Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Mommie Direst

Newly minted novelist Patricia “Patti” Abbott has a nice short essay posted this morning in Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine, which explains in part: “I wasn’t raised to have high aspirations. I was raised to find a steady job with good benefits, to raise a family, to be a good citizen. I think that is why it took me so many years--nearly 50--to have any confidence that I could be what I secretly always wanted to be--a writer. I would still not identify myself as one--except to you.”

Her modesty is endearing, but quite unnecessary. Over the last decade and a half, Abbott has published more than 150 short stories and won awards for her efforts. She’s become a familiar blogging voice, spearheading the Web-wide “Friday forgotten books” series of posts from her own site, Pattinase. And now this 67-year-old resident of Huntington Woods, Michigan, the mother of novelist Megan Abbott (The Fever), is debuting her own first novel, a domestic suspense yarn titled Concrete Angel (Polis). The fact that it wasn’t until her two children left home that Patti Abbott finally went back to finish her college degree and launched her career as a crime-fictionist takes nothing away from the fact that she accomplished her goal: she has a novel in print, and it’s a damn good work to boot. That’s a confidence raiser, if ever there was one.

In my Kirkus Reviews column today, I remark briefly on the plot of Concrete Angel, which is set in the area around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (where Abbott herself grew up), noting that it “introduces readers to Evelyn ‘Eve’ Moran, a narcissistic, melodramatic and hyper-acquisitive woman who, as this story opens, shoots her latest boyfriend to death after trying to filch cash from his wallet, and then persuades her 12-year-old daughter, Christine, to say she pulled the trigger, instead, that she was protecting her mother from attack.
Did I mention Eve is also highly self-protective? In any case, Christine goes along with this seat-of-pants scheme because … well, she doesn’t want to lose her single remaining parent, and after years of listening to Eve lie her way out of one tight spot or another, the girl has become more than a bit adept at spinning prevarications of her own. She’s also practiced at excusing, if not denying, her mother’s casual kleptomania, which propels Eve from one Philadelphia-area store to the next, snatching merchandise merely for the sake of having it, not because she needs it or can’t afford it. This remorseless larceny eventually leads to run-ins with the law, lands Eve in a pricy sanitarium, destroys her marriage to Christine’s father and results in her renting a profusion of storage units for her “junk.”
Through all of these turns, young Christine hangs in there as her mother’s confidante and co-conspirator, even though she’s also served up occasionally as Eve Moran’s scapegoat. However, the responsibilities and deceptions eventually become too much to bear, leading Christine, as she matures, to think “killing her [mother] might be the easiest thing,” just to put an end to the nightmare that Eve has created for both of them.

Abbott does an exceptional job of building Eve Moran’s twisted character and showing how her behavior corrupts the lives of everyone around her, especially that of her less-attractive only daughter. She also makes fine work of re-creating 1960s and ’70s Philadelphia, as well as the public attitudes of that period toward psychiatric illness and treatment. The author takes what might, in the hands of some less-talented writer, have become an unrelentingly grim and distressing story, and turns it into a textured, ever-magnetic mix of humor and heartbreak. One that makes me more than a little curious to read her next novel.

I spent some time recently interviewing Patti Abbott via e-mail. Parts of our exchange make up today’s Kirkus Reviews column, but there was plenty left over, including Abbott’s recollections of her sometimes troubled Philadelphia childhood, her transition from poet to fiction writer, her story about first being published, her memories of the struggle it took to get even one novel into print, and her satisfaction in having introduced many blog readers to vintage mystery and thriller fiction they might never have discovered on their own. All of that material is embedded below for your enjoyment.

J. Kingston Pierce: You were born Patricia Arlene Nase?

Patricia Abbott: On the birth certificate Nase was spelled as “Nasi,” but it had to be corrected when I married. I am not sure why no one fixed it before then. The error may have come because the name Nase is pretty unusual. It was changed at least six times over the years that my brother traced it back. I think the original spelling might have been “Nehs.” The family came from the German section of Alsace-Lorraine. The town of Sellersville, Pennsylvania, is filled with Nases but it is hard to find them anywhere else. More than you wanted to know I am sure.

Author Patti Abbott, photographed by Ewa Golebiowska.

JKP: You grew up in Philadelphia during the 1950s and ’60s. Where in that city did you live? What was Philly like in those days, and how significantly has it changed?

PA: I lived in a section to the north known as West Oak Lane then, but now it seems to have been folded in with Mount Airy. It was a middle to lower middle-class neighborhood. My block was made up of mostly large Catholic families. Mine was Lutheran. These were tiny houses, but some had four or five children crammed in.

But across the alley in the back of my house, everyone was Jewish. I was the girl who lit the Shabbat lamps and ovens. My school was 90 percent Jewish. (All of the Catholic kids went to parochial school.) As a child, I rarely left my neighborhood except when we went shopping downtown. I had very little sense of living in a large city. I was quite free to roam my neighborhood, though. My life centered around the church to a large degree. I think of my childhood as more similar to someone who lived in a small town than someone who lived in a city. We took very little advantage of the art museum or any cultural institutions. Most of that was due to my father’s long work hours and small paycheck. And my parents were not adventurous.

My old block, 7600 Gilbert Street, has a Facebook page and it is all African American today. It looks very similar. There wasn’t a tree on that block when I lived there and there still don't seem to be many. Downtown Philly seems vibrant to me today when compared to Detroit, but less so than in the ’60s. It shares many of the same issues as Detroit (my current home): too much poverty, poor schools, deteriorating housing. But since I get [to Philadelphia] only as a tourist now, I probably don’t know enough about issues to comment.

JKP: What were your parents like? Were they big readers, or did you acquire your interest in reading from others?

PA: My father was the third youngest of 19 children and became an office manager for car dealers. My mother, a secretary, was an only child. His father was a cigar maker. Hers, an architect. To my knowledge, my father never read a book after high school. He read the sports page and that was about it. He worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, so there was little time for reading, although I doubt he would have read anyway. My mother read more but not a lot. If she read, it was Ellery Queen mysteries or light romance. My maternal grandparents were bigger readers, but still mostly [of] those condensed books they collected in the ’50s. My grandmother read a lot of movie-star biographies.

But I couldn’t wait to learn how to read so I could go the bookmobile that cruised my neighborhood and take out the five books allowed. And when they built a library, I went every Friday after school, returning the books for five more the next week. The children’s librarian, Mrs. Robinson, the only African-American woman I knew, would hold books aside she thought I would like. And I read the most prosaic books on the shelves. I never once tried science fiction or fantasy. It had to be about girls, and girls as much like me as possible. My favorite series was the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace. And the “Shoes” books by Noel Streatfeild (Ballet Shoes, Circus Shoes, etc.) and All-of-a-Kind Family [1951], by Sydney Taylor. So I acquired my interest from others. I just can’t tell you what others.

JKP: Where did you go to school, and were you a “serious student”?

PA: I went to Samuel Pennypacker Elementary School, Leeds Jr. High School, Germantown High School for a year, and then Philadelphia Montgomery Christian High School, which my parents could ill afford. But I was beginning to get into trouble. I was hanging out on corners, smoking, running around with some bad types. I had a boyfriend who stole cars for a while. Another who dropped out of school. So [my parents] scraped together their money and sent me to a school [Philadelphia Montgomery] that straightened me out pretty quickly. I went from a C student (I had been an A student in elementary school) to the National Honor Society in one year. Academically it was great, but it was a fundamentalist Christian school, and although my parents went to church, it was a traditional church, not this. In my junior year I campaigned for Barry Goldwater with friends from school and Lyndon Johnson with my friends from the ’hood. Still, I was old enough not to be completely swayed by the school’s politics.

But then I made a mistake and went to a Christian college [Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts]. That lasted one semester and I did not go back to college for 20 years, despite marrying a man with a Ph.D. in the meantime. I studied history and anthropology went I returned in the late ’80s [this time to Wayne State University in Detroit]. On my return, I was very serious indeed. I was tired of explaining why, although my husband was a professor, I was uneducated. I graduated with a 4.0, not because I was particularly smart but because I was particularly driven. I loved college in my 40s.

JKP: How did you meet your husband to be, Philip Abbott, and when did you marry? Am I correct that you have two children together?

PA: I met Phil the summer after I graduated from high school. His father had a store in a town where I had a summer job (New Hope, Pennsylvania). We married the next year (1967). I was 19 and he 22, and just starting grad school. My son, Josh, was born in 1970 and is a prosecutor in Macomb County [Michigan]. And Megan was born the next year and writes novels.

JKP: Is it true that your mother remarked to you, just as you and your new husband were leaving after your wedding reception, “I give it six months”? That seems a bit cynical, doesn’t it?

PA: Wow! How did that get out? She actually murmured it to my grandmother, but I overheard. This comment referred to my fickleness as a teenager. And also to my age. And also to our brief courtship. But [my mother] was wrong and admitted it many times over the years. She became Phil’s biggest fan.

JKP: Am I correct that your husband is a professor of political thought, American political culture, and presidential studies at Wayne State? How long has he been there?

PA: Phil has been at Wayne State University since 1970. He came there at age 25 and stayed. With the Vietnam War going strong and his draft number being low (5), he had to attend school full-time and was done just as he turned 26 and could no longer be drafted. Amazing how much that war determined what our life would be.

JKP: Did you move to Detroit after marriage, or were you already there for some reason?

PA: We moved to Detroit three years after we got married. WSU was Phil’s first job offer. Well, not really his first, but the first one that seemed feasible. He had lived in D.C. for four years and wasn’t anxious to teach in a small town, and the other offers were in small towns.

JKP: When your children were young, did you work away from home?

PA: No, I was a stay-at-home mom mostly until high school. We were active in Little League, Girl Scouts, were room parents, on the PTO [Parent Teacher Organization] boards. I made quilts and read books. Lots of books. My mother had been a working mother and I thought that was one of the reasons I got into trouble. Well, at least partially. Part of the truth was, I didn’t know what to do with myself without a degree. So I finally started taking classes and that seemed like enough, until college for the kids began to loom in front of us and more money seemed like a good idea. Then I got a job at WSU, where I wrote catalogue copy, newsletters, flyers, and course descriptions, and worked on placing our Ph.D. [recipients].

(Right) Megan, Patti, and Philip Abbott.

JKP: Your daughter, of course, is novelist Megan Abbott. Her success as a fiction writer seemed to coincide with your rise as an author of short stories. So was it you who influenced her to try penning fiction, or was it the other way around?

PA: When I started writing stories, Megan was working on her Ph.D. and had expressed no desire (to us) to write fiction. Although as a child she wrote and illustrated her own stories constantly. And I mean constantly. When I remember her as a kid, it is sitting in front of a movie like Red Dust or Little Caesar, a sketch pad in hand. I don’t think either of us was influenced by the other. In many ways, my husband is more of an influence on her in terms of her intellectual interests. They can talk about Freud, the Cold War, Hannah Arendt, and Kim Philby forever. That’s why I fully expected her to be a college professor, but it wasn’t quite the right fit.

JKP: Had you been trying to write fiction for a long time before you were actually published? What was your first story to see print, and when/where did that piece appear?

PA: My first story was published in 1998 in a little journal called The Bonfire Review. It was a story about two friends who find some salacious photographs among the remains of a deceased friend. Both of them swear they won’t show anyone the photos, but of course they do. It was a humorous story--or at least it was to me.

The journal was elegant, hand-bound with a hard cover, and the editors held a reading and I went to Ann Arbor [Michigan] and read a part of the story in a neat little pub there. So I sort of thought I would be doing a lot of that, but of course, that live reading was the exception. I was able to get most stories published by aiming fairly low. I never tried to get into The New Yorker. But more and more over time, traditional literary journals were saying, “this is crime fiction.” So I began to make the switch.

JKP: It seems you’ve been making rather hesitant steps toward becoming a novelist for several years now. You published an e-book of unconnected short stories, Monkey Justice (2011). Then you released Home Invasion (2013), with stories taking place over a 40-year span, mostly about members of the same family and folks whose lives intersected with theirs. Finally we get Concrete Angel. Did this progression reflect your working up the courage to write longer pieces of fiction?

PA: I tried writing a novel before I did these collections. I almost had an agent. But no one liked the central character very much. No one was willing to take her on. So I tempered an unlikable character with a likable one in Concrete Angel. I guess unlikable characters will always interest me more than nice ones. If I wrote detective fiction I might create a likable protagonist, but it doesn’t seem to work for me in suspense. If that is what this is.

JKP: You have said before that your influences as a short-story writer include Andre Dubus, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Eudora Welty, Jean Thompson, William Trevor, John Cheever, Amy Hempl, John Updike, and Lorrie Moore. Who, then, are your influences as a novelist?

PA: Anne Tyler, Richard Bausch, Russell Banks, Margaret Millar, Patricia Highsmith, John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Daphne DuMaurier, Shirley Jackson, Carson McCullers, Stewart O’Nan, Joe R. Lansdale, Nicholas Freeling, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Ruth Rendell, Ross Macdonald. I could go on for days.

JKP: When author Richard Godwin interviewed you in 2011, you said you had two unpublished novels. “The first one,” you said, “was based on a short story called ‘Raising the Dead.’ It is the story of a photographer who hasn’t achieved the success she’d hoped for and how she goes about achieving that elusive goal. It takes place in Detroit and deals with the current situation here--the poverty, the animosity between black and white, the failure of a once-great city.” The second novel you mentioned--“about a Philadelphia woman who steals, grifts, hoards, and eventually kills”--was obviously Concrete Angel. How is it that Concrete Angel made it into print, while the other book, which you’ve titled Shot in Detroit, has not?

PA: Well, the other one, after some revision, will come out next summer. [Its protagonist] was the unlikable woman who I hope I have honed a bit. Taken off some of the rough edges but not too many. Made her story a fuller one than that agent finally rejected.

Martina McBride sings her 2002 hit, “Concrete Angel.”

JKP: So where does the title Concrete Angel come from? Are you suggesting that Christine, Eve Moran’s daughter, provides a rock for her mother, or did you have something more complicated in mind?

PA: Originally the title was Eve’s Daughter. But the first press that took it, Exhibit A (before they folded), thought that was too bland. So I chose Concrete Angel, which is the title of a song by Martina McBride about an abused child. Also one of my favorite novels is The Stone Angel, by Margaret Laurence (Canadian). So nothing complicated at all.

JKP: Was part of the reason that Concrete Angel was slow to be picked up by a publisher because it’s not strictly a crime novel, but also not obviously a literary novel?

PA: No publisher saw it before Exhibit A Books. I didn’t send it to that many agents--maybe 15. So without an agent I didn’t see how I would interest a publisher. I had lost confidence after coming close and missing with Shot in Detroit. If [author] Sandra Scoppettone hadn’t read it and said you have to try harder with this, it would probably exist only on my hard drive. So I started trying harder.

When I heard that writer Bryon Quertermous had become an acquisitions editor for Exhibit A (then part of Angry Robot), I e-mailed him and asked him if he’d like to take a look. He liked [the book] and made an offer to publish. When Exhibit A closed its doors, Bryon suggested I try Polis (where his book Murder Boy had found a home).

I do think Concrete Angel falls between the two genres somewhat. And the other one does, too. But I see them both as crime novels, because it is the driving engine to me. Eve [Moran] steals and kills to get what she wants. [Shot in Detroit’s] Violet Hart throws herself into some treacherous water to get the photos she needs for an exhibit. When people want something badly, they either get their 4.0 or commit a crime.

JKP: Concrete Angel might fit most comfortably into the amorphous sub-genre of “domestic suspense.” Did you intend your work to be domestic suspense?

PA: That is how I see it. I am not sure if the term existed before Sarah Weinman’s collection, or if it did, it was not well known as a sub-genre. But if you look at the stories written by Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, I think that term describes their work well. The Blank Wall [1947] by Holding is a perfect example.

JKP: I know you’re a fan of at least one author whose work also often fits under that label, Margaret Millar (The Iron Gates). But are you a big fan of domestic suspense fiction? Or will you become one now?

PA: I wonder if Mignon Eberhart would count. And what about Celia Fremlin? Is there any man who writes it? I would say Linwood Barclay’s novels are a sort of domestic suspense. Maybe Harlan Coben, too. Also, outside the genre, Russell Banks’ novels, especially Continental Drift and Affliction, are very much about families in crisis. Same with Richard Bausch.

JKP: What do you still need to learn in order to really be “a novelist”?

PA: I think my biggest failing is my reliance on flying by the seat of my pants too much, which I was able to get away with in a story. With a novel, you can get into trouble, write yourself into too many corners, without more of an outline. I would hope to have one next time.

JKP: In the course of Concrete Angel, Eve becomes more and more obviously a hoarder, someone whose happiness and self-definition/self-worth are defined at least in part by the accumulation of stuff, no matter how valueless. Did you do a great deal of research about the psychology of hoarding, or do you know people with such inclinations?

PA: Both. I knew a hoarder who could not even throw away a used Band-Aid. This hoarder had an office next to mine and after a while was forced to meet with people outside of his office. I heard rustling in there off and on, and finally called the custodial staff and they carted everything out one weekend (with a family member standing by). In every other way, this person seemed normal. Of course, within a year the office was the same again.

But I also read several books on mental illness [in the] mid-20th century. Especially Women and Madness, by Phyllis Chesler. The way women were treated in the middle of the 20th century was shocking to say the least. I also did some research online and via some of the reality shows that expose these ill people for entertainment.

JKP: Some of the most interesting and comical elements of your new book revolve around Eve’s psychiatric treatments. Every new analyst or therapist she is sent to seems to have a different idea of how to treat (or mistreat) her. Can I assume your opinions of 20th-century psychiatry are mixed, at best, and probably negative?

PA: Again I would recommend Women and Madness, which documents the evolution in treatment. As various drugs came on the market, it became more about finding the right drug than finding what the problem was. And now the average psychiatrist is just there to write prescriptions.

I must also confess to knowing a woman during that period (mid-’70s) who was incarcerated--the only word for it--in Norristown State Mental Hospital in Pennsylvania. What led to her commitment was having an affair with a fellow teacher. For some reason, he was thought to be OK. I saw him not long ago--now in his 80, his wife on his arm.

JKP: This yarn takes place in Philadelphia in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. Did you find returning to the city as you once knew it enjoyable? Were you able to work some of your fonder recollections into the novel?

PA: A lot of the book is set in Bucks and Montgomery counties. In the mid-60s, I spent a lot of time there. Doylestown seemed so provincial to me then. So too, Hatboro. I loved writing about Eve going downtown to shop. I remember downtown Philly so fondly. I was crushed in the ’70s and ’80s, when one after another, those elegant stores all closed. I also enjoyed re-creating life in a Philadelphia townhouse--the fact that to get to the back of the house, you had to go all the way around the block. How you lived elbow-to-elbow most of the time. How little went unnoticed in 750 square feet.

JKP: Concrete Angel depends more on understatement and character building than it does on cinematic action. Yet you begin your story with an action sequence: Eve’s murder of a boyfriend who has discovered her taking money from his wallet. Was that simply to draw readers in immediately, or was it the quickest way to define the dysfunctional association between Eve and her daughter, Christine?

Just yesterday I read a review from [The New York Times’] Janet Maslin in which she said no self-respecting writer would start a novel with a murder now. Nobody told me that. I started there because I wanted to establish right from the start that this woman was someone who would do anything to protect herself. And very little to protect her child. I toyed with the idea of another murder--perhaps Mickey [DiSantis, Eve’s second husband]--but she really only had one murder in her. She was a lot of bad things but not really a murderer.

JKP: As much as I enjoyed Concrete Angel, I was a bit distressed to see your new novel filled with so many typos and missing or incorrect bits of punctuation. We’ve all been conditioned to accept some such errors these days, even in books from major publishers. But was there something about Polis Books’ publishing process that prevented these errors from being caught?

PA: Polis went over it several times and I went over it repeatedly, so I am sorry we have missed so much. I will have to pass this observation along. After a time, a writer just doesn’t see the mistakes, I am afraid. Especially one with old eyes.

JKP: One of the things that many readers know about you is that you’re active in the blogging world. When and why did you first test the waters there?

PA: I started my blog [Pattinase] in 2006. I really liked the idea of communicating with other readers and writers. The Rap Sheet was one of the first blogs I had read as a wannabe crime-fiction writer, and I saw it had many links. My hope was to be linked there. And then CrimeSpot came along and made blogging so much more rewarding.

JKP: Have those rewards changed for you over time? And do you see yourself continuing to blog, even as a successful novelist?

PA: I blog less than I used to. Because so much of my blog is based on my coming up with new topics, I am running out of steam. And Facebook has taken a lot of that steam out of blogs. You can communicate with people very easily there. And in great numbers.

JKP: Seven years ago, in the spring of 2008, you made the suggestion that bloggers interested in crime fiction begin writing periodically about “books we love but might have forgotten over the years.” That idea has since grown into a regular, Web-wide series of “Friday forgotten books” (FFB) posts. Are you surprised that the series is still going strong?

PA: I expected it to last a few months--especially with The Rap Sheet doing a similar series. But when [author-blogger] Bill Crider did a second review the second week and then a third and fourth, I began to think there was a pent-up desire for such a thing. A lot of the reviewers had participated in a newsletter where books were reviewed. That newsletter was coming to an end and I think FFB took its place. I am very surprised that Bill Crider, for instance, has written a book review every Friday for seven years. And there are others not far behind him. I can’t let them down, and passing it on seems too sad.

JKP: Do you have at least anecdotal evidence that these forgotten books posts have encouraged readers to expand their knowledge of vintage crime, mystery, and thriller fiction? How often do you try to track down an old book because of something that’s been written in this series?

PA: I have tracked down quite a few over the years. When I came into this crime-fiction blogging world I didn’t know about a lot of the writers that these reviewers read. I read a lot of best-seller-type crime fiction, but not people like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding or Don Carpenter or Derek Raymond. There was this whole other world of crime fiction that I never heard about. These were the writers on spinner racks in 1960s drugstores. The truly forgotten writers.

And the other participants often mention that they found a book someone else recommended in some obscure place or other. I think it means a lot to a small group of people and, hopefully, some writers that deserve to be remembered are. Just putting a name on the Internet may have some value. I hope so.

JKP: Finally, let me ask which current authors you most enjoy reading. And do you restrict yourself primarily to crime and mystery fiction?

PA: I read crime and mainstream fiction about equally. I really hate favoring one current crime-fiction writer over another, but in the mainstream arena I like Stewart O’Nan, Ann Patchett, Richard Yates, Barbara Kingsolver. I am reading [Ted Lewis’] Get Carter
right now and recently enjoyed The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. Set in Seattle, Jeff. Have you read it?

JKP: Not yet, Patti. But my stepmother-in-law gave me a copy for my birthday, and it’s not far down now from the top of my to-be-read pile. Maybe it’s time to move it up higher yet.

READ MORE:Patti Abbott and Rob Hart: A Conversation” (Shotgun Honey); “Pro-File with Patti Abbott” (Ed Gorman’s Blog); “Patti Abbot: Concrete Angel and More--the Blog Tour Continues,” by Todd Mason (Sweet Freedom).

1 comment:

Barry Ergang said...

Wonderful interview and--not least as a suburban Philadelphian--I look forward to reading Patti's novel.