Abigail Ulman is a debut author whose stellar first collection of short stories, Hot Little Hands, was published in Australia by Penguin (Hamish Hamilton). The publications rights have also sold in the UK, the US, and Germany. Ulman has lived all over the world, including in Israel, Egypt and France, and she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow for Fiction at Stanford University.
Hot Little Hands is a collection of diverse, utterly absorbing stories that examine the lives of females on the edge: of discovery, of responsibility, and of adulthood.
The first story in the collection, Chagall’s Wife, was also the first to be published. How did the book come about?
I published that story [Chagall’s Wife] in Meanjin, and a number of Australian publishing houses contacted me, asking whether I had more work [written]. I was living in the States at the time, and the next time I came back to Australia I met up with them. I had four stories written then. About a year later, I had six stories. I have an agent, although it isn’t necessary for Australian writers to have one, and at that point I said to him that I wanted to get a book out. I sold it to Penguin, who was my first choice.
How did you go about securing an agent?
He was another person who contacted me because he had seen my work. Although I’m quite shy about doing it—nothing ever feels finished—submitting to literary magazines and competitions is really a good way [of getting started].
How long have you known that you wanted to be a writer? Did you have any inkling as a child?
Years ago I saw my grade two teacher, and she said, ‘Are you still writing?’ I guess I was always writing from a really young age, but I also wanted to do different things. I thought I’d maybe go into acting or filmmaking; I’ve always had an idea that I was going to do something creative, but I wasn’t 100% sure that it was going to be writing.
How did you come to be a writer? Did you study writing at university?
I did a Bachelor of Creative Arts—creative writing, film and theatre, and then I worked for a while in retail jobs before moving overseas for a few years. All that time, I was thinking ‘I want to be a writer!’ but I had no idea how I was going to do it. It’s such an anxious time of life, fun because you have a dream, but you have no idea how to get from A to B.
Eventually I came back to Australia and did a Postgraduate Diploma in Creative Writing, and then I applied for a writing fellowship overseas [the Stanford Wallace Stegner Fellowship], which I got into and moved over there. I think it was a combination of studying it and having life experiences, and then persevering.
In an interview Ian McEwan once said that he thinks many emerging American writers spend too much time in universities and not enough in pubs and bars, experiencing life. How did you find the university experience in America?
The thing with Stanford was having amazing professors, but also having good reader friends. I really loved my workshop experience; it was really important to me, and the people who I was in the workshop with still read my work.
To take a workshop or writing class, or have a writing group where you can get people to read your work and make it better is really important; they’re the people who won’t let you give up when you really want to, which happens all the time.
But I did meet people in the States—not in that workshop but in other settings—who had gone from high school to undergrad to an MFA, and it was so streamlined, and they had only been in academic environments. [In those situations] I think your second book ends up being a novel set in an academic setting that is a loosely veiled portrayal of the setting you’re in. I subscribe to the idea that you should have a balance of studies—if possible—and life experience, which scares a lot of people, particularly in the States, where everyone is driven and ambitious.
You’ve lived all sorts of places—San Francisco, New York, Cairo, Jerusalem, Paris. Do you find that your travels have affected your writing in any way?
A lot of the characters are moving from one place to the other, for some in more privileged circumstances than others. I think, being a writer, you have one foot in and one foot out of every circumstance that you’re in, you’re a little bit of an observer, and travelling is a very great and natural way to be in that situation—you’re in a new culture and seeing things from an outsider’s eyes, and can ask a lot of questions that you might not be able to ask when you’re in your home environment.
What are your reading habits? Do you have a preferred medium?
I like reading everything— a lot of poetry, non-fiction, novels. I do really love short stories, and how it’s such an intense form. To have to tell a whole story with that sort of economy is a challenge as a writer, and very satisfying as a reader. I also have an Internet-addled attention span, so I think they’re a perfect medium for this age.
In one of the stories, Claire [a film studies PhD student] considers getting a Junot Diaz quote tattooed on her arm. Has his work influenced your own?
He is a huge inspiration for me. His first book Drowned, a collection of short stories, is brilliant. His work is very voice-driven and colloquial—he swears a lot—and he throws you into a community, a culture, or an environment in his work, and expects you to keep up. That was inspiring, that you can write characters’ voices as how they might actually speak in real life, and that it’s as valid as writing that’s more flowery or more traditionally ‘literary’.
It’s also important to me to have ambiguity in a work. That Claire character: some people really love her and some people are very critical of her, and I’m okay with either reading. But it can be uncomfortable sometimes for a reader when the writer isn’t being didactic or telling them what to think.
In Same Old Same As, with the character who says she got sexually abused: when I’ve been interviewed about that, some people refer to her as ‘the girl who made up that story’ and others call her ‘the girl who got sexually abused’. That openness in a story is something that I strive for, and it is something I think Junot Diaz does too.
Are there any other short story writers that you particularly love?
There are so many. Some of my professors from Stanford are among my favourites. Tobias Wolf—he’s got a collection called The Night In Question. Elizabeth Tallent, who isn’t as well known in Australia, has a book called Honey. And Colm Tóibín is more famous for his novels, but I love his short stories. His collection, The Empty Family, is fantastic.
It must have been amazing to be mentored by these sorts of writers?
It was incredible. The level that they read at and give advice from was amazing. It’s also that they’d been editing and teaching for so long and were still supportive of and excited about a younger generation of writers; I don’t think all older writers are that way. Especially Colm Tóibín, who is so excited when he finds young writers that he likes. He does what he can for them in the industry, encourages older writers to pay attention to them—it can make such a difference in a young writer’s life.
What’s your writing routine? Discipline is particularly difficult for many emerging writers.
I usually write first thing when I get up, before I email anyone or do anything like that. I’m a bit of a night owl, so I write again at the end of the day and that’s when I’m most creative and productive, after everyone else has fallen asleep. 11[pm] to 2-ish is a really productive time of day.
The discipline thing—even when I had sold the book, I had enormous trouble getting myself to sit at the desk and to structure my time. It’s incredibly hard and it’s an ongoing battle for writers. Deadlines—either with a class, a friend, or using a short story competition—are really helpful.
I think, especially for younger writers, who have jobs or studies, setting a goal at the beginning of the week for a certain number of words, hours or pages is helpful. I think it’s also about being nice to yourself—most writers have really unrealistic goals. I used to think I’d be able to write eight hours in a row on a day off, and then I’d waste a lot of time on the Internet and be really hard on myself about it. When it comes to discipline, starting small and being kind to yourself is key.
What’s next for you? Can we expect more short stories, or is there something else in the works?
I have a few short stories in the works, but I’m also trying to tackle a novel, which is a whole new challenge. I’m not sure what my next book will be—my plan is for it to be a novel, but because I’m also working on some short stories it’s a bit of a horse race—we’ll see what ends up leading the pack.
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Writer's Edit would like to thank Abigail Ulman for taking the time to speak with us.