Abigail Thomas is the author of three form-shattering memoirs: Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life; A Three-Dog Life; and, most recently, What Comes Next and How to Like It. A national best seller, A Three-Dog Life was named one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. About her first memoir, Bomb magazine wrote: “Safekeeping . . . is comprised of small, astonishing moments which have been strung together in a wholly fresh and gorgeous way. Many of these moments are handled in the brevity of a paragraph, consistently humble and beautiful; a palm which has been opened for us.” Thomas lives, writes, and paints in Woodstock, New York.
CA: Your most recent memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It, has received an incredible amount of praise. After reading the memoir I felt I needed to sit for a spell and soak it in, then immediately read it again. The last chapter or piece, “Love,” was so perfectly spare yet full; I won’t soon forget the line “Love is roomy.” I am interested, then, in knowing more about how you approached writing this memoir. Safekeeping is also a memoir-in-bits, if you will, though the tone is entirely different than that of What Comes Next and How to Like It. Did you intend to write another memoir when you started this book? How did you know what pieces would work in this particular book?
I started writing Safekeeping after the death of my second husband. I do think loss is the impetus for a lot of memoir. I had no idea what I was doing, or whether it would amount to anything, but the pieces kept coming. At some point I must have known I was writing some sort of book but nothing was clear. I had thought whatever it was would end with Quin’s death, but then I realized wait, I’m not dead yet, and that gave me the rest of the book. Also the reason I write such short pieces is that if I’ve hit it right, there’s no point in blathering on. When it’s done, it’s done. The last essay in Safekeeping took me longer to write than the whole rest of the book, that was the experience I wanted to end with. It’s always helpful to finally know where you want to end because then you begin to realize what more you have to write to earn the ending.
What Comes Next took seven years to write, over and over, throwing out, writing more, it was hell. and then realizing the story of Chuck and Catherine and me wasn’t really much of a story, except that what might have been the end of a friendship turned into a deeper one. Also Chuck is irresistibly funny.
When Catherine was diagnosed with cancer, I stopped writing. I didn’t want to and couldn’t, until Daphne ran away with her wig. And the way our friendship deepened further after cancer was an important part of what is a continuing story. Can’t really say much more about it. But just goes to show how important failure is. get it wrong until you get it right.
I really never know beforehand what I’m doing or how I’m doing it. I just hang on and write. These books could only have been written the way I wrote them. It’s up to every writer to figure out the form. I just don’t seem to have a choice in the matter.
CA: The fragmented style of Safekeeping and What Comes Next and How to Like It is so effective in both these memoirs. Somehow, the many, many small pieces, which don’t always seem related, come together into a fully realized whole. Was this choice of form deliberate, or was this fragmentation perhaps the only way you felt you could convey the story or narrative effectively? Do you think that certain stories require fragmentation while others require more traditional form?
Let’s see. First, I have a terrible memory except for what I remember, and any kind of chronological memoir would have been not only impossible for me, but also criminally boring because I hate chronology and don’t even believe in it. So the fragmentary writing is the only way I can write. Putting it together, and making sure I have fed it what it needs, is the hard part.
With What Comes Next, a chronological narrative would have bored me to death. (Plus memory full of holes.) Plus parts of life that were not part of this particular story. What I do remember, I remember very well. I have come to appreciate small stories and moments, seemingly attached to nothing, so the power (if there is power) standing more or less alone, works better.
CA: I promised to keep the interview short, but my last question is perhaps a little cheeky: You’ve spoken about an assignment that you give to your workshops that requires your students to tell their story entirely in three-word sentences. I’d love to see what you’d do with that assignment; could you tell a very short story, in three-word sentences, about something you’ve done in the last week or two?
Three word sentences? No can do. Never did it. Much too hard. Mind goes blank.
Emily Moses is the editor in chief of Café Américain and a second-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.