Abby Fabiaschi’s debut novel, I Liked My Life, began as a cathartic exercise. She sought to channel her own grief over the loss of a friend into a story of characters experiencing a similar trauma. Ten years later, Fabiaschi returned to the draft and began shaping it into the novel it is today. We caught up with Fabiaschi this April at the Newburyport Literary Festival to talk about how loss in her own life has shaped her into the mother, human rights advocate, and writer she is today.
Bookish: Grief is not only a subject but it also seems to be a character at points within this novel. Was that an intentional reflection of the heavy presence that grief has in the lives of those experiencing it?
Abby Fabiaschi: I love the idea that grief is its own character in the book. I never heard it worded that way. People say time heals all wounds and that hasn’t been my experience. I feel like grief is with you always and then it becomes familiar and that’s the best you can hope for. I think it’s omnipresent for people who have lost a major person in their lives. It’s not just death. It’s divorce. It’s friendships. It’s when you have somebody who played a role that was integral and part of your day to day life. It’s a person that you needed and no one can ever fill the spot exactly as it was left. That puzzle piece is just going to be gone. So I do think it’s forever present. It’s a depressing thought to say, but I don’t think it goes away. The most you can hope for is that you become comfortable with it.
Bookish: I read that you went through a great deal of personal trauma at a young age. How did those experiences influence the way you wrote about pain and loss in this book?
AF: I lost a close friend when I was 15. I became distant from the things I used to care about; all of a sudden that stuff didn’t matter to me at all. I saw that there was a bigger picture and that made me cynical. I started looking around and thinking, “Everyone has a private hell that they’re hiding.” The world became very dark. Then when I was 16 or 17, I happened across a piece of poetry by Adrienne Rich that said, “If we could learn to learn from pain even as it grasps us.” It had a profound impact on my life because I recognized that I wasn’t doing that. I realized that the loss and pain I’d gone through was going to permanently damage my life. This idea of post-traumatic growth—that something good could come out of pain—was really eye-opening to me. Over time, I became a big believer that there is insight and beauty in life’s most agonizing moments. It’s hard because it’s at the expense of whatever you lost and it will never be worth it. You have to come to terms with the injustice of that.
Bookish: Does grief transform?
AF: Yes… it evolves. At the beginning you really can’t imagine how you’re going to go on. Then you start to realize that you have no choice—especially grieving as an adult or as a mother. When I lost my father, I had 70-hour-a-week job and a four-month-old baby and I was pregnant. As a teenager, I had the ability to turn inward and grieve and mourn. As an adult, your alarm goes off and you have to get up. You have responsibilities. Over time you become familiar with it and you start a relationship with it.
One of the questions I get asked most often is, do I think the relationship you have with people after they are gone is real. I don’t know if it’s real. I’ve never been dead. I know I feel it. I feel the energy and guidance of the people I’ve lost at times. When I’m thinking about something that would be bold but worthwhile, I feel like I get a shiver of encouragement. When I’m going to be doing something that I would maybe not be proud of, I can feel my father’s eyebrows raise inside of me. I won’t know if it’s real until I’m on the other side, but I’ve stopped questioning it because it brings comfort to that missing piece and allows that transformation to take place.
Bookish: You wrote in rotating points of view, going from the dead mother to the angry and grief-stricken daughter to the aggrieved and dumbstruck father. What made you take this choice?
AF: I really wanted to represent the nuances among different kinds of grief. This book started as my desire to explore grieving at that tender age when you can turn inward and go all in, versus as an adult who has responsibilities—not only work and financial responsibilities, but also to help other people grieve. And I wanted to explore the differences between men and women and how they grieve. I got the most unfortunate front row seat to it when my father passed away. My husband was very close with my dad, and I saw that we grieve differently. There are layers and complexities that affect how a person grieves. It can be your gender. It can be your age. It can be your financial situation. It can be whether it is pure grief or guilt and grief, which is a whole extra layer. I wanted to explore that and see it from the lenses of all of these different people.
Bookish: Which voice was your favorite?
AF: I wrote the very first draft of this book when I was 24. It really was meant to be cathartic—a way to unburden my grief at the loss of my friend into these unsuspecting characters. At that time, Eve was the one who was the catalyst for the book and the one I felt most comfortable writing. The book sat on my computer and then years after my father died I happened across it. I saw the title and I felt that it would be a good time to revisit it. By then I had grieved as an adult and I grieved alongside my husband. I had been married for ten years, which helps to represent marriage and what can happen over that much time. When I wrote the second time, I really was more attuned and plugged in to Maddy and Brady. I worked how Brady worked, those 70-hour weeks. I had that lifestyle and the sense of how easy it was to lose touch with your day to day, to have your self-worth become your work. But also I was a mother and so I had a much better understanding of what I would need my children to know if I left too soon. As I wrote that second draft, that’s when the adult voices came to life. I don’t know that I could have captured them as a 24-year-old.
Bookish: Which voice was the hardest to write?
AF: Having never been dead myself, Maddy was challenging to write. The flaw of the book, that I needed someone to point out to me, was this other hoverer named Robin, who was helping Maddy. I got this note from this person I had never met that said: “Nobody gives a shit about Robin. Further, the story is about Brady and Eve. The Maddy story is over, and so when you’re using that character, she has to move their story forward. Otherwise it’s just a distraction.” It was hard for me to pull Robin out, but once I did it just opened up the book. You need that person who sees that something is pulling the story down. You needed the person who would say: It’s Robin. I had felt a need to tell readers what the afterlife is, but I didn’t have to do that. This book is not religious. It’s not meant to be religious. It should work for everyone. It’s open. Describing the afterlife was unrealistic and distracting to the story.
Bookish: I Liked My Life is your first novel. What has the process of bringing your book out into the world taught you?
AF: Publishing is such a challenging industry to break into, and I’m so grateful. I feel like every writer has their story of rejection. I had a great agent who I had secured for a different novel that was never published. When I wrote this years later, I went to that agent and she hated this book. It didn’t resonate with her. She was not a mother by choice; both her parents were still alive; nothing took to her in the story. So I was fired by my own agent, which I didn’t even know was a thing. She was very gracious. She said there was a woman in her office who loved the book but found some flaws. My agent gave me her colleague’s notes, and those notes she gave me were invaluable. They are the reason this book got published.
This also prepared me for the reality of this industry which is that this is art and it is subject to opinion. It will not capture everyone’s attention. I have been so overjoyed by the press, but the reality is that you get the reviews where someone says, “why is everyone talking about this book?” I learned that really early on. When I did that final revision and went to the seven agents I thought were at her caliber, all the agents got back to me. Then it went to auction and four houses competed for it. It was this really beautiful thing. Ten years of effort and lots of rejection, but then when it went it went in this beautiful way. I’ve been really humbled by this industry. There’re all of these hoops and you start to see that maybe there’s a reason for them. This book needed ten years of work. Are we probably missing some great books? Yes, we probably are. It is a craft that can take a lot of time.
Bookish: Is there anything you would do differently?
AF: Yes. In general, I feel like if you say you wouldn’t do anything differently, then you’re probably not pausing to look back and debrief. I’m still a little bit in the thick of it. I haven’t gone into full decompression. But I would say that what I would do is worry less. I took away some of the joy of the accomplishment by worrying. I had been warned by several wonderful authors not to get involved in reviews. You get five stars and you feel so good and then all of a sudden a three star comes in. The truth is that the book is done and it is being published. I could have just experienced the joy of that process. Now, I separate and celebrate that it is on shelves. That time that I spent looking at those reviews was at the expense of my writing and of my confidence. There were days when I got great reviews and I’d go into my writing feeling great but then the days when I got lower reviews it impacted my writing. I need to just focus on the work. It’s what got me here and it will get me to the next book.
Bookish: As for that next book, can you tell us about it?
AF: It’s called Anything Helps, and it’s about a family that grew through adoption. In all of these different ways, they are forced to ask: What, if anything, do you owe the biological mother of your child? I really like books where nobody is wrong and where good people are in a pickle. It allows you to dig into the assumptions that are being made, the experiences, the challenges, the communications and miscommunications that make things harder. Those are the kinds of stories that I like to get into. I’m really excited about this book.
Bookish: Twenty percent of your after-tax proceeds go to charity. How else does your humanitarian side tie into your writing? Why are these two things entwined?
AF: They both happened at the same time in my life. I was in high technology for 11 years. When I resigned, I resigned with three things that I was going to replace that 70-hour a week job with: More time with my kids was definitely a big one. In terms of work, there was pursuing a career as a writer; I wanted to get published. And the third thing was that I wanted to give back in a meaningful way.
I have always been interested in economic solutions to cultural and social problems. I wanted to be involved in long-term solutions that allowed people to be fiscally independent and get out of the challenges that they were in, particularly around violence. I am the board chair for Her Future Coalition which provides shelter, education, and high-wage employment to survivors of human trafficking and extreme abuse. I was so excited about the idea of getting published, but I am most proud of this other work. It is one of those things that once you know you can not know. It’s there. It’s disturbing. And it’s solvable.
I was asked at a book club if I will ever write a novel about human trafficking, and I said I never thought about it or even considered it. I would be very nervous about ever exploiting what these women have gone through. If I ever did, all of the proceeds would have to go towards awareness of the issue. It’s become hugely personal to me. I have learned more from these girls and women than they have learned from me. They have taught me about resilience, about moving forward, about gratitude. The idea that someone who has been subjected to the vile things that these girls and women have been subjected to and then they can have a rebirth and go and start a career and be grateful for anything. That they have that ability to be grateful was a real teaching moment for me. It has influenced the way I parent and the way I act as a friend.
Abby Fabiaschi is a human rights advocate on the board for Her Future Coalition, an international nonprofit organization with a unique prosperity model that uplifts victims from human trafficking and extreme abuse. In 2012 Abby resigned from her executive post in high tech to pursue a career in writing. I Liked My Life is her first novel. She and her family divide their time between West Hartford, CT and Park City, UT.