A Conversation with Abby Frucht
Lowestoft Chronicle interview by Nicholas Litchfield (April 2013)
Winner of the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award in 1987 for her first collection of stories, Fruit of the Month, which was published the next year, Abby Frucht followed this prize with a highly acclaimed first novel, Snap, which went on to become a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Two of her subsequent four novels were also New York Times Notable Books. Her latest story collection, The Bell at the End of a Rope, published last October, is her first book in over twelve years and her first collection of stories in twenty-five years.
This month, Lowestoft Chronicle caught up with Abby Frucht to discuss her novels and story collections and her distinguished writing career.
Lowestoft Chronicle (LC): I've heard you say you were drawn to writing from a very young age and that you had filled a lot of little notebooks with poems and drawings by the time you were nine years old. When did your interests turn to fiction? Are there any particular writers you remember as having influenced your writing during those childhood years?
Abby Frucht (AF): My favorite book when I was just starting to read on my own was Louis Untermeyer's The Golden Treasury of Poetry, which included many narrative poems like "The Highwayman" and "The Owl and the PussyCat," so my interest in stories was stoked in part by poetry, and indeed, most of my own first poems told stories (and some of the stories I write today might be mistaken for poems.) As for fiction itself, I must have read Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the original Ian Fleming version, which I loved for its irreverence and for its comical drawings) two hundred times. Fleming didn't talk down to children at all; in fact, he made reading his whimsical and darkly magical story (which featured a female child every bit the intellectual equal of the book's scary, but hilarious crop of villains) feel like a conspiratorial act.
LC: When did you actively start writing for publication? Ontario Review, Agni Review, Epoch, and Indiana Review were some of your early writing credits, but what was the first story you had published? Were you sending out a lot of pieces to literary magazines when you graduated from university?
AF: I never received a higher degree. Instead, on graduating college with a major in English and a minor in Biology, I worked in a variety of ice cream parlors and sandwich shops in St. Louis, during which time I started reading contemporary fiction writers and sending out my own stories. My worst rejection of all came from my parents when I was visiting home and showed them the first thirty or so pages of my first novel in progress. They had encouraged my writing all my life, and went on to be proud readers of mine, but when my dad read those awful, awful (and they were really awful!) pages, his response was, "Nothing happens, Hon," and my mom said, maybe since we had just gone whale watching that day, "Would you like to become a marine biologist?"
LC: Your story collection, Fruit of the Month, the co-winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, also garnered praise from The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and the Los Angeles Times when it was published. What made you decide to submit it to the Iowa Short Fiction Award competition?
AF: I was young, and I didn't have an agent yet, and that was simply the first thing that occurred to me. I remember getting a phone call one night from one of the contest readers there, telling me how much he liked it and that he hoped it would go on to win. The reader, a grad student, was Pinckney Benedict. We became good friends as the years went on, and his marvelous collection of stories, Town Smokes, is one that I assign to this day to my students. I have never had a student who didn't love it.
LC: When it comes to beginning a story, I've heard you say you begin with a voice that moves you and the story arises out of the process of writing or out of the language. Do you outline at all, Abby?
AF: I never outline. I write very much on the sentence level. I try to reside inside of each sentence and explore all of its possibilities in order to see what it has to teach me about voice, character, and story. If it doesn't teach me enough, I go out of my way to feed more possibilities into it, like clues, to see where they might lead me, and if they lead me nowhere, then I abandon that sentence and maybe, eventually or at once, that story. I do it this way not because I advocate for it being the best way to write a story, but because I enjoy that process. It might sound like a soulless process, but really the soul of the story, for me anyway, is to be found in the vocabulary, the punctuation, the syntax, the arrangement of idea, observation, event, remark, and finally, in whatever intervenes, either from the inside or from the outside, with those first four things.
LC: With regard to your first novel, Snap, you've said that your motivation for writing it was a desire to learn how to write a novel. How would you describe the experience of writing that book? And was writing Snap a long process? I know your books go through many redrafts, but Snap was published even before Fruit of the Month came out.
AF: At the time I wrote Snap I had a new baby, my first, so it's almost impossible to divide the experience of writing that book from being a new parent. Disregarding those first thirty pages, which I threw away at once and started writing again entirely from scratch, writing Snap never felt arduous or impossible. I never felt blocked, and being a new mother, my ego was entirely uninvolved. I simply followed my instincts, and I hardly so much as questioned my writing impulses. Since I was living for several months in Australia, where my husband at the time was doing research there, part of Snap was written by hand (at home I used an IBM Selectric) in a metal hut in the middle of a bird sanctuary filled with flies, wombats, and koalas, which make a sound like a motorcycle, and part of it was written in a balcony in Manly, a suburb of Sidney where people held dog shows and dance recitals amid flocks of hungry seagulls on a seaside promenade. Never did it feel like a long time, to me. The days were full and bizarrely unfamiliar and they passed. I did have an agent for Snap, which came out so close to when Fruit of the Month was published that the two books were reviewed as a pair, first in the New York Times Book Review and then in a number of other places. Many of those book review pages no longer exist, and nor does Snap's publisher, Ticknor & Fields, which was part of the original Houghton Mifflin, which now publishes in the field of education. The only thing that's still the same is the University of Iowa Press, and they should be congratulated for it.
LC: Many of the major US periodicals have reviewed your fiction, from Newsday and The New Yorker to The New York Times, and at least two-dozen reviews do still exist. How important was that book review by Charles Dickinson in The New York Times? He writes highly of both books, and for a debut author, that must be incredibly rewarding, as well as very advantageous to a writer's career.
AF: Yes, that kind of early attention was incredibly important, though I had no idea, then, what a big deal it was, since as I’ve said I was ignorant (and still am, actually), fairly happy to be ignorant of such things. Although I am forever and eternally grateful to have a life as a writer and a reader, I’m simply not the kind of person who craves fame or big success, which is a good thing, since I don’t have it. But back to the New York Times; I might never have been welcomed as faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, for instance, without that early attention, especially since I have no higher degree, and nor might many of the other aspects of my professional trajectory (my life as a reviewer and an essayist and as the recipient of grants, and yes, as a novelist) have occurred in precisely the way that they did.
LC: You’ve written for The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Village Voice, The Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times. How did you get involved in journalism, Abby?
AF: I began by writing book reviews when I published my first novels, and from there I began writing longer literary essays, and then, personal essays. Writers who wish to write book reviews would be well advised to look into joining The National Book Critics Circle, by the way, which provides a freelance guide as well as many other resources.
LICORICE | Abby Frucht | Graywolf Press | 1990.
LC: How did your second novel, Licorice, come to be published through the prestigious independent non-profit publisher Graywolf Press? Did the publisher approach you or did they seem like a great fit for the book?
AF: If I remember correctly, Katrina Kenison, Snap’s editor, had retired from her work at Ticknor & Fields by then (she went on to edit the Best American Series, I think, and is also a writer). It was my agent’s idea to send the book to Graywolf. I don’t think that I, myself, had even heard of Graywolf before he told me that my book had been accepted there, but they really did end up being the perfect fit for the book. I loved my entire experience with Graywolf – their cover for Licorice is by far my favorite of all my book’s covers, not including the tweedy looking milkmaid lounging across the cover of the Croatian edition of Are You Mine?, and the publicity they did for me was ultimately more meaningful than that of any of the bigger presses who published me later on. I remember, once, phoning my publicist at one of those big New York houses when one of my novels was just coming out, and my own publicist didn’t know who I was!
LC: You said of your fifth novel, Polly’s Ghost, that you “wanted the book to mirror more the chaos of real life than the neat preconceived frame of my other novels.” As all of your previous novels were critically successful books, did you have any concerns about the change of direction?
AF: No. I just wanted to do something different than what I had done before. Polly's Ghost received a mixed reception; some people thought it was too digressive, and other people called it a "triumph." Personally, I like the sort of random reach it exercised, and if it's a triumph for me, that's part of the reason why.
THE BELL AT THE END OF A ROPE | Abby Frucht | Narrative Library | 2012.
LC: The Bell at the End of a Rope, your latest story collection, contains fourteen stories connected somewhat to childhood, written over a period of nearly twenty years. "My childhood neighborhood and many of my childhood friends, neighbors, babysitters, family members and pastimes were included." Your story, "Bride," isn't included, although it seems like it might fit in the collection. What made you decide on these particular stories, and as there is no title story in this collection, what made you choose this title for the book?
AF: When I put the book together, I was toying with the idea of someday writing a novel in which "Bride" would be a part, so I decided that it would be a mistake to include it in the collection. I haven't ended up writing that novel, so now that you mention it, I wish I had included "Bride"!
As for my reason for including the stories I did include, I wanted the book to represent a range of styles and approaches to story writing, since each story really IS an experiment, to me. For some reason, when I write stories, my inclination is not to write a story like one I've written before. This collection demonstrates that impulse.
The title comes from the first paragraph of the story "Is Glistening," which reads:
Throughout the house, but mainly in the kitchen, were all sorts of objects from Mexico. The painted chair, the saltshaker in the shape of a bird, the platter, an apron, the tablecloth. The blanket, the Oaxacan bowl, the papier mache skeleton, the bell at the end of a rope.
The reason I chose that last phrase for the title is that I thought it sounded childlike, and because it provided me an image of a child's hand reaching for the rope but not being quite able to reach it, and so not being able to ring it without help. The stories are the help.
LC: Although published in 2000, you completed Polly's Ghost in 1999. Have you been working on a novel since that book, Abby, or have you been concentrating solely on short stories?
AF: Since that time, I wrote one novel that didn't work, and then, in addition to the stories, I've become very fond of essay writing. When I wrote the stories in The Bell at the End of a Rope, mainly what I wanted was to celebrate people's inner lives, particularly the inner lives of children and of parents as they relate to their children. I'm now collaborating on a novel with my friend and VCFA [Vermont College of Fine Arts] colleague, Laurie Alberts. We're having a huge amount of fun with it, since it's a different kind of project for both of us.
Too, life is complicated, in bad ways and in good ways. Most of the complications in my life over the last decade have been in good ways, or maybe it would be more accurate to say that even the bad ways have evolved, somehow, into good ways. I think that's the best answer that I can bring at this time to that question, which I thank you for asking.
About the Author
Abby Frucht is the author of two story collections, Fruit of the Month and The Bell at the End of a Rope, and five novels, Snap, Licorice, Are You Mine?, Life Before Death, and Polly's Ghost. She is a member of the faculty at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.