Fairyland, an Interview with Alysia Abbott

During our first week of class Alysia Abbott asked “If your memoir was made into a movie, what actor or actress would play you?” The next week, all ten of us memoirists came back with our answers: Salma Hayek, Annette Bening, Claire Danes, Sigourney Weaver… It was June 2021 and I had just embarked on a rigorous, year-long memoir incubator program with Alysia guiding the way. During this time, Alysia became a mentor and a friend; and along with the other writers in the program, we forged a bond unlike any other I had experienced before. It was an experience of vulnerability where we got to know each other intimately––learning about everyone’s fears, aspirations, and even some secrets. And yet, it wouldn’t be until a few weeks before our year together ended when Alysia announced that her book “Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father” had been adapted for the screen and was being produced by none other than Sofia Coppola. We all erupted in excitement as we cheered for our teacher and friend, and her question twelve months prior suddenly made sense.

Lorena: Alysia, I’m so excited to be chatting with you about the film adaptation of “Fairyland.” Congratulations on all the attention and the fantastic reviews the film has received since its premiere at Sundance this past January. Among the great reviews is this one from The Hollywood Reporter calling “Fairyland” “a bittersweet drama about unconventional parenting and alternative families that will resonate loudest with LGBTQ audiences. But its surge of final-act feeling will speak to any audience that has ever experienced the startling reckoning that comes with grief.” And this other review from Variety Magazine: “At its most thoughtful, ‘Fairyland’ conveys a dual sense of loss—spanning personal loves and lovers, and whole historical moments and communities—in such small, sweet gestures as a head on a shoulder, a hand in a hand, a silence finally understood.”

I believe that before its Sundance premiere you watched the film for the first time at a local theater here in the Boston area. This being such an important moment, what did you feel going into the theater to see your life portrayed on the big screen? How was this experience different when you saw the film again at Sundance?

Alysia: Instead of seeing it in a local theater with my husband and daughter I wanted to see “Fairyland” for the first time alone. I wanted to sit in my own experience, without any consciousness of anyone else and their reactions. So we set up the movie in our little “home theater” in the basement and I shut the lights and the door and dove in. And I’m glad I saw it alone because halfway through I started crying and didn’t stop until after the movie ended. Seeing the movie at Sundance, I was in a large, packed theater, sitting between my husband and one of the film’s producers who lost her dad the same year I lost my dad. (Both of them broke down toward the end of the movie). I didn’t cry as much as when I had watched the movie the first time, alone. I was much more self-conscious in the theater. But I did cry and I had to look at the ceiling so that the tears would fall to the sides and not down my face. I didn’t want to look too tear stained for the Q&A that followed the premiere screening. 

Lorena: You recently talked about the number ten as being meaningful for you. You lost your father in 1992 during the AIDS crisis, ten years later “Fairyland: A Memoir About My Father” was published, and another ten years after that “Fairyland” was adapted for the screen. Can you talk about how these ten year milestones have shaped you? What do you think lies ahead for you a decade from now? Will there be another book?

Alysia: I am working on a book about my father’s namesake, my 15-year-old son, Stephen Finnegan Abbott Howe. We call him Finn. I had named him after my dad hoping he could live the long, full life that eluded my dad since he died of AIDS young (48). I didn’t expect that my son would face a different set of challenges, being diagnosed with profound autism and intellectual delays before he was 2. Now 15, Finn cannot speak with words but he’s fluent in touch. My goal is to make him come to life on the page, to have him be known through my words, but it’s hard. Where the book I wrote about my dad was informed by his poetry and our letters, I have very limited knowledge of Finn’s inner life. Writing about my son is an act of imagination and faith. People like him are difficult to know intimately, but I believe they are still very much worth knowing.

Lorena: In the film, actor Scoot McNairy plays your father, Steve Abbott. I’m guessing it must have been surreal seeing this man as a representation of your father on the big screen. I’m curious about what that was like for you; can you take us to that moment?

Alysia: Scoot McNairy didn’t just play my dad, he studied my dad. I learned that he watched interviews with my father over fifty times, and worked with an accent coach to get his Nebraska cadence. I wrote “Fairyland” in a way to re-engage with my dad, to spend time with him on the page. Through writing I was able to know his life before me, and the life he lived when I was too young to understand it. But to see someone dressed and styled like him, sounding like him, made flesh in the world again, was incredibly emotional for me, more than I expected. It was actually hard for me to be around Scoot on set because I was uncomfortable with the depth of feeling his presence brought up for me. And I had a really difficult time leaving set, because I didn’t want to say goodbye, even to this facsimile of my dad. I didn’t realize that, of course, I would reunite with this version when I watched the film. And in watching the movie, I didn’t realize just how much grief I still carry, how much I still miss my dad until I had to watch him die again.

Lorena: Were there any moments in the film that felt they strayed from the memoir you wrote? Or was there something important from your memoir that was not portrayed in the film that you wished the director had included? For instance, there’s a scene in your memoir where teenage Alysia is told by her friends that she has body odor and that she needs to wear deodorant. I found this to be profoundly sad and painful. It’s a scene that has stayed with me because it portrays a child who truly has no one to guide her in life, not even for such ordinary things as teaching her about personal hygiene or for larger issues that this child might one day experience. I think this moved me so much because I have a pre-teen who I’m now teaching these things to and I see that she isn’t necessarily conscientious about her changing body and that makes me worry about her and the vulnerability that comes with puberty. This made me wonder if perhaps for you there might have been a powerful scene you wrote that didn’t make it into the film but you think should have been included.

Alysia: Maybe I would have liked more scenes of us just being together, in silence, sitting on his lap as he talked to people at parties when I was little, walking to the ocean through Golden Gate park when I was a teenager, or when I would visit him at the hospice. I just liked to hold his hands. I have bigger regrets that I didn’t give some of my dad’s actual t-shirts to the costume designer for Scoot to wear.

Lorena: Like you, the film’s writer-director Andrew Durham was raised in San Francisco by a gay father around the same time you were growing up there. And as an adult he also had to move in with his father to care for him through the final months of his life. I can’t help but think that this automatically connected you both at a deeper level even though you were strangers; so I’m curious, when you first met Durham in person, did you feel like you were kindred souls meant to meet? What was it like working with him? Did your individual visions for the film align or was there ever a time where you had to let go of storytelling and artistic input and allow Durham to direct in his own vision?

Alysia: I felt very comfortable with Andrew Durham, almost right away. I feel like we would have been friends had we met before. We share taste in music and movies, and of course we have this experience of caring for and losing our dads in common. It took almost 10 years for the movie to be made and over those years we could have grown apart, but I would feed him photos I thought could inspire his scriptwriting. We would check in at the holidays or when big movies were out. He’d always get back to me right away if I had questions about how the film was going. I felt he really respected me as the author of this story. And in turn I trusted him to make the movie he wanted to make. I never wanted to get in his way or be a hindrance of any sort. I wanted to make myself an indispensable partner on the movie and I felt he treated me as such.

Lorena: You had the chance to be on set during filming of “Fairyland” last summer. This must have been when you met actress Emilia Jones, who plays you, for the first time. So now I have to turn the tables on you and ask, when American Zoetrope and Sofia Coppola attained the screen rights to your memoir, what actress did you imagine playing you in the story of your life? How do you feel about the casting of Emilia Jones as young Alysia Abbott and do you think her performance was able to embody the real Alysia in that era? Can you give us one memorable on-set moment where a scene with Jones was being filmed? Did seeing yourself, or rather an Alysia doppelganger, in action affect you in any way?

Alysia: I think both of the actresses did an incredible job. Strangely, I didn’t have as emotional a reaction meeting the actresses playing me, as I did meeting the actor playing my father. This might be because I saw them as so separate from me, playing girls that had my name but were not me, because of course I am me. That said, it was weird to see signs for “Alysia’s room” and to watch a scene of my dad, “Steve” yelling at “young Alysia” over and over for spilling orange juice on his notebooks. It was difficult at first– why am I being yelled at? — and then got easier, like a strange sort of disassociation therapy.

Lorena: Alysia, it has been an absolute pleasure chatting with you about “Fairyland” and, as someone who can’t keep exciting news a secret for too long, I have to tell you that I am so impressed by your ability to focus on your student’s stories while keeping your own amazing story about the film quiet for an entire year. In my opinion, this speaks volumes about the professionalism and attention you give to each individual writer in your class. Personally, I benefited tremendously from this attention but one of my favorite parts about our year together was getting to know you. Thank you for sharing “Fairyland” with us. I can’t wait to see the film’s public premiere in theaters across the country very soon.

Alysia: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you!



Join the conversation