Abbott was nominated for the Best Paperback Original category for her novel, Shot in Detroit.
It was a fun panel for lots of reasons including the fact that among the fellow panelists (Tyler Dilts, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Wendi Corsi Staub) was Patricia’s daughter Megan, who was nominated that year for best short story.
Yeah, that’s me the name dropper. But what a powerhouse group! And what a cool thing, mother and daughter nominated in the same year for related awards.
Shot in Detroit (Polis Books) was certainly a worthy choice as a finalist—gritty, memorable, and unusual in a variety of ways. So I started following Patricia on social media and admiring both her deep engagement in the writing community and her keen awareness of the history of crime fiction.
Then we got a chance to talk in Toronto when we met again at Bouchercon. (Side note: she’s classy, kind and very smart.)
Patricia Abbott has published two novels but she’s also known for her short stories—125 of them! And when this new collection came out, I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression, I wasn’t surprised to find the same raw, real voice that revealed itself in Shot in Detroit.
A full review follows but, first, Patricia Abbott was kind enough to answer a few questions by email.
Question: Transgression is such a great word—it covers so much ground, doesn’t it? Does every good story need some sort of transgression to be effective? One boundary or rule violated? Is thinking about the transgression often a starting point for you?
Patricia Abbott: The use of the word transgression was actually Jason Pinter’s (publisher of Polis Books) idea. Looking over the stories, all of them have either a crime, a conflict, a misunderstanding, illness, or something dark. I usually start with a character and as I get to know him, I can see what his likely conflict will be. I think every story needs conflict.
Question: You’ve published 125 stories—how were these 25 selected? Were they your choice?
Patricia Abbott: I published two ebooks, Monkey Justice and Home Invasion (which are coming out again in print and ebook next year from Down And Out Books) a few years ago which included about 40 of my stories. I tried to pick stories for this collection that varied in setting, gender, class, subject, and to some degree genre. Yes, they were entirely my choice although Jason asked for at least one new story and five more than I originally sent.
Question: When you come across an idea for a short story, do you have the ending in mind right away, or do you find a character to write about and dig in, see what happens?
Patricia Abbott: I rarely have an ending in mind although that would be a good way to go! Sometimes I hear a line that evokes a story. That happened with “Burned the Fire” where I heard a woman on the street in Ann Arbor say, “I really don’t mind the scars,” which fascinated me. (And I used that line for a flash fiction challenge on my blog) Usually I start with a character, but sometimes a news story or a story someone tells me spurs a story. Lately, I have been writing more for themed anthologies, so I am more hemmed in. I just wrote stories based on a painting, a song, a clown.
Question: You seem to have an eye out for ordinary people, overlooked characters, people on the fringes. Is that a fair statement? The big umbrella of crime fiction typically features cops and detectives and lawyers directly involved in law enforcement, but this collection of stories is more drawn to the personal dramas, real struggles of regular people. What attracts you to those lives and spaces?
Patricia Abbott: I think it comes from writing mainstream stories for five years before I moved over to crime. But every short story I wrote had a significant conflict in it and gradually I fit better in the crime fiction field. (Editors began to tell me that). I was determined to stay away from academic settings as much as possible. That sort of person populates far too many stories. I grew up among every day people as did my husband. It is their struggles that I understand best. We had blue-collar backgrounds. Although blue-collar, union, Democratic party families. Things have changed now.
Question: Okay, the title story, I Bring Sorrow, is macabre and surreal and creepy with a nifty structure, too. Care to share what inspired this bit of darkness?
Patricia Abbott: I have a friend who plays the cello just for herself. She doesn’t need to perform to enjoy the instrument. The cello has a pride of place in her living room and so too the music she practices. She is very petite and the cello looms. That image has always haunted me. I took that idea to its extreme and introduced the idea of a husband who was equally obsessed in his own way. He enables her life style, but he also dreads it over time. And it begins to haunt him. Is it a horror story? Has he murdered her? Is he imagining it? The reader gets to decide.
Question: You seem to have such an easy way of getting a story up and running, so matter of fact in your storytelling style. What’s your secret? How does one develop a short story touch?
Patricia Abbott: I am not sure I can answer that one. It takes me a long time to write a story. Four to six weeks, three to four hours a day. Most of that time is spend in rewriting. I move forward very slowly. I am constantly weeding out words that are unnecessary or too fancy. (Unless I am writing about that sort of person.) I want it to sound like something someone has told you over a cup of coffee. A short story touch probably came from taking four writing workshops where I wrote shorts exclusively. It felt like it was leading to a novel, but in fact it made it harder to switch. It suits my personality to have few characters, compressed time, one setting.
Question: Favorite short story writers? And, while we’re at it, favorite writers in general?
Patricia Abbott: The writers that most inspire me include: Alice Munro, William Trevor, John Updike, Ray Carver, Tessa Hadley, Jean Thompson, Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’Connor. Novelists include, Stewart O’Nan, Margaret Millar, Elizabeth Taylor, Charles Willeford, Larry Watson, Shirley Jackson, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith, Ken Bruen, Laura Lippman, Josephine Tey, Wallace Stegner, Ross Macdonald, Henning Mankell. Oh, so many more.
Question: Okay, not about short stories but you’ve been keeping and running a blog for a long, long time including a feature called Friday’s Forgotten Books and mentions of forgotten television and movies, too. When did you start the blog, how much time does it take to keep the blog full of fresh content, and what do you get out of looking back through all that’s been published and all the stories that have been filmed? How much do you read each day? Each week?
Patricia Abbott: I started the blog in 2006 and those were the halcyon years for blogs. I was looking for interesting things to do with the blog. Something not completely solipsistic. I intended for Friday’s Forgotten Books to last only a few weeks with different people talking about books they liked from the past. I recruited various writers to write one review. I asked Bill Crider to write one the first week, but he thought I was asking him to write one every week. Other people began to do that as well so I thought, well, we’ll see how long they can keep it up. And somehow ten years have passed.
Another feature I did a lot back then was to post a flash fiction challenge and the book Discount Noir came out of one of those challenges. As more flash fiction sites came into play, I gave that up. I also asked people to use my blog to promote their new work (How I Came to Write This Book). But after a while it seemed like I was asking them for a favor rather than doing them one, so I largely gave it up but would be happy to resurrect it for anyone who wants to do one.
I only post on the blog three days a week at most now because Facebook serves the purpose blogs used to serve. And I don’t really keep it very fresh. But for a long time, I put a lot of thought and time into it. I like asking questions so it fit my personality well. I still ask them but mostly on Facebook. There was a time when I would get dozens of people a day on that blog. Now 4-5 is more likely. And those are people who are not on Facebook.
Question: What are you working on now / next?
Patricia Abbott: I am working on a novel called Out Collecting Berries at the moment. I have about 75 pages and know how it will end for once. I just wrote a story for the next Lawrence Block anthology and one for Holly West’s Go-Go Girls anthology, and am doing one for an anthology of clown stories.
Thanks so much for hosting me, Mark. It has been great getting to know you over the last year.
Patricia Abbott’s blog.
Patricia Abbott makes it look easy. Her stories hit you as matter-of-fact. In their simplicity and everyday flavor, they are beguiling. After she delivers a few twists, jabs you with a surprising jolt, you might think you’re ready. But you drop your guard again and you dive in again, all innocent and unaware.
Not all her stories are of the twisty-twisty-whoa variety. The 25 entries in I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression are a variety pack—from plaintive to moody to shocking to surreal to whimsical. Abbott gives a dose of sci-fi, a splash of history, and many keenly-observed characters of the present dealing with friction, troubles, issues, obsessions, conflict, and the occasional murder. Abbott follows no formula for setting the stage for these gems; she doesn’t tip her hand on what level of darkness (or relative lightness) lies ahead.
Empathy is a hallmark. She writes warmly of the overlooked and some of her characters, like the woman who owns the Tucson café in Is That You?, see less-fortunate lives and wonder about getting involved.
But at every turn, the storytelling is organic, easy-going, and unforced.
“You’ll find my mom sitting most days on the sun-bleached bench outside Von’s Market.” That’s the opening line of “On Pacific Beach,” about a daughter with a need to find and protect her homeless mother from a looming danger—and an unusual plan to do so.
“When I was twelve, my mother shot a soda pop salesman she’d known less than eight hours.” That’s the opening line of “Fall Girl,” one of the most literal and ironic titles ever.
“Weddings after a certain age, say thirty-five or forty, often smack of a bargain.” That’s the opening line of “Social Contracts,” one of those murder-twisty stories, a splash of Patricia Highsmith washed and rinsed through O. Henry.
I was enjoying all the stories but then hit No. 13, “Ten Things I Hate About My Wife,” and No. 14, the story that lends part of its title for the collection, “I Bring Sorrow To Those Who Love Me.”
The structure of both stories is clever. The first, quite obviously, is a list. “Number one: no one knows more about almost anything than Kerrie. No kidding. You might your degree in social anthropology makes you an expert in gang practice in modern L.A., but I’m telling you that Kerrie, despite only being in Los Angeles once, knows more about the subject than Mayor Garcetti.” The ending of this one will have you circling back to the beginning and wondering how Abbott suckered you along for the ride and its gut-punch ending.
In “I Bring Sorry to Those Who Love Me,” Abbott deploys mini-headers to set off her story of obsession. The mini sections are Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuet and Gigue. I’m not too proud to say I had to look up all but ‘prelude’ and ‘minuet.’ The other four are references to Renaissance or baroque dances, which is perfect once you learn how deeply Eli and Nanette will tangle. Again, a zinger finish. Why do some of us see the “door to freedom” and nonetheless run the opposite way? Eli hangs around Nan’s practice room “as if it were a hive and he, a drone.” You’ll be the one buzzing when this story wraps.
I Bring Sorrow & Other Stories of Transgression is a dazzling collection. Due to the variety, it might be best to wait a day or two between reading each one or savor a dish of mango sorbet to cleanse the mental palette so you can start each story fresh, uninfluenced by what you just read. But the next story is sitting right there. And it starts so well … so …