Patti Abbott has been a major positive influence on my writing, thanks to her flash fiction challenges. It’s safe to say the tricks and techniques I was forced to learn to make my stories fit into her guidelines tightened my writing. Cutting words that could be lived without, obviously; at a more macro level, getting into and out of scenes more cleanly; and even at the story level, applying principles of flow learned from writing those flash pieces.
Patti is more than the Face That Launched a Thousand Flash Stories; she’s a formidable writer herself. Her short fiction has appeared in (take a deeeep breath) Yellow Mama, Crooked, Thrilling Detective, Spinetingler, Mysterical-E, A Twist of Noir, Beat to a Pulp, Thuglit, All Due Respect, Crime Factory, Plots With Guns. Powder Burn Flash, Huffington Post, Storyglossia, Pank Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Word Riot, among others. She also shepherds the Forgotten Friday series of blog posts, where readers and writers remind others of deserving books and authors that have fallen off the radar.
Patti is also on the faculty of Wayne State University in Detroit. In her copious spare time, she has written a novel titled Home Invasion, which is the topic of today’s chat.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Home Invasion.
Patti Abbott: Home Invasion is a novel in stories published by Snubnose Press as an e-book.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
PA: The stories in Home Invasion have been ones I have worked on since I began to write around 2000. I put the idea aside many times as I tried to write a more traditional novel and as other story ideas came to me. Some of the stories in HI came from my imagination but a number of them are based on people in my life. The character of Billie, for instance, is largely based on a childhood friend who had a very eventful, if sad, life.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Home Invasion, start to finish?
PA: I guess I would have to go with about ten years. But in that period I wrote the two unsuccessful novels and in the neighborhood of one hundred separate stories.
OBAAT: What’s the back story on the main character or characters?
PA: At the start of the book, Billie Slack would seem to be a survivor but circumstances and a family history of alcoholism and lousy parenting eventually take a toll. She turns the story over to her son, Charlie Batch midway through the book, and although he would seem to be the same sort of loser (prison, drink, kidnapping) his story goes in the opposite direction.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Home Invasion set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
PA: The story starts in the sixties and ends in the mid-2000s. Setting is very important to me. Each chapter or story is set in a different time and place. We start the story in a rowhouse in Philly, make a detour to a church in Detroit, come back to Philly for a story set mostly in a department store, go to the New Jersey beach for a day at the shore, eventually traveling to a deserted house in Massachusetts and finishing the tale in a small town in Maine. These are working (or non-working) people. The settings are grim but authentic to their story. I have tried to include some aspects of the passing decades without overloading the detail.
OBAAT: How did Home Invasion come to be published?
PA: About five years ago I almost landed an agent but he felt a collection of stories by an unknown writer would be too difficult to sell. Then when Brian Lindenmuth started Snubnose Press I sent it along to him after he published my first collection of stories, Monkey Justice.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
PA: I read a lot of so-called literary novels/stories and a lot of crime stories. My favorite writers would include; Raymond Carver, Larry Watson, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Richard Yates, Richard Bausch, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Dorene O’Brien, Antonya Nelson, Joy Williams, Stewart O’Nan. I could go on forever here. For twenty years of my life, I did little more than read novels.
In crime fiction, I especially like Tana French, Peter May, Vicki Hendricks, Michael Robotham, Laura Lippman, Daniel Woodrell, Bill Pronzini…the list goes on and on. Of course, Megan would rank #1 favorite as you might expect.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences?
PA: I took four writing workshops with Chris Leland at Wayne State University. He wrote five or so great novels but died prematurely. He was also one of the brightest people I know.
Margaret Millar was an early influence. Also John Updike, William Trevor, Charles Baxter, John Cheever. And as every writing student would say, Raymond Carver and Flanner O’Connor. “A Good Man is Hard To Find” is my all time favorite story. Bobbie Ann Mason’s earliest short stories (Shiloh and Other Stories) were a big influence. And I would have to mention Joyce Carol Oates, who I read obsessively early on.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
PA: I never outline. As a seven year old, I suffered from insomnia. My parents took me to the school psychologist and she told me to invent stories to put myself to sleep. After a while, my subconscious did the inventing. Even now, I rarely think about a story consciously. But somehow it is usually there when I sit down at the computer. Perhaps I would have been more successful at writing a novel had I learned to outline.
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
PA: Every day, I rewrite every line of whatever story I am working on. I never go to where I left off the day before first. On occasion, I tear something apart or start in a different place, but usually since I revise every word every day, it’s hard to know what draft I am actually on. Also, I often see an overworked first half and an underworked second half in most of my stories. I wish I could change my process, but I am stuck with it now. It takes me about a 3-4 weeks to write a short story. If it comes faster than that, I am suspicious.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
PA: Start right out writing novels. Don’t go near short stories unless that’s what you want to be: a short story writer. And if that’s what you want to be: name me a few who support themselves writing shorts. We all know Alice Munro, but what other short story writers can you name?
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
PA: Movies. Our entire family is besotted by movies.
OBAAT: Which do you take to bed at night, the money earned or the good review?
PA: Neither. I take my current story to bed with me.
OBAAT: Would you stop writing if someone paid you enough money so you’d never have to work again, on the condition you could also never write again?
PA: Nah. I am too old to be influenced by money. I have never made any, always depended on the kindness of husbands. Perhaps if I had come to writing before 45, I might have had a different attitude.
OBAAT: If you were just starting out, which would you prefer: 1. Form your own indie publishing house and put your work out in paper and e-book yourself? 2. Go with a small or medium traditional house that offers very little or no advance, a royalty that is only a fraction of what you'd get on your own, and also makes no promise of any type of publicity push, keeping in mind that you also will lose the publishing rights for a period, sometimes indefinitely?
PA: I have very little faith in the long terms endurance of e-books for anyone but the most well read in-print writers. The same people will succeed in both arenas. I don’t like either choice here. I really don’t want to spend my time formatting books and dealing with Amazon, etc. But #2 seems lousy too. I guess I will just write and depend on the goodness of editors of anthologies and zines. A lack of ambition or pragmatism, I don’t know which.
OBAAT: Beer, mixed drinks, or hard liquor?
PA: Any of the above but you forgot wine.
OBAAT: Baseball or football?
PA: I used to love baseball, even listened to spring training games on the radio. But now I can’t stand the loss of the time invested although my husband watches avidly. I will watch the Detroit Lions play if there is a chance they might win. This has been their best year in decades. Fingers crossed.
OBAAT: What question have you always wanted an interviewer to ask, but they never do?
PA: What book do you most often try to get people to read?
OBAAT: What’s the answer?
PA: Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. Or A Prayer For the Dying, by O’Nan.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
PA: I am working on a story for a charity anthology based on the ideas of Camus. I am also working on the story of a couple who give birth to two unusual children. I have been trying to move into more fantasy stories and less crime because I am running out of ideas on how to kill people.
Thank you, Patti, both for the insightful answers, and for finding time in the first pace. Everyone is strongly encouraged to check out Patti’s Blog, pattinase, for an eclectic mix of writing, movies, and music, as well as the occasional flash challenges and, last but not least, Forgotten Books Fridays.