“Nothing is wasted when you are a writer.”
Her story is not unlike that of many people, full of kids and grandkids, smoking and drinking, illness and death and great joy celebrated over the small things: naps, blue eyeshadow, macaroni-and-cheese, fond memories. In baring her own fallibilities so eloquently, so generously, we learn that perfection is not the goal. Even the most admirable among us, the ones who have succeeded somehow – published novels, gained notoriety, maybe made lots of money – harbor insecurities and lean on our addictions. No matter; Thomas leads us to a place of acceptance.
What makes this third memoir – alongside Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life – so effective is that, in her alarmingly candid style, she has found a way to take what happened and use it to edify her own existence. A husband’s life ends tragically, a daughter suffers with cancer, a best friend pulls away, a pet tears apart the furniture: It all becomes grist for the literary mill. She writes about all of it.
Learning that her best friend, Chuck, had an affair with her daughter, Catherine, caught Thomas off guard. It would close many writers down completely. She didn’t immediately turn the incident into material, but was urged to do so by an encouraging friend. “I must have tried ten different ways of approaching it. And then Catherine got sick, and I just couldn’t write about it…until Daphne [one of Thomas’ unruly dogs] ran away with one of her wigs. This was the side-door thing.”
She’s referring to her method of getting at subject matter by paying attention to what happens off to the side. It’s a technique that she talks about in Thinking about Memoir and in her classes. “I didn’t want to write then…but I saw I needed to deal with death and mortality. The three of us – Chuck, Catherine and me – would never have been this close now if we hadn’t had the broken part; it would not have happened. And what we’ve made out of it in terms of friendship – we are a little three-star constellation.”
I marvel that anybody might deal with such a dicey situation as this – such an uncomfortable gap driven between lifelong friend and mother and daughter. “There’s no reason to get beyond it unless there’s a reason to. Chuck and I had been such good friends for a long time, and it certainly didn’t happen immediately; it wasn’t right away that we were friends again. But we had helped each other one way or another over rocky ground in the past. Plus, we always laughed our asses off.”
Aiming only at the truth, Thomas throws her hard-earned wisdom out into the future like a Frisbee, with no foregone conclusion as to where it will land. Her prose is spare and forthright and often funny. I suggest that her avid readers find something genuinely clarifying in her writing. She says, “It’s what we’re doing when we write memoir: It’s for clarity – for finding out what we didn’t know, and what we didn’t know we knew. It’s a place we go. I hate to use the word ‘journey.’ Sometimes it’s a ride and sometimes it’s a slog.”
The title of the book comes from a poem written by Stephen Dobyns. “I thought of using it quite a long time ago. The line ends the poem, and it seemed to hit me as absolutely perfect. If you write about stuff that’s very hard, you really do come through it. At least I did with this. It wasn’t about something as bad as somebody running over my kid or Catherine dying of cancer. But it was a lot to go through. There is nothing that you can control. You can stay under the covers or you can try to like it, whatever it is. And there’s lots to like. There’s always curiosity and something hilarious. Just don’t try to think too far ahead. Don’t think it at all.”
Thomas finished writing the book a year ago, and has waited – and waded – through the slow publishing process, which I suggest must be a bit agonizing for a writer. “It makes me feel like it’s already been published and has sunk like a stone at the bottom of the ocean. Chuck and Catherine both had a hand in editing and structuring the book. I do believe, at least for me, that dividing your story into three parts works. Together we figured it out. I don’t think I could have done that so easily.”
About the writing process itself, she says, “I’ve learned that failure is essential. If you don’t fail, you’re never gonna get anywhere. You have to fail, and then you have to do it again. You learn what isn’t going to work. I wrote this in the second person, in the third person and then in the first person. I tried every damn way I could think of. And it was very discouraging, but the story didn’t go away.
“I learned that I am mortal. So are you. I learned a lot from the cancer support group about that. It was a very interesting and difficult experience. Half way through the book, I learned that I was angry. I hadn’t realized I was angry with Catherine. Once I talked about it, it was gone. It was over. I guess I learned that if you’re going to write about something tricky that isn’t your story, you have to write about it from your point of view.”
“The future is a moving target, completely unpredictable.”
She comments on how an awareness of dying and death is emerging in society, and how people want the right to die – to get help if it becomes too terrible to go on. “It’s hard to think about it. Every now and then, you suddenly realize it, physically; it just goes through your body: ‘I’m gonna die.’ Those have been, for me, really horrible moments.”
I ask if she distinguishes between fear and dread. “Dread is a constant companion, a little sidekick. Dread is much worse than fear. Fear, I understand, is usually kind of specific. But dread is all-purpose. It’s an awful feeling: that cognitive depression, the unfeeling, the absence of feeling. The abyss. That has only happened to me a handful of times.”
And of aging, she says, “You get to a point in life where you don’t want to spend money on things. Like, why put caps on these teeth when I’m going to be in the grave within five years? I don’t want to spend that kind of money on my mouth!” We both laugh at this. “Then sometimes I turn off the lights and think, ‘I could be dead in the morning. I hope my mouth doesn’t hang open. I really don’t want my children to see me with my jaw sagging.’ I really don’t think about it much, except every now and then I realize: I have no idea what can happen. I could get sick, need somebody in the house all the time. But I just hope not.”
“I want the possibility of change, not change itself.”
Thomas’ recent books have been non-fiction, yet her novels stand as superb works of storytelling. I wonder aloud if she thinks about writing fiction again, and she says, “I would love to write fiction again. But I don’t think so. I’m not sure I’ll write anything again. I’m so used to memoir, and I certainly don’t want anything else to write about, thank you very much! That’s enough! I have enough material!” (More laughter ensues.)
I ask if anyone has ever accused her of being enlightened. She tilts her disheveled mane back and guffaws. “Oh gawd, no!” We laugh together, but I would disagree. Insofar as enlightenment means lightening up – inhaling deeply, inspiring herself and others – Thomas fairly floats. Reality may suck at times. Life-threatening, un-asked-for ailments may happen to family and friends, and unexpected romantic liaisons between people she loves may temporarily leave her out of the frame, there but not-there; yet she takes it all in and processes it. She exemplifies the willingness to let it all be – to find a way and carry on.
What Comes Next and How to Like It will be released to bookstores on March 24. A special early launch will take place at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival, when Joe Donahue talks with Thomas onstage this Saturday evening. Each year the Festival is honored to have Donahue, WAMC Radio vice president of News and Programming and talk show host extraordinaire, present “The Donahue Interview”: an in-depth chat with one notable author. This year, Donahue will work his charm on Thomas with his legendary blend of “warmth and empathy, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence.” The book will be on sale at the event through the Golden Notebook.
The Donahue Interview with Abigail Thomas, Woodstock Writers’ Festival, Saturday, March 21, 8-9:30 p.m., $35, Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 36 Tinker Street, Woodstock; ulsterpub.staging.wpenginewriters.com/schedule-tickets/festival-schedule.