Today, we're celebrating the release of Daniel Abbott's new novel, The Concrete!
Set on the gritty southeast side of Grand Rapids, Michigan, an impoverished area known for drugs and violence, The Concrete centers around the home of Jackson and Mae Carter, foster parents of two boys―Isaac, who is white, and Miles, who is black―who share dark and intersecting histories that neither one is aware of. As the boys try to escape the grim reality of the violent streets―i.e. “the concrete”―in different ways―Isaac through basketball, Miles though music―the novel shifts back and forth in time, in the process revealing the story of an entangled community plagued by trauma and death, trying to confront the ghosts of its past, and seize a better life. A multi-point-of-view work of realistic and often graphic literary fiction, The Concrete is a striking debut that grapples with the effects of childhood trauma on teens, lost dreams, human sexuality, and the difficulties of marriage.
Welcome, Daniel! So, tell us . . .
Who was your favorite character to write and why?
Cesar Bolden, the novel’s villain. Cesar is a drug dealer, a pornographer, and an all-around destructive presence in the lives of the characters trying to make it in the world of The Concrete. Becoming a father inspires change in him, and he does change, but finds no redemption from those he’s affected. The change is not recognized by anyone but the reader, which I think is a pretty cool reading experience. I enjoyed writing the change, or rather, watching Cesar grow and become a better person over the course of writing the novel.
What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
There isn’t one specific cut or change that stands out. The major difficulty I had was managing the points of view. The Concrete is written from twelve different POVs—any revision made to a character arc affected the novel’s arc as a whole. That was maddening. On a micro level I was writing with a specific character arc in mind, but then on a macro level I had to keep the story arc in mind as well. So ultimately I was dealing with twelve arcs within one arc, so I constantly had to go back and make sure the novel was consistent throughout my revision process.
What a daunting undertaking! But how fascinating, for both you and the reader, to explore how all those POVs intersect.
Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?
I signed with my agent, Sarah Levitt of Aevitas Creative Management, ten months after graduating from VCFA. Sarah and I spent nine months working together on revisions before she put me On Submission with publishers. Being On Submission (no exaggeration) was the worse experience of my life. Sarah shared responses with me as the passes came in. We had so many close calls from major publishers before getting an offer from Robert Lasner of Ig Publishing. The waiting was brutal. The close calls were brutal. When I got the email from Sarah it brought tears to my eyes. Seriously. I had spent two years writing six drafts during my time at VCFA. Had done a seventh draft during my agent query process. Then Sarah and I did another three drafts together after I signed with her. The offer from Ig was after I spent three and a half years writing ten drafts. So yeah, I was pretty emotional.
It feels like so many of us go through that dreadful side of being on submission, but we rarely talk about it. Thanks for sharing your experience.
What authors do you love for their sentences? How about plot? Character?
What really moves me most in fiction is the juxtaposition of ugly worlds/situations and beautiful sentences. I love the work of Toni Morrison, specifically Beloved and The Bluest Eye, where she depicts racism, incest, and some truly despicable characters and situations, but she does so with such a graceful paintbrush. Or Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann where he depicts the downtrodden with such elegance. On a sentence level alone, Michael Chabon’s a beast! Theme wise I love the work of Zadie Smith. Much of her work deals with interracial relationships, which I find relatable on a personal level, being a husband to a black wife and a father to seven biracial children. I also love the work of Junot Diaz and Sherman Alexie, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
You're an alum of VCFA's MFA in Writing Program. Who were your advisors?
I worked with Domenic Stansberry, Ellen Lesser, and Connie May Fowler.
What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?
You will get out of the program exactly what you put into it. Being there is not good enough. Meeting the packet deadlines is not good enough. The publishing world is an ultra-competitive industry looking for reasons to say “no.” You have the opportunity during your time at VCFA to work closely with an advisor, who basically serves an editor, a luxury you will not have post-grad when you are an unsigned writer beginning a career. Work. Work. Work. And ask questions about the publishing industry while you are there.
How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
Because of commute distance and family responsibilities, a full-residency MFA was not an option for me. Instead of the free tuition and a teaching stipend that most full-res programs offer, I had to choose low-res and take out student loans. I could not afford another $40,000 in student loans, so I entered VCFA knowing I was taking a financial risk and believing in both my own ability and VCFA’s ability to prepare me for a career in writing. For me that meant writing between 40-60 hours per week. I wanted to get the most out of my investment and I think I did. When I hit my stride with the novel in my second semester, my advisor, Ellen Lesser matched my effort, reading way more than she was required to. When I worked with Connie May Fowler my final two semesters she did the same. Having guidance and support for my work was well-worth the bill in the end. VCFA wants its students to succeed. But I cannot stress enough to incoming students: you will get out of the program what you put into it.
Great advice! Thanks so much for stopping by, and congratulations on the release of The Concrete!
Daniel Abbott is a novelist and short story writer from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He earned a BA in Writing from Grand Valley State University and an MFA in Fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Daniel’s short fiction has appeared in the Noctua Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, and Owen Wister Review. His debut novel, THE CONCRETE is forthcoming Spring 2018 with Ig Publishing.
Find Daniel Abbott on Twitter Twitter (@AbbottFiction) and Instagram (@abbottfiction).