Laurie Alberts is the author of three previous novels (Tempting Fate, The Price of Land in Shelby, and Lost Daughters), two memoirs (Fault Line and Between Revolutions: An American Romance with Russia), a story collection (Goodnight Silky Sullivan), and a book on the craft of writing (Showing & Telling). Her work has received the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award, the Hackney Literary Award, an American Fiction prize, and a James Michener Award. She has taught fiction and creative nonfiction writing at Vermont College of the Fine Arts, Hampshire College, and the University of New Mexico. She lives off the grid in Vermont.
Abby Frucht won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize for 1988 for her story collection Fruit of the Month and has since published five novels including Snap (Ticknor & Fields), Licorice (Graywolf), Are You Mine? (Grove), Life Before Death (Scribner) and Polly’s Ghost (Scribner.) Her newest novel, A Well-Made Bed, which she wrote with memoirist, novelist, friend and colleague, Laurie Alberts, is her first collaborative work, and will be published in March, 2016. Abby has won two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and has been a member of the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts for two decades. She lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and currently serves as one of a three-judge panel for the Pen Faulkner Award in Fiction.
Darkly comic, A Well-Made Bed explores the question of just why and how people who see themselves as honest, law-abiding citizens can step over the line into being felons – how they justify their actions and how they live with them. More specifically, it’s about Jaycee, home-schooled and raised as though it’s 1850 in her dotty father’s “Living History Book” park and Noor, a Pakistani-American therapeutic riding instructor, who get entangled over Jaycee’s enfeebled parents and the shocking contents of a wheel of Peruvian cheese. They are both desperate for cash; the opportunity encased in the cheese leads them into criminal acts and betrayals of their friendship, other people, and themselves.
Curtis Smith: A collaborative novel is such a unique undertaking. Can you take us back to its genesis? What came first—the desire to work together or the idea for the story?
Abby Frucht: One morning in May 2010, I stumbled on a newspaper story about dementia patients in the New York Times, describing efforts by police to find dementia patients who had wandered off from whatever constituted home. I was fascinated to learn that such patients not infrequently head toward water, either because their bodies know enough to make an effort to stave off thirst or because somehow, instinctually, the patients understand that streams and creaks will lead them to a place in which they might be found. The detective who was being interviewed also stated that patients who wander sometimes wander in the direction of places from out of their pasts, as if, I figured, to relive old events and come to a reckoning. I thought, “This stuff sure would make for a cool novel – some old person wandering back toward some moment in their past, some wrong they did or was done to them. My parents were in a nursing home by then, Dad withdrawn into his private, peaceful universe but mom growing agitated as her own cognitive decline accelerated…so I felt I could speak to such a person on paper and negotiate with them to form an as yet unimagined story. I figured there would be a daughter in the novel, too, who followed the wandering parent around and learned things about them and her familial history. Unfortunately I realized within less than ten minutes of enthusing about it that I had no wish to tackle such a story on my own. My books are ordinarily quiet affairs and I wanted this book to be noisier and also less dreamy and more realistic. So I called up Laurie, whose work I admire for its groundedness, its pacing, and its rationality. I said, “You wanna write a novel with me?” And she said no.
Laurie Alberts: Abby came to me with the idea of writing a novel together and as is my usual habit, I said no immediately both to the concept of collaboration and her proposed subject matter. But we began to play around with ideas and I decided, why not? We were both tired of writing alone and ready to try something new.
CS: How deep did you go into the discussion/planning stage before you started writing? Was the story’s arc set at that time or did you discover its path as you went along?
AF: One of the reasons we worked well together is that neither of us is a stickler for needing to know what will happen next. You know that bit about some writers being like drivers in snow storms who can see just far ahead enough of their own windshields not to self destruct? We are that sort of writer. This is not to say we didn’t plan and discuss, but generally we discussed plans only in light of the writing that was already in front of us. Laurie made new things happen in her chapters and I made new things happen in mine, and then we needed to reconcile those things and make them work either for or against each other in the service of a sometimes elusive but always purposeful chapter by chapter trajectory. There’s not a lot of sitting still in this book, owing to the way we managed to stoke each other’s forward momentum.
LA: Throughout the entire process we brainstormed ideas about characters and plot, then moved forward independently before opening each chapter to the other’s responses. Our story evolved over time; we started out thinking we were writing about a murderer with dementia and ended up writing about two naïve women who get in over their heads in the drug trade. The murderer with dementia still exists as a subplot but the major events and relationships in the novel belong to Jaycee and Noor.
CS: How did it work physically? Did you alternate chapters? Did you each focus on a different character?
AF: Generally yes, we each had our own character and we wrote chapters for our own character and traded them for comments and revisions, but as the book expanded and more characters began to demand recognition our exchanges became more fluid, such that there are whole chapters that when I read them now, I can’t remember who started them. We exchanged chapters and comments via email, talked regularly via phone and skype, and saw each other twice a year in Vermont while at Vermont College of Fine Arts, the low residency MFA in writing program where we both taught. I wanted us to make our comments via Track Changes but since Laurie hates Track Changes we found other ways. I loved the drives we took in Laurie’s truck scouting out locations then stopping at this tiny general store in Adamant to drink diet cokes and hash over the stuff we had seen.
LA: As Abby said, we started by writing from different characters’ points of view and then rewrote each others’ chapters, writing in different colored fonts with suggestions, additions, new language and plot ideas. Eventually we got to a point that we no longer knew who had written what because we’d merged our prose to such a degree. We did, however, maintain a rule that whoever had written the first draft of a chapter had the final say in an argument over events or word choices. We were helped enormously by the immediacy afforded by email. And we set the novel in Montpelier – a great little city, smallest capital in the US – because it was the only place we both knew well due to our years of residencies there for our teaching jobs.
CS: When one writes a novel there are always elements that rise organically from the work—elements that often come as a surprise. Did this happen in this book? If so, how did you work it out? Did you ever find that you came to separate but similar realizations during the course of the writing?
AF: For me, every sentence holds a surprise even after I’ve written twenty versions of it already… but that was one of the habits I wished to get away from, the endless playing and experimenting with words, jokes, syllables, commas, innuendos, layers, etc. Laurie reined me in, but not before I spun her sentences backwards and forwards – riffing, I call it – to see what might become of them.
LA: Not so much separate realizations as separate discoveries in first drafts, then joint realizations as we discussed, revised, critiqued, argued, and played with the manuscript.
CS: Once you had a complete draft, how did you handle the revisions? Did you revise each other’s work or just your own? How did you work out the differences in your writing styles to emerge with a book that had its own, singular voice?
AF: We revised as we went along, and then, more than just once or twice, we revised the whole book simultaneously. We continually posed both large and small questions of each other, and even now that the book is out there we debate Jaycee and Noor’s characters and discuss Gerry’s future. I insist he would make a great nurse; Laurie says I’m out of my mind.
LA: Through the process of writing into our collaborator’s chapters the prose became seamless and no longer represented just one of our styles. Abby is much quirkier and lyrical than I am; I’m more reality based, so I grounded Abby and she lifted me both in our ideas for what should happen in the book and in its language. .
CS: I’m guessing that at the end of this you each learned something from the other—or from the experience in general. If that’s the case, may I ask what that was?
AF: I learned that it’s more important to satisfy my reader than to entertain myself.
LA: After a lifetime of writing alone I learned to let go of the ego of being the sole creator and open myself to Abby’s views of the world and of the writing process. I did a lot of saying “No” to Abby’s ideas but I also came to see that when I took another look I often changed my mind to “yes.” There was a joy in knowing that as soon as I finished my next section Abby would be there eagerly waiting to read and revise it, and vice versa. It made the writing process always surprising, sometimes very frustrating (which it is when you write alone as well), and often a great deal of fun.
CS: What’s next? Any plans for future collaborations?
AF: I’ve never set up my own book tour before. It’s a full time job. I’m sure that once we’re on the road we’ll be batting around ideas for a sequel, whether we end up writing one or not.
LA: We’ve talked about a sequel… Abby and I are very different in world views, composition process, language and yet we found we balanced each other beautifully. Even in doing publicity for the book we continue to balance one another – Abby is much more willing than I am to approach people and make requests; she is highly organized about keeping track of where we’re going and whether the books will be there when we arrive. I am better with computers and was willing to learn how to make a web page and a video trailer for the book. Somehow it all works out great. Our abilities mesh. We certainly had some very nasty arguments along the way but we were able to laugh and move on.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chap books, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. Dock Street Press has just put out his latest book, Communion, an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing will publishing his next book, a collection of essays about Slaughterhouse Five.