RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Childhood is a complicated journey for most of us: trying to fit in, trying to stand out; wanting to distance yourself from your parents one minute, wanting to grab onto them the next. Now on top of all that, imagine being raised by a single, gay father in the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in the San Francisco of the 1980s. That was the frame of Alysia Abbott's childhood. She writes about it in her book. It is called "Fairyland: A Memoir of my Father."
Alysia Abbott joins us now to talk more about the book. Thanks very much for being here.
ALYSIA ABBOTT: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: So there is a rather haunting image on the cover of your book, and I wonder if you could describe it and tell us the story behind that photo.
ABBOTT: This was a picture that was taken when I was about 10 years old. My father had taken me out of school for the day so that I could pose with him for the cover of what was to be his third book of poetry. And we were each asked to put on our finest clothing, but we are presented looking very serious looking straight at the camera. Looking sort of like members of the Addams Family, I suppose.
MARTIN: A little bit actually, now that you mention it. You have such a serious look on your face. Were you kind of playing it up for the camera in the moment? Or was that a reflection of you as a little girl?
ABBOTT: I think that for us making believe was a way of making art, so putting on costumes, going into character, and also being poetic. My father was a poet and a writer but he didn't want to sort of leave me out his creative process.
I think because he was a single father - and didn't have someone to help look after me or couldn't maybe afford a babysitter - he brought me into his world of writing. And so, he would pose me for the cover of different books. He would illustrate some of these books with my drawings or quote me in his poems.
MARTIN: Your mom died in a car accident when you were very young. And your dad packed your bags and moved you both to San Francisco. What was he looking for there?
ABBOTT: The city in that era was a very exciting place to be. And so, after my mother died, I don't think he was happy to continue in Atlanta. And so he decided to move us there together and start life for himself as an openly gay man and father and aspiring poet.
MARTIN: At what point in your childhood did you know that your dad was gay?
ABBOTT: Well, it's funny you should ask that because at what point did I learn that being gay was different, would be almost the more pertinent question. Because my earliest memories of my father, he had a boyfriend...
MARTIN: We should say that this was a part of your parents' relationship. Your mom knew and this was OK with her.
ABBOTT: Yes, my father was bisexual and had other relationships. And she sometimes had other relationships. But they were very much anchored together.
MARTIN: Obviously this is a challenge for anyone to raise a child by themselves. But did he want to be a dad? It sounds like he was grappling with his own identity at the same time.
ABBOTT: It was really challenging. He didn't have peers with children. And he did write in his journals, which I had access to when I was writing the book, that it was funny because before he came out he felt like he was the only, you know, gay man in the world when growing up in Nebraska. And then after he was in San Francisco with me, he felt like he was the only gay father.
MARTIN: You eventually - you graduate from high school and you move very far away, first to New York and then to Paris. The two of you start writing letters to one another, which is how you start to get these references to AIDS. He's sick. He asks you several times to come home to take care of him as his disease progresses. What was the source of your hesitation?
ABBOTT: At this point my life was just starting to get going. I was living a kind of life I always wanted to live and sort of finally finding my stride. And so, for him to say, OK, actually I need you to come home, I need you to take care of me, I didn't want to do it. Just at the point when his life was declining and he was dying, my life was just starting to take shape.
MARTIN: But you did go home.
ABBOTT: I did go home and lived at home with him in the same one-bedroom apartment in the Haight-Ashbury, where we lived since I was eight years old.
MARTIN: You have two kids now?
ABBOTT: Yes, I do.
MARTIN: How do you describe him to your kids?
ABBOTT: Well, when I moved into my new house, I was taking a picture of my father out of the basement that was covered in blankets and paper. And my daughter, who was then probably about six, saw what I was doing and she came over to help me. This was a beautiful portrait of my father and she said: He looks really nice. And she really wanted to help clean that and put that up.
But I do have a really wonderful cartoon panel that he made when I was afraid of monsters, and he wanted me to not be afraid of monsters anymore. So he created a cartoon where I beat up all the monsters at school, and all the kids bring their monsters for me to beat up.
ABBOTT: And at the end, I get a Popsicle and a special badge to wear.
ABBOTT: And so, I had that hanging in my daughter's room for a long time. And it's hanging over my desk now. But she knows that he made that for me and she knows how much I love him.
MARTIN: Alysia Abbott, her new book is called "Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father." She joined us from studios in Boston.
Alysia, thank you so much for talking with us.
ABBOTT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.