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Abigail Thomas's Three-Dog Life

Leader of the Pack

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Abigail Thomas - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Abigail Thomas

A beagle gets off his leash. It’s an everyday moment that will change whole lives. Abigail Thomas has made a career—two collections of stories, a novel, the acclaimed memoir Safekeeping—out of writing such moments, but this one is different.

Six years later, the beagle barks outside a rambling farmhouse in Woodstock. Two more dogs join in as the front door swings open, emitting a waft of banana bread with warm chocolate chips and blueberries. Thomas is hosting her Wednesday night workshop. The writers—all women tonight—congregate in the kitchen, forking up cake with murmurs of bliss and, refreshingly, no talk of calories: The one writer who doesn’t partake is recovering from a stomach flu. “Bring some home,” suggests one of her colleagues. “But warm it,” says Thomas. “It has to be warm.”

The group migrates into the living room, full of quilt-draped couches and comfortable chairs, a round coffee table piled high with books and a bright ball of wool. Thomas sits sideways on an overstuffed tan armchair, legs dangling over one arm. Her blonde hair spills onto her shoulders, and one of her garden-tanned forearms bears a Southwestern-looking tattoo of a salamander, which she got on her 60th birthday. She is not wearing shoes and her socks don’t match. Or maybe they do: Thomas’s world embraces the different. A closer look at the colorful paintings on every wall reveals primitive brushstrokes, obsessively lettered dense texts, and repeated motifs. Art critics call such works “outsider art.” For Thomas, they are something else: paintings by friends, by people who speak the same language as her husband Rich.

Six years ago, Rich took the beagle for a walk and didn’t come back. Thomas got a call from the doorman of their Upper West Side apartment, telling her that her dog was in the elevator. Rich had been hit by a car.

“His skull is fractured like a spiderweb. Everywhere,” Thomas writes in her mesmerizing new memoir, A Three Dog Life. The police report listed Rich as “dead, or likely to die.” But he beat the odds, surviving multiple brain surgeries. For a few eerie days, he seemed almost himself. Then he fell into a spiral of unpredictable rages, paranoid outbursts, and fragmented perceptions, losing all sense of time and even the shortest-term memory.

“Rich is lodged in a single moment and it never tips into the next,” Thomas writes. “I got stuck with the past and the future. That’s my half of this bad hand. I know what happened and I never get used to it.”

Eventually, Rich was transferred to a facility for patients with traumatic brain injury in Lake Katrine, and Thomas moved upstate to be near him. A Three Dog Life is the story of coming to grips with a reconfigured life, of unspeakable loss and precious, hard-won independence. Stephen King called it, “The best memoir I have ever read. This book is a punch to the heart.” (It’s also unexpectedly funny, as when Thomas writes, “Sometimes it’s all I can do to brush my teeth, toothpaste is just too stimulating.”)

“It’s so hard to talk about Rich,” she says now. “It’s such a fluid situation. There’s no answer to ‘How is Rich?’ The only way to get it so I can understand it is to write it down.” She wrote first in diaries, with no thought of publishing. Then an editor at Elle asked her to write a short piece about grief, which became the memoir’s first essay, “How It All Happened.”

Both Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life are composed of short, discrete essays, which, taken together, form a complex pattern. This format may have a genetic antecedent: Lewis’s father was National Book Award-winning scientist Lewis Thomas, whose bestsellers Lives of a Cell and The Snail and the Medusa are structured the same way.

“I have no memory for ordinary chronology, and really no interest in it. I don’t even believe in it. How do we know we’re going forward? We might all just be in this broth, rolling around, and time isn’t going anywhere,” Thomas claims. She calls Safekeeping “an unmoir, because I have no memory, except for moments.”

Those moments gleam. Thomas’s writings are often compared to stained glass, collage, quilts—art objects assembled from fragments. Like Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, or Alice Munro, she speaks in an unvarnished language of quirky plain truth, quintessentially female, collecting the glittering tidbits of everyday life like a magpie. Thomas didn’t start writing until her late 40s. Pregnant at 18, she was expelled from Bryn Mawr in her freshman year (her boyfriend was not asked to leave). They got married and “spent a miserable eight years together.” She spent the next years raising children, remarrying, and battling depression.

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:

“Rich and I don’t make conversation; we exchange tidbits, how well we’ve slept, what was for breakfast. We are stripped down to our most basic selves. No static, no irony, no nuance. Once in a while Rich says something that takes my breath away: ‘I feel like a tent that wants to be a kite, tugging at my stakes,’ he said one day, out of a clear blue sky. He was lying in a hospital bed, but his eyes were joyous. In some ways, we are simply an old married couple, catapulted into the wordless phase ahead of time. An old pal of mine used to extol the virtues of basic body warmth in the days when I was more into the heat, but now I understand. Rich and I sit together, we hold hands; we are warm-blooded creatures in a quiet space, and that’s all the communication we need.”

Abigail Thomas will read on September 9 at 5pm, at Joshua’s in Woodstock. Sponsored by The Golden Notebook. (845) 679-8000; www.goldennotebook.com.

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