When Alysia Abbott’s mother died in a car accident, her father Steve took his 3-year-old daughter to San Francisco, where he could be out and proud as a poet and gay activist in the 1970s and ’80s. In her memoir, Fairyland (released in paperback on June 2nd, and recently named a 2014 Stonewall Honor Book), Alysia reflects on her unorthodox upbringing. “It’s a bad kind of life you’re giving Alysia, growing up around queers,” one of Steve’s boyfriends remarked. Yet Alysia strangely relished being “the only child among adults and the only girl among men.” There was something very special about the Abbotts’ relationship: “There were no models. For better and for worse, my father was making up the rules as he went along.”
We chatted with Alysia to travel a bit deeper into Fairyland…
BOOKTRIB: Looking back, are you grateful for the bohemian childhood you had in San Francisco?
ALYSIA ABBOTT: As a child, there were many times I wished my dad could have spent more time with me at home, or helped me with my homework, or provided me a cleaner and more stable environment. And knowing now how important this is to kids I do try to provide mine a sense of security and order. But I wouldn’t say I regret how my father raised me because it made me the person I am today. I also feel fortunate to have been exposed to poetry and art at such a young age and to have been included in my father’s world of letters. He rarely gave me the impression that I didn’t belong or that my opinion didn’t matter simply because I was a girl.
BT: Do you still feel, as you wrote in Fairyland, “a little too gay for the straight world and a little too straight for the gay world”?
AA: I don’t feel comfortable in especially gender-normative environments—parties where the men and women separate and the women are expected to complain about their husbands, obsess over their kids, and compliment each other’s jewelry. Fortunately, as an adult, I’ve been able to make friends with people who have open ideas of what it means to be a woman.
I used to feel more of an outsider in the LGBT community but since publishing Fairyland that’s changed. I’ve received wonderful notes from young gay men thanking me for exposing them to an LGBT history they didn’t know about. That’s incredibly gratifying. Also, a lot of my current work is concerned with community building. I’m in the midst of starting a storytelling forum/website called The Recollectors, dedicated to remembering parents lost to AIDS through the stories of their surviving children. That’s been very satisfying as this sense of being both inside and outside the gay community is something a number of us share.
I wonder how my relationship with the gay community would be different if my dad were still alive. I imagine us celebrating advances in marriage equality rights and debating the priorities of the LGBT rights movement. I miss not being able to have those conversations.
BT: In 1975 your father wrote: “Hopefully by the time [Alysia] grows up we will have a society where those dichotomies of whether you’re gay or straight, a man or a woman, aren’t so important.” Do you think we’re closer to that ideal?
AA: On paper we’re a lot closer—increasingly, women are occupying roles of power in business and government. There are openly gay actors, actresses and even football players. A transgender woman (Laverne Cox) made the cover of Time magazine. But on a day-to-day, localized level, I feel we have a lot farther to go. As the mother of a 9-year-old girl, I’m especially concerned about what I see as a crisis of masculinity today. I think young men are confused about what it means to be a man and when they’re in unsupervised groups they often act on their basest instincts. It’s terrifying.
BT: In your epilogue you write, “This queer history is our queer history.” How have you emphasized that universal message without being dismissed as ‘niche’?
AA: I was incredibly honored to be a finalist for the LAMBDA literary award and have been grateful for all the press the book has received in the LGBT media. That said, I don’t want my book to be classified as merely an “AIDS book” or a “gay memoir.” In fact, I hoped that people who knew little of queer studies might learn something in reading Fairyland—not only what it’s like to have a parent die of AIDS, but what it means to win the right to express your sexuality after years of oppression.
BT: Sofia Coppola is adapting your book into a movie (set for release in 2015). How do you envision your story working on screen?
AA: I believe the best film adaptations are those that have a strong artistic vision and don’t try to stay 100 percent faithful to the book. Film is primarily a visual medium and it needs to communicate through images, not text. That said, I am working closely with Sofia and Andrew Durham to make available whatever I can to help Fairyland come to life. I have confidence that Sofia and Andrew will stay true to the spirit of the book, even if some changes are made in the narrative. (But I still have NO idea who will play me.)