Catherine always took responsibility for her affair with Chuck. She never made excuses for herself and neither did he. It was, after all, love. I have nothing against love. Just that this particular affair made life messy. Chuck’s family, which I was very careful to leave out, suffered; Chuck, who lost his family, suffered; Catherine, who lost her job, suffered; and I was somehow in the middle of a mess I hadn’t made. But we did not abandon each other. That’s so important. I hope that who they are, aside from the missteps they took, is clear. They aren’t defined by what happened, but rather by what happened afterward, and how close the three of us are now.

Who they are (Chuck and Catherine) is absolutely clear, yes. Who they are to you; who you are to them; even, it would seem, who they are to each other. But one of the things I love about this book, about all the books, is that you don’t make it neat or easy — you’re willing not to know the answers. However — if this were a novel, the author would know: she’d make it clear that Chuck and Catherine’s relationship had everything to do with loving her. With wanting to be even closer to her. That’s how it feels to this reader anyway. And here I am in a position to ask if I’m on the right track …

Well, that’s what I thought but didn’t want to say it in so many words. Still don’t. Partly because it’s embarrassing, and partly because Catherine and I are different people, and the affection she and Chuck share is about who she is — who she is all by herself. I remember Chuck once saying, “She’s so alive!” And she is. Chuck and I have our own thing, very strong, very different. But I think you’re partly right.

It’s so rare we read a book about a friendship between a man and a woman, isn’t it? I’m trying to think of one and coming up dry. Sex generally gets in the way, in life and in literature, right?

Sex gets in the way of everything, yes.

But you didn’t let it. None of you did. So — in his role as first reader — have you ever left something out because Chuck said it didn’t work? Or has he actually provoked you to go further and deeper?

Oh sure. He has often said something didn’t go as far as it could. And there were a few pieces I left out — but because they weren’t important, or put too much emphasis on something I had already covered.

What do you tell writers — students, colleagues — who worry about exposing the people they love? (Or even the ones they don’t —) How do you advise them?

I tell my students to examine their motives. If they are writing for a kind of revenge, write fiction. But if what you’re writing is an integral part of your story, you have to include it or you’re making a three-legged table. So if it will cause pain, but is necessary to the work, it goes in. Memoir is about what shaped us. But it requires care, doesn’t it.

Fiction as revenge, that’s interesting. Have you ever been tempted to fictionalize? What do you think about the ongoing brouhaha over genre, does it matter to you? As a writer or a reader?

Memoir matters very much to me. Fiction, too, of course, but I read less of it than I should. I’m pretty vehement about memoir. You can draw from your life for fiction, but you can’t stick fiction in memoir, unless you cop to it. You can’t make things up. If you are tempted, you have to resist it. If you keep being tempted, go ahead and write fiction then.

Someone once said to me that his life had been kind of boring and would it be okay to invent some interesting parts. No, I said, but it might be fun to say just that — and then to give an example of what he might deem more interesting than the life he’d led. That would reveal a lot about the writer, and it wouldn’t be lying, just telling the wishes that hadn’t come true.

I want to know what you think about the Knausgaard hoopla. See, it’s interesting to me that many of the women at the top of the charts are very deliberately avoiding “domestic” subjects and focused on the sociopolitical instead. Meanwhile, along comes this guy, writing about diapers and birthday parties, and he’s all the rage.

I read Knausgaard’s first volume years ago. I loved it. I could not for the life of me figure out why it wasn’t boring. But do we all have to be top of the charts? No. We don’t. It would be lovely, but it’s meaningless. Just think of Stones for Ibarra. Harriet Doerr. I’d rather have written that than any best seller.

What else do you like to read?

Mostly I read poetry — Tom Hennen’s Darkness Sticks to Everything and Ellen Bass’s Like a Beggar are two favorites right now. I use them for assignments. I read a lot of detective fiction, and recently, due to Catherine’s influence, I’ve read a lot of sci-fi and dystopian fiction …

And why Stones for Ibarra?

How not to love a book that begins, “Here they are, two North Americans, and already lost …” or something very close to that. Her arms are around all her characters, and the chapters alternate between the Mexican people she meets, and her own experience, which is that her husband is dying. The writing is perfect, never too much; she hits the mark every time and doesn’t try to hit it again. It’s extremely sad and also funny, and it’s steeped in nostalgia. It’s not just the book I love — I so hugely admire the writing, the spareness.

And I love Grace Paley. (Who doesn’t?)

I love Muriel Rukeyser. (Who doesn’t?)

I adore Isak Dinesen and someone should be punished for the sappy movie.

I love Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That.

I love Gerald Durrell — My Family and Other Animals.

I love almost everything by Patricia Hampl. And Joan Didion. And Dorothy Allison.

And why do you say you read less fiction than you should?

Well, I don’t think I should read fiction, but a lot of it feels too trivial to finish. I recently read All the Light We Cannot See and was won back over. Good god. I know I’m missing a lot.

Who are your influences? Are there a couple of memoirs you find yourself recommending again and again?

I love Autobiography of a Face. Lucy Grealy.

And other influences. Josephine Tey. Pat Barker. And there are millions of others.

But I think my biggest influence was my father: the way he wrote and talked. His subject matter was very different, but his rhythm, and the importance and persuasiveness of that, stuck somewhere early on.

Speaking of whom (your father, I mean), how many writers are there in the family?

There are a bunch. My sister Eliza wrote a wonderful book called The Road Home, published by Algonquin. My nephew Thomas Mira y Lopez is a fine essayist; my daughter Jen has a marvelous blog; Daddy was Lewis Thomas.

See, it’s tempting, very, to want to ask about all these people — which says so much about your writing, doesn’t it? How invested I am; how I want to know more about everybody; about what they’re doing and how they feel about finding themselves in these pages. Are your children as close to each other as they are to you? Your sisters? Is this your parents’ legacy to all of you? Or are you the glue that holds everyone together?

My daughters Jennifer and Catherine are very close, partly because they both have twins, but also because they just get along. My son often calls to ask for a recipe (which I love). My sisters and I, when we find the time to talk, laugh our asses off. (I don’t think all this has much to do with our parents, but I’d need to think some more about that.) We’re all close to my daughter Sarah’s oldest boys, Joe and Sam. Joe is, in fact, living with me right now … I do not want to be the glue, because one of these days I’m going to die.

And this is one of the main preoccupations of the book, isn’t it. Part II: “I Don’t Get to Live Forever,” in which you try to come to terms with mortality, not just Catherine’s and Chuck’s but your own. Does writing help? And painting?

The writing is the key. Writing gets me through impossible times. The painting is a lot of fun, but I’m no painter. I just recognize a happy accident when I see one.

And when you work (I know, writers hate to answer questions about process, but how can I not ask?): do you sit (or stand) in one place for any length of time? To write or to paint?

Before I write, I walk around muttering. No particular place, but since I rarely leave the house, it’s my kitchen.

That reminds me: I love the way you write about food. Have you ever thought about writing some kind of a cookbook?

Funny you ask. I once started what I was going to call The Goy of Cooking, a WASP cookbook. Fudge, macaroni and cheese, lettuce sandwiches. I said it wasn’t that WASPs don’t cook, they just don’t buy food. My mother’s icebox contained two things. A bottle of champagne, and a jar of marmalade on a doily.

(I’m laughing.) And that was in Manhattan, right? The way you write about place — I kind of want to live wherever you are. Do you miss New York City?

You know, it’s odd. New York was the only place I felt completely comfortable and safe, and I loved it, loved it. But it’s no longer the same New York. I do miss walking — it’s a walking city. I miss the democracy of the subways. But it seems now a city for the very, very rich. The little stores in my old neighborhood are gone. The people look different, although that may be my imagination. Woodstock is easy and pleasant and Levon Helm was here. But where to walk? In the woods? Good god, no. Otherwise, though, I’m really at ease here.

Are there fewer distractions in Woodstock? And are you, in any case, resentful of distractions? Selfish about the writing?

I live alone with dogs. Another human being in my house would drive me crazy, even if he were quiet. Joe, my grandson, sleeps a lot, and he also reads (and if you are reading you’re not really in the house), so we work out well together. Other than that, yes, I would feel resentful of another presence, entirely without basis. I just crave solitude like water and oxygen. But I also love it when everybody is here, which they often are. All those nine-year-old twins who are growing up together, making memories in my house and big yard, that’s life after death right there. The climbing trees, the hiding places, the bushes. I know these will be part of their childhood memories, and love that. I love that they will be friends forever.

Tell a bit about how What Comes Next came together? When did you know it was a book?

When I wrote the conversation with Chuck about not wanting anyone to die, and we ended up where we ended up, I knew I was almost done. Then I did the “love is roomy” piece and I was finished. All that remained was to put the damn thing together. Chuck and Catherine and I decided what went where. Three sections have always worked for me, so we imagined three sections. We drew on huge pieces of cardboard — made lists of which section would contain what. It was easier than I expected. Catherine, cancer, and death was the last, of course.

And how long did all that take?

It took seven years to write the book because I had so many false starts. Hundreds of pages that didn’t work. It was always on my mind. I’d write like a maniac, but nothing held together. I’m not saying it wasn’t fun, but it was disappointing when it wasn’t working. But failure is the path to success. And even wrong writing is such a high.

God, I worked hard. But there is no drug that compares to the high you get from writing.

I wonder if it was hard because you were writing from the middle of the story. At least that’s how it seems to the reader: with Safekeeping we know from the get-go: he died. Life went on. You and your kids survived. With A Three Dog Life we also know: Rich isn’t going to get better, you’re going to adjust, period, the end. But this time is different. The reader wants Catherine and Chuck to be okay — and she wants you to be okay. She wants you to avoid more loss and grief. (Also cigarettes and alcohol.)

But you won’t, will you? Because that’s how life is. (And because you keep adopting dogs.)

Well. Catherine is, thank god, three years clear: that’s important for triple negative cancer. But I’m reminded every week at the cancer memoir group that while I may be relieved, there are things she’s still going through that I forget, or just plain don’t know, because having had cancer is part of you forever.

Chuck’s hep C was finally cured, but he will still need a transplant. He has rented a huge house on the Cape for all of us this summer. And he and I are doing a tour together in April.

And after that? What will you write next?

I’m hoping never to have material for another memoir. I think I’ll just write about how great it is to be 73. And you know what? All those jokes about old people talking only about their aches and pains and what drugs they take for arthritis? Those conversations are as absorbing as talking about sex used to be!


Dinah Lenney is the nonfiction editor for LARB. The Object Parade, her collection of essays, is just out in paperback from Counterpoint Press.

LARB Contributor

Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade (2014) and Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir (2007), and co-editor of Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (co-editor, 2015). She serves as core faculty in the Bennington Writing Seminars, and as an editor-at-large for LARB. Her latest book is Coffee (Bloomsbury, 2020).


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