Wednesday, March 20, 2019

An Interview With Patricia Abbott, Author of Monkey Justice

No one is more responsible for the writer I have become (in a good way) than Patricia Abbott. The flash fiction challenges she used to run from her blog taught me to make every word count and how much so few words could tell. The lesson was driven home so well I now find it difficult to write a chapter more than 1700 or 1800 words. Too long for flash, but after that much time in the same scene I get antsy. Patti’s thought-provoking prompts and constant encouragement are among my fondest memories as a writer.

She’s here to today to talk about Down & Out Books’ reissue of her first e-book release, Monkey Justice. Patti’s not the kind of person I dare use canned questions for and her answers here show why. Enjoy and learn.

One Bite at a Time: Tell the uninitiated a little about Monkey Justice.

Patricia Abbott: Monkey Justice collects twenty or so of my earliest published stories. They appeared online or in print collections and then were collected under this title in 2011 by Snubnose Press. In putting together the collection, I tried to choose a diverse group of stories. Most of them center on crime, victimhood, the difficulty of survival, transgression, domestic strife. The criminal element is often muted or part of the background rather than the primary element.

OBAAT: Monkey Justice took a circuitous route before it ended up with Down & Out Books. Describe how that went down.

PA: Brian Lindenmuth, editor of what was then a new ebook press (Snubnose Press), and a fan of the short story form, asked me if I was interested in having him publish an ebook. I was enthusiastic about the idea. I was not at all sure how attractive an ebook would be. I didn't have an ereader myself and knew few people that did. But even if it was sparsely read, it would be available for future readers. Wrong! Snubnose Press closed up shop last year and the ebooks they'd shepherded into existence disappeared with them. Kindly, Brian asked Down and Out Books if they had interest in publishing some of his inventory. Eric Campbell, the publisher, contacted me not long after that and I was delighted. Both of my books would now be on sale in both in print and ebook.  

OBAAT: Did you know you were working on an anthology as you were working on the stories or did you have a bunch of stories and decide to bundle them together one day?

PA: I probably had seventy-five stories at that time. Thematically, they were similar although the plots, characters, time period, and location differed. They were written from both the male and female point of view. I tried to choose stories as diverse as possible, although loosely tied together under the umbrella of crime.

OBAAT: Why did you choose “Monkey Justice” to be the title story? It’s a great title, a grabber. Is that why you chose it, or is there something else you wanted to get across?

PA: I liked both the story and the title, so I went with it. I was a fly on the wall on a city bus where a man told a woman most of this story. The bus ride was 60 minutes and it took him the whole hour to tell it. He really deserves a co-authorship credit. But in thinking about the collection, justice comes up often in these stories-- as you might expect.

OBAAT: You’ve been active as both a short story writer and as a novelist. Do you think of yourself as primarily one or the other, or just as writer and whatever comes out comes out? I’ll confess, I think of myself as a novelist. I pretty much have to have a reason to write a short story.
PA: I'm very much a short story writer. My two novels were stories first. I tend to write about the same sort of characters, if not the exact character, so it wasn't hard to pull characters or incidents from several stories to form the basis of a novel.

I love taking stuff out of a manuscript, which you get to do with short stories. With a novel, you have to keep putting more in. I only have so much stuff. My novels are sparsely populated if you notice. I can't deal with too many people in one place. Each character takes up so much space in my brain that I run out of room.

OBAAT: As a writer, I have what The Beloved Spouse™ calls “comfort food:” movies, books, authors I come back to over and over again when I need some inspiration or just want to be reminded how to tell stories. The movie L.A. Confidential, Elmore Leonard’s books, things like that. Do you have an equivalent cadre? I so, who are they?

PA: I just watched Wildfire, a movie based on a Richard Ford novel. Except it felt more like a short story. It was Paul Dano's first directing stint and it was a nearly perfect movie. Stories or movies like this inspire me to write succinctly and simply. He was clearly stimulated by the Montana setting, the starkness of their house and the town. The simplicity yet pathos of their lives.

I am inspired by the people you might expect: Alice Munro, Richard Yates, Walter Mosley, Toni Morrison, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolfe, Lorrie Moore, Andre Dubus II, Ann Hood, William Trevor, Shirley Jackson, Ruth Rendell, Kate Atkinson, and so many more. I think if you like plot-driven narratives, you probably don't care for short stories all that much. I recently wrote a short story for an anthology that was plot-heavy. I didn't enjoy writing it even though I think it came out okay. What I like best is mood. I don't need any plot to stick with a story as a reader, but I think that is unusual. When people tell me that the movie, Roma, was slow, I am amazed. Not a single minute of it was dull for me. I like reading/seeing how people live. I can watch someone brush their teeth for longer than it takes to brush your teeth.

OBAAT: I find my answer has evolved when I’m asked about how other writers have influenced my writing. Some, like Ed McBain and Elmore Leonard, remain while Chandler has fallen away to be replaced by Joe Wambaugh. Have your influences changed over time?

PA: I have certainly added writers, but I can't think of too many I've discarded. I don't reread much so maybe I would find some of my early favorites were bad choices. Is Barbara Pym too twee now? What about Elizabeth Taylor or Mary Lavin? I now find Dorothy L. Sayers unreadable though. So too Christie. Their love for the aristocracy puts me off as well as their reliance on lengthy expositions at the end of the book. If it's going to be a whodunit, find a way to tell me without a long accounting.   

If I read Edward P. Jones' collection, Lost In the City, and it didn't still take my breath away, I'd be surprised. If "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" (Oates) didn't drive a spike through my forehead, I'd be stunned. Interpreter of Maladies (Lahira), a debut collection, is magnificent. I still enjoy Peter Robinson as much as I did 25 years ago. So too Sjowal and Wahloo, Nicholas Freeling. More recent favorites are Ken Bruen, Reed Coleman, Laura Lippman, Alison Gaylin, Elizabeth Strout, Lisa Lutz. I've begun to lose some of my admiration for Patricia Highsmith though. She can be too misanthropic for the more elderly me.

OBAAT: You can invite three living authors to your home to talk about craft over some adult beverages. They’re compelled to come—we have ways here at OBAAT—but the condition is none of them can be anyone you’ve met beyond maybe saying hello once. Who are they?
PA: Kate Atkinson, Walter Mosley, Alice Munro. And as you might expect, I would hide behind the curtains and listen.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for your kind remarks, Dana. And for running this. xoxo

Anonymous said...

The film by Paul Dano is entitled Wildlife not Wildfire.

Elgin Bleecker said...

Enjoyed the interview, Dana and Patti. Thanks both.