The Maid-Up Vocabulary of Abby Frucht: An Interview by Curtis Smith

Abby Frucht won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize for her first collection of stories in 1987 and has since published eight books of fiction. Maids, which breaks from that tradition, reckons in poetic form with Frucht’s memories of the women who cleaned her parents’ house when she was a girl—a doctor’s daughter—on Long Island.  Frucht lives in Wisconsin and has served as mentor and advisor at the MFA program in Creative Writing for more than 25 years. You can find her along with some of her essays at www.abbyfrucht.net. You can find Maids for sale on the Matter Press site.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Maids. I really enjoyed it. Can you tell us about the book’s journey? You’ve worked with both big presses and the indies—how do those experiences differ? What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of each?

Abby Frucht: Before Maids, over my decades as a fiction writer I read and wrote only rare bursts of either hybrid form or poetry, so when I thought I  was satisfied with Maids, the first thing I did was to send it around in hopes of learning whether it worked successfully for other readers as any so-called genre at all.  I started out by entering it in a few of the annual small press book award competitions, and I received enough encouragement, in being named a finalist and semi finalist in five or six of the poetry, lyric essay, and short prose contests, to make me keep revising, reinvestigating,  and resolving the pages.  That said, Curtis, I was glad when you mention that when you first read the book, it read like fiction, because I do think of Maids as comprising a single narrative, and for this reason I’ve submitted almost none of the fourteen parts to journals for publication. My feeling was and continues to be that the parts speak of and to each other too much for any one of them to come across individually.

When I started writing Maids I began reading more poetry, as well as memorizing and reciting poetry, in hopes of searching out a vocabulary and an arrangement by which the lived experience might be rendered simultaneously as both figurative and literal. None of Maids is made up, but much of it, as in the parts that give purported voice to my parents’ housekeeper, Cynthia’s private thoughts and musings, are actually giving voice to my child-like apprehension of the things I saw and heard. Maids probably documents my own child’s eye more accurately than it documents the things I believed I was seeing, but since the book is after all about the ways we need to live inside the gaps between the things we believe we understand and the things we don’t or can’t understand, even its gambits feel accurate to me.  My goal with Maids is to say, Here’s what happened, and like all books about things that happened, the events and exchanges that I hope come to life in these pages will feel, to the reader , familiar yet strange, incongruous yet recognizable. The language enacts this dichotomy, which is one of the reasons I knew for sure Maids was a small press book. Matter Press is the smallest press I’ve ever published with, and it’s been a giant pleasure to be the recipient of Randall’s (and his cover designer Roma Narkhede’s) vision and professionalism.  I’ve especially enjoyed the chance to join hands with them in the turning of a manuscript into a book. It’s both a nuts and bolts thing and an art thing. It’s an eye thing and an ear thing.  It’s a how does it read to me thing, and a how does it read to you thing.  An example of the kinds of talks I had with Matter Press that I wouldn’t have felt welcome to have with Scribner or Grove is when I emailed Randall at 3:00 in the morning concerning the book’s font. Because I strive, in Maids, for an undecorated language, employing no similes or even commas, I asked if Randall would consider a sans serif, not wanting the font to be fancier than the things it described. I didn’t expect to hear back until next day, but he wrote back some version of “sure,” at once and next morning we set to work choosing the type.

CS: I’ve enjoyed your previous books—but Maids is pretty different (more on that later)—and your last novel, A Well-Made Bed, was written in collaboration with Laurie Alberts. Was this testing of new boundaries and forms always part of the plan or do you find yourself actively seeking out new challenges at this stage of your career?

AF: Every book is a challenge.  I actually began writing about what would later become the subject of Maids in essay form, but I felt hemmed in by prose and by the apparent obligation of things like syntax and punctuation to make sense of things, to construct hierarchies of thought and utterances. The primary subject of Maids, that is, what I experienced, as a child, as a friendship with my parents’ housekeeper, Cynthia, was all, in looking back on it, not primarily verbal; when I sat with her in her room playing with her hairnet and looking at the picture she had of her daughter, I wasn’t thinking in words but in an emotional, physical register, like when you turn over in bed, sometimes, you don’t say to yourself, I’m going to turn over in bed, you just do it, your body does it, and your self reorients.  I’m sure there’s a term for this—subliminal, maybe?—but what’s important is that the attempt to reconstruct and revisit those years in prose created of them, and required of them, a false measure of meaning and of sense-making that hadn’t been, consciously anyway, part of them.  As a child I never said to myself, “I am seeing what is unfair about Cynthia being stuck upstairs with me in the little room while her daughter my age is 2063 miles away at home on St. Vincent.” No, I was just there, just being, not story- telling or meaning-making.  When I started out writing the earlier mentioned essays about my childhood, what I found was that the use of even a first person voice provided a false center and an irrelevant vector, so my primary challenge became that of finding a way to suggest meaning by letting the past events speak naturally for themselves. Even when the me character is in her adult persona, she seeks sense, and sometimes meaning, in non-expository form. Furthermore, since racism wasn’t a rational, reasoned position in people like my parents (the term microaggression was just then coined and not in common parlance), in writing about them my challenge was to observe and convey the very absence of their rational awareness of the pain and resentment they must have caused in other people. It’s possible of course that I am being too kind to my mother and father, here; I’ve talked about this with my sister. So, too, part of the challenge of Maids for me has been in exploring my feelings, including my enduring love and admiration for the people who raised me.

CS: What drew you to go back and think about Cynthia and the woman who worked for your parents?

AF: A mixture of things.  Of course, as a writer, it’s my habit to allow inchoate thoughts and sensations to find their singular ways into language.  The real question is, why did so many years need to go by before I felt ready to revisit my parents and their housekeepers, and part of the answer to that has to do with a feeling of social, historical, and documentary obligation.  I’m sixty-two years old now, and although the years have been full in all measures personal and professional, the things that I remember and observed as an affluent white doctor’s daughter have persisted in me as documents of the contact that I had, didn’t have, and still don’t have with people of ethnicities and cultures different from mine. I wanted to contribute to the record of these things, plain and simple, and lament them, and maybe, just maybe, partly, atone for them.

CS: This is your first book of poems. To be honest, I wasn’t feeling the poetry angle at first—but by the book’s end, I was. I work with prose, so my understanding and vocabulary of poetry operate on a relatively basic level—but I’m always interested in how we define and draw boundaries between forms. Visually, these pieces look like stories—and there’s a lot of character and narrative. As you were creating these pieces, what were the poetic elements that attracted you? Was the moment-to-moment, sitting-at-your-desk mindset any different for poetry than fiction? If so, how?

AF: To think of Maids as poetry gave me more latitude, stylistically and textually, than I would have felt entirely comfortable taking in prose.  Now, having written Maids, and having enjoyed that process so deeply, I feel ready perhaps to make my prose, too, receptive to such impulses.  In a way, given the complexity of the feelings I have for so many issues and events these days, it sometimes feels more truthful to avoid any sustained sense-making, and to exchange our efforts to explain or understand things for a state of experimental, even resolute, bewilderment….along with a proactive effort to change and upend them.  I was asked around a year ago to write an essay about an autobiographical event for a major publication, and when I finished it and sent it in, the editor’s response was, “But what did it MEAN?? You need to Examine it. You need to tell us WHY you think you did what you did and what you learned from it about yourself and or people in general!!” to which my private response was, “I didn’t learn anything from it.  It happened this way and then it happened that way and I’m still here.”

My intent with Maids is not to examine those years so much as relive them via language and invite my reader to feel sparks of recognition and apprehension about how racism happen and persists.  I do hope Maids counts in some way as a political statement.  I have strong feelings about my subject, that is about my family’s role, and the role of other families like mine, in the racism of the time and place in question, and I hope those feelings come across, with impact.  My books so far haven’t been overtly political, with the exception of Are You Mine?, which is about abortion. Aside from the darker subjects of Maids, I also hope to move and entertain my reader. I want to hit certain nails on certain heads in ways that are funny. To have heard from so many people that they read Maids in one sitting and that they laughed aloud in places is extremely pleasing to me, and gratifying. Finally I hope that Maids is new and different, that when people read it they think, I’ve never read anything quite like this before.

CS: You grew up in New York, but Maids is rooted in your current home, Wisconsin. I’m always interested in the role of place and how it seeps into one’s work. Is there anything you find intriguing about Wisconsin? What about this backdrop do you find compelling fodder for your characters?

AF:  Oshkosh, where I’ve lived for the last thirty or so years, was predominantly white when I moved here in the early 1990s and has become only slowly and incrementally more diverse.  I wish I had black acquaintances, black friends.  I wish I saw more black people on a daily basis. I’ve always wished it.  That wish and the awkwardness that comes with it is one of the emotional centers of Maids.  After Maids is published I hope to be doing some events with groups around town working toward inclusion and diversity, and I look forward to that.

CS: I read Maids in a single sitting, and for me, the pieces built upon each other, a kind of momentum of characters and histories. Is this just my experience—or was it part of your vision? If so, can you talk about it—how it came to you and the challenges of pulling it off?

AF: It was absolutely part of my vision, and I’m thrilled when you and other readers tell me that it works as you say here: a kind of momentum of characters and histories.  The whole thing is meant to read, as you say, as a single entity.  One of the tools I used to that effect was repetition—a repetition either direct or indirect of words, phrases, objects, images, sensibilities, and notations – and via the patterning of those things.  I think often about my responsibility to show my reader how to read the book, and I try to live up to that responsibility.  For instance I use no commas in Maids, as I have mentioned here already, and one of the ways I alert my reader to the purposeful nature of that absence of commas—that is, that it was the result of a decision I made and not just something I stumbled upon—is to make deliberate reference to commas throughout as being things that get swept away, out of sight, a debris of sorts.

CS: You play with form in a number of these pieces—and as I read them, I imagined you having fun doing so. Is this the case? If so, what about these different forms appealed most to you?

AF: Yes, it was fun, but more than that it felt almost athletic to me, not that it was sport, but it was a test of endurance.  When I wrote my second novel, Licorice, decades ago, I was in the zone, artistically, in a way I haven’t been able to duplicate since until now, writing Maids.  The forms and rhythms feel organic to me. They feel honest.  There are no lies in maids. There are no intentional contrivances or gimmicks.  I like the most when the forms stretch past their own apparent limits, as in the part called Web Search, and the part called Occasionally, when I play with and exaggerate my own self-consciousness and with the automatic self-consciousness of language, but I think it’s important to say that those parts are meant to be read like broken off parts of the other, tamer, less-crazed parts.

CS: What’s next?

AF: Good question.  I’m very excited about soon becoming a grandmother, so it’s almost pointless to try to think about anything else, for now. There are a few shapely, conventional essays stewing around in my files; I don’t know to what degree I’ll be able or willing to break away from their correctness but if I invite that possibility maybe I’ll find them less of a struggle and more of a good, solid, artistic challenge.

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American Mystery StoriesThe Best American Spiritual WritingThe Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

 

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