Friday, August 5, 2011

Tony Abbott

Tony Abbott is the award-winning author of more than 80 books for young readers, including Firegirl, The Postcard, and the Secrets of Droon series.

His new book is Lunch-Box Dream.

Last month I asked Abbott what he was reading. His reply:
My desk is usually stacked fairly high with books that play a part in what I’m currently writing. Intermingled with these are standards that I never keep far away; all of Faulkner, for example, or Joyce, Cheever, Ralph Ellison. But since I’ve started to do some teaching of creative writing, I have been going through some craft books lately, trying to find a basic text for my students.

Right now, I’m reading The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch, which purports to synthesize the teaching and writing methods of a lot of varied writers. It’s not too long, which is a good assignment for students, talks a bit about the spiritual mind-work an aspiring writer might undertake, and follows with a bunch of practical advice about drafting and shaping stories, character creation, and the stages of revision. It very much looks like something that I’d like all my students to have under their belts, so I’m reading this carefully and slowly to see if it fits the bill.

One standard book that I enjoyed a lot when I first read it is David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, and I’ve been assigning this lately. What I have found — and this is probably true the longer you have been writing — is that you almost want to say to beginning writers: how you do it is how you do it. So much of what is good in writing comes from a close reading of great texts. Lodge’s book seems at first glance, perhaps, less a practical manual than other guides; he excerpts examples of beginnings, interior monologues, time shifts, mystery, surrealism, a large and idiosyncratic gamut of styles from Austen, Salinger, Updike, Orwell, etc., and then examines exactly what these writers are doing and how they do it. The book is essentially a primer on close reading, and what a writer can gain from meticulous attention to classic writing.

So, these two are on my desk right now. I’ve just finished They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell. This is an early novel, from 1937, and is a mutedly lyrical fictional memoir of his mother’s death from the influenza epidemic of 1918. There are three parts, one for each of the two Morison sons, Bunny, the youngest, and Robert, and the final for their father, James. It is filled with unobtrusively beautiful images and language. James’s part begins, just after his wife Elizabeth has died of influenza: “If James Morison had come upon himself in the street, he would have thought That poor fellow is done for.” Robert’s earlier fever, and Bunny’s bewilderment, first about the baby to come, then about the signs of his mother’s coming illness, are mood-perfect word pictures. What struck me most about the novel, however, was its close tonal similarity to James Agee’s A Death in the Family, published posthumously in 1957. Swallows is a gem, nearly perfect in its artistry, but unfortunately suffers the hugeness of the Agee novel’s shadow, even though it came first. Both are reminiscences of a parent’s death by young boys, though both include other viewpoints. The sudden loss of footing, the panic, the breathlessness that accompanies the death of a parent, is in both books minutely detailed and rendered with an empathy that can only come from memory; yet in Agee the creation of time and place is stunningly photographic, allowing the world of Swallows by comparison to seem hushed, dampened. Which was no doubt one of Maxwell’s effects and brilliances, only to pale against the power of Agee’s artifact. And yet, the Maxwell book is a treasure, any way you look at it, and I’m stacking it with the best.

Finally, a bit of a throwback for me. My new novel takes place in 1959 and contains elements of the civil rights struggle from that time; while I wrote it, I collected lots of books about the time in both north and south, and wish I could go back there for a new book, but it seems unlikely that I’ll cover that ground again. However, when I see a new title, I usually have to get it. The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South by Alex Heard is the sort of book I can fall deeply into. I’ve only just started it (it’s now in paper), so I cannot say much, but since it covers the accusation of rape of a black man in Mississippi in 1945, we all know how the story goes. In-depth historical recreation of momentary, finite events is probably as close as one can get to living in the past, and for me that past, like for the writers on my desk now, is never quite dead.
Visit Tony Abbott's website.

--Marshal Zeringue