April 23, 2012
I met Abbie Grotke a few years ago when my company Zepheira started work for the U.S. Library of Congress to produce the web application that has become Viewshare. I was immediately struck by her sideline, collecting classic advice books and writing articles which apply material from those books for modern enquirers, and also by the phenomenon that’s emerged from that sideline, which will become clear in this interview.
So how did you get the idea in the first place of collecting classic advice books?
I have been collecting advice books since about 1985, when my college roommate and I picked up a copy of the Evelyn Millis Duvall’s The Art of Dating, which was written in the year that we were born (1967). We read aloud from the book during breaks from our studies, giggling over the silly advice (which is still some of my favorite from my collection). When we parted ways my roommate bequeathed the book to me, and so began a small collection. I was never very good at doing my own hair or makeup, and never dated very much, so I was naturally drawn to these books, which claimed to have all the answers! I had about 50 books when I started my “classic advice” website in 1997, missabigail.com, where I would answer questions about “contemporary dilemmas” with advice from the classic books. Today, the collection is up to over 1000 (I’ve lost count). I’ve got over 700 of them cataloged at LibraryThing but there are many more still to do. I need an intern!
Which of the classic advice books do you think was the most ahead of its time, perhaps even giving advice that would make sense to the average reader today?
Nina Farewell’s The Unfair Sex : an Exposé of the Human Male for Young Women of Most Ages, from 1953, is one of my favorites that is definitely in this category. Farewell is a pseudonym so not sure of the true identity of the author, though her introduction points to her own experiences as a naive 18 year old, who “surrendered her virginity because she was afraid to appear rude”. She wrote this book as a handbook for girls, so that they would know how to “cope with men”. One chapter titled “Never Go to a Man’s Apartment” is followed by “How to Behave When You Get There.” How great is that? And I bet pretty unusual for its time.
What do you think are the aspects of modern life that would most shock one of the authors from your collection?
I think they would be a bit shocked an horrified by the recent report on cell phone usage while on the toilet. I know Miss Abigail is!
You turned your column into a book, Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating, and Marriage. Was this your first book project? Were you approached by a publisher to write the book, or did you pitch the idea? How was the process of the book, from conception to writing through promotion and then the additional editions?
Yahoo picked up my website as a “site of the week” early on, and it got a fair amount of attention (remember when the “cool site of the day” concept was big? when people didn’t have resources like friends on Twitter or Facebook to alert them to cool links? Yeah, way back then). Thanks to that attention, from 2001-2002 I had a weekly column in the London Times Saturday magazine, dispensing advice to Brits as an “agony aunt.” Sometime after that I was contacted by a book developer to help them come up with a concept for a book using the classic advice. It was shopped around but didn’t pan out. Then not long after (I guess in 2005), my site was featured in a weekly e-newsletter that reached NYC readers, and I got a few calls from publishers about doing a book. A deal with Thunder’s Mouth Press was struck, and over the course of a few months that summer (in the evenings, since I still had my day job), I worked on pulling it together. The book includes the best advice from the site, plus other advice that helped fill in a “story” from puberty to happily married.
I was somewhat familiar with book production thanks to a previous job at the Smithsonian, however it was still an odd process. I had a great editor who was really excited about the project, but it all happened pretty fast and suddenly there was a book! And that editor moved to a different job. The hard truth is there was little marketing assistance, and no real push or help from the publisher. I had to take on a lot and I’m admittedly not the best promoter. The publisher eventually went out of business. The title moved to another publisher, and the book went out of print, just as the play was opening. I was able to get the rights back and quickly worked to self-publish the second edition so it could be available to show goers. Thankfully my parents own a book packaging company so they helped walk me through the process. In January 2012, I published Kindle, Nook, and iBook versions of Miss Abigail’s Guide. That’s a whole other story, the mysteries of ebook publishing.
Oh, and the German rights were bought up from Thunder’s Mouth, so there is a really cool German edition out there. All of these versions are available via links from my site.
How did the Miss Abigail play come about?
In the Fall of 2009, I hadn’t thought much about the book in awhile, and wasn’t updating my site all that much. I’d met my future spouse and was busy taking some of my advice books to heart so had less time to devote to the hobby. So it was a bit of a surprise when out of the blue I got an email from a producer in NYC, Ken Davenport, who had seen my book and wanted to buy the theatrical rights. How could I say no? He and his co-writer Sarah Saltzberg wrote the script, which is inspired by my book and uses some quotes from it. I got to read a few earlier drafts of the script and provided some feedback, but it’s really their baby. I turned them onto some of the dating and sex ed films in Rick Prelinger’s Archive, which they used in a great mashup in the middle of the show. It all happened rather quickly – it was only about a year from that first discussion to opening night Off Broadway!
Abbie Grotke with Laurie Birmingham, who played Miss A
in the first readings & was recently on tour with the show.
What has it been like to see the persona you created turned into a play?
The weirdest moment was when my husband and I sat down in the theatre in NYC for a first public reading of the script. I was oddly nervous — how would the audiences react? Suddenly some music starts, and there is a theme song, all about Miss Abigail. I loved it. To have my name said on stage for an hour and a half was the strangest feeling. But other than Miss Abigail’s name and the set piled with books (much like my home) she’s not really me. She’s retired from the Library of Congress (I still work there) and she advises the stars (I most definitely do not, unless they are secretly reading my blog!). The character is also about 20 years older than I am, and she has a hunky young sidekick named Paco who is in love with her. Because I’m a geek it’s also been fun to see my name come up in Google alerts for Eve Plumb and Joyce Dewitt, who have both played Miss Abigail in the Off-Broadway production.
The star of the play’s first run was Joyce DeWitt, famous for her role in the sitcom Three’s Company. What do you think some of the authors from earlier eras of your collection would have said about the situation in Three’s Company? Some of your books are contemporary to that show. Would their responses be any different from their predecessors’?
Eve Plumb was the first Miss Abigail, you may remember her as Jan from The Brady Bunch. Joyce was next. The classic advice books would never suggest you share quarters with members of the opposite sex unless you were married. They would probably take more the Mr. Roper point of view, though I’m fairly certain they wouldn’t approve of the gay roommate either. Or being gay at all. While these older books can be entertaining, they are also a reminder that times have changed for the better in so many ways.
You and I have worked together on the topic of digital preservation of cultural heritage. How do you think the creative evolution of your lavor of love is relevant to preservation of less-remarked genres such as classic advice books?
We talk a lot at the library about citizen archivists and enthusiasts who are passionate about preserving one particular genre or thing, and how that supplements what libraries and archives and other cultural heritage organizations might do. These citizen archivists potentially can have a big impact if they are able to step in and preserve things when cultural heritages organizations don’t for whatever reason. I guess in a way I’m doing a similar sort of thing with my collection, even though that wasn’t my original intent. This is really just a hobby for me, I don’t profess to be a scholar or expert, but do hope by doing what I’ve done with my collection, and having some fun with it, it’s brought new life into these classic advice books. I wish I had all the money and resources to scan my books to share more widely! Of course there is that pesky copyright issue.
Have you ever found yourself turning a bit like one of your model authors in dealing with someone with whom you interacted in real life?
Sometimes I play the advice-giver card, but mostly as any good friend might do. Mostly its the etiquette questions I like to look up, and I have a modern-day Emily Post to help when I need “real” advice. I have look up the occasional answer for friends, but mostly they realize I am not the same as the character Miss A and am just like any other friend with advice. In fact I felt like a bit of a poser—for most of the years I was answering love advice on the site and working on the book, I wasn’t even dating myself. I was hopelessly single, and still couldn’t do my hair or makeup. Eventually I did find true love though!
What advice would Miss Abigail give to a correspondent who worries his or her significant other is having a nervous breakdown?
I found an answer that is surprisingly 2012! Josephine A Jackson, M.D., and Helen M. Salisbury, the authors of Outwitting our Nerves (1921) explain that “In a nervous disorder there is nothing to cut out and there is nothing to give medicine for. Nevertheless there is something to be done, something which is as definite and scientific as a prescription or a surgical operation… psychotherapy.”
Here are a few other books from the collection that I can recommend: Release from Nervous Tension (1943); How to Worry Successfully (1936), and You Must Relax (1934).
If you had a chance to ask one of those classic advice authors a question of your own, what might it be?
Dear Classic Advice Giver: How many times did you get questions on this topic: “I like this girl but I don’t know how to tell her”?
You’ve had a remarkable, and probably exhausting decade or so. What interesting developments do you see in Miss Abigail’s future?
Well, I’m excited to have the e-book versions finally done and available. And the play has recently gone on tour, so it’s been fun to see it travel to other cities. There is now also a version of Miss Abigail in the Czech Republic so we are trying to figure out if we can manage a trip to Prague to see it.
Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by this ever-expanding world that you’ve created?
Oh yes. Miss Abigail certainly has taken on a life of her own; sometimes I don’t even recognize her! I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s pretty amazing that there is still life in it and that it’s expanded the way it has. I’ve changed too! I still have that day job, and life does get in the way, so I don’t devote nearly the same amount of time as I used to to the site, though I try to post a few times a month. I do try to keep up more regularly with Facebook and tweeting (@DearMissAbigail) these days. It sure is easier to get the word out since I first started the site.Who knows where the future will lead! I think it is out of my hands now, and that’s pretty darn fun and incredible to think about.