There are few people as responsible for my development as a writer than Patti Abbott, though she may not be aware of it. The periodic flash fiction challenges on her pattinase blog not only taught me to appreciate the potential of very short stories, writing them to fit her specifications taught me more about tightening prose, and getting into and out scenes quickly, than anything else I’ve done. Looking back at some of my older stories, I can pretty much tell when I started responding to Patti’s challenges; it’s evident in the writing.
As much as she’s helped me—and others—and considering the frequent publication and enthusiastic reception of her short stories, it’s ironic that Patti is only now getting a novel into print herself. (Feel free to substitute “sad” or “disappointing” for “ironic.”) Polis is the first publisher to not only recognize her talent, but to follow through on that recognition. Concrete Angel launches next week, and it’s a real treat for me that Patti has carved some time from what I know is a hectic period to play Twenty Questions with me at OBAAT.
One Bite at a Time: Let’s cut to the chase, then we can backtrack: Tell us about Concrete Angel.
Patti Abbott: Concrete Angel, which begins with a murder, is the story of a mother and daughter in Philly between 1958 and 1980. It is the journey of a daughter who's devoted to her mother until she grows old enough to understand the cost of continuing such a relationship with a mentally ill and narcissistic woman.
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: Two things. I read a story about a mother and daughter who were being tried for a number of nefarious crimes. The daughter's defense was basically that her mother made her do it. Huh! And then I remembered a good friend in childhood whose relationship with her mother put her at risk several times over the years. They did not commit crimes (well, only petty ones) but her mother, as her only parent, held great power over her. So these two became my Eve and Christine. I did understand them, if not the criminal versions.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Concrete Angel, start to finish?
PA: Probably about two years. And then another year or so rewriting. Now during this time I continued to write short stories so it was never my only project because I was very uncertain of its worth.
OBAAT: Where did Christine come from? In what ways is she like, and unlike, you?
PA: Christine is partly me and partly that childhood friend. She reacts as I would to situations, but she knows what she's up about better than I would have.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Concrete Angel set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
PA: I hope the setting of this book is a major character. I tried very hard to reconstruct the Philly of my youth and early twenties. The stores, the nearby towns, the dress, the way people thought and acted then. Their prejudices, their hobbies, their daily errands.
OBAAT: Now for the hard question. Concrete Angel was originally set to come last winter, from a different publisher. What happened, and how did it—and you—manage to find as sweet a landing spot as Polis?
PA: I am hugely relieved to find myself in Jason's hands. Although I had great faith in Bryon Quertermous to work hard for Exhibit A, right from the start I sensed a reticence to move forward from the rest of its staff. The advance never came. No real planning went on. I think the people with Exhibit A were sad about what Angry Robot's new CIO was up to but their hands were tied.
With Jason, things immediately began to happen. I hope to make him glad he gave me a chance. Even if I have to buy the books myself.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
PA: If we're talking about short stories, I like ones that have a strong voice and concentrate on regular people who get caught up in some dilemma. A very small concentration. In novels, a wider scope is needed. It took me a long time to figure that out. I wrote too many stories before trying a novel and didn't know how to widen my cast of characters for one. You mean three people isn't enough for a novel?
Back to your question: My favorite writers would include Stewart O'Nan, Alice Munro, Margaret Millar, Tana French, Ross MacDonald, Sjowal and Wahloo, Nicholas Freeling, Adrian McKinty, Richard Yates, Ray Carver, Donald Westlake, Laura Lippman, Sandra Scoppettone, Charles Baxter, Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid. So many more...
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
PA: Well, I fell into it. A course I signed up for when I returned to college in the nineties was too reading heavy for me with a full-time job and another course. A poetry workshop was held at the same time. The instructor said my poems looked like outlines for stories to him. I took one and darn if it wasn't. That first story has the distinct honor of being a runner-up for the contest the North American Auto Show was running so it was published on their website. Weird. It had nothing to do with cars and eventually appeared in Thuglit.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
PA: Not at all really, except for my reading choices. But my favorite family story has always been the time my grandparents were locked in a wall safe while the country club they managed and lived in was robbed. After fifteen minutes or so, one of the burglars unlocked the safe door and handed my grandfather his heart medication. The headline in the local paper read, "Gentlemen Burglars Hit Local Golf Club."
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
PA: I have been writing in my head since I was seven. What I like most about it is the editing. I love rewriting a page--making it better. Not very creative, I guess, but it makes me feel great to put in a better word or get rid of an extraneous one. To give a character a better name or trait that I originally did.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
PA: For sure, Margaret Millar who wrote the most terrific psychological suspense novels. Ray Carver for the care in his work. Richard Yates--Easter Parade and Revolutionary Road are brilliant. Also Patricia Highsmith for showing me women can both be and write dark. French film makers have influenced me greatly because their films are so much about voice and story. Especially Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer. The art of Reginald Marsh, who tells a story with every picture. All the romantic era classical composers. Movie soundtracks. The poetry of Sharon Olds, Tess Gallagher, most of what Didion has to say. Her essays are as great as her novels. Probably greater.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
PA: I do wear pants-hate skirts, hate sticking to the seat. I write by the seat of my pants but that's because a story I am working on lurks just beneath my consciousness all the time. I have been writing stories in my head since I was seven and outlining makes me feel less spontaneous--like I am tied to the mast. Although Flying does work better with stories than novels.
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 when I am writing--which used to be every day and now isn't--I start with the beginning of a story and rewrite it. If it's a novel, I go back and rewrite what I did the day before. Because I like revising, this is my favorite part of the process. It's coming up with new things for the characters to do I find exhausting. Why can't they just sit in a chair and behave? I love reading books where very little happens but I know most people don't. I am very content to just go through the day with a character, watch them put on socks and boil an egg.
OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
PA: Absolutely no music because I have constant noise in my ears already. A constant hum. Every song I ever learned as a teen is still intact in my head so it is those songs I think about when I am not writing but thinking about a story or book. I love music except when I am trying to write.
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
PA: Don't wait for inspiration. As someone said, "Stay in the chair." For whatever time you can make, just sit and stare if that's the best you can do.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
PA: Stop writing short stories as soon as possible or you will write them forever. If that's what you want to do, fine. But if you aspire to write novels, learn how to write novels by writing them. Also if you feel you need someone to weigh in on your writing, take a class or join a writing group. Don't ask for a read from a writer unless they volunteer. I had a friend's husband keep bringing a story back to me until I had essentially written it. Last time I agree to do that.
OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
PA: Character, tone, narrative, story/plot, setting, But that's only in theory. I can only begin a story when I have a good character. People give me story ideas all the time and they are always about plot. I need a good character to filter plot through.
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
PA: Gosh, so many but I will go with Last Night at The Lobster by Stewart O'Nan. I admire his ability to do so much in so few pages, to create a memorable character, to write with so much humanity.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
PA: Movies, movies, movies.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
PA: I am finishing up the second novel with Polis. Actually I wrote it before CA but the central character attracted intense dislike from most of its readers. So I am softening her up. This one is set in Detroit and hopefully I can capture it. Somehow growing up in a place puts you forever in its rhythms. I didn't come to Detroit until I was 22 so I missed all that local history that you learn by growing up in a city.