A Conversation with Lee K. Abbott
February 12, 1998
"To my credit, I did stay away from the whiskey. At midnight I was away from it, as I was when the clock next gonged, and gonged again. At three, however, I was with it, a juice glass with a lone cube of ice to keep myself respectable. After that, I was respectable at least a dozen more times."
And so goes one evening in the life of Heath "Pokey" Howell, the main character in Lee K. Abbott's short story "All Things, All at Once" (February Atlantic ). Pokey Howell is but one of the many fictional small-town men and women whom Abbott has struggle with life in the American Southwest, a place he proudly calls home. Abbott's ability to capture the essence of the Southwest's sun-bleached communities and their inhabitants has earned him a spot among the top contemporary writers of short fiction.
Abbott has published six collections of stories, including his most recent, Wet Places at Noon(1997). In addition, his work has appeared in such publications as Harper's, Ploughshares, Story Quarterly, Kenyon Review, and Georgia Review, and has been included in The Best American Short Stories (1984, edited by John Updike), The O. Henry Awards: Prize Stories (1984, 1997), and The Pushcart Prizes (1984, 1987, 1989). Twice a Fellow at the National Endowment for the Arts, he has won the National Magazine Award for Fiction, the St. Lawrence Award for Fiction, and a Syndicated Fiction Award. He is currently the director of the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing at Ohio State University, and has previously taught writing at Rice University, Yale University, Colorado College, and the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
Abbott recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Alison Callahan.
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The town is ten miles east of Capitan, which is the birthplace of Smokey the Bear, and three miles outside of Lincoln, New Mexico. I consider it my home. I've been living and working in Ohio for twenty plus years, too, but I must confess I just don't understand anything about that part of the world. It's too green and too wet, and there are no vistas. I can't understand what the people are saying half the time. It just seems like an alien culture. I write stories set in New Mexico because I write what I know -- and what I know is a small corner of the American Southwest. Best of all, it's a place where all the firsts happened to me: first drunk, first sex, first death. It's where I came to adulthood.
Most of your stories are told in a first-person voice so familiar and comfortable that it's as though you are sitting on a porch telling tales. What do you want the reader to come away from your stories feeling?
I don't write to instruct anybody about anything. I've got nothing to tell people that they didn't already know by the time they got to be fourteen. There's really nothing new for me to teach people. (We have a form for instructional writing. It's called the essay.) I want people to be moved -- to have on the page what I've got between my ears somehow as I subordinate myself to these people that seem to have galvanized my imagination. The metaphor I use for my students is that I feel like two people at once. One is the ancient mariner who grabs the wrist of the wedding guest with wild eyes, saying, "Boy do I have a story to tell you!" The other is the guy who's in the bar, and it's fifteen minutes until closing time, and he's decided that he's just going to cut to the quick with the story about the world as he knows it.
You've said that character is "what we are in the dark, a notion that puts the body before the bodice, the head before the hair color, the heart before the blood type." You seem to be very comfortable in the skin of most of your characters. When writing, do you start with a character in mind and draw out from there?
Yes, for me writing good short stories has to do with character. I stole that line from the movie Buckaroo Bonzai and the Raiders from the Eighth Dimension, starring John Lithgow and Peter Weller. Lithgow's character, the villain, while making an escape, shakes his finger at Buckaroo and says that line about character. It's the smartest line of literary criticism I've ever heard. While things can be learned about what a character wears, where she might live, the car she drives, those sorts of thing are not newsworthy to me. To me, characters are your dreams, your fears, your hopes, and your secrets -- the kinds of things that I wouldn't know looking over at you at a stop light.
Many minor characters and situations show up repeatedly in your stories. For example, Uncle Roy and the Red Creek Wranglers is a band that appeared in "All Things, All at Once" and "Category Z." A dog named Raleigh makes a few appearances throughout your work -- as does the town of Deming, New Mexico. Several characters are very fond of golf, too. One can't help but question how fictitious these standbys are.
Uncle Roy and the Red Creek Wranglers were Flannery O'Connor's favorite radio band. I learned that after reading her collected letters, and ever since, whenever I need a band to play in my stories, it's the Wranglers. If I need a place for them to play, it's either El Corral or The Hitchin' Post. I spent one summer living in Deming, New Mexico, with my best friend. We had an apartment on Olive Street, which shows up in all of the stories in which I bring you to an apartment. The streets there were named after metals and trees, so that's why there's Iron Street, Fir Street, and so on. Like I said, I write about what I know.
By now it's safe to say that I write four kinds of stories: boy-girl stories, father-son stories, buddy stories, and, rarely, something I call my "trash compactor" stories. Those are like Walt Whitman meets Apocalypse Now and Mad Max. I've only published about four or five of them. They're just a chance for me to use up great lines and material, and to be a bit wacky.
Who are some of your other influences?
My advisor at university was a pulp writer. His name was James Mealy, but he wrote under a pseudonym. I was in his office one day, and he handed me back yet another failure on my part and asked me who my favorite writers were. I mentioned a couple to him, John Updike and Philip Roth, then asked him who his were. He said Eudora Welty. I had never heard of her. He had in his office an old record player and he put on the vinyl recording of "Why I Live at the P.O." Within the first two sentences I was in that world that Miss Welty had made, and I was having those ups and downs -- it was just terrific. Thereafter I just devoured everything she wrote. That's pretty much the way I go with a lot of writers. Andre Dubus, Gabriel García Márquez, Leonard Michaels, Joyce Carol Oates -- I have all sorts of influences. Of course there are particular people and books that have taught me things: Joan Didion's Book of Common Prayer taught me the possibilities of first-person point of view; John Casey's Spartina finally taught me how to do an interior monologue; Faulkner probably taught me how to write a sentence.
You've said before that you continue to work on telling old stories new ways. How does your latest collection, Wet Places at Noon, differ from your previous work?
There's a story in there in the second-person subjunctive mode. I about broke my head trying to figure out how to do that. There's also the shortest story I've ever written in my life. It's four pages long. There's also a long, long story told from a woman's point of view.
Your novella, Living After Midnight, was recently staged as a play. How did it feel to see your characters come to life in front of you -- through someone else's direction?
It was terrific. It was a much, much different thing, of course, but different in good ways. I was really quite pleased with what they managed to accomplish with the little I'd given them in the way of scenic drama. I was tickled with how they managed to stage it and get all that was interior monologue and narrative into the dramatic action itself. One of the many things I learned from seeing the production was that I ended the story at the wrong point.
Do you ever return to finished pieces and work on them some more?
No. I run as quickly as I can from the mess I've made.
Living After Midnight has been your only work to date that has strayed from short-story work. Very few writers stick only to this form (Raymond Carver comes to mind). Why have you?
Living After Midnight wasn't supposed to be a novella. It was originally going to be another short story, but it got out of control and nearly killed me.
My wife and I were married before we graduated from college, and our first son, Noel, came a year later. Then we had another son, and graduate school, so the time has never been there for anything longer than stories. I realize that lots and lots of writers out there in my situation do, nonetheless, produce novels, so that's not the only explanation. I'm also one of those Sixties babies. I guess I'm real impatient, meaning that if a story isn't working, I like to know quickly so that it'll only have cost me three weeks. Remember Jack Nicholson's character in The Shining, when he's been working for months and has a foot-high stack of manuscript? I tell my students two things about that moment: one, this guy's out of his mind, and two, he spent a lot of time with his butt in that chair typing. I'd hate to spend two or three years on something only to have it turn to dust in my hands. The prospect of that really scares me.
I used to have old college mentors say that we are all more afraid of success than we are of failure. I just know that if I sat down to do something long, and had the intelligence, the stamina, and the imagination to do it, I'd find myself turning a corner -- an ethical, moral, or imaginative one -- that I'm not so sure I want to turn. I might see something that I don't want to see right now.
In a blurb on the jacket of your collection Dreams of Distant Lives, William Harrisson deems you, "John Cheever's true heir, our major American short story writer." What is your reaction to being compared to and ranked with Cheever?
I think it's wonderful. I'm as humbled as I am honored. I'm amazed, story by story, at his reach, his scope, his understanding of human nature, his wit, the way he comes into a story, the way he gets out of a moment. You turn to any page in a story of his and you're going to find ten sentences worth memorizing. It's great to be compared with someone with his gift.
What is your definition of a short story?
I think I'm working in an art form that can't be defined somehow. How long is a "long" story? When does it start to become a novella or a novelette? I was raised to believe that a short story was five thousand words, or twenty pages, long, but I've written stories that range in length from four pages to fifty-six pages. I guess I'm going to rely on Edgar Allen Poe's definition to make my case: a short story is only so long that it can be read in one sitting.
What are you working on now?
A story called "Her Tenth Lover." It's told from a woman's point of view, and is about a woman who's had many lovers but keeps returning to the tenth because he's utterly emotionally unavailable to her. I keep asking myself, "What's in it for her?"
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.