An Interview with Lee K. Abbott

by William H. Coles


Lee K. Abbott Interview 6/22/2011

William H. Coles

Lee Abbott Lee Abbott

Lee K. Abbott was born October 17, 1947, in the Panama Canal Zone. His family settled in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Abbott received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New Mexico State University. After studying at Columbia College, he earned his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Arkansas in 1977. He has taught at Colorado College, Washington University, Rice University and Case Western Reserve University, where he lectured from 1976 to 1989. He is currently a Humanities Distinguished Professor in English at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.

His work has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The Georgia Review, The New York Times Book Review, The Southern Review, Epoch, Boulevard, Crawdaddy, and The North American Review. His fiction has been reprinted in The Best American Short Stories and The Prize Stories: The O’Henry Awards. He is the author of Dreams of Distant Lives, Strangers in Paradise, Love is the Crooked Thing, The Heart Never Fits Its Wanting, Living After Midnight, and Wet Places at Noon.His latest collection of stories, All Things, All at Once: New & Selected Stories, was published by Norton in June 2006.

Lee Abbott

June 22, 2011

I’m at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, attending a fiction workshop taught by Lee Abbott.  We are in the lounge in Pierce Hall, on a campus busy with summer programs, where Lee, with his fellow Jess Lacher, is teaching nine students.
      Lee attended the University of New Mexico and received his MFA from the University of Arkansas.  He is Humanities Distinguished Professor in English at The Ohio State University.  He has published seven books of short stories, the latest is All Things, All at Once: New & Selected Stories

WHC

Lee, I’d like to thank you for speaking to storyinliteraryfiction.com, a website devoted to providing resources for writers of literary fiction.

LKA

I’m honored to be asked.

WHC

I’d like to start with your conceptualization of story.  What is the essence of story?  What are the features that are important to you?

LKA

At the heart of story, for me, is character.  Any longer, I don’t remember what has happened in a story as much as I remember who it has happened to.  I get my thrills by being obliged to inhabit the life of someone different from me, though they might be struggling with the same things that I, away from the page, have been struggling with.  So I would begin there, Bill, with the whole notion that Ahab is the reason we have Moby Dick, [the notion] that writers are busy committing to each other those people who galvanize their imaginations.  That, to me, is where story begins.

WHC

Does a story have to have a beginning, middle and end?

LKA

Yes.  I consider myself very old fashioned in that regard.  So, yes.  I’m convinced that the stories I respond to best do have beginnings, middles and ends.

WHC

In traditional concept of a short story, what are the comparative differences between essay and memoir?

LKA

Well, I’ve actually written a short story that I call an essay, because I imagined the writer thinking of it as an essay.  It is also a cheap trick to persuade the reader that the stakes are really higher because it actually happened.  Of course, it’s an act of the imagination.  But I don’t like to otherwise, it seems to me, confuse or inflate the different genres; I like to sit down to a personal essay with the belief it actually happened, as the writer says it did.  That it is actually true. 

Now memoir.  We all understand the personal essay and the memoir are constructed.  It’s not possible for us to remember all these conversations that took place thirty years ago or more.  But I trust the writer to reproduce a sort of faithful simulacrum of the events.  They are true in so far as they address the heart of the moment.  And they do so without contrivance, without duplicity, without anything else that lies within the fiction writer’s toolkit.

WHC

How important is short story in our contemporary lives?

LKA

Well, if you talk to the commercial sorts, they tell you it’s not very important at all.  And it is true, I’m guessing, that most of us who write short stories know—and beginning short story writers quickly learn—that there is no market for short stories.  Yet, I persisted in writing short stories, because it’s the thing, it turns out, that I can do.  I don’t have the patience, or the intelligence, or the discipline—or the knowledge—to write a novel.

WHC

So the short story has decreased in popularity, and it seems TV and film have become the primary media for delivery of the short story.  Why has prose as an important source of short story decreased?

LKA

Reading is work, [in the way] watching TV isn’t.  And remember, the good short story writer is taking advantage of all those tools, as I call them, that the TV, film, or stage writer doesn’t have to deal with.  For me, a story is a whole lot more than the actions that happen in the dialogue that is spoken.  For me, much of the importance of the story lies in the feelings and the thoughts that would otherwise go unrecorded were I to be in a different genre.  So, it’s just work.  Picking up a story is just work.  You’ve got to know those words, you’ve got to have a memory, you’ve got to give it enough time—you know the story is not going to be over, as a TV program [is], after twenty-three minutes.  It might take shorter, it might take longer.

WHC

Do you have any feeling about the type and quality of short story that is now being selected and published being different than the traditional stories of James, or O’Connor, or Chekhov?

LKA

I think there is a lot more variety now.  It’s not bad.  I’m not here to say it’s bad.  As Don Bartholomew used to say, he found it difficult to find a point of view kinky enough to call his own.  Culturally speaking, that might be the case; but I think when it comes to imagining the real world, we’ve got a dizzying variety of writing styles, writing approaches, writing aesthetics, writing material.  It’s fun.  It’s one of the fun things about going to a bookstore, is that if you’re not surprised by what you find there, you’re not paying much attention.

WHC

And you don’t see any influence on the change in popularity of the short story?

LKA

No.  I think because we’re in the media age, the short story is suffering the same way poetry used to suffer.

WHC

You’ve expressed the importance of voice.  And voice seems important in contemporary short stories.  I don’t mean to be flippant, but what is voice?

LKA

Well, I’m glad you asked.  I actually have a definition.

WHC

Good!

LKA

I think it’s the last thing that comes to a writer, and I think it’s a function of material.  My notion is we’re put on earth to write about something.  And I was put on earth to write about six hundred miles of Southwest desert where all the things that happened to me first [occurred], [where I found] a language unique to that place.  So I think it has to do with material.  Can you imagine Updike, who wrote florid prose, can you imagine that [prose] without [his] being a preacher’s kid, being a schoolteacher’s kid in rural suburban Pennsylvania?  Can you imagine Faulkner being anything other than he is without Oxford, Mississippi?  Can you imagine Cormac McCarthy being anything other than he is absent El Paso, Texas, Santa Fe?  I think we find our material, and once we acknowledge our material, embrace our material . . . along with it comes a way of talking about it.  And that’s voice.

WHC

Those examples seem to relate to setting.  Is voice, then, dependant on setting completely?

LKA

Setting is one feature.  I’ve been asked, what kind of stories do I write?  I have a kind of stock answer, nonetheless a true answer; I write about things that interest me.  The things that interest me on the page are the relationships between men and women, the relationships between father and sons, relations between men as friends, and I’ve got this whole category that I call trash compactor story, which is Walt Whitman meets the ayatollah of rock and roll . . . post apocalyptic stuff, which I get an opportunity to use up those great lives that belong to someone else.  So for me, material is coupled with a kind of language I find myself speaking whenever I sit down to do a story; I turn into a somewhat different guy, with a much different tone, as it were.

WHC

Would you agree that voice could be everything that a character does, thinks, says in a story?

LKA

I guess it would be true that part of the way I say things depends on the way I see things, or hear things, or experience things.  My job usually is to follow one person through a series of events, noting for the reader how those events register.  I suppose that’s a function of the way I am away from the page.

WHC

The reason I ask the question is that beginning writers have difficulty digesting what voice is.  Then they have trouble creating voice, and then it seems, in order to create voice, they fall into a hyperextension of personalities, salacious material, overwrought prose, thinking that’s the answer.  How can the beginning writer approach finding that voice, other than looking to setting, and simply following the character through events?

LKA

I don’t want to sound too mystical, but I think voice finds the writer, and not the other way around.  I published a lot of stories that you would not believe I had written, because I don’t sound in those stories the way I sound in the stories that I’m best known for.  I published a lot of stories that were very craft smart . . . smartly put together . . . polished to a high shine . . . but they were ultimately empty.  There was nothing invested in them other than the desire to make, well, a story.  My mantra is, now, that that getting on the page ought to cost you something.  That is the kind of thing I tell myself when I find myself two pages into a story that is only a puzzle, or is only a scarf joint.

WHC

S-c-a-r-f . . .

LKA

Yeah.  It’s one of those weird things I know how to do.  [See scarf joint.]

WHC

You brought up an interesting concept the other day, and that was, when working in the first person you used a double . . . ah

LKA

“Double I” is what I call it.

WHC

“Double I.”  Thank you.  I’d like to come back to this, but first, I’d like to know what your thoughts are on the advantages and disadvantages of the first person.

LKA

Earlier in my career, I thought that the chief advantage of the first person point of view was that it was nearly impossible to violate.  You either had to be there to witness what had to be witnessed, or you had to hear about [it from] somebody else, but you just couldn’t report it.  I, as a writer, couldn’t tell anything about the “I” as a character when the character didn’t know it.  And then I reread Moby Dick and discovered that Ishmael relays a lot of conversations that he is not around to witness, which is to say that Melville wasn’t paying a lot of attention to the [veracity] of the point of view he had chosen.  But nowadays, I think there are no limitations on the first person, as I understand how complex it can be.  I’m thinking of The Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion, which is a first person book, but at the same time, the narrator manages to report conversations and events that she wasn’t around to witness, about a character who is dead before the book begins.  So it seems to me it is every bit as rich in possibility as third person is, even third person omniscient.  That was fun to discover, but I only discovered it when I discovered the exploiting of what I call the “double I”.

WHC

The “double I” seems to be able to create a narrator . . . almost an objective narrator through the first person.  So you’ve got your “I,” and you’re separating this “I.”  You can do that by time . . . an older narrator and a younger narrator—the same person but at different times in his/her life.  Can you do that with other features: differences in changes in attitude, for example, or changes in political parties, or religious beliefs, et cetera?  So there is a sense of the “double I” established?

LKA

You can tell the first person story that’s about a discrete sequence of events, but you can bring to that events that lie outside the story.  As I always say, in theory there are two first persons in a story.  There is the one who experiences it, and there is the one who tells about it.  The one who tells about it is privy to all the events before the first word is written.  Naturally, the second “I” brings a different understanding to what’s happening in the dramatic present than the “I” who experiences it.  And sometimes great hay can be made between the tension of what I once was and what I am now.  The importance of that is what “I am now” can bring to shine on what “I once was then.”

There are two persons in a story, the one who experiences it, and the one who tells about it.

WHC

Is this also an opportunity for irony?

LKA

Oh, indeed.

WHC

How does that mechanically work?

LKA

Well, it’s like . . . I like irony of a special kind.  I like narrators who have irony about their former selves.  I don’t like the sort of irony that some writer’s indulge that gives them an opportunity to lampoon their characters or trivialize them; I don’t want to be in that category.

WHC

Or ridicule?

LKA

Yes.  I don’t want to be in that business.  I see this as one of the benefits of adopting the “double I.”

Henry James invented “central consciousness.”

WHC

When you go to the third person, narration becomes more complicated in different ways.  Do you think, when you’re thinking of the narration of the story, as the character acting out the story, the narrator delivering the story, and the author creating the story?  And when you think that way, then the narration falls to the narrator.  The narrator, of course can be collapsed into the character.  There always seems to be a set of rules that are taught in academics.  You have to stay within this character’s POV, which cannot be violated.  Yet Virginia Wolff, The Common Reader, and Henry James, The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, write about their views [see also James Wood, How Fiction Works].  How, as an author, do you approach these inconsistencies and difficulties in narration, because it’s not just choosing a point of view and sticking to it?  How do use them effectively to develop the characterization that’s so important to you as a writer?

LKA

Well, lets not underestimate the importance of white space as a device to signal to the reader that change is afoot.  I can use white space to change place; I can use white space to change time; I can use white space to change the point of view.  I think of white space as the great escape.  You can write a story in a series of limited thirds [third person POVs].  The first one is James’s, the next one is John’s the next Jeff’s, then Judy’s.  And you can tip the reader off with white space.  With respect to violations, I think that there is the long honored tradition as a writer—one hallmark of your ability as a writer—of your ability to cling to a single point of view.  I have this thing I call “the contract with the reader.”  I used to have a teacher named Jim Whitehead, who used to say that by the end of the first sentence of a story, you’ve been taught not only how to read it but how the writer will write it.  Which is to say, if I write the first sentence in a limited third, but by the third page I find myself in somebody else’s mind, then I violated the contract I [developed] with the reader in the first line.  I deceived him.  I promised him in the first line this would be third person limited, but no, it turned out to be third-person omniscient.  In that case, lets go back to the reader and make it clear that it is omniscient.  So I’m a big believer as to what happens very quickly in a story.  Establish the tone, the language, get the POV right, announce the focal character, plant the stout stake, as [Henry] James says.  That’s why we’ve spent, as you know, so much time on the first two paragraphs of a story [in class].

WHC

If you can conceptualize a story world for each character as sphere that contains all the experiences and thoughts, and then you think of the narrator, not always, of course, but a distinct narrator who can have a distinct sphere that is different than the character.  This narrator, if you’re going to use a separate POV, has his/her own world with distinct experiences, views, thought, opinions, memories.  All stories have happened, and quite often the narrator’s sphere is later, often much later, than the character’s sphere.  Does a writer need to pay attention the narrator’s sphere as compared to the character’s sphere?

LKA

I’m a big admirer of Henry James.  He invented a variation of third person limited called “central consciousness” that you discover by playing the following game.  The story is told in the language of the focal character, if the focal character can tell his own story.  But of course the character can’t, so that falls to the narrator.  So I like to think . . . in my stories, you cannot discover a narrator.  You can only discover more of the character—in the third person in particular—because I’m drawn to the language you leave to Jeff on the page.

WHC

I’d like to consider an author sphere.  So we’ve got the character sphere, the narrator sphere—sometimes those are together—and then we’ve got this author sphere.  The author sphere is everything about the world that the author knows about the real world and the story world, [and contains a variety of information depending if the author has a narrow or broad knowledge of the real world].  But author’s sphere knowledge often seems distracting, if not negative, for story development and quality story created.  Shouldn’t [for most good stories] the character and narrator’s spheres be sacrosanct to the author’s sphere?  Do you see what I mean?  Do you agree?

The author’s “second self.”

LKA

Well, I do know what is called the author’s second self.  When I sit down to put my finger above the keyboard to tell a story, I’m no longer Lee K. Abbott who raises children or married his wife or was once upon a time an Episcopalian; I am the Lee K. Abbott who writes stories.  Also, I’m an author who has been taking his measure for a long time, and I know that the Lee K. Abbott who tells stories has blind spots, weaknesses, predilections, ticks even, so the Lee K. Abbott who pays his taxes is smart enough to recognize that the Lee K. Abbott who writes stories might be a three trick pony and that’s it.  So it’s time to learn new tricks, et cetera.  So I do believe I become somebody else with the same name who has told all these stories in the past, who has got a way of telling a story.  Now, that’s it for me.  That’s where I am.

WHC

What we’re talking about, it seems, is authorial intrusions, and this sounds like a legitimate way to decrease the possibilities of unproductive authorial intrusions.  However, I sense for most contemporary writers, author involvement in the story is a given.

LKA

Those writers who are more experimental, more post-modern than I am, the whole point of the story is to draw attention to how smart the writer is.  It’s all been done before.  [I’ll do something else.]  This is not something I believe.  [But] these are things that form the aesthetic of someone who is in the business of playing author.  And I’m not.  I go back to where I could have said the form has meaning too.  I try to use form in story to try to say something else about character.

WHC

Do you find that your liking of a story, even when you’re critiquing it, relates to the attitude of the writer towards writing, attitudes towards how and why a writer writes, as well as attitudes toward the conceptualization of the theme and meaning of the story?  Particularly, do you see writers who want to be writers—I’m going to get published and therefore I’m going to sit down three hours every day and write—as opposed to the writer who wants to create a story that has an impact on a reader, and tells them something about what it means to be human, that entertains them?  Is that a fair question?

LKA

It is a fair question.  All the questions about the writer’s art are fair.  I’m not much interested in philosophy for myself.  I’ve got nothing to tell anybody.  I have imagined experiences to share, but I’ve got no lessons to be learned.  We have a form for that; it is called expository essay where there are points to be made.  No.  I’m not here to make points.  What I am here to do is to try to connect a reader to something made out of words.  And oblige them to share that world for it’s duration.  Any longer, my sole criterion for an effective piece of fiction is—if it moves me.  If the writer has done the work and I have forgotten about myself, I’ve had these ups and downs, and I’ve been moved by them.  I left my world and entered that world, had that complete experience and ravished it.

WHC

Is that related to the idea, as a reader, that you never see the world again exactly the way you saw it before your read the story?

LKA

Yes, it is.  I can tell you dozens and dozens and dozens of stories and novels that have made me, for better or worse, me.  And [they] still have an enormous effect.  I think, as a citizen and a human being, I’m far better off for having spent so much time with Robert Stone or Eudora Welty’s works.

WHC

You mentioned recently that you were sad that humor was leaving the contemporary story.  You gave an example of a story giving a zinger at the end.  Quite often you hear, now, in readings, humorous pieces utilizing surprise and reversal.  As you work for that kind of humor, is it antithetical to the theme and meaning of the story?  In other words, do you, when you’re working in humorous stories, negatively affect the ability to create significant meaning in the characters?

LKA

I don’t think so.  No.  I think it’s a perfectly legitimate way to tell us about the specie, by making us laugh at it, laugh with it.  I just worry about a culture that won’t take its comics seriously.  Its literary comics.

WHC

Because that’s laughing at self?

LKA

Maybe a lot of people think comedy is a cheap art.  And yet, we take such pleasure from it.  We love to laugh.

WHC

Well, we have to.  It’s part of living.

LKA

And I don’t mind making comedy part of the world on my pages, because it exists in my life.

WHC

Do you include in that conceptualization the use of irony?

Why write a story if you know how it’s going to turn out?

LKA

Oh, yes.

WHC

It’s not just guffaw?

LKA

No, no.  It’s a spectrum . . . like anything else.

WHC

In writing stories, do you advocate outlining and blocking?

LKA

I’ve never done that.  I always see that as curious.  Why write the story if you know how it’s going to turn out?  That’s my answer to that.  Yet, lots of writers I respect do that, so my advice always—to anyone who is interested in my advice—is to do whatever. . . go about it any way that results in a story.  If you need to outline, do so.

WHC

If you’re wedded to emotion and emotional arcs in stories, would you think it’s helpful to outline, not necessarily on the page, but in the mind, to be able to capture the progression of that emotion through the story, so that when you’re writing a scene, and the character’s action in that scene, it’s consistent with what’s going to happen and what’s happened before?

LKA

Well, I think if you’re looking for continuity, or unity as it were, that’s easy to do in a short story.  I would think it is much more difficult to do it in a novel.  I can see the wisdom in making notes about the progression in a really longer piece of work, but in the [short] story you’re thinking about four or five, six at most, moments at most.

WHC

I see.

LKA

I think you can keep those [moments] between the ears.  And one of the things I like about stories is that they always take a turn.  In the middle.  After the opening move.  At the end.  They go someplace that you haven’t anticipated.  And if you’re really smart about your work, you’ll ask yourself, “Why am I going there?”  I think the answer, then, lies in the stories.

WHC

And that’s a process of discovery, rather than determining ahead of time the switch or change?

LKA

I’m like an architect who doesn’t design the whole building, but just designs the front door.

WHC

What is drama?  How is drama in prose different than drama in film?

LKA

It’s all about conflict.  About “X” wanting something and being denied it.  Or getting it and being dissatisfied with it.  (Laughing.)  It’s what Faulkner calls the human heart in conflict with itself.

WHC

So conflict can be internal as well as external.

LKA

Oh, indeed.

WHC

It doesn’t have to be plot related conflict?

LKA

No, no, no.  Many of the stories in the Dubliners, including “The Dead,” take place between somebody’s ears.

WHC

And that results in change in character and reader?

LKA

It can.  But as we talked about in class the other day, I don’t believe character has to change for you to have a story.  Character may change, but I don’t’ think that is a requirement.

WHC

Could you give us advice on revision?  What are the goals?  What are the techniques you find effective in the revision process?

LKA

Well, I’ll quote the former director of the Iowa Writer’s workshop, Paul Engle, who said, “Writing is rewriting what you’ve already rewritten.”  And he’s right.  Never mind how poetic that sounds.  I think God gives you one [story] that comes out of your head whole and doesn’t need a blue mark on it, but for the most part it is discovering your mistakes and fixing them, discovering the artistic infelicities that we all want to make.  Finding the inconsistencies.  Getting rid of the self-indulgence.  Getting rid of the superfluous.  It’s heightening the stuff you gave short shrift to earlier on.  These things you can only learn by doing.  I know now, and I’ve written and published a zillion stories, for me it’s seven, eight, nine drafts before I’m fairly confident I’ve discovered everything wrong.  No matter how tickled I was by it before.

WHC

Does this relate to a very helpful approach, which you demonstrated in class, to ask those essential questions: How could that have happened?  Why did she do that?  Looking for motivations, looking for veracity of facts—being a fact checker, but also being sure the timeline is correct.  Those details?

LKA

Oh, yes.  I give everything to my wife at home.  And she’s no literary critic, and she has no desire to be, she’s just a reader.  But when I give her the story, I give her the story with a bunch of questions in my mind.  Like: “Pam, did you understand why he did what he did on page three?”  And if she says, “No,” then I say, “Okay, then I didn’t account for motivation in sufficient detail.”  Those are the kinds of things.  “Do you know how many hours passed between this and that?”  You have to learn to become your own best critic.  You have to learn what questions to ask and not be afraid to ask the questions that [might] reveal how idiotic you are.  How dumb or blind you’ve been.

WHC

Thanks, that helps a lot.  And it was very helpful in class observing you and Jess [Jess Lacher, fellow] in action working on the stories.

LKA

It’s been fun.

WHC

What are you working on now and what can we look forward to in the future?

LKA

Well, I’m trying to reinvent myself.  Working on a series of stories where the point of view gets handed off every fourth page.  That is, we begin in X’s mind, follow X through the story, go to white space, have Y pick up the story, ditto for [Y and] Z.

I’ve been doing those.  I’ve also been mixing points of view, that is, having a story have both first and third points of view.  I felt myself getting in a kind of rut.  So I made a vow that I would not write another story entirely in the first person.  Not because I thought I was doing it badly, but because I thought I was doing too much of it.  My desire is to improve as a writer every day.  By offering myself these challenges, I hope I rise to meet them.

WHC

Terrific.  I look forward to reading the new work.  If a writer wanted to study with you, what are the opportunities, the portals to learn?

LKA

Well, a writer would have to go the The Ohio State University.

WHC

Do you do any private teaching?

LKA

I do.  I do.  I’m made very uncomfortable by it because I just want the expectations to be clear that there are no guarantees [about] anything except that I will read X’s work as closely as I can and be as forthcoming as I can—and thorough as I can—but beyond that I can’t guarantee the people at Harper’s [will be] keen to see the results of someone who works with me.

WHC

You teach here at Kenyon in the summer.

LKA

This is my first time here.

WHC

Are there other venues where you teach in the summer?

LKA

Yes.  I used to teach (for a whole decade) at the New York Summer Writers’ Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.  For the last four years I’ve been teaching at the Gettysburg Review Writer’s Conference—it’s a little shorter than this.  I’ve taught at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Workshop.  Every summer I do at least one.  The money is good.  The company is great.  And it doesn’t cost me anything to go out of town and hear applause at the end.

WHC

I see.  Lee I’d like to thank you very much.  I learned a great deal.

My admiration for you as a teacher and a writer continues to soar.

LKA

My pleasure.  Thank you.  Thank you very much.



Read other Interviews by William H. Coles

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