Ostriches gather in a farm in a desert, and “when the birds were bored, they would eat the feathers off each other’s backs.” A worker at an aquarium dips a broom into a tank and lifts out an octopus, “his tentacles coiling wildly at their tips, one fumbling with the collar of my sweater, one still fingering the broom like a lifeline.”
In her debut collection, The Last Animal, Abby Geni writes about emotional intersections: between animals and humans and the landscapes in which both inhabit. She writes about the shadowy, dark places where longing and instinct overlap, where the corporeal world of deserts and museums and aquariums meet the invisible land of loneliness and sorrow. In her stories, characters disappear through death and absence and neglect and simply because they want to move on, and Geni explores how those left behind move through their sadness, coping (or not coping) in ways that surprise you again and again.
Geni is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the Iowa Fellowship. Her stories have won first place in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open and the Chautauqua Contest. Additionally, her pieces have appeared in Glimmer Train, Chautauqua, The Indiana Review, Confrontation, New Stories from the Midwest, The Fourth River, Iron Horse, Crab Orchard Review, and Camera Obscura. This collection has already garnered terrific acclaim. Dan Chaon says of the stories, “I have known for a while that Abby Geni is a brilliant writer, and I’m happy at last the world will find out.” In a starred review, Kirkus called the stories “Entrancing….human predicaments are complemented by the wild natural world in this excellent debut story collection.” And Library Journal, also in a starred review, said, ”All ten stories here are wonderfully written, with precise language and a true compassion for the hardships of the characters. Highly recommended.” Abby and I corresponded via email about her process writing The Last Animal.
The Rumpus: Abby, I’m writing you from Taichung City, Taiwan, where the natural world and the human world are constantly colliding; we hear geckos running through the walls of our house at night and we play basketball with bats flitting above our heads. It’s the perfect place to re-read your stories, and I’m again struck by the way you write about the natural world with such beauty and originality, intertwining the psychology and yearnings of these characters with the landscapes /animals. For example, in “Terror Birds”–a story about an ostrich farm, adultery, and childhood–you use the descriptions of the ostriches to reveal different aspects of these characters. Can you tell us about your process? Do your characters come first, or the landscape/natural world? How does it evolve?
Abby Geni: Interesting question. I think my characters usually come last. The physical reality of the story is where I begin—a particular terrain or climate or season of the year. I’ll walk around for a while with that glimmer in my head. That stage of the writing process is always fun, like I’m planning a trip I want to take. Gradually the story emerges around the landscape I’m visiting.
Emotional logic, though, takes me longer to see. Often I’ll know what’s going to happen in the story before I know why. I tend to locate my characters in two ways: through their passions and through their problems. In “Terror Birds,” for instance, the character’s passion is ostriches, and the problem is a broken family. As a rule, I use the character’s passion as a wide-angle lens; it allows me to know them in a deep way, to discover who they are outside the story—who they were before it began and who they’ll be once it’s over. The character’s problem, however, is usually what the story itself is about. The problem is what drives the tension. Knowing the problem allows me to understand the character in this particular place and time.
Rumpus: What drew you to ostriches, initially? Your descriptions of them make them both grand and unknowable and, at the end, terrifying.
Geni: My family has a cabin out in Michigan, and for a while there was an ostrich farm that we’d pass on the way there. They had only a few birds—nothing like the hundred-odd ostriches on the farm in “Terror Birds.” Still, I remember vividly what it was like to pass that place at the end of the long drive from Chicago. I’d be in the back of the minivan, with my brother next to me, reading a comic book, and my parents in the front seat, listening to NPR. Midwestern hillsides rolling outside. The occasional gray, sedate lake. Everything was normal and dull and safe. Then I’d glance out the window and see an ostrich run past. A shiver down my spine. A jolt of panic and elation. It was like being transported, for just a few seconds, to another world.
Rumpus: I also admire the language in these stories. They hold so much feeling and are completely unsentimental at the same time. I think of the way Sandy describes Jack, her son, when she finds him after he’s run away from home, into the desert: “The sun had broiled his skin and blurred his features. If not for the tufts of dark hair, his gender—his very species—would have been all but indeterminate; he could have been a miniature golem or a monkey escaped from the zoo.” What writers inspire you as you have created your own voice and sensibility? What do you think you have taken from each?
Geni: Hmm… Jeannette Winterson had a huge effect. She taught me to pay attention to sentences; each of hers is like its own private poem. E.M. Forster showed me how to write about emotions, which didn’t come naturally to me—he manages it with such grace. Barbara Kingsolver, of course, made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that you can incorporate the natural world into your stories in a deep and intrinsic way. Alice Thomas Ellis demonstrated that you can choose a particular kind of storytelling that speaks to you and stick with it. Each of her books is sort of the same book (polite British human drama, plus the supernatural), and I’ve loved them all.
But Marilynne Robinson probably had the biggest impact. When I was still in high school, I read Housekeeping—all that slowness and crystalline beauty—and I remember thinking, “Wait…it’s okay to write like that?” I’d already been writing stories for years at that point, but I’d been holding back on the kind of voice that is natural to me. I wasn’t sure it was okay to write as intensely as I do.
Rumpus: You’ve created a consistent voice telling these stories, and, with it, you inhabit a wide range of characters. Were some easier to inhabit than others? Why?
Geni: It’s funny, but I think the characters who are the most unlike me were the easiest to inhabit. The stories that are closest to my own experience could be tricky—too close to see clearly, too painful to tell. Those are the stories I would tinker with over a period of years, trying to find the right way in, to get the right amount of emotional distance. The characters who are unlike me, on the other hand, often emerged quite easily. “Silence,” for instance, focuses on an elderly man, a woodworker in Maine, facing the winter of his life. It’s about as far from my own experience as you can get, and yet that story arrived in one clean draft, almost fully-formed.
Rumpus: The details about the animals feel so authentic. How did you learn about ostriches? Octopuses? What role does research play in your writing?
Geni: Research is a major part of my work. Finding the character’s passion often requires extensive reading. Until I know what my characters care about, they will seem flat to me, like cardboard cutouts. But as I learn about octopuses, or ostriches, or dogs, or manta rays, I learn about the characters who love these animals—their minds and sensibilities, their orientations toward the world. Sometimes the research grabs my interest first, before the character even comes into sight. When I was writing “Captivity,” for instance, I went to the library and read an entire book about octopuses before I even became aware that I was going to write about them.
Rumpus: Some of the stories here have the expansive feeling of novels—I think of “The Last Animal” and “Terror Birds”—is that something that you aim for when you write your stories?
Geni: Honestly, I’ve always thought of myself as a novelist. I can’t write small to save my life. Twenty or thirty pages still seems awfully cryptic. But Dan Chaon once told me that 90% of all the novels out there could easily have been short stories instead. I took that to heart. If I can tell a story in thirty pages or less, then it’s my obligation to do that. To write a novel, you have to wait for a story that’s big enough. I’ve been working on a novel for the past few months, and it’s the first story I’ve ever written that needed hundreds of pages to tell.
Rumpus: You are working on a novel now—has that process been any different from working on stories?
Geni: It’s completely different. In some ways it’s easier, because you can really settle down and get to know your characters. You have the luxury of time. Writing a short story requires that you encapsulate an entire human being in just a few paragraphs. In a novel, though, you can stretch out and breathe.
But a novel can also be much more difficult, because it can feel like you’re getting nowhere. With a short story, you can always see the end. It’s a bit like hiking through a forest: you know where you’re going, and you just have to figure out the best way there. Writing a novel, on the other hand, feels more like climbing a mountain. You can sometimes see the top, dimly, through the clouds. But often, you have to just trust that you’re going the right way. The journey takes such a long time—months and years. It’s best just to focus on the section of trail just ahead, so it doesn’t feel overwhelming, as though you’ll never reach the top.
Rumpus: The unique place and state of mind that is Iowa Writer’s Workshop: How did the workshop help you become a writer? What was the most important lesson you took from the experience?
Geni: A friend of mine at Iowa once compared the program to electroshock therapy—it’s good for you, it reorganizes your thinking, and you’d never want to do it again. The most important thing I took from Iowa was the ability to edit. Up until that point, I had been an instinctive writer. I’d made my choices intuitively, because they felt right. But I couldn’t edit, not really. I had no idea how to step back from the work. I didn’t know how to make changes to it, consciously and coldly, as though it belonged to someone else. Iowa taught me that, and it’s an invaluable skill.
Still, after I left Iowa, I didn’t write for three years—mostly because once I learned how to edit, I couldn’t turn the mechanism off. I would write a sentence and think, “Well, that’s no way to start a story.” You can’t be editing while you’re writing; you’ll never get anywhere. It took me years to figure out to shut it down as I created something new—how to just be in the work, instinctively and intuitively—and then finish the piece and turn the editing on again, like flipping a switch.
Rumpus: I know that many workshop graduates—or graduates from rigorous MFA programs in general—sometimes have trouble turning off the critical voices once they leave a program. How did you learn to “flip the switch?”
Geni: Well, first I stomped around for a long time going, “I’ll never write again! It’s all over!” In the end, though, I had to remember how to just write for me. After all, I wrote stories when I was six years old because I loved writing. I didn’t care if anybody ever read my work. Basically, I turned off the critical voices by pretending they weren’t important. I would pretend I was writing to practice, for fun, no pressure. I would pretend that I wasn’t going to show the work to anyone: I would sit down at the computer and draw an imaginary circle around myself, and nobody was allowed inside. It’s a bit like self-hypnosis. You tell yourself that the critical voices don’t matter, even though they do. You learn to ignore them as best you can, and eventually they learn to quiet down and take their turn in the process.
Rumpus: What is the hardest part of the writing process for you and what is the easiest part?
Geni: The hardest part of writing is the middle. Whenever I start a new project, I have a glorious image in my head of how it will unfold. Whenever I end a project, I have a wonderful sense of satisfaction and completion. In the middle, though, I tend to feel that I’ve been working on this piece forever, and I don’t know where it’s going, and I’ll never finish it, and I’ll never write anything good again, ever.
The easiest part of writing, I think, is my relationship to the work itself. I know writers who sit down at their desks for three hours every day, rain or shine, to knock out 1,000 words exactly. But I’m not like that. I tend to view the writing less as a discipline or job, and more as a friend. My relationship to the work is at its best when I’m not forceful or controlling—when I come to the table without expectations. And so, every day, I sit down at my desk and ask, “Are you here?” If the writing answers, then I work. If the writing isn’t there, then I just wait for another day.