Alysia Abbott: Interview

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland, a memoir about growing up in San Francisco with her gay father during the AIDS crisis, is a heartbreaking love story. One of the hallmarks of Abbott’s writing is her unflinching honesty and I was thrilled to find her just as smart and open as her Fairyland-self. We talked about the complexities of writing about family and motherhood, and what it’s like to have your life story adapted into a feature film by Sofia Coppola. Spoiler: It’s pretty great.


TQ: One of the things I love about your writing is that you’re willing to get into the stuff that is real and complicated and sometimes unflattering. In Fairyland, there are definitely moments when you paint yourself in an unflattering light. But a true light, and as real and honest as it would be for anyone else going through that experience. I think many writers are too self-protective to expose those ugly, selfish parts.

AA: Well, I knew that I was going to have to portray my dad doing things that wouldn’t make him look very good, and I couldn’t ask him about how he felt about that, he couldn’t defend himself in any way, you know? So I felt that if I’m going to portray him in these ways, I have to show that in myself, too. It’s about showing our flaws. And I feel a lot of our bad behavior came out of our hard situations, that we felt unsupported or we felt isolated or alone. And I felt that way. It wasn’t like he was a bad person or I was a bad person, it was just a hard situation. It was hard to deal with.

TQ: I’m a single parent, so I identified with your father’s feelings about raising a child alone and trying to figure out how to balance having your own dreams and desires.

AA: Yes. And he felt resentful sometimes. I’m really glad I waited to write the book, because I think if I would’ve gotten into that earlier it would’ve been hard for me to contend with. There were moments when he resented the responsibility of having me. Things happened that were awful, like when I got hit by a car, in my neighborhood on Haight street. I didn’t write about it in the book, but I got hit by a car when crossing the street, and you know he was scared too. He had to wake me up every hour because he didn’t want me to have a concussion, and every time he woke me up, I would curse at him and be really mad. You know it was hard work to do that with a fourteen-year-old, fifteen-year-old girl. And he resented having that responsibility because he was alone. But for me to read that, for the first time, it was like, what, how can he resent that? And also for me as a child, I always felt like, oh, he has to love me as much as I love him, like he’s my great romance, he was all mine. I felt like, of course he loves me and wants me as much as I want him. It was really hard for me to understand it, and I really couldn’t at the time. It took me years to be able to see that he was lonely, and he was frustrated. He wanted to be out there doing things and to be part of things.

Until I had kids, I wasn’t able to appreciate what it was to be a single parent and what that meant to my dad. All I was aware of was that I didn’t have a mom. That I wanted another parent. And why do you have to be this way? Why can’t you be this other way? If you could just like girls, then maybe you could get married. If my dad had gone back into the closet, I don’t think it would’ve been better. As hard as stuff was, I loved him, and I wouldn’t trade that experience. I wouldn’t be who I am, I would be a totally different person.

TQ: I think as you get older, normality becomes much less appealing. But when you’re twelve, you just want to fit in.

AA: Yeah, there’s a sense of safety, and you need that sense of safety. That’s why it was so important to me to have kids. I wanted to have that bond. And my daughter Annabelle’s birthday is the anniversary of my mom’s death. The mother/daughter relationship is so complex, sometimes it’s like, what’s going on with you? She’s smart and strong-willed, she doesn’t like to be told what to do.

TQ: I don’t think there are many female writers who really dig into the complicated feelings about motherhood as well as you do.

AA: Thank you! You know, there’s this weird thing, I never had a mother, I don’t have a mother now, I can’t go to someone . . .

I’ve been writing about my son a lot. [Abbott’s son is autistic.] But writing about family is really fraught. I felt that with my dad, I was his only child, I was clearly the closest family member, it wasn’t like I had to get anyone’s permission, I inherited all his journals, so I had all this material. If I were to write about my mom or my grandmother, or that side of the family, I’d have to rely much more on family, it’s just much more complicated.

But I feel that when I write about my dad, he was a writer, and I was a child, and talking about something difficult, growing up, you didn’t ask to be born, and it’s your life. When you’re the mother, I think there’s this expectation, you gave birth to this child, you’re responsible for them, they depend on you, like you shouldn’t, you can’t complain about them. I feel that sometimes with the autism community, there’s a lot of policing about what gets said, and it’s unfortunate, because I think for a lot of parents, they suffer, they’re isolated, or they’re guilty, and they feel that people don’t know what they’re going through.

TQ: That you’re not allowed to have feelings about it.

AA: That you’re not allowed to have feelings about it. Yeah. And so I try to write about my son as a way of understanding him and me. And I would love to do more writing about it. And my daughter says she wants to be famous, and she wants me to write about her. I love her so much. I should get her to put that in writing. [Laughs.]

But with my son—unlike my dad, where I really felt this was my story—the story of my son is my husband’s story, it’s my daughter’s story, it’s our story, and I would want to bring their voices in and respect them. It’s so tough because when I talk to people, there’s this reaction, like, oh, that’s so tragic. And when I want to write about it, I want to write about it in terms of, not just look at how hard this all is, but how do I communicate and bond.

TQ: Yeah, like investigating what does motherhood mean in this way.

AA: Exactly. We love him so much. And that’s part of what brings us really close together, that we do love him so much, and that no one loves him like we do. He’s hard to relate to. We enjoy him so much when we’re together, but he can produce such stress in our lives. And so it’s like, how do we manage the stress, how do we absorb it, or deflect it? And how do we do normal family stuff? How do we have family vacations or go on family outings?

TQ: Let’s talk about Fairyland the movie. How did the project start? One day Sofia Coppola calls you on the phone . . .

AA: No. [Laughs.] Actually, there were a few people who had an interest in optioning the book. And the first request came in from Ryan Murphy, who does Glee and American Horror Story. And the producing brothers who did About a Boy wanted to bid on it at one point. So I was sort of talking with them, but basically things were stalled. I got a call from Sofia Coppola’s lawyer asking if the option was available, and we said it was.

And I was in Virginia, I had just done some events there. This was in December, and there were all these storms on the eastern seaboard, and my flights kept getting canceled, and I was texting with her—I was determined to get back and meet Sofia Coppola. It was nuts. And the next day I got on the earliest flight, like 5 a.m., and you know I had been sweating, like, what am I going to wear to meet Sofia Coppola, she’s a fashion icon, she’s Marc Jacobs’s muse. I woke up, and I just put on the clothes I’d worn the day before, I didn’t take a shower, I was just, like, I have to get on this flight.

And so I went straight from the airport to coffee, and it was so funny, because I came in and they [Sofia Coppola and screenwriter Andrew Durham] were, like, we’re so excited to meet you and we love your book, and it was almost as though they were nervous or something, it was really weird for me.

And so I talked to them about their ideas and their vision, and they got a fifteen-month option, and in that interim period, I really wanted to make clear to them that I’m a creative consultant when the movie goes into production, but I’m not a co-writer of the screenplay. Much as that would be cool, that wasn’t something I felt like I could push, but I really wanted to make myself a valuable asset, so I started sending them pictures, and it was really amazing, actually.

TQ: They started working on it right away?

AA: They did start working on the script pretty quickly. And Andrew made plans to go to San Francisco that summer for a month to be immersed and work on it. And Zoetrope films made this binder that had excerpts of the book vis-à-vis locations in San Francisco, and it was such a cool thing to have. And I told Andrew I wanted to take him to the San Francisco Public Library where all my dad’s papers are. And he didn’t expect there would be four or five boxes of material—journals, sketchbooks, and books and magazines, just stuff my dad was involved with—and it was really cool. We rented bikes and biked around Golden Gate Park just to talk about the aesthetic of San Francisco. San Francisco had changed a lot, obviously, from the Seventies, but the park was still the same. And there is a Gothic quality to the park that was very appealing to my dad. Something foggy and romantic and otherworldly about the park.

And I could really see that they were really working on this. She’s had other projects, but I think there was press that came out when she first optioned the film, she wanted to make it happen, and she really was a driving force. I haven’t gotten to see the script yet. But they’re almost finished. And then they’ll send it to me.

I don’t want to crowd them, but I’m also eager. The weekend I went to visit them in New York City,  I was supposed to stay with a friend, and I got locked out, and so Andrew had me sleep on the sofa, and so basically I slept three feet away from their draft of the script, and I didn’t look at it.

TQ: Have you thought about casting?

AA: At one point I was really thinking about who could play my dad. And it was so much fun. And I think they will have three actresses play me. They have three acts, and I know the big stuff they’ve changed, because they want to make sure I’m okay with it.

It’s been really interesting to see them have to figure out, how do you boil down this book? What are scenes? What are images? And I know some of the things, like they really like the scene after my dad dies and I get the remaining money out of his account, and I buy myself these boots and walk down the street in them.