The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: When it came time that you wanted to write about an uncle that you had never physically met, were there a lot of stories to choose from and if so, how did you narrow down what stories you wanted to use?
Sarah Abbott : As I wrote the essay, there were certain stories that stuck out to me. I didn’t plan what to include or what not to include, just chose as I went along. I started writing about Aunt Debbie’s dreams of Uncle Charlie and realized I’d made a full circle from my childhood dream-memory of him. So I followed that mental thread to its end–my daydream–and stopped there. There are other stories in the interview transcripts, and I like having them for myself, but I’m a firm believer in writing instinctively. If a piece is done, it’s done.
I love working on nonfiction because I can start by writing about one thing, then end up writing about another. In the beginning, this project was really simple. I just wanted to get to know Uncle Charlie. Along the way, I started asking questions. Why did that memory-dream of him feel so real to me? Why do we remember some things and forget others? Why do we sometimes remember events in a way that never actually happened? And those questions led me to the ideas in this essay about memory and truth. Our memories form a narrative, I think, about who we are and what’s happened to us–and sometimes that narrative doesn’t match up with the facts. If it did, maybe it would be harder to keep moving forward. I tried to test out two theories: memories as protection against reality (when we need the extra layer of defense) and as scenes in the stories we tell about ourselves. But it was an exploration for me as much as (I hope) it is for the reader. In nonfiction, especially, I think asking questions is more important than knowing definitive answers.
RR: You place a lot of emphasis on the importance of your childhood home. How did it feel to live on your own for the first time?
SA: Living on my own is great. I’ve had an apartment for two years, and I actually just bought my first house! No one has to know if I cook a really bad meal, but I can still call my mom if the fridge makes a weird noise. Best of both worlds. It’s bittersweet because my dad passed away unexpectedly two months after I interviewed him for this essay. (I still listen to the recording of that interview, and it’s an amazing gift.) Moving into my own place was hard because he should’ve been there. This essay has come to mean a lot to me; I drafted it before he died, but I revised it after, and I made a conscious decision to freeze time in revisions. I knew I could write about grief later, and I wanted to let this essay be about hope. So, home doesn’t mean the same thing to me anymore. I have a less physical understanding of it. My mom, dad, sister, and me formed the four walls, and one of the walls got knocked out. We’re still rebuilding.
RR: Your work addresses the notion of truth in an interesting way. What is something that you believe is absolutely true?
SA: I believe that mortgages should have less paperwork. Absolute truth. More seriously: universal right and wrong. Selflessness will almost always lead us to what’s right; selfishness will almost always lead us to what’s wrong. I’m a Christian, and I believe in the absolute truth of my faith. I believe that no matter what we believe in, we need to live with purpose and take care of each other. But this is all coming from a 24-year-old who locks her keys in her car embarrassingly often and can’t figure out how to close boxes sometimes, so.
RR: What are you working on now?
SA: I successfully defended my MFA thesis last week! It’s a novel set in a prison society called Circadia. I work in all three genres, so I’m continuing to write stories, essays, and poems while starting a third draft of the novel. I just drafted a short story about an uncle (fictional this time!) whose toasts at family events–weddings, New Year’s Eve parties, etc.–pretty much doom whatever he toasts (the happy couple gets divorced, the new year is awful). So the family goes to extreme measures to prevent him from jinxing the latest wedding.
Sarah Abbott’s work in Issue 3.2: