The Rumpus Interview with Alysia Abbott

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In her New Yorker essay “A Memoir is not a Status Update,” Dani Shapiro articulates what every memoirist knows to be true: “Literary memoir is born… of the powerful need to craft a story out of the chaos of one’s own history. One of literary memoir’s greatest satisfactions—both for writer and reader—is the slow, deliberate making of a story, of making sense, out of randomness and pain.”

Named a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the best books of 2013 by the San Francisco Chronicle, Alysia Abbott’s debut memoir is about growing up motherless, the only child of gay poet and writer Steve Abbott, during the height of San Francisco’s vibrant cultural ’70s through to the depth of the AIDS crisis of the ’80s. According to the New Yorker, Fairyland doubles as a portrait of a city and a community at a crucial point in history.

I was reading Fairyland on the long haul Viarail train from Toronto to Vancouver in the dead of winter. I was as far away from what I imagine San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury was like in the ’70s and ’80s as one could possibly be when a man named Elliott from Churchill Manitoba leaned over and asked what I was reading. He was struck by the beauty of the cover photo and intrigued by the title.

We talked. Then we sat together at dinner, and by the main course he was regaling me with stories of his younger self, his bumpkin Canadian self, and the three glorious months he spent in San Francisco in the early ’80s. It was not until we finished dessert and an entire bottle of merlot, that he confessed he didn’t come out until very late in the ’90s, long after he had a daughter. He said he didn’t regret anything and as we watched the Canadian Shield passing by outside our dining car window he wistfully noted, “Lovers come and go, but there is always the land to hold us.” When he got off in Winnipeg, I gave him my copy of Fairyland.

Soon after, I contacted the author Alysia Abbott to see if she would do a Rumpus Interview. I was intrigued by the idea of how we can live lives so far apart yet there is a universal thread that runs through us. How a man from Churchill Manitoba would learn from a young woman in San Francisco and how much I learned from the beautifully rendered prose of Alysia Abbott and her slow deliberate making of a story from the chaos of a relationship between her and her unconventional father.

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The Rumpus: You say it took twenty years to write Fairyland, which I so appreciated. I want to say how happy and encouraged I was to read that because so often you hear how it took a year to write something and I always wonder, How the hell did they do that? My question is what kept you going to finish it?

cover-Fairyland-home-pgAlysia Abbott: I always knew I had to tell this story. I had been talking about writing it for so many years I am sure there were many people thinking, Okay she’s been talking about writing this book for years, I don’t know if she ever will. The story defined me so closely I had to let it go. I also knew if I didn’t write the story it would never be written and I felt that a story like this had never been told—that is, a story of a single gay father raising a daughter in the ’70s and ’80s in San Francisco.

Rumpus: I have never seen a book written from this point of view.

Abbott: And I came to feel as I got older—this is important and the story is more about just me and my father and me coming to terms with loss. I really felt it had a cultural importance—what was like to have a gay parent in that era and what it was like to lose a parent to AIDS in that era. Our story was representative of so many stories that have not yet been told and should be told and understood. And so it was also important to me that I write about some of the people in the community: the friends and neighbors that also died. It wasn’t just my loss; it was a community loss and a loss to culture.

It was helpful for me to release a little bit of my ego from the endeavor. I did want to be as honest as I could about my experience so that it would reflect some truth and resonate with people. But I know there were men who had to throw out entire phone books because they lost so many friends. The AIDS epidemic was numerically greater than the loss I suffered, but I felt if people could get into my story they might have a sense of empathy and compassion for other stories. Traditionally ours is a homophobic culture and AIDS memoirs that have been published in the past won’t be read outside of the community because people think they can’t relate or it’s a little too strange to understand. My hope and why I wanted to write Fairyland in a more traditional way—is because every daughter has had a father and could relate with me and my story and then maybe they could understand more about the struggle for gay rights and then maybe they could see how many people died partially because of government neglect.

The downside to waiting a long time after set of events to write is that your memory or emotions are not as keen. If you write right after there is a rawness, and there is a narrative value in the rawness. For me the perspective gained with time was the ability to say this didn’t just happen to me, even though it is a memoir which is ostensibly about me and my father. But it is not just about me.

Also giving yourself time allows you to see yourself as a character so I could write with distance about who I was and write openly about some of my character failings; moments that I was selfish or shortsighted. I think when you are writing about something that happened recently you might not see yourself as selfish and shortsighted because you are still very close to that self. The trouble is that some reviewers, and I mean specifically online reviewers, will say things like, ”Oh she is so selfish.” Or like Terry Gross, who said to me that she thought what I did to my father was terrible.

Rumpus: Wow. You are talking about an NPR interview. I hadn’t quite formulated how I was going to ask this question so it is brilliant that you brought the subject up independently. The interviewer said she was disturbed by a letter you wrote to your father in which you tell him he is always talking about his AIDS and it was depressing you; could he try to be more considerate of your feelings and write something a little more upbeat. When I listened to that interview I was jolted because I too highlighted that section, but my response was the exact opposite. I found that passage hilarious, so hilarious I stopped my husband from watching the World Cup to read it aloud—and he laughed too.

Abbott: Really?

Rumpus: Yes! And why we laughed was because we had a twenty-year-old daughter once. Our daughter is now twenty-nine and would be horrified to hear me say this but your response was so in keeping with a twenty-year-old psyche it was uncanny. And your dad’s response was nothing short of brilliant: he would give you a heads up if he was going to complain about his having AIDS so you could skip over that section of his letter in order not to upset yourself.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that your attitude was a gift to your father—it was proof positive that he had done a good job of fathering you because you were a typical self-absorbed American-style twenty-year-old. And in his messy world of AIDS, and homophobia, and gay rights, here you offered him a slice of middle class suburban problems.

Abbott: That’s what is hard, because sometimes I feel like readers comment that they have to wade through the narcissistic BS or that my character is moaning or selfish. I made a conscious choice that in the book we trade places in a way. My father is tasked with having to take care of me at a time in his life when he is ill-equipped to do so and sometimes he doesn’t make the best judgment calls but he still acts with honesty and transparency and love. And when I was tasked to take care of him, I too was ill-equipped to do so but it didn’t take away from my love for him and in a way it made it possible for both of us to be as jerky towards each other as we were because we trusted and loved each other.

Rumpus: Yes, that comes out loud and clear.

Abbott: We loved each other.

Rumpus: That is what love is, isn’t it? To see each other fully.

by Ginny LloydAbbott: But I think it is unusual in memoir to portray characters in the full, especially when writing about yourself—you want to put your best self forward, a self-deprecating self, a funny self, but not a self who acted selfishly and poorly in a situation when maybe they could have acted better. Some people have given me props for being honest, but a lot of people have [had] the Terry Gross response, that I was essentially a selfish person.

Rumpus: It is interesting how the Terry Gross reading has stayed with you.

Abbott: Well, unfortunately, all criticism of the book stays with me. I start to think, Is that true? I am self-critical of the book because I want it to be the very best it can be so I’m always looking for weak spots but it is futile because I can’t re-write the book and solve those issues. I can fix factual mistakes and spelling errors for the paperback edition but nothing else. I just have to have faith that the choices I made at the time were the best choices. That is the challenge: you write a book and it continues to have a life after you write it. All these people react to it in different ways, and you can’t change that. It is like a one-way conversation. It’s awkward. My feeling truly was that, considering where I was at in my life, living in Paris and having this great experience, when suddenly I have to take care of my dying dad and face having to lose him, which I was very angry about.

Rumpus: The death of a parent at twenty and death of a parent at forty are very different experiences.

Abbott: Right and I didn’t have anyone close to me to guide me, to tell me, “This is what you should do,” or, “This is normal to feel,” or, “I’ll be there to help you.” There was nobody to help me navigate what my emotions were or what they should be.

Rumpus: Tell me a little about your relationship with your editor, Amy Cherry.

Abbott: She was open and available and I appreciated that personal touch. I wrote it in thirds and sent it to her to respond. She was a kind of old fashioned editor who would mail me the manuscript with her markings in pencil, which I really liked, and I felt her comments were really smart.

Rumpus: I have this theory that when we write about people we have lost that the very act of writing keeps them close to our hearts and somehow still alive. With that in mind, how did it feel to finish the book?

Abbott: It was the hardest. I did reach a point where I thought maybe it’s not good enough and maybe I need an extra six months even though that would throw the production completely off schedule. I had a weekend where I panicked about that and sent the manuscript to people with the note, “Is this awful?” I needed permission to let it go. The challenge of writing a book that is a personal narrative is before you write it is full of potential and while you write it is full of potential—it can be anything—but once it’s written it is set. The decisions have been made. It is confined to a scope and it can’t be improved upon and at that point it may not be good enough.

That was scary, and also I really liked writing the book and I loved being sequestered in the library with my dad’s old writings and papers and books and to immerse myself in this kind of time travel. I liked to be in history; it was comfortable to me and it was a nice place to spend time. I miss writing about him. I feel that because he was a writer I was keeping up a conversation with him.

Rumpus: What do you look for in a memoir for your own reading?

Abbott: I like memoirs where I learn. I think memoirs can sometimes be very focused on the internal life of the memoirist and also look at conditions of human experience—what it is like to lose a parent, what it is like to lose a limb, what it is like to be kidnapped. I like memoirs that give a sense of history and place and give me access to a world I didn’t know about so I finish the book thinking I learned something about the world beyond the internal process of the writer.

Rumpus: “Which feels more true: a memoir told in fits and starts, stutters and sighs, a blend of sensual details and analytic asides? Or one that hews to the conventions of narrative with a beginning, middle and end? All memoirists know order is a contrivance, but readers also rely on the writer to create art by organizing the mess of life.”

You said this in the Boston Globe. I’m asking you your own question!

courtesy of authorAbbott: Well, it’s not an easy answer! It depends on the work, depends on the writer.

My father was a writer who liked to push the envelope in terms of what narrative could be and if he were to write a book about our life he probably would have been a lot more experimental in his approach. In so many ways our lives were very messy. And I’m writing about messy times. It was important to me to have the book be accessible to people for whom the story may be more challenging. By that I mean what I am writing about has elements that are inherently strange or confounding or dissonant, so I wanted a form that would be a bit more straightforward that could carry those elements, so it could be understood by a wide variety of people.

I did have a conversation with the writer Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, a transgender novelist and memoirist who is very experimental in form and really believes that life and how we remember and experience it is not with a neat beginning middle and end. I think she felt that I shouldn’t be trying to cater to any audience to try to understand my story.

But I think it was hard enough for me to bring everything together; what I mean by that is my father’s journals and letters and cartoons and the different elements that I wanted to address. It would have been very hard to tell that story if I was also playing around a lot with sequence and point of view and being more experimental. The more messy we think our lives are the more a conventional narrative can make sense of it and vice versa. I think a more plain and kind of uneventful story would work better for the experimental style.

Rumpus: I thought it was interesting you recently tweeted a quote from Styron: “A truly fine writer will deal with seemingly unimportant matters and make them transcendentally important.” Obviously you are betwixt and between and grappling with these writing issues.

Abbott: I want to add that there are times I am very self-critical, so when people say they wanted a less conventional approach I feel regret that I didn’t take that tack. It is hard to feel peace that the form I chose was the best form. I could have worked on the book for many years more. I guess you just have to make peace with the book you wrote.

Rumpus: Sofia Coppola bought the rights to Fairyland. What’s that like? Break this down for me. Do you get a call one day? How does this process happen?

Abbott: Everything happened quite slowly. Around the time the book came out some people did inquire about film options. She wasn’t the first one. I met with a couple of directors. Eventually I got a film agent, and I think having someone familiar with what’s happening in Hollywood really helped.

I did meet with Sofia in December of last year and Andrew Durham in Cambridge when there were a lot of storms happening and my flights kept getting cancelled. I got texts from Sofia saying, “Should we cancel?” and I would respond. “My flight was cancelled but I am rescheduled.” It was one of those crazy situations where I had been in the airport all day long and I had overthought so much that I was meeting Sofia Coppola, the fashion icon. I had planned what I was going to wear, and here I was having to wear the clothes from the day before with my underwear turned inside out, and I wasn’t able to style my hair so I just kept a hat on my head to not show my dirty roots. And I had to go straight from the airport at 6:00 a.m. to the cafe. So it wasn’t exactly ideal. And I had these ridiculous thoughts of, What kind of cafe is this I picked? Is it too grungy? Is this the kind of place that people in LA meet? In the end I decided I am a writer and this is a story that is a little bit about Bohemia and so what if I’m a little bit dirty and in a grungy café. Maybe that’s okay. And maybe they are trying to impress me, maybe I shouldn’t care so much. And so I met with her and Andrew, and they are both from Northern California, and they both said, “No, this cafe reminds us of San Francisco.

In the end if someone is interested in making a movie of your book you want to feel they are committed to the project because people do option books and just sit on them. They want to prevent someone else from making a movie. The fact that they both would fly to Boston to meet me indicated to me a level of seriousness of intent as well as a personal touch. I could ask them questions about their vision and they would listen to what was important to me. Did I feel that these were people I could trust to work with? Ultimately what was important to me was that the person adapting my work was true to the spirit of the work. Not only was it easy to talk to Sofia, but knowing her previous work, I felt it was a really good match.

Rumpus: What did you tell her was important to keep in the movie?

Abbott: I wanted someone who would not see it as just a wild bohemian kind of story but as a relationship between a daughter and a father. In her movies she is very sensitive to the experience of young women, and this is a story of a young woman and her relationship with her father. This is not a Harvey Milk story. It is not about the political activity within the gay liberation movement in San Francisco. Sofia has a lot of artistic integrity. She is the producer on this project. Andrew Durham is the director, and he is a gay man who lost his own father to AIDS, so I believe he is going to be sensitive to the film. He assured me it will not be like Dallas Buyers Club.

Rumpus: I was a little taken aback during your reading in San Francisco. You mentioned the movie and ignited the crowd; you were essentially forbidden by some in the crowd not to do anything like Dallas Buyers Club. The anger towards that film in that room was palpable. Why did you think that is?

photoAbbott: It was this character that was [such a] hyper-masculine cowboy hero who found grace through illness. And the transgender character was so sacrificial. Ultimately I didn’t like the female doctor character and I didn’t believe in their relationship. I didn’t like the capitalist orientation and how he turns from this loser into this successful businessman, and that’s the success story that we are supposed to be excited about that he’s wheeling and dealing with this acumen that he didn’t even know he had. As a hero, even as an anti-hero, he fell flat. And the director dwelled on their scrawny bodies.

My heart wasn’t in the story. It didn’t feel emotionally true. I felt it was a vehicle for these actors to show off their acting chops. Sure it showed AIDS in that era, but it didn’t, I felt, have any perspective on the wider struggle and what it meant for so many gay men. It sidelined the gay male narrative of what AIDS meant to so many and how profound that was and supplanted it with this hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualized heterosexual man. He was so heterosexual he had two, three, more women at a time. It was like that was the only way we could accept a hero with AIDS is if he is really, really not gay! It felt so exploitative to me.

I am sensitive myself to my own story because it is once again the story of a gay person who dies and a straight person who lives. There are a lot of members of the gay community who don’t want more of that. I appreciate the sentiment of why can’t we have a story where the gay character survives, but I want to talk about my dad, and he died.

Rumpus: At your reading you talked about spending a day riding around on bicycles with Andrew Durham and showing him important spots. Where did you go?

Abbott: We went to the location in Golden Gate Park where the cover photo was taken. Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate and that spot are unchanged. The challenge with San Francisco is so much change. It was the gothic nature of Golden Gate that attracted my father, and it was an aesthetic that he loved.

We cycled to all the lakes and playgrounds in the park and through the Panhandle to all the apartments in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhoods I lived in. Also we went to sights my father photographed for his own books. We went to Ocean Beach It was great to take that time and to have such an intention. There was one moment where we went to Stow Lake and it was really steep, and I lost my footing. The bike went back, and I scraped myself, and Andrew was very sweet scrambling off his bike to see if I was okay. We also went to the San Francisco Library to see my father’s poetry archives. Andrew was really surprised to see how much there was. There are about fives boxes. I sat with him to help filter out what was important and what was not so much important. I really loved that day.

Rumpus: What does Fairyland mean to you?

Abbott: Fairyland has lots of meanings. Fairyland is the Neverland in that it was a place of escape for my dad and for a lot of people in the ’70s who could come to San Francisco and live creatively and be who they were and live cheaply in a sort of beautiful and magical place.

It is San Francisco with its gothic touches that feel magical and otherworldly and the belief and ability to create and spin these worlds. Fairyland is what my dad and I built there. There is a double entendre with the word, and I did get in some trouble in the gay community with this title. But my father also referred to himself as a fairy. Fairyland was our magic place, and it was gone after the AIDS crisis hit. Everything changed and the city gentrified and lot of the people and men we knew died or moved out of the city or are still there but are holding on to rent controlled apartments they would otherwise not be able to afford.

Fairyland is a dreamland—a land that was but isn’t anymore.

For me I wanted to write an elegy to the city to try to recreate the San Francisco I remember because it is going. It is nostalgic; I am nostalgic. It is the past seen through a foggy lens. A scratched, aging glass—but it is no less magical or romantic to me.

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In their last days together, through the generosity of Project Open Hand, Alysia and her father received meals with love. The writer has made a donation to Project Open Hand. To donate yourself, please go here.

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Featured author image by Amber Davis Touralentes.
Photo of author and father by Ginny Lloyd.
All other images courtesy of the author.


Jody Smiling's essays can be found in Prism International, Toronto Life, and GUTSmagazine. She recently won a Canadian National Magazine Award for essays. She divides her time between San Francisco and Toronto but her heart never leaves Banff. She tweets @jodysmiling. More from this author →