Abby Hagler lives in Chicago. Previous work has appeared in Entropy, FANZINE, Ghost Proposal, and Deluge among others. There Was Nothing Left But Gold was selected the winner of the 2020 Essay Press chapbook contest and appeared in summer 2021. With Julia Cohen, she runs Original Obsessions, an interview column at Tarpaulin Sky magazine about writers’ childhood obsessions manifesting in their current work.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I learned the value of traveling as research for writing. And of letting whatever happens on the trip be inspiration. There Was Nothing Left But Gold takes place on a road trip to experience the settings of ghost tales and folklore. However, that trip got totally waylaid by grief over losing the relationship with my mom. The essays that came out take place in a single location, an unintended stop. I didn’t come away with any material centered on what I was originally looking for. Once back home, that outcome felt okay about that after realizing I wanted to write into the reasons why I stopped driving instead. And I suppose that’s a little bit how deep-dives into research work. You find yourself somewhere totally different than where you began whether or not you physically end up elsewhere. It’s a necessary excess, something you just have to give yourself to. It is funny that I now know way too much about skunk bites and rabies, which is not in the chapbook. But, without that trip, I may not have read anything about hauntology or looked into Willa Cather as a person, which is the backbone of the writing itself.
2 - How did you come to essays first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
The material for this chapbook started out as prose poems three or four years ago. When they were finished, I just felt like there was more to say. There were conclusions they were reaching for that poetry might not reveal or solidify without the narrative arc an essay uses.
John Keene’s Annotations and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life also inspired me. All those lush, teeming sentences shooting off new ideas, reveling in descriptions, adding up to the arc of a personal evolution reminded me of what it feels like walking through grass. I was fortunate enough to read them back-to-back, and that’s when a sort of theory about sentences and grass first occurred to me. I was thinking about how poetic prose works, variating off of Susan Sontag’s notion of it from her essay “A Poet’s Prose.” For her, poet’s prose is elegiac and it discusses the journey of becoming a writer. For me, this means poetic prose can be resistant to nostalgia but also tender to past selves. It embraces the contradictions and complexities of an identity in its excess, its racing through line breaks. Poetic prose makes room for the simple fact that the story of an identity is not straightforward. Gertrude Stein talks about this too. A portrait can be composed of many details, emotions, and perspectives that are not in competition. And I see this as the way that grass, or even a protest, works as well.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It could take forever for me to realize a writing project is happening. Anything I write now has roots that go back ten or so years. There are lots of connections between the pieces I put away and pick up again, which is definitely my process.
The time it takes to finish an individual piece depends on how much material I have in notes and whether or not the structure of the piece is clear. I work at 9-5 job, so I’m a pretty slow writer in that it takes a month or probably more to get to what I would consider a first draft. I think I’ve only ever written one essay that came out in one sitting and was published with few changes. Beginning is easy as far as getting words on the page. The time-consuming part for me is finding what the piece is really talking about. Journaling helps with that. When I find what a piece is talking about, it’s much easier to organize. All that takes a while.
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
The beginning of an essay, to me, is often an ask: Tell me about… I think of it like an invitation to excavate textures and smells and colors. Capturing details within memories is important because everything but the feeling I was left with/ conclusion I reached fades so quickly. Maybe all this is a practice in improving my memory. Sometimes it’s just a small revelation coming from understanding why I do/ have done certain things that have altered my life or relationships in the past – the kind of therapy stuff I think about on walks. Broad topics are also generative: A favorite kind of light; why grass could be considered monster; a superstition to own up to; the most terrifying thing about water.
This chapbook began as lists of instances of gold and types of grass mentioned in Cather’s novels. Then I got to wondering what I have to say about the grassland where I grew up. And what gold means to me after all this collecting.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I was a very serious competitive speech (ahem, forensics) kid in high school, so I’m always okay with giving readings. Even back then I knew that there really is something electrifying about hearing someone read aloud. It’s different than reading aloud to myself, which I do often. To sit and listen to someone read their work gives me this energy toward writing. Recently I was a part of a reading where we discussed how the pandemic opened up really helpful new avenues for readings using web conferencing services. I’m interested to see how online readings and in-person readings are determined in the future because they both have strengths. Overall, no matter the form of the reading, it’s a particularly good experience when the content the readers choose feels curated, like they are all in conversation. I absolutely love when people read new works in progress. I perk up when a reader makes that introduction. Those have consistently been at the top of my most memorable readings list.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
A primary concern behind writing these essays was the notion of possession – especially as I realized I was writing about land as much as I was writing about kinship. I kept thinking: What narrative of return can I construct that isn’t centered on claim? Wrestling with (dis)possession became a way to see myself in relation to values rather than as someone who is helpless to them or unaware of them all together. Deciding to write a different kind of return narrative helped me to identify evolution of self within the text, which, for me, is its own narrative arc.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Every job I’ve ever worked has necessitated a writer. Most writing does not look like writing. Keeping logs, taking minutes, composing emails, organizing meetings, talking to people, creating to do lists, saving meeting notes. I’ve been a writer working at Wendy’s, in a homeless shelter, as an executive assistant, shelving books in a library, or even scrapbooking with my mom. Writing is the work of gathering, of finding an order for things. Sometimes it makes it on paper. I think a lot of people are writers and they don’t really know it – especially working people. Writing is more often than not something a person volunteers to do. But it happens everywhere. Someone has to be willing. I guess the job of a writer is to keep doing that work, to keep recording for the benefit of the group, to keep giving people new visions of reality to think about, to keep reminding people of what happened.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I don’t have a ton of experience with this but I have found it to be very positive. I’m always appreciative of anyone who has taken time with my work, and it’s really helpful to have conversations about what’s going on in a piece of writing. It always broadens my own writing and editing process.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Several years ago, when I was thinking about starting to write after a long hiatus, I asked a possibly unfair question to a friend, What do people need from me, as a writer, right now? She really surprised me by saying, People need the same things you need. They need to know how you healed. And I think that’s an interesting place to start from.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I work in smaller chunks of time: Saturday mornings, for an hour after work, on a slightly extended lunch break, for 30 minutes before work when the coffee finally hits. It’s always this process of reading over the piece and then taking random notes as I mull it over while going about the day. Then I come back to the computer with my notes and keep writing. Editing takes hours, so it’s best to have at least one morning totally free to do that.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
My phone is full of random little notes taken on walks or while commuting that I can later scroll through. There’s always old work in dropbox. Carole Maso’s writing is something I consistently return to for immediate inspiration.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Pennies. A storm brewing. Fermented foods at the deli counter in Polish corner groceries. Sweaty t-shirts. Dust in the air during a heatwave.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Performance art about relationships or work centered around everyday living is most influential to me. I have for years and years been a big fan of Miranda July’s many conceptions of togetherness through projects like Learning to Love You More or It Chooses You. I don’t think I want to do without owning Dario Robleto’s Alloy of Love. Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit and Acorn are treasures. I also like to read about artists who are living in performance spaces, depriving themselves of some form of interaction, making clothes, testing their bodies, or even testing the audience. There are also comedians doing great stuff like this such as Nathan Fielder.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
For several years, I have read over and over “The Silver World” by Carole Maso, which, to my knowledge, is only published in an issue of Conjunctions. I keep that issue close by wherever I live. And also: It Is Daylight by Arda Collins, Anne Boyer, Roland Barthes, Anne Carson’s Plainwater, Mary Ruefle, old issues of Lucky Peach and Cabinet magazines, installation pieces at galleries or art museums, history podcasts, playing Criterion Collection roulette, random dissertations I find at the library, ghost tours.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I have an idea for a novel. It will probably never make it to paper. I’ll just keep regaling friends with the story while on long hikes.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I like to think I would have tried my hand at becoming a reality dating show contestant.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing just makes a lot of sense to me and I would honestly be sad if I stopped. I’m a diaries person, I suppose. Writing essays or poetry is not my full-time job but it’s a necessity that I’ve learned to put on the priority list whether or not I’m making something intended for others to see.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a full-length essay collection about working night shifts in a housing first project in the early 2000s.