From the Booking Desk:
I am thrilled to welcome Patricia Abbott here to BOLO Books today to discuss her new short story collection: I Bring Sorrow and Other Stories of Transgression. The book is available now and you all are going to want to experience these stories for yourself. Read on to find out more about this stunning collection.
BOLO Books: I remember your Facebook post asking for advice when you were struggling with the title for this collection. Tell us a bit about that process and specifically, I am interested to know why the word “transgressions” appealed to you.
Patricia Abbott: I originally planned to title the book Flight Tales since so many of the stories deal with someone in flight-either literally or figuratively. But as the collection began to take shape, the title lost its appeal because it was generic and lacked poetry.
One of the stories in the collection is called, “I Bring Sorrow to Those Who Love Me.” This is the title of an aria by Maria Callas from the opera LA MAMA MORTA, which came to my attention when Tom Hanks, as a dying HIV patient, talked so movingly about the music in the film, Philadelphia. The characters in most of the stories are in states of sorrow or trauma. Jason Pinter, my publisher thought that title was too long and didn’t acknowledge it was a story collection. So it was his idea to include the words “And Other Stories of Transgression.” Of course, all of the stories are about transgressions of some sort.
BOLO Books: “Old Friends” is the most recent story in the collection. Where did the idea to tell the story about the relationships of four college friends later in their lives come from?
Patricia Abbott: In the late sixties and early seventies, most doctoral students paid a professional to type their dissertation. Universities were pedantic about students producing perfect manuscripts. It was a financial burden—some ridiculous sum like two dollars a page in 1970. The joke between my husband and me was that the typist knew more about his dissertation than anyone ever would by the time this perfection was achieved. I had always planned to use that relationship in a story at some point: a typist, that although paid handsomely, still had to be courted to get the work done on time.
More recently, an academic couple we knew purchased a cottage many hundreds of miles away from their jobs. We couldn’t imagine how they would make the time to summer there or if they did they were inaccessible to students and colleagues. So the two ideas sort of come together in this story. Also, I thought the collection needed a lighter story among so many dark-themed ones.
BOLO Books: Many of the stories in the collection are quite dark. For example “A Lamb of God” blends religion, child abuse, and murder to craft a very powerful story. Do you find that your mind naturally tends toward trying to understand the darker side of human nature?
Patricia Abbott: I know that there are many fine writers who can tell a light-hearted story about crime, although it always surprises me. The writers I am attracted to write dark stories: Highsmith, Bruen, Hughes, Millar, Bonnie Jo Campbell, etc. My daughter’s work is as dark as mine, maybe darker because it concerns young women. My son is a criminal prosecutor. It just runs in our blood to see the world as a noirish place. And it has only grown more so recently.
The story you refer to took place in Michigan much as I wrote it. I knew that world growing up in a religious family and attending evangelical schools. I am no longer a church-goer, but the foundation was laid a long time ago. A minister yelling, “Sinners, repent,” seems natural. Extreme religiosity begets extreme behavior.
BOLO Books: You have written both novels and short stories at this point. Contrary to the logic of length, it seems that short stories are universally considered more difficult to write. Do you agree?
Patricia Abbott: I had a hell of a hard time writing a novel. By the time I began writing Shot in Detroit (which was actually written before Concrete Angel) I had written 50-75 short stories so short stories were very natural to me. I had taken four classes, been in three writing groups, all concentrating on the short story. I love to start each day rewriting the first sentence and what follows and that isn’t possible with a novel. I like having just 2-4 characters in the narrative. I also enjoy trying to tell the reader about someone or some place in just a few sentences. Being succinct, eliminating everything but the necessary is my comfort zone. So for me, the novel is much harder. The hardest part was populating it enough and describing the things I had learned to leave alone.
BOLO Books: Why do you feel that the short story has been losing some of its popularity over the years? There seem to be fewer and fewer venues for short story publication and consumption, but historically it was a much more popular format. Any thoughts?
Patricia Abbott: The print outlets for short stories has drastically declined. Most of the magazines that published them are long gone and the remaining ones, such as The New Yorker only publish one an issue and it is solicited. The Atlantic, once a good place to find stories, no longer publishes any. So what short stories do get published are in journals and zines that are basically read by the people who have stories in them. That is true of literary fiction as well as genre fiction. Actually more so.
Short stories should fit well with our diminishing attention span. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magaizine remain but mostly on a subscription basis. I haven’t seen one in a book store (except mystery bookstores like Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor) in a long time. It is very sad and ultimately we have to admit that there are many more calls on people’s free time than there was before the Internet. It is easier to read Facebook than a short story.
BOLO Books: The stories in I Bring Sorrow vary greatly in length. Do you know roughly how long a story is going to be when you set out or is that determined naturally as you are writing? And in the case of writing within certain guidelines – for a publication or a contest submission – do you find that sometimes the story you intended to write just won’t work for that purpose because of length or maybe even other reasons?
Patricia Abbott: Quite a few of the stories in I Bring Sorrow were written for flash fiction sites or anthologies. I was limited in the word count. The short length can make for a dynamic story. But often I will go back and lengthen (and change) the story for another publication that has no word limit. Sometimes I have said all I want to say in the shorter length. Two of the stories in this collection have had several lengths over time. “Fall Girl” was more or less the first chapter of Concrete Angel. When it looked like it would never be published I began taking out parts of it and publishing them as stories. I included it in this collection because it was named a distinguished story a few years ago. Another part of that novel appears in this collection as “Mad Women.” I hate to waste anything!
When I first began writing short stories they were all for print literary journals and they wanted longer stories. As I moved to online publications, the 6000-word story became the 3000 word (or less) story. Reading online is tiring.
BOLO Books: “How to Launder a Shirt” is probably my favorite story in this collection – but then I am partial to surprise endings. What inspired that story?
Patricia Abbott: I read that story aloud at events because people seem to like it. My first writing instructor told us that if we were unable to think of a new story, try using the directions for some mundane activity to kick it off. This story actually tells you very little about laundering a shirt but a lot about domestic strife. But as a pantser I didn’t know that when I began writing it. I also didn’t know how it would end until I got there.
BOLO Books: Several of your stories feature shocking reveals or twists at the end. Do you enjoy stories/books that feature such surprises? Have you ever started a story because you had an idea for a great ending?
Patti Abbott: Endings are very important in short stories. What I strive for is an ending that is both inevitable given the situation but also a bit of a surprise. I sometimes know the ending from the beginning but not usually. And sometimes I think I know it but the characters change as I write. “Lamb of God” was based on a true story so I knew the ending. I had to fight myself not to change it because it was so dire. When a story is that dark starting from word one, you hate to end it on the same note. My husband loves twists so sometimes I think I am writing for him. As my first reader, he deserves to be sated.
BOLO Books: The story “What Baghdad Did To Us” feels very relevant in this time of the #metoo movement. What made you interested to tell a story featuring female military personnel?
Patricia Abbott: There were a number of newspaper articles several years ago about the issues female soldiers were going through on overseas bases. The climate in some of these units was horrific and there was very little being done to address this. A significant number of women were raped and told to suck it up when they reported it. So they instituted a buddy system for going to the john at night. It occurred to me that if the “brass” didn’t take this issue seriously, a female soldier might take it upon herself to mete out justice. Hopefully things have changed but I am doubtful.
BOLO Books: I am interested to know about the process of deciding the order of stories. As a huge music fan, I have always been aware of the significance of track order in determining the “feel” of an album, but surprisingly, I haven’t thought about that too much when it come to short story anthologies. Since the stories in I Bring Sorrow are not presented in chronological order, I have to think a conscious decision was made to place them in this particular order. Yes?
Patricia Abbott: I considered about forty stories for this collection. Once selected, I tried to vary length, setting, age of the protagonist, and point of view. Eight of these are from a male’s point of view and the rest female. They take place in Michigan, New York, Maine, Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania, California, Bagdad, Texas, New England, in the future. Some are very short, others longer. The protagonists are very young to very old. I also varied the period in which the story was set. I hope this kept it from being boring. In many story collections the stories seem too similar. This was my greatest hope, that they would not all seem like another chapter of the same story. Like when you go to see an art show and every painting seems like a slight variation on a theme.
BOLO Books: If forced to choose only one format for all your future reading, which would you choose: Hardback, trade paperback, mass-market paperback, or e-book? And why?
Patricia Abbott: I would choose trade paperback. It is more affordable than hardback. It is more durable than mass market. I read ebooks all the time but they don’t resonate with me as much as something I hold in my hand.