Lee K. Abbott

22 June, 2011
By William H. Coles

Lee Abbott
Lee Abbott

Lee K. Abbott was born in 1947 in the Panama Canal Zone and grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from New Mexico State University. After studying  at Columbia College, he earned a 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. He is currently a humanities distinguished professor in English at Ohio State University at Columbus.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

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 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. 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.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

Yes. I’m old-fashioned in that regard. I’m convinced that the stories I respond to best do have beginnings, middles, and ends.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

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 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 to remember conversations that took place thirty years ago or more, but I trust the writer to reproduce a faithful simulacrum of the events. They are true insofar 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 tool kit.

William H. Coles

How important is short story in our contemporary lives?

Lee K. Abbott

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.

William H. Coles

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?

Lee K. Abbott

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. For me, much of the importance lies in the feelings and thoughts that would otherwise go unrecorded were I in a different genre. 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.

William H. Coles

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 HenryJames or Flannery O’Connor or Anton Chekhov?

Lee K. Abbott

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. If you’re not surprised by what you find there, you’re not paying much attention.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

Glad you asked. I actually have a definition.

William H. Coles

Good!

Lee K. Abbott

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. Can you imagine John Updike, who wrote florid prose, without his being a preacher’s kid, a schoolteacher’s kid, in rural suburban Pennsylvania? Can you imagine William Faulkner without Oxford, Mississippi? Can you imagine Cormac McCarthy absent El Paso or 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. That’s voice.

William H. Coles

Those examples relate to setting. Is voice dependent on setting completely?

Lee K. Abbott

Setting is one feature. I’ve been asked what kind of stories 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 relationships between men and women, between father and son, between men as friends. I’ve got this whole category that I call trash compactor story, which is Walt Whitman meets the ayatollah of rock and roll . . . postapocalyptic stuff where I get an opportunity to use 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.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

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.

William H. Coles

I ask because beginning writers have difficulty digesting what voice is. To create it, they fall into a hyperextension of personalities, salacious material, overwrought prose. How can the beginning writer find voice other than looking to setting and following the character through events?

Lee K. Abbott

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’d 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 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 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 a scarf joint.

William H. Coles

S-c-a-r-f? [A scarf joint bevels two pieces of wood (or metal) so that they fit over or into each other.] 

Lee K. Abbott

Yeah. It’s one of those things I know how to do.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

 “Double I” is what I call it.

William H. Coles

H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

Earlier in my career, I thought the chief advantage of the first-person point of view was that it was nearly impossible to violate. You were either there to witness the events, or you heard about them from somebody else. 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 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 A Book of Common Prayer by Joan Didion, which is a first-person book, but at the same time the narrator reports 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 every bit as rich in possibility as third person, even third-person omniscient. That was fun to discover, but I only did so when I discovered the exploitation of what I call the “double I”.

William H. Coles

The “double I” is 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 with time — say, an older narrator and a younger narrator — the same person but at different times in his or her life. Can you do that with other features? Changes in attitude, for example, or changes in political parties, or religious beliefs, to establish a sense of the “double I”?

Lee K. Abbott

You can tell a 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 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.” And sometimes great hay can be made between the tension of what I once was and what I am now. The importance is what “I am now” can bring to shine on “what I was then.”

William H. Coles

Is this also an opportunity for irony?

Lee K. Abbott

Oh, indeed.

William H. Coles

How does that mechanically work?

Lee K. Abbott

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

William H. Coles

Or ridicule?

Lee K. Abbott

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

William H. Coles

When you go to the third person, narration becomes more complicated in different ways. When you’re thinking of the narration of the story, do you think in terms of the character acting out the story, the narrator delivering the story, and the author creating the story? In that scenario, the narration falls to the narrator. The narrator, of course, can be collapsed into the character. Academics always teach a set of rules, for instance, you have to stay within this character’s POV that cannot be violated. Yet Virginia Woolf’s The Common Reader,or Henry James’s The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, or James Wood’s How Fiction Works contain writings about their authors’ views. How, as an author, do you approach these inconsistencies and difficulties in narration? How do you use them effectively to develop the characterization that’s so important to you as a writer?

Lee K. Abbott

Let’s 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 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, there is the long-honored tradition: one hallmark of your ability as a writer is 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 said 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 in the first line this would be third-person limited, but no, it turned out to be third-person omniscient. In that case, let’s go back to the reader and make it clear that it is omniscient. 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 spend so much class time on the first two paragraphs of a story.

William H. Coles

You can conceptualize a story world for each character as a sphere that contains all their experiences and thoughts, and then you think of the narrator (not always, of course, but) as a distinct narrator with a distinct sphere from the characters. This narrator, if you’re going to use a separate point of view, has his or her own world with distinct experiences, views, thought, opinions, memories. All stories have happened, and quite often the narrator’s sphere comes later, often much later, than the character’s sphere. Does a writer need to pay attention to the narrator’s sphere as compared to the character’s sphere?

Lee K. Abbott

I’m a big admirer of Henry James. He invented a variation on 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. 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.

William H. Coles

I’d like to consider an author sphere. We’ve got the character sphere, the narrator sphere — sometimes those are one thing — and then the 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 on whether the author has a narrow or broad knowledge of the real world. But author-sphere knowledge often seems distracting, if not negative, for story development and quality. Should the characters’ and narrator’s spheres be consistently distinct from the author’s sphere? Do you see what I mean? Do you agree? The author’s “second self.”

Lee K. Abbott

I do know what is called the author’s second self. When I sit down to put my fingers on 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. 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, tics 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 it’s time to learn new tricks, et cetera. 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. That’s it for me. That’s where I am.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

For those writers who are more experimental, more postmodern than I am, the whole point of the story is to draw attention to how smart the writer is. 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. The form has meaning, too. I try to use form in story to say something else about character.

William H. Coles

Do you find that your liking of a story, even when you’re critiquing it, relates to attitudes of the writer toward writing, toward how and why a writer writes as well as 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 for 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?

Lee K. Abbott

It is a fair question. All 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. I’m not here to make points. I am here to try to connect a reader to something made out of words and oblige them to share that world for its duration. 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 been moved. I left my world and entered that world, had that complete experience and ravished it.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

Yes, it is. I can name 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 having spent so much time with Robert Stone or Eudora Welty’s works.

William H. Coles

You recently mentioned feeling sad that humor is leaving the contemporary story. You gave an example of a story with 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 story theme and meaning? In other words, can you, when you’re working on humorous stories, negatively affect the ability to create significant meaning in the characters?

Lee K. Abbott

I don’t think so. No. I think it is a perfectly legitimate way to tell about the species. I worry about a culture that won’t take its comics seriously.

William H. Coles

Because that’s laughing at self?

Lee K. Abbott

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

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

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

William H. Coles

Do you include irony in that conceptualization? Why write a story if you know how it’s going to turn out?

Lee K. Abbott

Oh, yes.

William H. Coles

It’s not just guffaw?

Lee K. Abbott

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

William H. Coles

In writing stories, do you advocate outlining and blocking?

Lee K. Abbott

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? 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.

William H. Coles

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 — the progression of that emotion through the story so that when you’re writing a scene, and the character’s actions in that scene are consistent with what’s going to happen and what’s happened before?

Lee K. Abbott

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 much more difficult to do in a novel. I can see the wisdom in making notes about the progression in a really long piece of work, but in a short story you’re thinking about four or five, six moments at most. You can keep those moments between the ears. One thing I like about stories is that they always take a turn. In the middle. After the opening move. At the end. They go someplace 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.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

I’m like an architect who doesn’t design the whole building. Just the front door.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

It’s all about conflict. About X wanting something and being denied it, or getting it and being dissatisfied with it. [laughs] It’s what Faulkner calls the human heart in conflict with itself.

William H. Coles

So conflict can be internal as well as external.

Lee K. Abbott

Indeed.

William H. Coles

It doesn’t have to be plot related?

Lee K. Abbott

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

William H. Coles

And that results in change in character and reader?

Lee K. Abbott

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 it’s a requirement.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

I’ll quote the former director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Paul Engle: “Writing is rewriting what you’ve already rewritten.” And he’s right. Never mind how poetic that sounds. I think God gives you maybe one story that comes out of your head whole and doesn’t need a blue mark on it, but for the most part writing involves 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, because I’ve written and published a zillion stories, that for me it takes seven, eight, nine drafts before I’m fairly confident I’ve discovered everything wrong. No matter how tickled I was by it before.

William H. Coles

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

Lee K. Abbott

Oh, yes. I give everything to my wife. 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 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, especially the questions that might reveal how idiotic you are. How dumb or blind you’ve been.

William H. Coles

I’d like to thank you very much for his interview; I learned a great deal. My admiration for you as a teacher and a writer continues to soar.

Lee K. Abbott

My pleasure. Thank you very much.



Read other Interviews by William H. Coles


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