Frank Borsch interviews Keith Abbott
An Interview with Keith Abbott

by Frank Borsch?

Keith Abbott was born in Tacoma/Washington in 1944. He spent most of his youth there and his recollections of growing up in the northwest of the United States are the basis for his best known work, the Northwest Stories. The series tracks the lives of a group of young people from the area in the form of interconnected short stories. Today, Abbott teaches writing at Naropa Institute, the only accredited Buddhist college in America.

Q: Let's start with your biography.

A: I was raised outside of Tacoma, Washington, in the country. I grew up in a small one-acre place with my mother and father. My father was working in a feed mill; my mother basically ran the place and our raspberry field. So we sold raspberries out of our backyard. I went to the same high school, stayed in the same place for 21 years, which is very rare in America that somebody lives in one place that long. I went to college on a football scholarship. My father didn't have enough money to put me through school.

I lived a kind of schizophrenic life — I was in high school athletics and I was socially acceptable. At the same time, I was running with a gang of guys who were thieves and crazies. It was a strange life and when I came to try to write about it, I had to divide myself into two characters because to put those two characteristics together didn't work.

Q: That remindes me of the story you told yesterday at the reading about you raising and slaughtering cattle. Doesn't sound like the kind of person who'd become an author.

A: I read a lot because I was ill a lot. It turned out that I was allergic to tobacco — both of my parents smoked — , I was allergic to jute which is rope that you use in farming, I was allergic to burlap which is the cloth animal feed comes in. We had burlap all over the place. I was also allergic to cowhide — and I raised steers!

When I was younger, I missed 45 days out of the school year. I was sick all the time, so I read. I loved reading. I got around the stigma of being an athlete and then being a reader by writing papers for my fellow athletes at school for money. For a couple of dollars, I would write their book reports, their essays, whatever. It was a good source of money.

Q: It was also a good source for writing — your collection The First Thing Coming is highly autobiographical, isn't it?

A: Well, it's very fictionalized but a lot of what happens there did happen in some form or another. It's just that I turned it around and fictionalized it. I took incidents that happened to me or my friends and then would turn it around and give it to somebody else. Some of the things are straight ahead. The first story about rolling cars on the military reservation, I did roll cars on the military reservation. The story about Mary Lou and the perfect husband, that happened. A young woman got pregnant and then in class she was really embarrassed by the ignorance of our teacher. "Rick at the A&W" about a young man — way before Vietnam was known — coming back from Vietnam and telling about the horrors that he was in. These are true, but the best stories are all fiction. There is a story in the book called "Spanish Castle" that everyone likes. It's about a young woman named Franci Tepping who ran with a gang and leaves the gang at the chance to date a guy named Dean Hagenbarth who's socially well connected. For Franci it is a chance to get out of her situation. It doesn't work out that way. That's truly made up.

Q: The German edition of The First Thing Coming is subtitled "A Novel in Short Stories". Why is that?

A: I didn't do that in America because I was advised that that would be deadly for reviews, because then the reviewers would only talk about whether there is such a thing. And you don't want them to quibble about the terms you use. So we just called it a book of short stories in America. My German editor assured me it wouldn't be a problem here, and so I left it at that. Basically, it is what a reviewer called a "sequential novel".

Q: You said yesterday that you wrote for 13 years on the book. Are all the stories you wrote during that time included in The First Thing Coming?

A: No. The First Thing Coming is a selection of stories about the Northwest. Harum Scarum contains more stories that belonged to that original manuscript. There is also the novella Racer, published only in German at this point. I have over ten other stories, some long, that I am working on now that belong to the Northwest stories, spanning about twenty years. And there is a novel, False Courage, dealing with one weekend in the lives of five of my characters in the spring of 1962. This explores group courage versus personal courage. I have written it, but I need to rewrite the beginning to suit myself. Eventually I hope to have all the stories published together and the novels, too. Then everybody can see what I've done.

Q: What I liked a lot about The First Thing Coming was your careful use of references. Usually authors give you lots of references and the fun part for the reader is sorting them all out. The First Thing Coming lacks that for the most part and the many questions left unanswered add to the fascination rather than diminishing it.

A: Basically I wanted to evolve a set of themes and I didn't want to be tied to trying to write all these connections between the stories. When Franci Tepping leaves Tacoma at the end of "Spanish Castle", she doesn't show up again until the end of the book. When she comes back, she has made a success out of her life and comes back to see what it's like. I didn't wanted to talk about what she did between the time she dropped out of high school in Tacoma and her return for the reunion many years later. I knew what she did, but I didn't feel like writing about it. It didn't seem important.

I'm also working in the short story form. Each chapter is individual and has to stand on its own. I don't want to refer back to what happened in the short story X when she did that ...

It's a way of handling character. David Mamet, the playwright and screenwriter, says you don't establish character; that's bullshit. You just have a character wanting something and you know who they are by what they want.

Q: Let's get back to your life. Why did you leave Tacoma?

A: I left to go to San Francisco. I had gone to the University of Washington, but hadn't taken any requirements for a degree, just the courses that I wanted to take. When the time came that I was going to be drafted into the army, I left town and went down to California. During that time I was also involved in the drug scene in Seattle. Every fall, the police would bust a few people in the university district. I felt that I had been around there a little bit too long, been too visible and with the wrong people — so it was time to leave town.

Seattle was very provincial. There was no literary scene, there was no publishing, and so I went to San Francisco to connect with the literary scene. I had a friend named Clifford Burke there who was a fine letterpress printer. And I walked right into Richard Brautigan, Gary Snyder and all these people — it was a really exciting time.

Q: Later, you got very involved with Richard Brautigan.

A: Yes, he was a good friend of mine. I met him in '65 and wrote a memoir of him called Downstream from Trout-fishing in America. That was the last book I published in America. It was very well-received. Unfortunately, it is out of print now.

Q: How did you make a living all those years?

A: I decided early on not to be in schools. When I was at the University of Washington, I was sort of a young Rimbaud, because I was writing out of all my acid experiences. They really thought I was wild and sort of crazy. And I was. I went to a literary conference — and I was sort of the star of the University of Washington — and I just didn't like the life I saw there with the people who were writing and teaching. I decided not to do that and so I had to find something else to do to make money.

I write in the mornings, so I found various kinds of work. In Monterey, I became a rose gardener in Pebble Beach which is a fairly rich, private town. I worked there at some of the big estates. Basically, the strategy was to find out where the wealthy people live, live somewhere near them, and then live off the crumbs from their table. That method costs. You couldn't have a nice car and you had to give up a lot of material things, which didn't bother me. I didn't care about them, my wife didn't care about them.

Eventually though, I worked out a life. I worked on various poetry-in-the-schools things, where you go in and contract yourself out to teach writing to high school kids.

The other thing I did was got a truck and did moving for a while for people. This is nice work. You'd get to walk into people's houses and see how they live, and they didn't see you. You were like invisible. I ended up in Berkeley where my wife was going to graduate school. There I set up a business working on people's trees and also doing moving. I could write in the morning, and in the afternoon, I could make very good money, because it was dangerous work but work I could do easily. I could charge $50 to $100 an hour.

Q: Although you did finally end up teaching at an establishment...

A: Well, I ended up at Naropa Institute, which is as non-establishment establishment as you can get. Naropa is the only accredited Buddhist college in America. The school was founded by Allen Ginsberg? and Chogyam Trumpa?, the Tibetan monk, painter and poet. The title of our department is the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and features the spontaneous transmission of Mind. Poet Anne Waldman is the director and we basically teach what we call the "Outrider" tradition of American literature. That includes the Beats, ethnopoetic authors, and multi-cultural and multi-ethnic writers, among others. We attempt this within an ongoing, evolving contemplative tradition. I teach fiction.

I have the students read certain modern and older authors. We always approach it from the point of view that each fiction writer has the same problems when they start writing . Everyone has the same problems. Then we look at different writers and see how they solve those problems. My statement is always that my students will become different readers by the time they get out of the course. I try to teach them to read like writers.

The thing that happens in this business with creative writing in the United States is, most people, when they are done with school, do not continue, because there are no deadlines, no teachers saying "I want you to write a story by next week". So people don't have the ambition or the will to go on. But many of the people go into related aspects of writing. They go into editing, journalism or whatever. We hope they still maintain their reading habits, though, and buy our books.

Q: How does your novel Rhino Ritz fit into the picture? It is very different from the Northwest stories.

A: My first two novels were Gush and Rhino Ritz. They are very much influenced by William Burroughs?. They are disjunctive, and are organized around different principles than regular narrative. Rhino Ritz is supposedly a science fiction detective novel and it basically starts with the idea that the famous American writers Sherwood Anderson?, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway?, Gertrude Stein? and Alice B. Toklas? are all immortal and live in San Francisco. The Japanese — who take care of culture much better than we do - want them in a Disneyland for writers in Japan. They set about to lure the immortal writers to Japan. This immortality I changed to who they were, what they did and how they looked. I make several comments on their literary careers and the way that their lives went. Hemingway has been packaged, so he's walking around inside a big box. Gertrude Stein can write all she wants, but the guards don't let her keep any of it. She writes all afternoon and the paper dissolves in the morning. She gets her wish and is an open lesbian and happy. You have drawbacks and bonuses when you're immortal.

These were very free-flowing associative books. I later published another novel called Mordecai at Monterey and that's a picaresque novel. The idea of that novel is, there is a man in Monterey named Mordecai who has a rare mental disease, called melanoia, which is the opposite of paranoia. He walks around thinking he's following someone and this someone is about to give him something good — and they do! This is a fun book about the loose, alternative life in California. It's popular with all kinds of people who live on the margins. So these were my Californian books. They are all linguistically very flashy, lots of stuff going on. I had a good time writing them.

My Northwest books feature a different style, what I call my window pane style. I stay out of the writing. I try to write completely from the point of view of my characters. I try to put things not only into their language, using their words, but I also try to write their perceptions and emotions into the sequence and into the forms they experience. So I don't provide commentary or authorial asides. I work as close to my characters' emotional life as I can possibly work. People might call this realistic fiction, but to me, the actual writing quickly becomes quite abstract. One feels the ebb and flow of emotional states, and the trick is to cut the prose so that these states are experienced by the reader without the reader being aware of the prose or the writer. The jumpcuts, crosscuts, pullbacks and juxtapositions necessary to keep the narrative moving really demand an acute abstract sense of design to work with this kind of prose.

Q: What are you planning next?

A: I have been writing crime novels, featuring an investigator/bodyguard in California. Crime became a highly visible and socially approved way of life in America during the Reagan and Bush administrations. The most damaging assaults on our society have been white collar crimes in the corporate and government sectors, where thefts of vast sums of money from American citizens, destruction of the working class, corruption of our democratic institutions, and pollution of the environment have shredded the social contract. I am interested in the effects of these actions, so I wrote two novels, Good Golly Miss Molly, and the one which I sent to my agent just before coming to Germany, Boy Scout Cookies. I hope to publish them soon.

Thank you very much for the interview.

The Fryburger?
March 1995
Online Source: http://www.uni-freiburg.de/borsch/fryburger/abbott.html(external link)