An Indies Introduce Debut Author Q&A With Abby Geni

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Abby Geni is the author of the fall 2013 Indies Introduce debut and November 2013 Indie Next List pick The Last Animal (Counterpoint). A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the recipient of an Iowa Fellowship, Geni has been published in Glimmer Train, the Indiana Review, and Confrontation Magazine. Her stories have received first-place awards in the Glimmer Train Fiction Open and the Chautauqua Contest and have been listed in The Best American Short Stories. Geni works as an instructor of writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and as a writing teacher at Storystudio of Chicago.

“When people let you down, the natural world is the place to find solace, or so the reader learns from this fascinating new collection of short stories,” Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said of The Last Animal. “Whether it be from Alzheimer’s, depression, affairs, or reasons yet to be determined, family members in these stories keep disappearing. Fortunately, there are substitute connections, whether it’s the teen student in ‘Dharma at the Gate,’ who has her dog, or the young aquarium worker of ‘Captivity,’ who is quite aware of the intelligence of the octopus. Geni’s work is filled with unique images and situations, some of them heart-stopping.”

What inspired you to write this collection?

Abby Geni:: An octopus inspired me. Ten years ago, I went to the public library in Iowa City and read a book about octopuses, cover to cover. At the time, I didn’t know why; I didn’t realize I was doing research until a few hours later, when I began writing “Captivity,” the first story to be a part of the collection. “Captivity” focuses on an octopus specialist; it’s the reason there’s an octopus on the cover of The Last Animal. There was something so new and wonderful for me about writing a story that orbited around an animal and talked about the natural world that way. I couldn’t stop with just one story. A few weeks later, I was back at the library, reading a book about ostriches, and the rest is history.

What do you hope readers take away from your debut title?

AG: Many things, I hope. But perhaps foremost in my mind is the relationship between human beings and the natural world. I think it’s easy to forget that we are a part of a greater ecosystem, that we have our own place in the food chain. I hope that after reading The Last Animal, people may be inspired to take a closer look at their own relationship to nature. I hope to remind my readers that we are animals too.

Nature is a recurring theme in your stories. How does the natural world impact or influence your life?

AG: I once heard someone say that extroverts connect to people, and introverts connect to things. As a diehard introvert, I’m not particularly attached to objects, but I am passionately attached to places. I put down roots like a plant. I like to know every corner of my neighborhood. For me, the experience of the natural world is a constant thing; I encounter it in the trees through the window, the smell on the air, the walks I take to the corner store or the lakefront, the garden in my backyard, the subtle shifting of the seasons. The few times I’ve had to uproot and move to a new place, it’s been as traumatic for me as it might be for a delicate plant to be shifted to a new pot.

Were books an important part of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you?

AG: Books were a huge part of my childhood. I was one of those kids who read constantly. I read while riding in the car, brushing my teeth, watching TV, or doing chores. My brother and I used to beg to have “reading dinners,” in which, instead of talking to one another, we could all bring a book to the table. I read until the covers fell off my favorite volumes and the pages grew yellow and soft, like cloth. The first book I ever remember really loving was Eloise by Kay Thompson. I remember when I was young enough that Eloise’s imaginary play was as real to me as it was to her.

Do you feel that readers connect with short stories in a different way than novels? If so, in what ways?

AG: I think so. To my mind, reading a good book is like traveling to another world. Short stories are like vacations, and novels are like moving in. In a short story collection, the readers have brief, incandescent encounters; in a novel, the readers settle down and spend time getting to know the world intimately. Short stories can take risks with voice or point of view that are tolerable — or wonderful — in small doses. The readers might love to visit that place, but they wouldn’t want to live there. Novels, on the other hand, have to create a world that the reader wants to spend thousands of words inhabiting.

Are you working on anything now?

AG: Yes, I’m hard at work on a novel. This time around, I was interested in writing literary fiction that plays with the standard mystery structure: a suspicious death, an enclosed environment, a limited number of suspects. I also wanted to continue to explore the relationship between the human sphere and the natural world. The novel is set on an island chain off the coast of California, where a group of biologists is studying the strange and fascinating marine life. The book touches on the vital issues of loss, recovery, and great white sharks.

When you travel, do you stop at bookstores? Any particular indies make a lasting impression?

AG: There are too many to count. I will always love Prairie Lights in Iowa City, which was a bastion of stillness and calm for me in the cluttered, noisy whirl of grad school. I will always love Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, which was an oasis of familiarity for me in a place that, for a lifelong Chicagoan, was a bit startling and alien. When my husband and I were on our honeymoon in Paris, we spent a whole afternoon in Shakespeare and Company, buying English-language books we could probably have bought anywhere in America. We couldn’t help ourselves. Home is where the indie bookstore is.

If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand?

AG: I’d have to say Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. I can’t overemphasize the impact that book had on my own sense of what it means to write beautifully, deeply, and passionately. I first read it when I was too young to understand the themes; at first I was just captivated by the language, reading it again and again to try and figure out how she made her sentences, how she built her paragraphs. Each subsequent reading revealed new layers. The book seemed to grow up as I did. As I was able to understand it more fully, there was always more to see and discover. I can think of no other book that makes use of such crystalline slowness. Housekeeping is unique.

If you were stranded on a desert island, what three titles would you want to have with you?

AG: Tao Te Ching, because it’s the only book I’ve ever read that feels both like a homecoming and a mystery. The Animal Dialogues, by Craig Childs, because it’s an exquisite, unparalleled meditation on the wild. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, because when I first read it, as I reached page 200, I was devastated to realize that there were only 600 pages left. I would pack my bags, rent a truck, and move myself into any of those books if I could.

The Last Animal, by Abby Geni (Counterpoint LLC, Hardcover, 9781619021822). Publication Date: October 2013.

Learn more about Abby Geni at

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