Guest contributor: Debora Black

Table for Two: Debora Black Interviews Abigail Thomas

categories: Cocktail Hour / Table For Two: Interviews


Abigal Thomas [photo by Jennifer Waddell]

Abigal Thomas [photo by Jennifer Waddell]

Debora: Congratulations, Abby, on the release of your new memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. I’m delighted to be able to speak with you about this meaningful book and your writing life.  Your writing is truly impressive—precise and perceptive. It often surprised me, the particular way you shined the light. For example, in the final chapter, reflecting back over the events in your book, you write:

Love can accommodate all sorts of misshapen objects: a door held open for a city dog who runs into the woods; fences down; some role you didn’t ask for, didn’t want. Love allows for betrayal and loss and dread. Love is roomy. Love can change its shape, be known by different names. Love is elastic.

And the dog comes back.

This is the best definition of love I’ve ever heard. It’s beautiful. Poignant (for the person who has read your book), except that it’s stronger than that, in control of itself. And then so practical and funny at the end, this dog love. All I could do was close the book, and hold it to my chest while all of the emotions and thoughts flooded through. The total of which has me wondering this: When you write, do you sense the quiet power of what you’re writing? Is it something that forms on its own from an unconscious space or do you construct it purposefully?

Abby: First, thank you for saying such extremely nice things. It’s not really a conscious choice, the way I write, except when I revise to make it succinct. I love what you said about its forming on its own from an unconscious space. That describes exactly what writing is like.

Debora: Your last memoir, A Three Dog Life, was about the injury and death of your husband. This new book takes us through the region of what remains—friends, family, pets, home, and new unknowns. You tell us about Chuck, your best friend. You tell us about his secret affair with your daughter Catherine, to whom you had been very close. It’s a monumental betrayal, which hurts you deeply. Yet, it will be Chuck who encourages you to write this book. Why did he believe it was so necessary?

Abby: Good question to which I have no good answer. I honestly don’t know, except he knew it would give me something to do.  And we had come through a hard time with a deeper friendship.

Debora: How are the people in your life responding to your memoir?

Abby: They seem to be very happy with it.  Catherine read it in various stages and I’m pretty sure she loves it. Ditto the rest of my family. One of my sisters seemed disapproving, although that may be my imagination. And oh well.

Debora: You live in Woodstock, New York. You paint on glass. You write. We learn of the major events that have shaped and re-shaped your life. But then there is the every day. What does a typical day look like for a writer of your stature living in Woodstock? How do you like to flow with your writing work—are you disciplined and in a routine or loose and without rules? Are you interrupted a lot or is a day all yours to invent?

Abby: I’m undisciplined until I am on to something. I can spend days just sitting in my chair, hanging out with dogs, talking to family on the phone, napping. The only disciplined part of the week is teaching (although you can’t really teach writing) the two workshops I give. Thursdays I do a memoir workshop at the cancer support center in Kingston, that is very important to me.  As for my own writing, once something has grabbed me I’m sticky with story, writing all the time even when I’m not writing. You know how it is. The best high in the world. As for “a writer of my stature”—well, I just feel like a slightly overweight woman who drinks too much and not just coffee. But thanks.

Debora: You wrote these superb lines:

I used to feel about king-sized beds the way I do about Hummers and private jets and granite countertops, but over the past several years I gained three dogs and thirty pounds, and my old bed, a humble queen, just didn’t cut it anymore. It was either lose the weight, lose the dogs, or buy something bigger.

Is there any amount of forgiveness for the Hummers, private jets, or granite countertops?

Abby: Um, no.

Debora: What has been your experience with bringing your books out into the world? This whole notion of reviews…I mean after so much investment of your work life and then getting through to publication. How much is riding on these reviews in terms of the book’s success—or your own feeling of success? I noticed the favorable review of What Comes Next and How to Like It in the LA Times, by the way.

Abby: Well, once it’s out there you take what comes. I’ve had some miraculously good reviews. The only bad one was the NY Times Book Review, but that one was so nasty I had to wonder if I’d slept with her husband. It actually made me laugh out loud. A good review in the Times would have helped sales, but a bad one, well you just shakes your old gray head. It’s part of the territory.

Debora: You would make a good playwright—you write such strong, compact scenes. They’re really lean in the way that they include only two or three people on one point and how they have this nice, start to finish drama. Plus those brief scenes of exposition would make great monologues on stage. Have you ever contemplated writing a play?

Abby: No, but now I will.

Debora: Is there a next project that you are working on?

Abby: Not yet. I don’t seem to be able to write fiction anymore, and since most memoir is prompted by loss, I don’t want any more material. I do want to write about the pleasures of getting old, all the crap left in the road behind you.  A friend asked me how my day had gone a week or so ago. I found myself saying, “Chuck and I ate pancakes at Shindig and then we went to CVS to pick up our prescriptions.” Then I laughed out loud. Ah, the new intimacy. It had been a very nice day.

  1. Debora writes:

    Thanks, Stephan. As you can see from those passages you like, Abby is a beautiful writer. And so funny. You will really like that in particular.

  2. Stephan Zittel writes:

    Very enjoyable interview! Debora presents wonderful passages in the book and I can’t wait to read Abby’s memoir.