Q&A: Chris Bachelder, Abbott Awaits

(photo credit: Jennifer Habel)

Q&A returns! First, take a minute to enjoy the segment’s highly unauthorized theme song by Alphabeat (via this highly unauthorized audio clip).

This time I am joined by the author of Abbott Awaits, and I’ll open with something that will probably come off like hyperbole: Chris Bachelder is the absolute best, funniest author you aren’t reading. His sophomore novel, 2006’s U.S.!, is one of my top five favourite books of all time. I mean that very sincerely. Now he’s back—thank god—with a hilarious, daring, gorgeous follow-up, about an everyman suburban husband and father struggling to get through the daily ins and outs of his summer vacation.

I’m going to write about my favourite books of the year next week. Here’s a teaser: Abbott Awaits has a prominent spot on that list.

With any luck, the following conversation will help explain why.

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Abbott Awaits is a book about adulthood, marriage, and the “self-annihilation” that accompanies becoming a parent. Were there other books in these traditions—call them “domestic”, or maybe “suburban”—that you looked to while writing it?

Chris Bachelder: I admire Paula Fox’s fierce writing about marriage. Lydia Davis is also wonderfully rigorous and observant in capturing the daily attractions and repulsions of home life. Evan Connell’s Mrs. Bridge and Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts were models of form, tone, and point of view.

I once had a teacher, Josh Russell, who taught White Noise as a domestic novel in a forms of fiction class. That was interesting to me. Of course it is a domestic novel, but not many people talk about it in those terms. I’ve always loved the passage where Jack Gladney sifts through the trash in the kitchen compactor. There’s a long and vivid description of what he finds in that trash bag. I think in some ways that passage was important to me in writing Abbott—looking so closely at the things that are hidden in the house.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit to how often, and how intensely, I related to Abbott’s struggles. He feels like a distinct person, but at the same time, something of a cipher; you told The Rumpus he was originally referred to only as The Obsolescent Satirist. Does that mean he was intended as a universal figure of white, middle-class fatherhood? Or did that idea shift over time?

CB: I suppose he began as more of an archetype. Certainly the book began as a more conceptual, idea-driven book, and then it got more and more particular and idiosyncratic. But even when I gave the character a name (instead of a more universal title), I gave him only one name, and I chose it carefully. (I liked the religious connotations—monasterial, cloistered—and I liked that the word comes etymologically from “father.”)

I suppose I wanted to have it both ways. That is, I wanted Abbott to be unique character with very distinctive modes of thought, but I also wanted him to seem familiar. I hoped that readers would experience that great sense of recognition that I often feel when reading. I was really gambling on this, in fact, because I didn’t want Abbott to seem, in his darker moments, like a bad husband or father. I was counting on other people sharing his profound ambivalence about domestic life. I was hoping that the articulation of some of these questions or paradoxes or vexations would be in a sense pleasurable or cathartic.

Anyway, it seems to me that we come to fiction for both things—to meet interesting, unique people and to recognize ourselves in them.

Abbott has many tendencies that, when boiled down to their essence, are pretty indefensible. But you root for him anyway, in part because nobody’s more aware of his failures than he is. Do you think Abbott is, at heart, a sympathetic character?

CB: Well, ultimately, it’s not for me to say. But yes, I do think he’s a sympathetic character. He’s conflicted, he has ugly thoughts, and he’s frequently exasperating. But he loves his wife and his kid, he is committed to family life, he is aware of his shortcomings, he is occasionally alive to wonder, and he is struggling—really struggling—to reconcile his abstract beliefs and values with his everyday thoughts and actions. I wouldn’t want to be married to him, but then again, you could do a lot worse.

Abbott belongs to a generation of men who, generally speaking, don’t really have a model for how to be an involved father. I’m not saying let’s all pity or applaud men for doing what women have been doing for a long time. I’m just saying that the Very Involved Dad is a relatively new societal phenomenon/expectation, and it can create both an expansive joy and an expansive frustration. And it can lead to a crisis of identity. 

The book’s structure is marvelous: 94 one-paragraph chapters, one snapshot for each day of Abbott’s summer break and his wife’s third trimester of pregnancy. What were the benefits of using such a structure? The drawbacks?

CB: I began by just writing some small pieces without any sense of overall structure. I knew I was going to have to find a shape, though, or else I would never know I was finished, and I wouldn’t be able to create any sense of movement at all. So eventually I came upon the idea of using the summer as a container for the book. That was nice because it’s a trimester and because it coincides with a professor’s break from teaching.

I also like the sense of dailiness, and this in fact becomes the meaning of the book. The novel doesn’t have a series of sequenced scenes, plot points that create anticipation and forward movement. The birth of the second child is out there to create a faintly ticking clock, but the meaning is in the dailiness. And this is Abbott’s experience. These little hermetically sealed chapters with no paragraphing to let in light or air—this is Abbott’s mind, his home, his consciousness.

What this structure allowed me to do is to observe carefully, to be attentive to Abbott and his home. I could tell discrete mini-stories without concern for transition. It also allowed me to suggest the movement of time, the day-by-day expiration of the summer. It gave me a clock. And when putting the chapters together, I could think carefully about the arrangement of elements and moods. I could create a June feel, a July feel, an August feel. I could mix long and short, light and dark, as well appropriately arrange chapters on the basement, daughter, dog, etc.

The drawback of this form is that it basically requires plotlessness. It’s necessarily a very quiet novel. It has a slight hum, as one editor (who rejected it) said. It lacks “oomph,” said another editor who rejected it. In fact, twenty-five editors rejected it, primarily because it has no strong plot or movement.

You’ve published a novel every five years since 2001, though there are obviously many hidden factors behind such a timeline. How long did you work on Abbott Awaits versus the first two books (each of which is complex in their own right)? How did the processes compare?

CB: Abbott Awaits is a short novel, but I worked on it as long or longer than any other book. The first draft took about a year, but there were several other drafts that included substantial changes. I began writing what would become the novel in the spring of 2007, and it was published in the spring of 2011. At one point after the book was accepted by LSU, I cut six or eight chapters and wrote new ones. The thing about my form is that the number of chapters is pretty rigidly set. If I wrote a new one, an old one had to go. So all told, I suppose there was two and a half to three years of work on this very small book. But I worked hard on revision. I had a fantastic editor (Michael Griffith), and I did a lot of line-to-line work. The result is that I think this is my sharpest, most precise, most polished writing.

This is the first book I wrote with kids. Consequently, I had less time to write and I had less mental energy to invent worlds. So I wrote from my circumstances, and I found that the short chapters were a good way to proceed, given my daily constraints.

Kids change at a ridiculous pace. Abbott’s daughter in the book is 2; you have two daughters of your own. Was it difficult to hold that one stage of childhood in mind as your own kids were growing and reinventing themselves around you?

CB: This a very good question. When I read Abbott now, I realize that the things Abbott is going through already seem so distant. My wife and I have passed through that. It seemed like it would never end, but it’s over. A two-year-old is just way different than a four-year-old—the joys and the problems are much different. I was able to complete the first draft in a one-year window, so everything remained fairly fresh. Also, though the book is set in the summer before the birth of the second child, I was writing it after the birth of my second child. So as I wrote and revised, my younger daughter was coming into the age of the child in the book. Which is to say that as I lost one two-year-old model in the house, I gained another one, enabling me to maintain all the fatigue, joy, and frustration I needed to get Abbott right.

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Want to read more? Sure you do. Here’s where you can buy Abbott AwaitsAmazon (Canada)Amazon (U.S.).

And stay tuned for more Q&As, just as soon as I can find and exploit some other authors’ personal email addresses. Hooray!

Previously:

Kaitlin Fontana, Fresh at Twenty

Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers

Katherine Silver (translator), Tyrant Memory

Rob Taylor, The Other Side of Ourselves

Alison Espach, The Adults

Read the full Q&A archive here.

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