I met author Abby Frucht almost a decade ago, back when I was an MFA student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where Frucht has served as a mentor and advisor for more than twenty-five years. Frucht co-taught one of my first writing workshops and later acted as faculty advisor for my creative thesis. In these capacities, she opened my eyes to writers like Carol Shields, Grace Paley, and Lydia Davis, and her brilliance when it came to analyzing both fiction writing and the human condition pushed my own work into strange new worlds. She helped me find my writing voice, and along the way encouraged me to be a good literary citizen, a quality she embodies.
Abby Frucht is the author of two short story collections: Fruit of the Month, for which she received the Iowa Short Fiction Prize in 1987, and The Bell at the End of a Rope. She has also written six novels: Snap, Licorice, Are You Mine?, Life Before Death, Polly’s Ghost, and A Well-Made Bed, on which she collaborated with her friend and colleague Laurie Alberts.
In 2016 when A Well-Made Bed was published, Frucht asked several of her former students, including myself, to read with her at various stops on her book tour. She wanted to share the spotlight with everyone. In a literary world with plenty of sniping and falseness, Frucht acts as a contradiction. She is a champion for others and wants everyone’s voice to find an audience.
This desire is present in Abby Frucht’s latest book, Maids, a poetry collection from Matter Press that focuses on the women who cleaned her parents’ house when she was a child living on Long Island in the 1960s. This is Frucht’s first book of poetry, and it aims to act as an account of both her interactions with these women and the echoes of these exchanges decades later.
It’s a fascinating read, and I was excited to spend some time recently talking with Abby about the collection, the different forms and techniques used to record these memories, as well as the inspirations behind the project.
The Rumpus: The poems in Maids are built around your own experiences, yet when it comes to specific stories about yourself, you take on a third-person point of view: “The doctor’s daughter.” Can you talk about this decision? Was it easier to write from this distance?
Abby Frucht: I had a feeling we might be talking about this. Easy answer first: I generally don’t want to be the center of my essays, even if those essays are about my own experience. It’s like, if you plant a tree, you’re doing it for the tree, not for yourself. And my resistance to being the center of attention is especially heightened in the case of Maids, since the true subjects of Maids are much larger and more important than I am. In writing the poems, I wanted to emphasize that I was a type of person, a white doctor’s daughter of the upper-middle class. To call myself “the doctor’s daughter” accomplished that every time.
That said, in the past, in my writing of memoir and personal essay, the observational vector was almost always from myself outward. That is, I tended to look at, and look for, things that I already hoped to examine. So what I found as I wrote those earlier nonfiction pieces was that they were shaped by questions I already intended to pose and ideas that I already wished to examine. For instance, when I wrote about my mom’s dementia in my essay “The Crazing of the Lagniappe,” I knew in advance that I wanted to use my remembered and lived experiences of her and of her illness as jumping off points for riffing on daughterhood, sisterhood, motherhood, death, grief, and for walking the lines I wanted to walk among questions of sanity and insanity.
When I started work on Maids, however, I had no agenda other than to pay respect to the women who kept house for my parents, and to fill some small gap in the historical record concerning the largely (I think) unconscious racism at play in our home and in other homes like it in 1960s Long Island. Rather than using the concrete details that showed up on the page to riff on feelings and impressions I already hoped to engage, I sat back and watched those details percolate and coalesce into more comprehensive versions of their actual selves. There was absolutely no conjuring in the writing of Maids. There was no imagining aside from one thing I’ll get to later on. As an adult writer, I stayed loyal to the things I had seen and heard as a child, when my apprehension of them was not verbal. When you’re comfortable in a house as a child, your impressions are physical and emotional, and the things that you see, hear, and feel do not, I believe, seek meaning via vocabulary. In fact, my observations of the things that went on in that household weren’t put into words, or even really into language, until age sixty when I sat down to write. And when I did sit down to write, I tried to let the words speak to me, not of me. I didn’t let myself forecast directly, or intuit what might come of them.
Rumpus: It’s funny you mention this, because I wanted to ask about the purposeful elimination of punctuation in the poems, which creates a sense of urgency. The poem “Occasionally” speaks a little to this, I think, when you write that “commas bug her because they cause a divide between / halves of a thought parts of a recollection / figments of emotion.”
Frucht: Yes, I noticed almost right away that a use of conventional syntax and punctuation was imposing rationality and logic on something that had none. Racism isn’t rational. For that reason, it didn’t feel right to me, artistically or politically, to make the kind of conventional, grammatical sense that “correct” English too often pretends to make. It’s like when Prince Andrew said of Jeffrey Epstein that he regretted his contact with Epstein because Epstein’s behavior was “unbecoming,” to which Virginia Giuffre said, “Unbecoming?! Epstein was a pedophile!” I didn’t want the language of Maids to be pretty. I wanted it to be as troubled, as upended by its subject as I am.
Rumpus: To me, the style felt like a reproduction of how thoughts can deluge one’s mind. All of the things you thought and felt and touched and smelled, which land hard in the same moment.
Frucht: Yes. The style operates much as memory does. And your reference to the things I touched and smelled reminds me to talk, here, of the importance to Maids of my memories of my parents’ house. Cynthia, who came to keep house for us when I was ten, was given what we called “The Little Room,” a small dormer room upstairs between the playroom and the attic. It had a steeply slanted ceiling, and space for nothing but a bed and a low chest of three drawers made of cardboard. There was a hook for her robe, but her uniforms and other clothing were hung in a closet adjoining the much larger “playroom,” and the bathroom was downstairs in another corner of the house. The Little Room felt tiny even to me, and I can only imagine how it felt to Cynthia. She had a daughter, Wanda, my exact same age, who lived over four thousand miles away with her family in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. And although I loved sitting in that Little Room with Cynthia, my presence there likely only made her more homesick than she already was.
Rumpus: Sticking with Cynthia, you do take a few opportunities to slip into her first-person point of view, and there are meta moments where both Cynthia and you, the author, wonder if it is okay to put words and thoughts into this person you only knew briefly as a child. Why did you choose to write using Cynthia’s direct point of view?
Frucht: I deliberated about that, of course. What I believe and know is true of those parts of the book, is that what’s being shown is not so much Cynthia’s thoughts or the words in her head, but the things that I understood, or maybe misunderstood, her to be feeling. Earlier in this interview I conceded to there being an exception, in Maids, to my not allowing myself to imagine things. This is that exception. But the fact is that if none of the poems put words, hopes, feelings, into Cynthia, then she would have no words, hopes, or feelings in these pages, and that seemed an equal injustice. So it was a matter of choosing between two lapses in an effort to let her be as vital as she was. It’s important to mention, too, that she was a very expressive person, in her way. She giggled a lot, in a tittery, reedy, way. She also cried a lot. She was fired, in fact, as the book makes clear, for crying a lot.
Rumpus: There are several spots in the collection where you hint at the idea of false memories. In “Front Porch,” there are the lines “She props her feet on / the loveseat noting for the hundredth time the / wicker being made not of wicker but plastic. / But it looks like wicker.” In another poem, you employ dueling tenses, as well as lines where you give the maid a series of possible names. Would you speak a bit more about how you faced writing about situations and memories from your childhood? How concerned were you with accuracy?
Frucht: I was quite concerned with accuracy, but being inaccurate in the depiction of memory and even of present, ongoing perception is accurate. That line from “Front Porch” about the wicker being plastic is about the fact that we don’t always see what’s around us for what it really is. Or maybe there is no “really is.” One of the pleasures of writing Maids was in calling my sister, Syl, on the phone, asking if she remembered things the same way I did. She’s a judge, and she often calls me back between hearings in her workday, when she is in her deliberating mode.
The deliberate inclusion of conflicting tenses shows/showed, I hoped/hope, that things that happened in the past are still happening now, and that our daily, lived lives are still beholden to them. The multiple tenses also add a frisson of bewilderment, asking how, why, what, where? Where’s Cynthia now? Where is her daughter, Wanda, now? Did she ever go to medical school? Is she a doctor somewhere, the way she wanted to be?
Rumpus: The poem “Web Search” has your persona looking for Cynthia’s daughter Wanda, who you just mentioned. In the piece, the searches are unsuccessful, and I’m curious if you’ve continued to try looking for her? And I wonder if you’ve thought about what you would say to her if she finds you after this book is published.
Frucht: I don’t believe that I will find her. I don’t have the tools or the knowledge. Theoretically I could hire a private eye, and if the private eye found her, that would be a whole other book, a whole other story needing to be told.
There are wrongs that need to be righted, but that can’t be fully righted or atoned for, and certainly racism is one of those wrongs. Any effort to make things right is ongoing. Even if I were to meet Wanda and embrace her and say I was sorry to her, it wouldn’t be enough. And then there would be something else missing, something new that was amiss. My general philosophy as a writer is that it’s important to leave some questions unanswered, so were I to meet Wanda and write a new book, it too would end on some unresolved question.
Rumpus: Malcolm X’s autobiography and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice loom large over many of these poems, as they were the two books you were forbidden to read as a child. Does the memory of this banning have anything to do with your decision to write this collection of poems, which, as opposed to censoring, instead lays bare much of your childhood interactions with women who were from a different background?
Frucht: It must. I was allowed to read sex books that were out then, like Naked Came the Stranger, at age ten or eleven. I remember leafing through the Kinsey report, but being not permitted to read the two books in question. My mom said they would scare me. I know, too, and this is something I don’t hit on in Maids, that the era I am writing about in these poems was when civil rights demonstrations and rioting were televised. This was when Robert Kennedy was assassinated, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. All of these things were happening outside our household, and nobody ever contemplated that there were aspects of these same events happening within the household. Though perhaps Cynthia did. I don’t know. I remember her watching those events on television while sewing the dining room curtains. Her privately held responses to those events are ones I steered clear of attempting to touch on in Maids.
Rumpus: What would you want a reader of Maids to take from the experience?
Frucht: I don’t expect many black readers to learn things they don’t already know from Maids. I would hope that there are white readers who will recognize, as if for the first time, parts of their own lives, their own selves. Several readers have said to me, “That’s my family. That’s me. That stuff was going on in my house, too.”
About a year or two ago, I was asked to write a personal essay for a big magazine, and I said sure. I wrote the essay, but the editor wasn’t happy with it. She asked, “What did these events mean to you? What did you learn from them?” My response was to realize, I don’t think I can answer that. I don’t want to make a lesson out of what happened. I just want to render it in ways that might be apprehended by, and move, other people.
Photograph of Abby Frucht courtesy of Abby Frucht.