Interview with David Abbott
On March 31st, MacLehose Press will publish the paperback edition of The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott, which came out in hardback last year. Longlisted for the Desmond Eliott Prize, it is Abbott’s first novel. David Abbott has worked for many years in the advertising industry, and was a founding partner of Abbott Mead Vickers, now the largest agency in the UK
Paul Engles: What first gave you the idea for writing The Upright Piano Player?
David Abbott: I didn’t know that I was going to write this specific book, but I always knew that one day I would try to write a novel. I put it off for forty years because I had a job as an advertising copywriter and, frankly, that exhausted whatever creative juices I had. I also wanted to be a good copywriter and I didn’t think I could be, if I did it only to pay the rent, while my heart was really engaged with fiction. So, I waited until I retired and then I started keeping a notebook. In 1999, on the eve of the Millennium, my wife and I actually made the homeward journey that Henry Cage makes in the book. Of course, I wasn’t attacked, but that walk was the genesis of the book.
Paul Engles: When you started writing The Upright Piano Player did you have a good idea of how it would end, or was writing it a journey of discover for you?
The plot pretty much developed from the character of Henry Cage. I had no clear idea of the action other than I knew I would have to put him under some kind of pressure. I gave him a business background because I believe business is rarely treated accurately in contemporary novels. If the characters work in industry, they are invariably stupid or evil. That wasn’t my experience. I often came across intelligence, discernment – and even honour. As to the ending, I had that in my notebook. On holiday in Florida in 2002, I clipped a small item from a local newspaper, which detailed a similar tragic death. Putting the end at the beginning of the book was a big decision and several people advised me not to, but I felt it was too strong to end the book. As a reader, I would have felt manipulated and cheated. It had to be at the beginning.
Paul Engles: Can you tell us a little more about the character of Bateman? Have you ever come across anyone so malicious?
David Abbott: Bateman is entirely imagined – thank God. I had the idea of making him a little like Henry, the reverse in some ways of the same coin. For example, they both like photography. They are both fastidious. They are both slightly out of step with the world they live in. But, of course, Colin is unhinged, a violent and immoral man. A Daily Telegraph reader who can hammer a nail through a dog’s skull. There is no accounting for him.
Paul Engles: I think that more than a few people will mistake the painting on the cover of your novel for a Hopper. Who is it by, and how did it come to be on the cover?
David Abbott The painting is called “Rue des Boutiques Obscures – Scene 1.” The artist is Denis Fremond, a contemporary French painter. I bought the work about six years ago in Paris. I loved it at first sight, not only because it reminded me of Edward Hopper, but because of the subject matter. I spend countless happy hours reading books in such places and since I had given Henry Cage the same habit, it seemed natural to use the painting on the jacket of the book. Happily, the gallery, the artist and Christopher MacLehose agreed.
Paul Engles: The Upright Piano Player has now been sold to quite a number of foreign publishers, in the USA, France, Holland, Russia and beyond. Which sale
pleased you the most? Have you had much contact with your translators?
David Abbott: I am delighted to be published anywhere. I was not really involved with the Dutch edition that was published in August. In Holland, the book is called “The Grandson” as the English title does not translate. With the German edition, I have worked closely with Patricia Reimann at DTV, the publishers. There, the novel is called The Late Harvest of Henry Cage and is due in April. In America, the English title was retained and The Upright Piano Player will be published there on June 7th. I am looking forward to buying it in Crawford Doyle, my favourite bookshop in New York where over the years I have bought Cheever, Tyler, Yates, Salter and the like. It will feel like a miracle when my book appears on the same shelves.
Paul Engles: After spending so much time with the novel, what was it like working with an editor?
David Abbott: I loved it. I am a compulsive reviser.
Paul Engles: You are very well known in the advertising industry, first as a
copywriter and then as creative director and founding partner of Abbott Mead
Vickers. How do you think copywriting prepared you for writing
David Abbott: In advertising, even when telling a story, you have to keep things short. When I wrote the J.R. Hartley commercial for Yellow Pages, I had less than 30 seconds to work with. (If memory serves me right, I used 82 words.) Even a long copy press ad rarely runs to more than 500 words. On the whole, I think this brevity is a good discipline to bring to fiction and I can’t see myself ever writing a doorstep novel, but I did have to learn how to give each scene more air and texture. Strangely, as a copywriter I wasn’t that interested in the niceties of writing. Naturally, I had to express myself precisely and persuasively and I tried to make the words vivid, but my main responsibility was to have relevant and noticeable ideas. Often, these would be visual ideas not involving words at all. When I was writing the first part of The Upright Piano Player I saw it as the opening scene of a film, right down to the location and the background music. When I write, I read the words out loud to check the flow and I picture the scene in my head. I suspect I haven’t really answered the question, so, yes, I do think advertising is good training for fiction. To succeed in either, you have to be fascinated by people and eager to find out what makes them behave the way they do.
Paul Engles: Do you have any favourite writers?
David Abbott: There are many, so I will limit myself to one man and one woman. James Salter is the man – for his novel Light Years and for his recollection Burning The Days. There is just something about the tone of his writing that makes me smile with pleasure. Elegant, spare and moving – the absolute master of telling detail. My woman writer is Elizabeth Bishop, for the exactness and feeling of her poetry and the richness of the letters in ‘One Art.’
Paul Engles: MacLehose Press mainly publishes authors in translation. What is your favourite novel in translation?
David Abbott: I guess it would be tactful to choose a Christopher MacLehose production? In that case, I will be nostalgic and choose Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow. A wonderful book, and still available.
Paul Engles: There is a section in The Upright Piano Player where Henry Cage visits an independent bookshop to browse. Is bookshop browsing one of your favoured pastimes?
David Abbott: I am addicted to bookshops, but I don’t merely graze, I chomp and have to smuggle the bought books back in to my home when my wife is not looking.
Paul Engles: I once saw you clutching a copy of Phantoms on the Bookshelves a book about book collectors. Do you have a large library at home?
David Abbott: I have never counted my books. I fear I have several thousand.
Paul Engles: Are you working on a second novel? If so, is it another outing for Henry Cage, or something different?
David Abbott: I am working on a second novel, but it isn’t about Henry. Though I do plan to write more about him one day. He still lives on in my mind.