No. I don’t like talking about myself. That’s why I write fiction: to talk about other people.
Does it make it any better that this is a self-interview?
That makes it worse, actually. I have to do twice as much talking.
Let’s discuss your new short story collection, The Last Animal. As the title suggests, these stories are filled with animals: octopuses, ostriches, dogs, manta rays, and giant sea turtles. Did you have to do a ton of research?
Yes and no. I’m fascinated by animals. I watch nature documentaries. I refuse to get out of the car at the end of a long drive if I’m listening to an NPR story about horse whisperers or bat migrations. I can tell you that whales name their children, that giraffes give birth standing up, and that albatrosses sleep on the wing. But I’m not sure if that counts as “doing research.” I learn about animals because it interests me, and that interest bleeds into my work. Animals make everything better. A story about adultery and a broken family might be dark and intense. But a story about adultery and a broken family, plus ostriches, is a whole different thing.
Do you have a favorite piece in the collection?
Stories are like people. These particular stories are people I’ve known for years. I’ve loved them, hated them, been inspired by them, nursed them back to health, bragged about them, lost my temper with them. Sometimes we’re good friends, and sometimes we’re not that close. I’ve even broken off contact, swearing that we’re done, only to lovingly reconnect, months later. These stories are family.
The Last Animal was hailed by the “Indies Introduce Debut Authors” fall 2013 selection committee and was one of twelve debuts singled out by them. There have been endorsements from Dan Chaon, Emma Straub, Jim Gavin, many other writers… Does this make you feel happy or just overwhelmed? Do you now walk on air?
I would like the record to show that this question was written for me by my editor, Dan Smetanka.
The answer, sadly, is no. It’s a wonderful time, of course. But if you’re a pessimist, then good news doesn’t really have the power to alter your glass-half-empty worldview. You don’t think, “Life is great.” You think, “Life is great—right now. And then what?”
Why did you become a writer?
For the money, I guess. And the fame.
Honestly, I’m not sure I “became” a writer at all. I think I emerged from the womb like this—moody and introverted, with a pen in my hand. I wrote five novels before I was eleven years old. (They were all terrible.) If I don’t get enough sleep for too many days, I’m not well. If I don’t write for too many days, I’m not well either.
Are you part of a writers’ group?
Not really. I’m very private and solitary about my work. Also, I suspect that it can be unhealthy for too many writers to mingle together. A friend of mine at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop once joked that our parties were always just fifty quiet people standing alone, nursing a beer and feeling depressed. I like being surrounded by artists—all kinds of artists. I do have friends who are writers, but I also have friends who are puppeteers, set designers, dancers, and painters. My husband is an actor and a director. My sense is that all of us are cut from the same cloth. We’re wired the same way. We interact with and are driven by our craft in the same way. But each of us brings his or her own disposition to the table. That mixture can be alchemical and unexpected and wonderful.
You also teach. What’s your take on the theory that artists shouldn’t teach—that teaching interferes with the mental space that should be kept for writing?
I disagree with that theory. I’m always in danger of having a world that narrows and narrows. Or rather, I’m in danger of having an external world that narrows, while my internal world grows so big and wild and exciting that I never want to leave it. The new novel I’m working on is set on an island chain in the Pacific. During the long, cold winter in Chicago last year, I would sit down at the computer and think, “Ahhh… Here I go, off to the islands.” And it really felt that way. Leave behind the sleet and wind. Leave behind the stuffy house. Leave behind the incipient head cold. Leave behind the dirty dishes, the laundry. Leave behind myself and all my worries.
It’s lovely, but it can also be dangerous. That’s why it’s good for me to teach, too. Teaching means that I have to interact with people. I have to go out of my house. I have to ride the train. I have to read my students’ work. I have to think about things other than my book. Teaching brings me back into the real world.
You often write about the nature.
Yes, that’s the focus of The Last Animal: the relationship between human beings and the nature. There’s an ostrich farmer and an aquarist and a biologist who works at the Museum of Natural History. There are deserts and seaside resorts. There are insects and dinosaur bones and fish. I’m fascinated by our connection to the natural world. In writing the collection, I wanted to explore how that relationship is always changing—how that relationship moves us and defines us.
But there’s another theme, isn’t there? The characters in The Last Animal keep disappearing. There’s the brother who vanishes. The camp counselor, gone without a trace. The miscarriage. The estranged family.
And the mother dying of Alzheimer’s, the husband who runs away, the sister who leaves her home. That theme is really obvious to me now; it runs through most of the stories. But honestly, I didn’t know it was there until I began to see reviews of the book and people kept mentioning it.
The strange thing is that I’ve had a pretty charmed life. Anyone reading The Last Animal would think I’ve had a tragic history, but that’s not the case at all. Happy family of origin. Terrific husband. Great kid.
People say, “Write what you know.” I say, “Write what you know, but in dream-speak.” I’m never sure where my stories come from. Aliens. Some portal in the sky. There are iconic narratives that move us, even if we don’t know why. Clearly, the idea of loss and disappearance is one that resonates with me.
You might want to get some therapy for that.
Oh, I do.
What’s the worst writing advice you ever got?
Hmmm…. When I was a graduate student, a classmate pulled me aside after a workshop. He told me, very gently, that when it came to writing older women, I was way off base. Older women, he said, were demure, ladylike and genteel. Always. They weren’t like the big, brash, brainy characters in my writing. In real life, he said, older women weren’t assertive, didn’t interrupt, and definitely didn’t curse. Ever.
Yeah, he had clearly never met my grandmother. Or my mother. Or me, in thirty years.
Did you set him straight?
It didn’t seem worth it. When it comes to that kind of wrongheadedness, you’ve got to pick your battles. I just smiled in a ladylike way and took my cue from Jane Austen: “[She] agreed with it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”
What’s the best writing advice you ever got?
I guess it would have to be a line from that Lorrie Moore story, How to Become a Writer: “First try to be something, anything else.” Writing is hard, strange, lonely work. Do it only if you have to. Do it if you love being alone in a room for hours every day. Do it if you are often struck by a sentence as though it’s lightning. Do it if you enjoy working on something for years and years, never knowing if it will come to fruition. Do it if you can tolerate an ocean of rejection. Do it regardless of whether anyone will ever read your work, whether you will ever get paid. Do it because stories grow in you like trees grow through concrete, slow but unstoppable, breaking apart the stone on their way to the light.
In short, do it because you must. If you don’t have to be a writer—if you could be happy as a doctor or an accountant or an architect—if you have it in your power to have a normal life—then do that instead. Run for the hills.
Really? I meant it to be inspiring.
Last question. If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?
Isn’t it obvious?
ABBY GENI is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Iowa Fellowship. “Captivity” won first place in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open and was listed in The Best American Short Stories 2010. Her stories have also received Honorable Mentions in the Kate Braverman Short Story Prize and in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Competition. She lives in Chicago. Please visit www.abbygeni.com.