Patricia Abbott is one of those fortunate wordsmiths who, though she started working on fiction rather late in life, managed not only to get her tales into print, but to win more than modest acclaim for her efforts.
After rearing two children as a stay-at-home mother in Grosse Pointe, a once-exclusive suburb of Detroit, Michigan, and then returning to college during the 1990s to complete her undergraduate degree, in 1998 Abbott saw her first short 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.”) published in an elegant but small journal. That achievement goaded her toward literary prolificacy, and a decade later, the Short Mystery Fiction Society gave Abbott its Derringer Award for an economical yarn titled “My Hero.” Coincidentally, that win came just one day after Abbott’s daughter, crime-fictionist Megan Abbott, picked up an Edgar Award for her hard-boiled 2007 novel, Queenpin.
Now, at age 67, Patti Abbott is finally welcoming her own debut novel into the world, an entrancing domestic suspense yarn titled Concrete Angel. It draws heavily on the author’s memories of growing up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—a city where she went from devouring children’s novels about innocent young girls to getting into trouble as a teenager (“I was hanging out on corners, smoking, running around with some bad types. I had a boyfriend who stole cars for a while.”), and finally being sent by her parents to an expensive “fundamentalist Christian School” that she recalls, “straightened me out pretty quickly.”
Concrete Angel 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.” It also escalates into Eve’s plot to bilk retailers of money by “returning” merchandise she didn’t actually purchase. Recalling her mother’s charming and sweet moments (as when Eve hauled her daughter’s wading pool into the kitchen one wintry day, so the girl could splash around in bubble-filled water as if it were summer), Christine doesn’t wish to forsake her role as her parent’s protector, confidante—and scapegoat. But as Eve’s criminality becomes more daring and dangerous, Christine realizes it is she herself, along with her new stepbrother, Ryan, who really need protection.
Below, I ask Abbott about her birth as a writer, her interest in deeply flawed families and where her new confidence as a novelist might take her next. She also mentions a book she worked on before Concrete Angel, but failed to sell: Shot in Detroit, about “a photographer who hasn’t achieved the success she’d hope for and how she goes about achieving that elusive goal.”
When did you start to think you might like to be a writer someday?
In the mid-1990s when I was finally finishing my B.A. [at Wayne State University in Detroit] I signed up for a class on American Indian Culture. I was taking other classes and working full-time, so when I saw on the syllabus that a book a week was assigned, I decided to change to something else. I saw a poetry workshop that met the same hours (during my lunch break) and I had always harbored a secret desire to write, so I signed up for that. The instructor was encouraging and I went on to win a chapbook contest and published some poetry. But it was not quite the right fit. Editors of poetry journals repeatedly told me that my poems were too narrative. One finally said, “Why don’t you take this poem and use it for an outline for a story?” I did—and it worked. After that I took four classes in fiction writing, went to [Vermont’s annual] Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and joined several writing groups. All have been helpful.
You’ve been quite prolific as a short-story writer. But did you find it difficult to move from penning brief tales to composing novels?
Very difficult, indeed. In a novel you have to hang out with your characters for a long time. You have to create more than a couple of characters, too. They have to interact with the world, go places, think things. It’s not just about this one moment in time. Most short stories take place in an hour or two. Perhaps a day. But a novel...
I would really recommend that no one who wants to write a novel write more than a few shorts before taking the plunge. When I was taking writing classes in the late ’90s, they really pushed learning to write via the short-story form. They didn’t tell me when to stop writing shorts, so I just didn’t. And part of me, a large part, enjoyed spending a month with two characters and then moving on. But those characters weren’t interesting enough to give 300 pages to. I had to learn how to make them worthy of more attention. The most difficult part was pushing ideas for stories that came along aside. Saying, “Yes, that’s a good idea—for later. Write down a sentence, put it on your hard drive and then go back to the novel.”
So many of your stories are about dysfunctional families, and we get another of those in Concrete Angel. Do you just find such families more interesting, or have you never met a family that wasn’t malfunctional on some crucial level?
I guess those families just interest me more. I think my family was pretty functional but not very interesting in terms of a story. I write more about the people down the block—the husband who threw his wife out the front door, the family across the alley who ran a communist cell in their basement and disappeared one night, the friend of my grandmother’s whose wife fell out of a moving car. Living as close as we did in my neighborhood, you saw a lot. And I was the kid that peeked in screen doors to see what was going on. Somewhere there is a picture of me doing just that.
How long had the story in Concrete Angel been kicking around in your head before you tried writing it? And was it always going to be a novel?
Megan challenged me to write a novel. She said I would probably regret it if I didn’t make a try. So after Shot in Detroit (or, as it was called then, Raising the Dead) went nowhere, she advised me to get right to the action in the next book because in SID it takes a long time to develop. She also advised me to look for newspaper stories—something she did but that I had never done, somehow thinking I had to invent it from scratch or from the lives of people I know.…So I found a story about a mother and daughter charged with various credit-card crimes and outright theft. The daughter said in court that her mother made her do it. And that got me to thinking, under what circumstances could a mother make someone commit a crime? And then I remembered the relationship of a childhood friend and her mother.
A lot of [Eve] and a lot of Christine is based on that childhood friend of mine and her mother. Her mother actually did “the return business” and was married to a man much like Mickey [DiSantis] in the book. Their story had its own tragedy. Maybe more tragic than mine.
Eve Moran is notorious shoplifter. Have you ever done any shoplifting of your own?
I did. In that wild period I went through at 15, I shoplifted a brown wraparound skirt from Gimbels Department Store [in Philadelphia]. I didn’t get caught like Eve, though. I had very few clothes if that’s any excuse, so the desire to have a new skirt was great. See why I needed that Christian school?
Eve and Christine have the oddest of symbiotic relationships. Christine depends on her mother for basic survival throughout most of this novel, while Eve depends on Christine for so much more—a child’s love, the reflected fiction of Eve being a decent parent, Christine’s complicity in not revealing her mother’s serial deceptions. But how do you see their relationship?
Eve gave Christine five good years early on and those formative years carried Christine for a long time. For years, Christine thought that Eve—the one who filled the wading pool with bubble bath—might return. And later, she could see Eve really trying to make a life for them both with her marriage to Mickey. So off and on a new seduction took place. But when Ryan comes on the scene, Christine’s sympathies shift entirely to him and any pity for her mother dissolves.
Given its potentially dark subject matter, I was surprised and pleased to see that Concrete Angel is filled with humor. Most of that comes from your prose, but a good deal of it is born from the events that occur. What importance do you place on humor in your storytelling?
From the start, Eve struck me as a very humorous character. Evil, yes. But funny. Her completely self-serving slant on things made her so much fun to write. I had to write her in the third person to keep her from completely overwhelming Christine. By putting Christine in the first person, it balanced things out. I think that without whatever humor there is, this would be a pretty bleak book.
Now that you’re a published novelist, will you sink most of your energies into composing books, or do you still see yourself primarily as a short-story writer?
I have an idea about how to take an early story I wrote and turn it into a novel. Once I turned poems into short stories. Now perhaps the short stories will serve as outlines for novels. But at my age, I am just grateful for an idea for any sort of story. I will never support myself on my writing. That sort of pressure drives writers 30 years younger than me. It is a cruel way to support yourself. How would you like to get a tweet from someone saying, “Hey, I hated your story in....” We are so exposed now.
So are you currently laboring over another novel?
I am finishing up Shot in Detroit. A section of it [titled “On Belle Isle”] is appearing in a British magazine called Litro this month. They are doing an issue on Detroit and asked me to send something along. I have only written one short story in the last six months, so I want to do one or two to keep my hand in.
Patricia Abbott photographed by Ewa Golebiowska.