Nonfiction Forum: Alysia Abbott, ’03
It’s been ten years since New School alum, Alysia Abbott, walked these halls as a MFA Nonfiction student. She debuts her memoir, Fairyland, which saw its early beginnings right here in nonfiction workshops. Honor Moore, her former workshop teacher, moderated a discussion about her book, and her coming-home to The New School.
When asked why it took ten years to finish this memoir, Alysia said, “As you mature, you begin to see how the world impacts other people and not just yourself. I saw how the AIDS epidemic that took my father’s life affected all these different people and not just me. Time gave me a better, more rounded perspective on my father and our story.”
Upon her father’s death, Alysia discovered several journals, notebooks, diary entries and letters left behind by her father. These materials helped her shape and develop her story. But how did she interact with these materials and did it affect how she read personal details about his life that she had no idea about as a girl?
“I loved writing this book because being with his materials felt so intimate. I felt I was sharing these intimate moments of his life with him; moments of unrequited love, passions, and failures. I discovered a very different side of my father in his letters. They humanized him and I was glad to know him beyond our relationship. I saw him not only as my father but also as a man, struggling to write and find love as a single father.”
“I’d settle into the dark stacks of Harvard’s Widener Library and read bound copies of Newsweek that covered the early days of the AIDS crisis. There’s something so special about reading the magazine instead of getting an article online. Flipping through advertisements and articles, I could enter the culture of the moment and travel through time. I also interviewed my father’s friends, and ex-lovers. Then I’d piece together their stories with mine.”
“Since this was my telling of our relationship, it was very important for me to capture the sights and sounds of the San Francisco I knew growing up. The city is very different from the one we moved to in 1974 and even the one I left in 1994. Haight Street is completely changed. So I’d close my eyes in order to capture the exact smell of the eucalyptus trees, or the sound of the Muni buses struggling up the hill, and then record my impressions using my iPhone voice memo. These were details I could never get in Cambridge, where I live.”
Words of wisdom?
“Always remember the story you are writing. And ask yourself, ‘Does this detail or anecdote serve the story I’m trying to tell?’ I had to remind myself that anything I had to cut out could always be used in another work.”
Alysia Abbott grew up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the only child of gay poet and writer, Steve Abbott. After receiving her MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from New School University, she hasworked as a producer at WNYC and written articles and essays for Real Simple, Vogue, Marie Claire, Slate, Salon, TheAtlantic.com, Psychology Today, and Time Out NY, among other publications. In 2009, she left NYC to attend Harvard University as a Nieman Affiliate. While there, Alysia began work on Fairyland, A Memoir of My Father. Her first full-length book, Fairyland was completed with the help of a Ragdale Fellowship and the wonderful staff at W.W. Norton. Alysia currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband, the writer Jeff Howe, and their two children.