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Booms, busts, and besties: Northampton author Heather Abel talks to her friend Erin White about ‘The Optimistic Decade’ 

  • Heather Abel. Beowulf Sheehan

  • Heather Abel and Erin White.   Photo by Leni Zumas.

  • Heather Abel and Erin White. Photo by Leni Zumas



For the Gazette
Thursday, May 03, 2018

Heather Abel and Erin White have been writing in the same room for over a decade, ever since they got together with other writers to create The Writers’ Mill, a shared workspace in Florence. This spring, they’ve each published the books they wrote while sitting back-to-back. White’s memoir, “Given Up For You,” came out in March, and Abel’s debut novel, “The Optimistic Decade,” was released on May 1. The two friends recently sat down to talk about Abel’s new book, their writing habits and reading inspirations, motherhood, and much more.

Erin White: It’s never easy to talk about your own book, but I like it when friends ask me what your novel is about. I love to list its many themes: failed utopias, desert wilderness, the legacy of radicalism, teenage lust, Judaism. I mean, who doesn’t want to read a book about those things?! What do you say when people ask you what “The Optimistic Decade” is about? 

Heather Abel: I say, “Ask Erin!” But if you’re not around, I explain that it began out of my obsession with idealism and disillusionment as well as with the American West. It’s about class and love, booms and busts, and trying to figure out how to change the world when so many attempts fail. Also, it’s funny. 

Your book takes place in the high desert of Colorado, a geographic world away from Western Massachusetts. How was it to write about the west from your desk in Florence? 

It’s a very cheap way to take a trip. After getting my kids to school, I was able to take a walk on a mesa in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I paid attention to the sage and juniper, to the hum of the electric wires, to the insects and birds that only appear at dusk. I felt the crackling heat. And then, full of sunlight, I put on my jacket, went outside, and scraped the snow off of my car. 

Much of the action of the book takes place in a utopian, back-to-the-land summer camp. How did you come up with this camp?

I’ve long been interested in kibbutzim and communes and the early American utopias. So, I created a character, Caleb, who was equally obsessed and who, unlike me, wanted to start one of these new worlds. In the first draft, I had him trying to form a sort of commune. As I got to know him and his history better, I realized that he’d be much more interested in bringing kids into nature than adults. And then I had a lot of fun, because not only did I love going to summer camp, but I also love to think about the questions camps raise about kids and freedom and responsibility and danger. 

Why does “The Optimistic Decade” start in the ’80s and end in the ’90s?

When I lived in Colorado and worked as a reporter for an environmental newspaper, I wrote about the damage caused — to the land and the communities — by the booms and busts of extractive industries. I wanted to use Exxon’s oil shale bust in the early 1980s as the chronological start to the story. This was really a remarkable time, because Exxon promised thousands of jobs, flooding small towns with job-seekers. It tore up the earth, completely remade communities, and then, overnight, decided it couldn’t make enough money and shut everything down. The company walked away unscathed, leaving a huge mess. I wanted to end the book with a town on the verge of a real-estate boom. Will this be better for the town? More stable? How will it remake the community? 

This timing works well with the other story I tell — that of a family of radicals in Los Angeles. Their story begins with a protest against Reagan and ends with a protest against the Gulf War, a war, largely over oil, which is, of course, what Exxon’s looking for underground in Colorado. 

Even though your novel takes place 30 years ago, its themes of class division and distrust are so relevant to life under the Trump administration. What’s it like to be publishing this novel now, as opposed to five years ago?

The story I tell in the novel reminds me that these class and cultural divisions are nothing new. The anti-elite, racist, and anti-environmental rhetoric I heard 25 years ago when I interviewed out-of-work miners and lobbyists was pretty identical to what we’re hearing now. 

But I think what makes my book particularly relevant is its interest in protest. The brilliant writer Alexander Chee wrote recently on Twitter, “Protest is how we mourn in America.” I love that. I’d add that protest is also how we hope. The most hopeful three hours I’ve had recently was marching through Northampton as part of the Women’s March. 

We both like to keep stacks of books on our desk as we work, little altars of inspiration. Sometimes I’ll come into the Writers’ Mill and I’ll know how things are going depending on what’s in your stack, although I don’t think I’ve ever actually confirmed my suspicions, so now I’ll ask. What does it mean when “Mrs. Dalloway” is on top of the stack? Why the repeated appearance of Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty” during your final revision of “The Optimistic Decade”? 

When I forget how to write, which happens to me a few times a day, I remind myself that all I need to do is form a sentence. I really adore sentences. And there is no one working in English who writes more gleeful, robust, versatile sentences than Hollinghurst. “Mrs. Dalloway” is there for when I need a reminder that serious writing can also be very funny.

What would you say might be a few of your greatest non-literary influences?

Ruth Asawa. Louise Bourgeois. Sleater-Kinney. Woody Guthrie. The West Elk mountains in Colorado. Pina Bausch. John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. My daughters, Rose and Susannah. 

Motherhood is really elemental in our friendship and also our working relationship, both logistically (as in that text that says: “fever not gone, I won’t be in”) and also philosophically. By which I mean we talk A LOT about what motherhood means for our writing. A few months ago, you published a fantastic essay about motherhood and literary ambition for The Paris Review online, and it went viral. What did it feel like to finally have all those private ideas about literary ambition and motherhood out in the world? 

One of the things I found so difficult about early motherhood was its isolation. How many times was I the only adult in the Look Park playground or riding its train? The wide, international response to this essay was a joyful reminder of community, even if it’s not always visible. So many women are wrestling with the unreasonable expectations of contemporary motherhood. I even heard from some women I used to see in Look Park, women who, I assumed — based on absolutely no evidence — found it all so much easier than I did. In that way, the essay was just the beginning of a conversation I can’t wait to continue. 

We met when I called you about helping to create the Writers’ Mill, because I had a two year old and needed to get out of the house. Now, 11 years and three more children later, we work together at the Mill nearly every weekday. Our work includes a lot of talking in the kitchen, so this seems like a good time for a public apology to all our fellow Writers’ Mill members for all the talking we do. Sorry, everyone! That talking is essential to my writing process, even the talking that’s not actually about our work. Because we see each other every day, we know all the mundane details of each other’s lives, and in order for me to write, I need to be able to tell you how my daughter’s dentist appointment was, or about the meeting at the school, or how the dinner recipe turned out. I need to file away those domestic and emotional details so I can work. What else do you need to be able to write? 

I need to be able to walk uphill listening to loud music, which is why it’s really great I live here, so close to Mt. Holyoke, and why I’m so grateful to the inventors of micro-spikes and Yak Traks, to say nothing of the inventors of bug spray and headphones. I usually start out in a dazed state of despair. The scene will never work! And then, around three-quarters of the way up, I get a sentence in my head. I record it into my phone as I hike. And around that sentence, everything shifts into a new place. 

Have you ever been surprised by where the writing has taken you? 

Honestly, I never thought writing would bring me a friend like you, and for that I say thank you writing! 

Heather Abel will be reading from “The Optimistic Decade” this evening, May 3, at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookstore in South Hadley. On Sunday, May 6 at 11 a.m., she’ll be reading from the novel and speaking about it with Lesley Yalen at Congregation B’nai Israel. Both events are open to the public.