The Art of the Memoirish, Lit-Crit, Epistolary Essay

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Let’s start with a basic question. How do you write? Perhaps with a fountain pen that Vladimir Nabokov bequeathed to you, in calligraphy on artisan paper lovingly handmade in Jaipur, India? Or chain smoking as you hunch over Paul Auster’s Olympia typewriter, which late one night, after one-too-many cocktails at the Peacock Alley Bar in the Waldorf-Astoria, he agreed to loan you? Or maybe with a vintage Cleo Skribent Der Gessner mechanical pencil, using a brand new piece of ultra-fine graphite for each successive sentence?

 

ABBOT

 

Laptop computer.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Can you describe your writing room?

 

ABBOT

 

Yes.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

You grew up in a very small town in eastern central Georgia. What was that like?

 

ABBOT

 

Seriously? Read the book, why don’t you.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

The Burdens of Aeneas is a memoir, and at the same time it’s a collection of literary essays on subjects ranging from epic poetry to a beleaguered muskrat. Is it a departure from your earlier books?

 

ABBOT

 

Yes and no. Yes, it departs from my earlier books in the sense that it’s my only book. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, no, since I’ve never written a book before, it can’t very well mark a departure. I suppose it’s like when you step out onto onto your front porch, look up at the sky, check the temperature, and get a little fresh air. You haven’t really left your home, but you’ve certainly left the house. Does that make sense?

 

INTERVIEWER

 

No, not at all. It makes the opposite of sense. By the way, did you ever meet Faulkner?

 

ABBOT

 

We met at a dinner party in Oxford, just old friends of his and old friends of mine, which was the right way for it to happen, and it was just grand. We sang hymns, and we sang some old ballads—and the next day he invited me to go sailing.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

But you weren’t even two years old when he died.

 

ABBOT

 

You know what? You’re right. Sometimes I quote Eudora Welty without realizing I’m doing it.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

I see you listed sometimes as a Southern writer. Does that make sense to you?

 

ABBOT

 

Someone put me on a list?

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Oh, you know what? I was thinking of Walker Percy. Let’s talk about influences.

 

ABBOT

 

Horace. Seneca. Montaigne. Virginia Woolf. Harold Brodkey. Paul Theroux.  Haruki Murakami. Annie Dillard.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

That’s quite a list!

 

ABBOT

 

Yes, I’m definitely hoping to read those authors someday.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

Some advance readers of The Burdens of Aeneas have commented that your translations of Latin poetry are as smooth and elegant as an ice-skating Fred Astaire in white tie and tails.

 

ABBOT

 

Really?

 

INTERVIEWER

 

No, of course not, but wasn’t it nice for a moment to think so? Now, Burdens is about your father …

 

ABBOT

 

Yep.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

… and about fatherhood …

 

ABBOT

 

Yep.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

… and about some of the interests you shared with your father: law and justice, rivers and forests, history and narrative …

 

ABBOT

 

Yep.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

… and finally about your understanding of the Aeneid, an epic composed by the Roman poet Virgil in the time of Augustus Caesar, with its famous opening words, “Arms and the man.” Since those sections of your book are the ones that most readers will be skipping, why don’t you give us the gist?

 

ABBOT

 

Well, let’s see. I suppose I could quote the writer and editorLewis Lapham, who argues that “[w]e live in an age convinced that technology is the salvation of the human race, and over the past fifty years, we’ve learned to inhabit a world in which it is increasingly the thing that thinks and the man reduced to the state of a thing.”

 

INTERVIEWER

 

??????????

 

ABBOT

 

Man reduced to the state of a thing; arms and the man. See? Such is the mysterious power of this endlessly fascinating poem: every age can discover its own Virgil. For us, he can be the far-seeing prophet of our Age of Machines, a genius who divined a future in which the marvelous mechanisms we continually invent — not excluding our beautifully articulated systems of thought — threaten to overwhelm and even supplant us, as a simple consequence of the fulfillment of the purposes for which we designed them.

 

INTERVIEWER

 

And that has something to do with your subtitle, “A Son’s Memoir of Duty and Love”?

 

ABBOT

 

Yep.

 

 

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