by Evelyn Somers
Sharon Solwitz’s fourth book, Abra Cadabra, is a semiautobigraphical novel in stories that won the Center for Fiction’s 2017 Center for Fiction’s 2017 Christopher Doheny Prize, which recognizes “fiction or nonfiction on the topic of serious physical illness by a writer who has personally dealt or is dealing with life-threatening illness.” (The award carries both a monetary price and the production/promotion of the audiobook version of the manuscript, which is as yet unpublished in print form.) Abra Cadabra is about a family dealing with impending tragedy, the death of a son from cancer. Thea Feinstein, the protagonist, is an artist and designer, the “semiautobiographical” version of Solwitz, who lost her own son Jesse to a rare form of cancer when he was in his early teens.
Solwitz’s other recognitions for her previous fiction include the Carl Sandburg Literary Award from Friends of the Chicago Public Library and the prize for adult fiction (twice) from the Society of Midland Authors. She was three times runner-up for the Nelson Algren Award and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Her stories have been selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart anthology.
Solwitz knew she was good at art and writing when she was a child, but she didn’t pursue them at all seriously until well into adulthood. After an early first marriage and a peripatetic post-college life that included starting a commune with her husband, moving to Switzerland, and later traveling to India, Nepal, and eventually Israel, Solwitz returned to the US, worked as a waitress, and didn’t “get it together,” she said, until her fear of failing at what she had once been good at was outweighed by her fear of not doing anything. She studied visual art and writing both, eventually earning an MFA in her thirties and later her PhD. She was thirty-six when her first story was published, an event that sealed for her the reality that she could be a writer. Her first book, Blood and Milk (1997), a collection of stories, was published by Sarabande when she was in her early fifties. Two novels, Bloody Mary (Sarabande, 2003) and Once, In Lourdes (Spiegel & Grau, 2017) followed.
One of Solwitz’s great gifts as a writer is her astute and fearless dissection of characters and relationships. In Abra Cadabra, Thea and her husband, Allan, are not particularly generous or kind to each other as their son Nate is dying—often the opposite—but the reader learns from them what it’s like to lose a child. Nate anchors the collection: tall, sensitive, a musically talented violinist, and entirely alive on the page, despite his grave illness.
Last week I talked with Sharon Solwitz about her journey to writing and publishing this book and others.
Evelyn Somers: You published your first story at thirty-six. Do you feel like you avoided any pitfalls by not publishing in your twenties?
Sharon Solwitz: The main advantage in late success (if you can maintain your curiosity and hopefulness and vital energy) is patience. You already know how hard you have to work and for what small, and few, and erratic rewards. Lowered expectations mean you don’t whine or rage when the book you thought/hoped/prayed is rejected by the first fifty agents. And then there are those terrible stories of writers whose first book at twenty-five was so celebrated that all they could do was try to repeat it. I think of John Leggett’s book, Ross and Tom, about Ross Lockridge and Thomas Heggen, two authors who achieved fame and fortune in their twenties and self-destructed.
ES: You’ve said that there was a point in your twenties when you realized you had to develop some ambition if you were going to achieve anything. I’m assuming you did, then. How did it change things?
SS: It made me not fearless, but brave enough to face what I feared: the possibility that my potential—the idea of myself that I’d grown up with, of being gifted—was a joke or a ruse, or it had vanished somewhere in the wilds of India or acid trips or too much Diet Coke.
ES: “Blood on the Door,” the second story in Abra Cadabra, was written and published long before the experience of loss that the other stories deal with, yet it perfectly sets the tone for the book; it’s about the protagonist’s desire for children she fears she won’t be able to have. How did you access Thea’s character for the rest of the collection, all those years later, after so many things had changed for you, in life and as a writer?
SS: Thea and I have a lot in common. My motherhood came at forty-one, ten years later than hers, but we both tried in vain for many years, and suffered the same frustration, fury and secret guilt. When you write a semi-autobiographical character, her life often aligns as if miraculously with an older semi-autobiographical character, though it really isn’t miraculous except in the feeling you have when you put them together,.
ES: “Abra Cadabra,” the title piece, is the only nonfiction in the book. It is fragmented, juxtaposing memories of your son, Jesse, and an intense, often angry dialogue with yourself in which the reader sees you working out how to write about a personal tragedy. It was the first thing you worked on after your son’s death. When you started the book, did you know it was going to be at the center of the collection? And did you have any worries about mixing genres?
SS: I didn’t even know I wanted it in the book until a while after I finished it. The collection was purely chronological at first and seemed too tight. Too much the inexorable march toward catastrophe and reconciliation. So I messed with the chronology, trusting the reader to put it all together, if the reader wanted to, like Jennifer Egan’s amazing Visit from the Goon Squad. I love that book so much that I’m nervous using it as a point of comparison. But that was what I aspired to. Then, after breaking the time plan, the book was open for more, so adding the basis of it all seemed not only acceptable; it added the element of metafiction, which fascinates me.
ES: There’s a frightening honesty in the way your stories excavate relationships. In Abra Cadabra, this is particularly true of the relationship between Thea and Allan as their son is dying. There seem to be few limits on what your narrator might expose about this family and this marriage. Were you aware of that when writing? Did you ever pull back?
SS: Funny. Sometimes writing creative nonfiction, I want to pull back. Writing fiction, I want to render joys and horrors beyond what I know and have lived. That’s what makes writing fiction such a thrill. Almost as much a thrill as reading other people’s good fiction.
ES: Your fiction has received prestigious awards, but you also had a long period in between your second and third books. The third book, Once, in Lourdes, about four teenagers in the late ‘60s who make a suicide pact, took you two decades to finish and publish and went through many substantial revisions. How and why did you keep going with that novel?
SS: After Jesse died I didn’t write for a while. I didn’t care about anything but losing Jesse, and I didn’t want to write about that, certainly not in fiction, where writing about someone like him seemed worse than writing about him, or about me thinking about him. Painful and also dull, depressed, depressing. But I was able in that period to work on a project that I had already formulated. So I gave Once, in Lourdes another go around. Since it still moved me, and since I had some distance from it, I decided to take it out of the present time and put it into a time—1968—that didn’t keep changing on me in terms of technology and music. It was also a time I had personal feelings about, and a vacation from the present. The last change I made was to center it on Kay, the character I least identified with at first—a suggestion that the agent Charlotte Sheedy gave me back in 1999, and that didn’t interest me at the time. But I’d already written it in four other voices; I realized that I could have my cake and eat it too—that is, I could write it in Kay’s mind, first, then have her “channel” the others, so to speak.
ES: Many of the stories in Abra Cadabra include elements of the family’s Jewish faith. Is Thea religious? Are you?
SS: Thea was never religious, although Nate was and she respected his beliefs. Me, I tried it on twice, though it never fit—once in India, in Ganeshpuri, at Baba Mukhtananda’s ashram, and later when Jesse got sick. I kept Shabbat and tried to keep Kosher. I loved the candle-lighting and bread-making and prayers. But after his cancer came back, I was angry, as the halfheartedly faithful can be. Now Shabbat prayers make me remember Jesse’s crushing disappointment. What did he do wrong? My heart still breaks to think of it.
ES: When I read these stories, all the characters came to life for me, but in particular, I felt I was being asked to look closely and pay attention to Nate. He is not usually the main character or point-of-view character in these stories, but his fragile life infuses every story, and it’s remarkably vital, even though he’s so ill. Is this the effect you intended? It is very powerful.
SS: Thank you. Sincerely, this is what I hoped—what I still hope. I see the book as a way to bring him back, yes, pitiful, impossible, but it’s all I can to do. I wanted, and want, to bring him into the world for people to know and love. The book ends with an image of him through the eyes of the nurse. This story comes last for the reason you mentioned.
Evelyn Somers is associate editor of the Missouri Review, where she edits fiction and nonfiction and advocates for emerging writers. Her stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in Crazyhorse, Shenandoah, Georgia Review, Southwest Review, the Millions, the Collagist, Florida Review, Copper Nickel, and Bloom, among others. Her novel-in-stories in progress, The Band Leader of Covington, is about music, magic, and the divine in a small town of eccentrics.