Q & A with Author Abbey Lenzie

Lenzie is a Graduate of Birmingham-Southern College

On November the 8th at 3:30 in Harbert Auditorium, Birmingham-Southern (BSC) graduate will be speaking about her recently published, award-winning novella, In the Desert. Abbey Lenzie (class of 2013) majored in Media and Film Studies and minored in creative writing. Her novella recently won the 2018 Plaza Literary Prize. Before coming to her event on Thursday, Bagheera asked her a few questions.

You started your recently published novella at BSC. When did you start it and why? Did anything at BSC influence your desire to write the book?  

I was in Professor Stitt’s creative writing class. We always took the first ten or fifteen minutes of the class to write on a prompt, and this week the chalkboard had a list of random words. The prompt was to write a scene including two of the words. I chose “smoke” and “boots” and started writing. I wrote a scene about a young woman walking through the empty desert in rough leather boots with a giant pillar of smoke behind her.  

That scene, with very few changes actually, is now in In the Desert. I was fascinated with this character. Why was she walking through the desert? What was burning behind her? I didn’t know what she was running towards, but I had the distinct feeling that she was running away from something. 

I’m not the type to say the character “spoke to me.” Writing is hard work and the process of getting to know my character, Jael, was a process of crafting her world brick by brick. That one writing prompt was the spark that lit the fire. 

How did you get to publish your novella?

By not giving up when I got rejections! The one that finally worked was a national novella competition at 1888 Center, a small indie publisher in Orange, CA. It won the contest, was selected for publication, and won their Plaza Literary Prize.

When you came to BSC, why did you decide to study English and film? Did you already know what you wanted to study before coming to school? How close is your career to what you envisioned when you were in college?  

When I first started at BSC, I was actually a theater major! My plan was to teach high school theater. Freshman year, I participated in the theater department’s Interim production of Hamlet, and it was an eye-opening experience. The purpose of the Interim course was to show you what life would be like if you worked in theater day in and day out. And I’m so glad I took that course, because, while I loved the production and the people, it showed me early on that a life in theater wasn’t what I envisioned for myself.  

I then drifted undeclared for a couple years, taking gen-ed classes and, honestly, whatever classes I thought sounded interesting. By the time my Junior year rolled around, I realized most of the classes I found interesting were in the MFS and EH programs, so I chose MFS as my major and writing as my minor. I had only the vaguest idea of what I wanted to do with my degree—that I enjoyed community arts education and that I would like to write.  

My “career” has been a lot of wandering and trying different things. I put career in quotes because I have been wondering lately if the term “career” is not quite right for me—and a lot of us in the younger generations. I wonder if it’s the wrong way to think about work, at least in your twenties. I mean, if you know what you want to do, and you get out of school and start doing it, and you love it—great. Keep on going down that career path. But if you’re not sure what you want to do, know that you’re not alone. There’s no sense climbing a ladder that doesn’t make you happy.  

The things I learned at BSC that have helped the most in my work have nothing to do with film or writing. They’re things like critical thinking, good discussion skills, clear written communication skills, empathy for other viewpoints. It sounds wishy-washy, but trust me, managers notice those things and appreciate them.  

What were some of your favorite classes here, and do you have any specific memories of a professor or professors that you'd like to share? 

So many! Professor Stitt’s writing classes were definitely a favorite, as well as Professor Clifford’s. I have warm memories of sitting underneath the ginkgo tree during writing classes in the spring.  

Freshman year, I learned SO much from the fairy tale class with Professor Ullrich and another professor I can’t quite name. I remember being assigned a two-page paper that was the hardest thing I’d ever done. To write so concisely and persuasively—it was a real challenge.  

MFS was led by Professor Resha at that point, and I loved many of the classes where we analyzed how media interacted with and influenced culture. I also genuinely loved my Senior Thesis project and having the freedom to choose exactly what I wanted to study. 

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Alabama Biodiversity. The name of the professor escapes me, but it was a fascinating class that I still think of often during hikes and camping trips. Professor Rupright’s Astronomy class was a blast.  

Professor Levey (WWII course) and Professor Cottrill (religion and media course) both expanded my mind in terms of thinking outside your own little bubble and analyzing the things you’ve always assumed to be true.  

What are some of your favorite books? Favorite genre? 

My absolute all-time favorite author is Ursula K Le Guin. Her writing is so quiet and powerful. I have a whole shelf devoted to her books! I’d suggest starting with The Dispossessed if you’re more into sci-fi, and A Wizard of Earthsea if you’re more the fantasy type.  

A close second is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s one of those bullet-stopper fantasy books, but trust me, it’s worth the time investment. I procrastinated studying for finals one year by re-reading this one.  

I can’t not mention Harry Potter.  

In terms of YA and Middle Grade, which is what I typically write, a few recent favorites: The Authentics by Abdi Nazemian, Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, and Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy.  

Pick a favorite movie! 

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2! Give me aaaalll of the food puns. 

Would you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert? What's your Myers-Briggs? Is your Myers-Briggs accurate? 

Hardcore introvert. No debate. The fact that I used to be a theater major absolutely astounds me. I’ve no clue who that person was who could walk on a stage like it was no big thing.  

I’m an ISFJ, which I find pretty accurate. Introverted, sensing, feeling, judging. I have a strong desire for order and control, and I’m a highly sensitive person.  

A lot of students feel lost in life because they’re not achieving their dreams. What advice would you give them?

You are not alone. Two weeks after I got the news that this book was going to be published, I slipped into the worst depression of my life. I was so confused. I kept thinking, “I’ve just achieved my dream. I’m at the beginning of an exciting career. Why do I feel so miserable?”

My writer friends will know all about good character arcs and how the hero always learns a lesson or changes by the end of the book. To be honest, I’m somewhere in the middle of my character arc right now. But I’ve still got a lot to learn. My hope is that if you’re deep in the middle of your own character arc, by reading this you’ll feel a little less alone.

And, finally. What are you going to be speaking about to students on November the 8th? 

I’d love to talk to students about writing, editing, rejections, self-motivation, and what it feels like to have no clue what you’re doing with your life. I can share my experience of living in LA and working at Sundance Institute for MFS students who are interested. We’ll also talk a bit about this cool new novella called In the Desert. I hear it’s good.