Patti Abbott was a history major, in her senior year at Wayne State, when she chanced on a poetry workshop of M.L. Liebler’s.
It went well. Liebler, the blue collar bard of Detroit and long-time Wayne State creative writing instructor, encouraged her to send her poems out to journals. They were accepted by the dozens. She began winning awards.
“A number of poetry editors said they felt my poems were outlines for stories more than poetry,” she says, “and that turned out to be true.” Since turning to the short story, Abbott has published more than 50 short works of literary and crime fiction, several of which have received awards and been collected and anthologized. She has since turned to novels, just recently publishing her second. “I wrote far too many stories before trying a novel, which handicapped me significantly,” she says. “Short stories teach you how to be succinct, to omit any extraneous information. I had to learn how to bring that sort of thing in, to expand the cast, to create more scenes.”
She reflects fondly on her writing teachers at Wayne, M.L. Liebler and Chris Leland, for giving her the courage first to write and then to submit. “Chris was a brilliant teacher” who, “she says, “encouraged her to submit, just as M.L. had. That gave me the courage to try it. At that stage, a class forced me to produce something, and that was what I needed.”
Had you studied English as an undergraduate? How did you land in Wayne State’s Creative Writing Program?
I completed a B.A. in 1998 in history (at Wayne State). Several of those last classes were writing classes with M.L. Liebler and Chris Leland. I took two more workshops with Chris after completing the B.A. but I was not enrolled in any program. I would have enrolled in an MFA program but the MA required too many classes I had no interest in. Especially competence in a language. [Note: This requirement has since been dropped.]
Were you writing creatively as an undergraduate?
I did not write at all until I took that poetry writing class with M.L Liebler in the mid-nineties. But then I began submitting poetry and had about two dozen poems accepted in lit journals. I won a chapbook contest put on by The Writer’s Voice. My first story was published in 1998. A number of poetry editors said they felt my poems were outlines for stories more than poetry, and that turned out to be true.
When was your first story accepted for publication? Was there any anxiety about putting your stuff out there, about rejection?
I had a story accepted in a little journal called BONFIRE, out of Ann Arbor, in 1998. Then I came in as a runner-up in the Auto Show contest they held back then. Many of my stories were rejected, of course, but most publications permitted multiple submissions, so I was usually able to place a story eventually. I was more anxious about trying to move on to a novel than I was about stories. Dithering over whether or not to try a novel caused many sleepless nights. But my husband and daughter (Megan Abbott) both convinced me I would regret not trying.
Do you feel your coursework at Wayne State improved your writing, or shaped the way you approach writing now?
There were a few good students in my writing classes, and the group we formed to critique each other helped me most. And of course Chris (Leland) was a brilliant teacher, although not all that critical of my stories. But he encouraged me to submit, just as M.L. had. That gave me the courage to try it. At that stage, a class forced me to produce something, and that was what I needed.
Do you still have professional, personal, or artistic relationships with people from those courses? Faculty, student peers?
I do. One of them, Dennis James, is having a travel book published this year. Mitch Bartoy and I were friends. He published two crime fiction novels. And Dorene O’Brien has been very successful, and a terrific friend.
Financially, has writing and publishing been your main income, or has it always been balanced with other work? How do you structure your writing life? Is it a daily routine, or does inspiration strike at its own peculiar pace?
No, it has never been my main income or even a substantial portion of it. I worked at Wayne State writing newsletters and other things for the Department of Political Science and the Center for Urban Studies. I write fiction now off and on all day, most days. Although the last year or two I have had to spend an enormous amount of time on getting the two novels out and publicizing them. My publisher is a small one, and he can only do so much. So I spend a lot of time arranging blog tours and that sort of thing. Writing pieces about my books for various publications too.
How does novel-writing compare to writing short stories? Did anything help prepare you for the process of writing a novel?
I wrote far too many stories before trying a novel, which handicapped me significantly. Short stories teach you how to be succinct, to omit any extraneous information. I had to learn how to bring that sort of thing in, to expand the cast, to create more scenes. It was very difficult in both books, and parts of each still read too much like stories. My daughter, Megan, went right to novels—she took a class with Chris too—and if I had it to do over, I would go that route. I love writing short stories but they are too disposable, I think. Most writers move on, with the exception of Alice Munro, George Saunders, and a few more.
How has publishing changed over the last twenty-plus years you’ve been writing? Is involvement in a creative writing program important?
Well, there are more small publishers for books perhaps. I did a few ebooks, which was an okay experience, but I never made a dime from it. The first print book publisher I had a contract with got a new CEO and decided to publish only science fiction and fantasy. I was very lucky to find a second one quickly—and to get a two-book deal. Polis Books has been an excellent fit for me. The books got pre-publication reviews from all of the major outlets that do those—Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, BookList Library Journal. Polis was also able to get the book into a number of stores and libraries.
It has become very hard to place books from small publishers in bookstores because there are so few stores left. CONCRETE ANGEL is being translated into Polish and has been nominated for two awards. I was lucky. I have to say though that Detroit newspapers are horrible about supporting local writers. I see writers from much smaller cities get reviewed in their local newspapers. I can’t even get any of the local papers to answer an email. Wouldn’t you think a book called SHOT IN DETROIT would be worth reviewing?
For creative writing programs, anything that encourages you to write will help. And it might also give you insight into the publishing industry. I am not sure who teaches writing at WSU now but if they are a published writer, they will have important information. M.L. was especially helpful with that, even creating opportunities for his students.
Parting advice for prospective students and aspiring writers?
My greatest advice is threefold: (1) read, and read good stuff; (2) join a writer’s group where people will critique your writing; and (3) stay in the chair and offline as much as possible.