Street Talk

Abby Geni

Abby Geni is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the recipient of an Iowa Fellowship. Her debut collection The Last Animal will be published by Counterpoint in October 2013.

Octopi Venom and Museum Glass: An Interview with Abby Geni by Robert Yune


In 2012 Robert Yune was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction and was one of five finalists for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, selected by Sherman Alexie and Colin Channer. His fiction has appeared in Green Mountains Review, the Kenyon Review, and Los Angeles Review, among others.  This past summer, he worked as a stand-in for George Takei.  Yune teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.  His debut novel Eighty Days of Sunlight is forthcoming from Thought Catalog Books.


Robert Yune: I first read Geni’s work in 2011. I was the fiction editor of The Fourth River, and our readers had passed on a story to me with enthusiastic notes: “Stuck w/ me long after I finished,” “DROP EVERYTHING, READ NOW.” And I did. The story was “Fire Blight,” which was a volatile mix of landscape, tragedy, and humor. The ending was pitch-perfect, which was impressive for such a wonderfully strange piece.

The Last Animal explores heavy subjects: death, disease, and cruelty, to name a few. But at the same time, those themes are counterbalanced by the funny dialogue and character sketches of stories like “The Girls of Apache Bryn Mawr,” for example, and the description of manatees and Delilah’s companion in the title story. And there’s some gorgeous and surprising imagery: snowy, desolate Ohio in “Dharma at the Gate,” the narrator’s description of Alzheimer’s and preserved specimens in “The Spirit Room.”

In this collection, many of your characters are re-discovering the natural world.  In some cases, this process results from trauma: a failing marriage, a missing family member, or unexpected betrayals. Some writers balk at the idea of “nature writing,” as if the natural world is a theme park we can visit instead of a complex system we’re (a small) part of. But at the same time, the human/nature division makes perfect sense. Even as I’m writing this, I’m typing on a device made of plastic. The temperature of my room is regulated by a computerized thermostat. My smartphone is begging for me to update it, or play with it. It can take a lot to invite (or force) people to consider the non-humanmade world, the one that lies beyond our control. Do you think trauma, or recovery from trauma, is the main reason people stop to examine their surroundings?

Abby Geni: I hope not, but I suspect so. I think it takes something big to wake us up from our bubble.  One of the great illusions of the human experience is, as you said, our sense of safety.  We love to imagine that we’re outside the natural world, protected from it. In Watership Down, Richard Adams puts it very well: “Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it.”

And yet we’re always a little thrilled when that sense of control, of separateness, is challenged.  We turn to the natural world in moments of extremity. After suffering a bereavement, people will spend a month hiking the Adirondacks. When times are tough, people will get a puppy they can’t afford for reasons they can’t quite articulate. There’s a reason that, in movies, lovelorn couples are always running to find one another in the pouring rain. As much as we love our bubble, there’s a certain relief that comes from relinquishing it. Nature matters to us on a primal level. It wakes us up. It reminds us that we’re inextricably bound to the wild.

RY: You’re currently living in Chicago. Can you talk about your surroundings a little? Did the city of Chicago inspire any of the collection’s explorations of nature, loss, or healing?

AG: Oh, Chicago has definitely influenced my fascination with the natural world. Lake Michigan permeates every aspect of city life. You can smell it on the air. You glimpse it between the buildings. You use it to navigate; the lake is always east, a fixed landmark. When you head down Lake Shore Drive to the downtown area, you can’t help but be struck by that massive inland sea. It changes color; it stretches all the way to the horizon. It’s a constant reminder that the natural world is strange and untamed, lurking right outside the borders we’ve built for ourselves.

RY: Can you talk about some instances where the natural world encroached or made a sudden appearance in your life?

AG: Oddly enough, animals are a regular feature in my dreams. I once read that children under the age of six regularly dream about animals, whether or not animals are a part of their daily lives. Apparently, I never outgrew that. I dream about lions and snakes and bears and sharks and insects. My subconscious is like a surreal and otherworldly zoo. Fish the size of houses. Giraffes that can speak. Whale bones in the sky, like constellations. I’m sure this is part of why I write about nature so often. I would invite the whole world into my dreams if I could.

RY: It seems like this collection required a lot of research: in “Terror Birds,” the family lives on an ostrich farm; in “Captivity,” the narrator is a marine biologist; and in “In the Spirit Room,” the main character is an entomology researcher. What was the most surprising thing you discovered during your research? And were there any unexpected ways your research influenced your writing?

AG: Hmmm.... An especially wonderful part of my research was learning about the octopus in “Captivity.” Octopuses are lovely and creepy and outlandish. Not all the research I did even made it into the piece. For instance, octopuses are smarter than dogs, they change colors wildly when they have sex, and they paralyze their prey with venom before eating. There’s something special about an octopus. Whenever someone new reads The Last Animal, I can always predict what their first question will be. Nobody is ever curious about the ostriches in “Terror Birds” or the beetles in “In the Spirit Room.” Instead, people always ask the same thing: “Can octopuses really do all that stuff?” It isn’t a coincidence that there’s an octopus on the cover. 

RY: “Terror Birds” is a great title, by the way. Do you have any specific process for writing titles?

AG: When I was a student at Iowa, one of my teachers suggested a method for deciding on a title. She said that as you’re working on a new piece, you should put post-it notes with possible titles all over the wall above your desk. Each day, you should take down one and throw it away.  Whatever you’re left with is the title you best can live with.

I remember hearing that and thinking, “You must be crazy!” For me, there’s only one right title for any story. The idea of choosing the best option out of a throng of possibilities is just bizarre.  Sometimes I stumble across the title while doing research. Sometimes it just appears in my head.  Sometimes I know the title before I begin the story, and sometimes I come across it months after finishing the piece. A new story never feels complete until it has a title—like a person without a name—and while I’m waiting to find it, I tend to stomp around in a bad mood, feeling out of sync. When I find it, though, it’s a terrific sensation—rightness, satisfaction.

RY: While I was reading, it struck me that The Last Animal must have been a fairly difficult book to write. Some stories have more than one narrator; you write from the perspective of different genders; the settings range from Arizona to Ohio to Chicago; and the characters’ occupations, religions, and obsessions must have required a fair amount of research. That said, the collection isn’t show-offy. Each story’s components feel necessary and organic. What was the hardest part of writing this collection?

AG: That’s an interesting question. Strangely enough, I think the hardest part about building the collection was writing those stories that are closest to me. I love writing fiction because I get to travel the world, experiment with new jobs and living situations, try on different personalities. In The Last Animal, I had the most fun with the stories that are the farthest from my own experience; each one was a journey down the rabbit hole, a life I got to visit but could never have in reality.

But a few of the stories are based on events from my own history, and those are the ones that took me years to write. It was difficult to find the right amount of emotional distance, to separate myself from the characters. Working on those stories could even be painful—I knew it was something I wanted to talk about, and yet it would have been easier to leave it buried. During the writing process I’m sure I was a terror to live with. It definitely took a toll. And yet there’s nothing like the feeling of being done with a story like that; it’s almost as though you’ve taken your own memories and sealed them up in a box, behind a pane of glass, visible but safe, at a remove.