by Annie Scholl

Abigail Thomas is the bestselling author of four works of nonfiction, two short story collections, and a novel. But up until age 48, she had only written poetry.

“I didn’t write words that went all the way across the page until two things happened: Somebody told me a story that I could not get out of my mind—and I went to visit a friend in New Hampshire and a 19-year-old carpenter took me four-wheeling in his pickup truck for seven days where we just fucked our brains out. He had no idea that three of my four children were older than he was. I was nothing but a blonde-headed woman in the front seat of a car. I had no history. We just had a really good time.

“Something about those two things produced my first story, which got published in the Columbia Journal of something or other—and then I was off and writing.”

At age 81, Thomas is still writing—and publishing. Her latest book is Still Life at Eighty: The Next Interesting Thing. It was the first to be published by bookstore-publisher Golden Notebook Press in Woodstock, NY, where Thomas lives with her two dogs Dave and Daphne. In the memoir, Thomas shares ruminations on aging that she wrote when she was mostly housebound during the first two years of the pandemic.

Her fans include authors Stephen King, who calls her “the Emily Dickinson of memoirists,” and Elizabeth Gilbert, who calls Thomas a “master” that Gilbert would follow “on any journey she ever takes.”

While she appreciates the kind words, Thomas is quick to dismiss the fuss. “I really am just an old woman who knows how to write,” she says. “I’m not particularly interesting but I love to write. That’s all.”

Thomas, who has four children, 12 grandchildren, and one great grandchild, is the daughter of renowned science writer, the late Lewis Thomas. When she became pregnant with her oldest child during her first year at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, she was asked to leave and never went back to college.

Thomas lived most of her life on Manhattan’s Upper West Side where she worked as a book editor and a book agent before focusing on her own writing career and teaching. Her first three books were fiction. Her fourth, the bestselling memoir,  A Three Dog Life, was named one of the best books of 2006 by both the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

She’s also written two other memoirs, Safekeeping and What Comes Next and How to Like It, as well as a book on writing, Thinking about Memoir.

When she’s not writing, Thomas often has her hands in clay, which she discovered while her best friend, the late literary agent Chuck Verrill, was in hospice. She found herself drawn to a large clay statue in the window of Verrill’s hospice room.

“Somebody had clearly made it,” Thomas recalls. “I said, ‘I would love to do that someday,’ and her daughter Catherine gave her a box of air-dry clay. Thomas first made faces out of the clay, then began churning out assorted creatures, such as mice, pigs and frogs. She’s now creating figures with arms and legs, their heads frequently down. Her clay creations often lead to musings Thomas shares on Facebook or in online journals, magazines and blogs.

Seated in her favorite chair in her home in Woodstock, Thomas talks with The Sunlight Press.

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You used to paint fried eggs on glass and now you make things out of clay. How do other forms of artistic expression help you in your writing—or does it?

It does. If you can’t do one or the other, you’ve always got the other to do. The clay is very bossy. If you want to make something and it doesn’t want to be that thing today, it won’t let you. You can try for hours, and it still won’t let you. And then it shows me what it wants to be—and then I get to write about that. So, clay for me is both making the things and then writing about the process and any other thing that’s going on in my life.

That sounds like writing: You can’t force it to be what it doesn’t want to be, right?

Yes, exactly. Often the most fun kind of writing is when you surprise yourself. I think if you’re writing something and you know exactly what you want to write and where you want to end, you’re probably doing something wrong. Along the way, there should be a little hiccup where you head off in a different direction than where you thought you were going.

How did you give yourself permission to be a sculptor—an artist, a writer?

I think it’s better if you don’t know what you’re doing. I think writing is better if you forget everything and just start as a beginner, no matter how many things you’ve written or how many books you’ve made. Every time you start, you’re a beginner and you don’t really know quite what you’re doing, but you know that something has grabbed a hold of you, and you just need to follow it to see where it takes you. It can be as simple as a wasp with one wing when there’s nothing else going on, which was what two years of COVID were like.

It seems people are always trying to get to the nut of what makes Abigail Thomas, Abigail Thomas. When they ask about your process, I see you kind of twist up your face.

I don’t know is the answer. I don’t know what I do. I know I want to distill and not decorate. My memory is for moments, freestanding moments, and I want to write that and then get out. I do write for clarity — to figure things out that you didn’t even know you were looking to understand. That’s why, when you write, nothing is wasted, because whatever you write isn’t what you’re going to wind up with—but it leads you to the first sentence of what you’re really going to write. You must go through that process and find things out along the way or discard them. You don’t really know what you’re doing when you start, and then you figure it out along the way.

You make it seem possible for any of us to write.

It probably is. Don’t forget—I’m 81 and more things are possible when you’re 81 than they are when you’re 40.

What’s the difference between 81 and 48 when you started writing?

There are no other distractions. All the stuff that mattered when you’re young, it doesn’t even enter your head. You’re just simply who you are or who you’ve gotten to be. And you can focus on it. You don’t get distracted by whoever you want to go out with or what you look like, or if your clothes fit. You can focus because a lot of it is cleared away. The mess—the stuff that doesn’t matter—doesn’t matter. And you don’t mind doing it badly because you know you have to do some of it badly until you can get to where you really edit.

So, when you see that one-winged wasp, what is your process? Do you grab a notepad? Is your laptop always open?

I used to write with my hand, but my right hand won’t write legibly anymore so I write little emails to myself, or I scribble on pieces of paper and hope I’ll be able to read it later.

Do you gather them up into a Word document?

No, I actually don’t know how to open a Word document. It’s just a big mess.

How do you know when something you’ve written is finished?

When I read it out loud to myself and my voice doesn’t go dead and, when I’m done, I’m satisfied. It takes some time. You know when something’s missing, when this sentence is hiding something you don’t want to write about, and you have to peek over the other side of the sentence and drag that up. You don’t necessarily need to put it in, but you need to know that it’s there.

What is it like at this stage of life to have a new book out in the world?

It’s lovely. It’s fun. It’s nice at 81 to publish a book. I have one more in me if I live long enough and that’s the writing that I’m doing—about making things. Writing about the clay figures is also writing about not having Chuck (her best friend and agent who died in January 2023) anymore. At least twice a day, I want to call him and ask him or tell him something or hear his voice. It’s hard to believe he’s gone. It’s hard to lose somebody who instinctively gets you.

I do want to write this book. A lot of it needs to be deepened and most everything I’m writing now fits in it. I can’t imagine not writing. I really can’t. It makes you your own best companion.

What do you hope people learn from your experience as a writer?

That you can do it. You can do it. And being a beginner is the best way to write. Forget everything you ever learned. Forget the words, ‘narrative arc’ and ‘theme.’ If I had finished college, I don’t think I would ever have dared to write. Too many rules, too many voices in my head reminding me that I needed a narrative arc. And a denouement. Nonsense. You just have to write and keep writing—and be willing to leave your ego in another room while you write.

Publication is wonderful, it’s lovely, but even more wonderful is what you can figure out about your life, what you can learn about yourself by the just plain hard work of honest writing.

 

Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr