Abby Geni lives, writes and teaches in Chicago while her imagination wanders the globe. She has impressive credentials that would crash my site if I attempted to list them all. A small sampling: Graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of The Iowa Fellowship; First place, Glimmer Train Fiction Open, “Captivity”; Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers 2016 selection, The Lightkeepers; Illinois Arts Council Agency Award, “In the Spirit Room”; 2014 Friends of American Writers Literary Award, The Last Animal.
I first met Abby at StoryStudio Chicago where she teaches the popular Novel in a Year class. I had the pleasure of reviewing The Lightkeepers for Blogcritics earlier this year. The Lightkeepers (Counterpoint Press, 2016) is Abby’s first novel and has met with rave reviews and garnered attention from People, O Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and the New York Times, among others. Both Kirkus and Publishers Weekly gave starred reviews.
In my ongoing quest to figure out “this writing thing,” Abby was kind enough to answer a few questions about novels, short stories, and when it’s okay to call yourself a writer.
Congratulations on the success of The Lightkeepers. What has been the most surprising aspect of bringing the book to publication?
Novels create more splash than short story collections. After publishing The Last Animal, I thought I knew what to expect when The Lightkeepers came out, but the novel garnered much more attention than the short stories had. I definitely did not anticipate that The Lightkeepers would be reviewed by the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times Review of Books and People Magazine and O Magazine. It’s been a nice surprise, but it’s a surprise nonetheless.
Much has been made of your use of and connection to the natural world in your writing. Where do you think this connection stems from? Has the literary world made too much of this distinction in your opinion?
Not at all! Much has been made of my connection to nature because nature is vital to my work. I can’t imagine writing something that didn’t link to animals or climate or oceans or plants, something entirely separate from the natural world. This theme was central to The Last Animal, and I had a wonderful time exploring new aspects of marine fauna and island life in The Lightkeepers. I hope to be able to continue to integrate nature into my work in unexpected and unfamiliar ways.
Is it the story idea that chooses the form (i.e. short story or novel) or do you think most ideas can be executed in either form?
One of my dear mentors, Dan Chaon, told me that a majority of novels could have been written as short stories, and that if you, as an author, have the ability to tell a narrative as a short story, then you have no business telling it in novel form. I have to agree. If an idea can fit inside a short story, then it should be told that way. Stretching it out into novel form will just weaken and dilute it. Only those rare ideas that are too big and wide and deep for short fiction should become novels.
Do you write with a specific reader in mind or more for yourself?
I’m going to quote the master here. Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I never know who my writing will reach or touch or influence, and I don’t have an ideal reader in mind; I just write the kind of stories I would like to find on the shelf.
Which writers have had the most influence on your own work?
Mainly nonfiction authors—Susan Casey and David Quammen and Craig Childs and Mary Roach. I love to read about science and the natural world, and I love when talented, enthusiastic, inquisitive authors teach me new things. Their passions become my characters’ passions. Much of my fiction is born that way.
Aspiring writers have a fascination with the writing process of a published author. Do you care to share any special aspects of your process or your opinion on this fascination?
Anyone can write. Many people can put a sentence together fairly well, many wrote stories when they were kids, and many secretly believe that they could write a novel one day if they just had the time. It can be hard to delineate a “real author” from an amateur or a wannabe or a daydreamer.
This can be difficult for aspiring writers. They may feel that they aren’t allowed to use the word “writer” to describe themselves. They may be unsure about how their passion and creativity fit into their identity. Many believe that publication is the bright line—with “real authors” on one side and wannabes on the other.
I disagree. I was a real author for years before I ever published anything. Publication is an achievement, not the mark of a new identity. Aspiring writers are real authors too. My writing process should not be the model for anyone else, because every author is different. I recommend that all aspiring writers look inward for a sense of what their writing process should be: what works for them, what aids their creativity, what they need in terms of discipline and structure, what they hope to achieve.
What’s the best or worst piece of writing advice you ever received?
The worst piece of writing I ever received was that I should write every day. This idea is everywhere, and it causes aspiring writers a lot of stress. I’ve been a writer since I was six, and I’ve never written every day. Usually I write four or five days a week and take the rest off to recharge. It bothers me when people make rules for what real writers should do. Each writer should find his or her own rhythm and structure for effective work and joyful creation. No rules apply to all writers.
What books are on your to-be-read pile now? Favorite type of story to get lost in?
My favorite stories right now are mysteries. I’m working my way through the Golden Age of Mysteries, tackling the canon of Georgette Heyer and loving every minute of it.
Something readers would be surprised to learn about you?
I hate to travel. Though many of my stories take place in far-flung places, like the Farallon Islands or the Nigerian delta or an ostrich farm in Arizona, I have never been to any of those spots, and I don’t intend to go. I’m a Midwestern girl, born and bred in Chicago, currently living in the same neighborhood where I grew up. I like to research and explore as I write, but more than anything, I love to be home.
If time and money were no object, describe an ideal day for you:
Up at sunrise, black tea, meditation, more black tea, a few hours of passionate and focused writing, more black tea, a few hours of desultory and daydreamy writing, lunch, a long walk with my dog, pick up my son from school, play outside and talk about toddler things, bedtime for my son, a few hours with my husband doing and talking about grownup things, early bedtime for me, deep and unworried sleep.
A big thanks to Abby for her time and her original, intriguing stories. Check out her website for more information about Abby, her teaching and her books.