Interview with Abby Letteri

Published 2021-03-03.
What motivated you to write a personal memoir?
My early memories always come to me vividly, like snippets of movies. I had been scribbling down some of these moments in notebooks for years, while writing poetry for publication. Then I read Judith Barrington's stunning memoir, Lifesaving, and took a memoir class with her. I started trying to string my memories together into something cohesive. Sometimes we write to understand, so that was a motivation, too.
What is your writing process?
I guess you could say I'm a bit scattershot. I spend a lot of time outdoors, caring for my animals. I think -- woolgather -- while I work. I always forget to put paper and pen in my pocket, and sometimes I have to run inside to capture a line or an image that comes to me. But once I've started on something, I set aside time and try to create a rough draft by letting the words come thick and fast. Then the editing follows, a process I really love. I walk around the house, reading the words out loud, testing their feel on my tongue and hearing how they sound. I approach all writing like poetry: whittling the words down to essentials, creating surprising and beautiful juxtapositions, allowing space to speak as clearly — or more clearly — than dense description.
down they forgot features mental illness and depression. Did your family members object?
My parents are no longer living, but I believe they would have understood my desire to make art from my experience. My brother is a central figure in the book, and he has been generous and supportive. He has an excellent memory, and has filled in many gaps for me. I consulted with him throughout the writing of the book, to check the veracity of the story and to be sure he was comfortable with what I was writing. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his kindness.
How did you choose a structure for down they forgot?
I love reading essay collections, and I absolutely adore reading memoir — especially memoirs written by ordinary people, about ordinary life. As I wrote the book, the material fell into chapter-like essays. The titles of these essays, Exposures, Dreams, etc, came later as I began to recognise a kind of fall from the wonder of early childhood into the more complicated emotional landscape of adolescence.
Why did you publish independently?
I was born and raised in the US, but relocated to New Zealand in my 40s. At the time I wrote down they forgot (2004-5), it was virtually impossible for an unknown writer to get the attention of an agent or publisher without living in the US. And mine was an American story. A New Zealand publisher read the manuscript and encouraged me to pursue publication, but declined to take the book because New Zealand is a small country, a small market, and he didn't feel there was enough of an audience to warrant publication here. It wasn't until Lilith House Press started up last year, with the intent to mentor women writers through the process of independent publication, that I saw an avenue to publish. I've enjoyed getting this very special story out of the bottom drawer and into the world.
What are you working on next?
I am working on a book of essays rooted in the landscape of my home farm, where I keep a number of horses. I'm interested in our tendency to overlay human stories on our animals and I am trying to find language to describe and relate to them — to let them stand on their own without bias and prejudice. So I'm reading a lot of historic material as well as contemporary behavioural and neuroscience to try to nut out something new and different. Like down they forgot, it is an intersection of truth and art — and its a big ask!
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Books by This Author

down they forgot
Price: $4.95 USD. Words: 34,660. Language: English. Published: March 2, 2021. Categories: Nonfiction » Biography » Autobiographies & Memoirs, Nonfiction » Relationships & Family » Life stages / adolescence
A memoir of an American childhood and adolescence set in the turbulent 1960s and 70s, down they forgot traces the story of a girl finding her way in a family overshadowed by mental illness. Social and political discontent inform this haunting story about personal identity and the consequences of loneliness, despite the passionate and fleeting friendships of youth.