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After her second divorce, Thomas found herself at 38 with no college degree and no prospects. She became a slush-reader for Viking, her father’s publisher. After five years and thousands of manuscripts, she was promoted to editor. Next she became a literary agent, representing Anne Lamott, Annie Proulx, and poet Li-Young Lee, among others. “As an agent, you can work with anybody on anything,” she grins. “It’s like being the first person at a really great garage sale.”
Then she met Rich, “the nicest man in the world,” who proposed to her 13 days after they met. Thomas began writing full-time. She founded a Manhattan workshop called Tuesday Night Babes; its members included mystery writer Alison Gaylin (Hide Your Eyes), who would later urge Thomas to move upstate, closer to the Northeast Trauma Center.
The Wednesday night workshop started soon after that move, when Gaylin introduced Thomas to authors and Woodstock Wool Company owners James Conrad and Paul Leone. “I wanted to feel rooted up here,” Thomas says. “Nothing builds intimacy and trust faster than getting together to share what you write. We love each other. It’s my favorite night of the week.” A world-class appreciator, she marvels at the workshop’s give and take: Ann Patty edited A Three Dog Life for Harcourt; Jennifer May photographed its book jacket and designed an author website, www.abigailthomas.net, about which Thomas gushes, “Isn’t it wonderful? You want to spend the summer there.” May also suggested a publisher for Jo Treggiari’s upcoming young adult fantasy, The Curious Misadventures of Feltus Ovalton. The room fairly hums with support.
The format evolved as the group started bringing in ongoing projects. At first, Thomas read passages by favorite authors and doled out her trademark “two pages in which...” assignments. (A selection appears in her website essay “Getting Started.”) “It was like a spell,” says May. “I don’t think any of us knew what we’d write until we wrote it. And then we would all give feedback, and of course everyone hangs on Abby’s feedback, because she cuts right to the center. She asks the hard questions.”
“I don’t think you can teach writing. You see where the fire is and blow on it gently,” says Thomas, who’s taught in the New School’s MFA program since its inception. “My job is to find where the heart is beating and tell them how good it is. I want people to leave feeling that they can’t wait to get home and start writing.”
For Thomas, creativity is an imperative. “You can bake, make a garden, write, knit, give it away. How could you get through life without doing that?” She shakes her head. “We’re man-the-maker, we’re supposed to make things. You can’t just shop.”
The weeks before publication are often a weird sort of limbo for authors, but living in limbo is no longer foreign to Thomas. She visits Rich often, and brings him home, to a place he sometimes doesn’t recognize, every week. “I am doing what I can do. I wouldn’t do more, I couldn’t do less,” she asserts.
The heartbreak of loving someone who is there, yet not there, will resonate with many readers who care for Alzheimer’s patients, stroke victims, or the mentally ill. “I don’t know how anybody does it. It doesn’t get any easier, and it doesn’t ever get not really sad, but you do it anyway,” Thomas reflects. “Once you accept that this happened, it’s not going to un-happen, there’s nothing that you could have done—once the paint is dry on that, at least for me, when the guilt comes back, I can make it go away.”
Wrestling with guilt is a big theme of A Three Dog Life. “I wanted to make something that would be useful for other people. A lot of people think that if one’s life is happy after a tragedy, something is wrong. Everything I have now is based on what happened to Rich, and I love what I have. It’s so hard to reconcile. It isn’t a question of guilt, but accepting the life that you’ve got.”
Abigail Thomas is the mother of four and grandmother of 12, including two sets of twins. She’s also a wife, though she’s living alone for the very first time. “I’m so married,” she says. “It’s nice to know that.” From A Three Dog Life: