Hypertext Interview With Gina Frangello

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Interviewed by Christine Rice

If you’re a writer, you know Gina Frangello. You’ve probably read her novels: A Life in Men, Slut Lullabies, and My Sister’s Continent. Or you’ve read most, if not all, of her essays (they’re that good). Or you’ve fallen into one of her short stories, read her book reviews, or a piece of her journalism.

If you are a writer or an ardent fan of excellent fiction and haven’t read Gina Frangello…well, then, you can get right on that by picking up her latest novel, Every Kind of Wanting (Counterpoint).

While reading Every Kind of Wanting, I kept thinking of Franz Kafka’s famous quote, you know the one, about books that ‘wound or stab us’, that ‘wake us up with a blow to the head’. That’s what Frangello’s writing does. It wounds. It stabs. It wakes us up.

In Every Kind of Wanting, Frangello dissects the modern family in all its messiness, meanness, and beauty–examining three very different families and their collective journey to have a “Community Baby.”

With the release of Every Kind of Wanting in paperback, Frangello and I discussed her latest work, the business, and how some characters make you fall in love with them.

CR: Even the most heartbreaking scenes in Every Kind of Wanting are so damn funny. I love and admire that balance. How did that tone develop on the page?

GF: One of the most interesting things about writing a novel with numerous point-of-view characters is that often times, I discover aspects of myself that, because they may not really be the dominant part of my own personality, I wasn’t even necessarily aware of, going in. That was definitely the case with the use of humor in Every Kind of Wanting, particularly in the Gretchen sections. My own sense of humor, in life, is probably more similar to Miguel’s or Lina’s…it’s there, it’s always a sort of filter through which I see things, including dark things, but in my normal life, I don’t think I was aware of a kind of over-the-top, almost absurdist/sarcastic-slapstick sensibility that started emerging when I was writing Gretchen. Of all the characters in the novel, Gretchen is definitely the least similar to me, and hers was a voice, and a sense of humor, I had never felt emerge from myself before suddenly, there she was, wondering if maybe her son Gray had “never had eyebrows” and that she and her estranged husband Troy had somehow just “forgot to notice.” She started making me laugh on page one of her first chapter, and it felt fun and liberating, even though her material was, in many ways, deeply lonely and sad. To be honest, I never set out to develop any particularly humorous tone in this novel, it just turned out that way. All my fiction is kind of funny to me, but I guess in a dry, dark way maybe—Gretchen’s voice was the first I’ve ever written in which the humor was that explicit, constant, and close to the surface. And that made the handling of her character’s development very interesting to me, psychologically. I wanted Gretchen to keep her sense of humor and remain true to her core personality, but I also needed her, if she was going to have any kind of growth or epiphany or change, to stop using humor as much as a crutch and a constant wall to hide behind—in similar ways to her need to stop using alcohol or money in those ways. So keeping her “funny,” yet letting more aspects of her personhood emerge as the novel went on, became a kind of imperative.

CR: Yeah, Gretchen’s character could have really fallen into a dark abyss but that scene that you mention above, where she wonders about her son’s eyebrows, accomplished so much in the novel. There’s so much at stake, and even though Gretchen’s and Troy’s marriage has been unraveling for some time, this is the moment that the audience needs to know about.

There were so many moments that resonated with me in Every Kind of Wanting but Gretchen’s complete lack of control over her life – the way people perceived her son (and her), the way she thought of herself, all of it, all of it – made me think of how we put on this front for the world but things are often just crumbling.

In fact, you quote Marguerite Duras:

Very Early In My Life, It Was Too Late

At the beginning of the novel, there’s the scene where Gretchen’s husband Troy notices that their son’s eyebrows are gone. You write:

Troy saunters into the room for coffee, looking sexy and angular and hateful like someone who would be cast to play a Nazi in a miniseries, and takes one look at Gray and says, “Where the hell are his eyebrows?
“Huh?” Gretchen says.
“Why doesn’t our kid have eyebrows?” Troy snaps, and they both turn back to Gray, who is shoveling cereal into his mouth. For an instant, their eyes meet above his head in a rare moment of collusion: Is it possible that Gray has never had eyebrows? Has he been eyebrowless from the get-go, and somehow Gretchen and Troy forgot to…notice until now?
Gretchen glances at a photograph on the hutch of the three of them in better-if-still-not-good times, when Gray was maybe three, and no–thank God!–there are his eyebrows in the photograph Kind of pale, but definitely present. She says, “Uh, Gray, honey. Did something happen to your face?”
“Did something happen to my face,” Gray states in that inflectionless way of his.
“Yes. Your face.”
“Your eyebrows!” Troy says. “For Christ’s sake, Gretch, be specific at least, what are you trying to say? Are you asking him if he’s had a facelift? Are you asking if he has a black eye? Say what you mean!”
“Your eyebrows.” Gretchen feels herself turning red. “Where did they…go?”

And it’s like that with kids. When did you get that piercing? How long have you had it? Why didn’t you tell me? A parent can’t possibly keep up with everything. We’re just slogging through.

And Gretchen is really struggling. Gray, she tells us, isn’t a Normal Child. On top of that, Gretchen’s marriage is just awful. Troy is mean-spirited, verbally abusive, and ungenerous, at best.

Did you originally envision the novel centering more on Gretchen and her life? Or did you always see her as a springboard into the lives of the other characters?

GF: Right, so yeah, this quote you’re using, this is of course the opening scene with Gretchen, the one I was referring to a minute ago, and yes, she’s a character for whom appearances have been in a sense Everything, and who has to discover who she even is, in middle age, amidst a crumbling marriage, a divorce that is contentious even beyond the norm, and a young son whose likely Asberger’s Syndrome makes him decidedly separate from the sort of appearances-centered, over-achieving moneyed world in which Gretchen was raised and has been living with Troy. I mean, I agree with all of what you’ve assessed about her (although the Duras quote was, of course, more designated for the Lina sections of the book). But no, I never at all envisioned Every Kind of Wanting centering on Gretchen. I always saw the novel as more Lina’s and Miguel’s—and later, it also became more Emily’s, at the urgings of my (brilliant) editor, Dan Smetanka. I do see Gretchen in more of a Best Supporting Actress kind of role. She’s really important, definitely, but if anything, she ended up—perhaps because I found her so funny and really came to like writing her—a little more present in the novel than I originally imagined. I really went in initially thinking this was Miguel’s novel. I had written about Miguel in an earlier short story, and his character was the inspiration for this novel as a longer project. I didn’t realize what an ensemble piece it would end up being, and how core Lina, Emily and Gretchen would become, but WHEN I think of those three women, Gretchen was the one I always knew would have a somewhat smaller role than the others. In part, it isn’t that Gretchen is less interesting as an individual, and like I said, I came to love her voice—but I do think her issues and struggles and milieu are things we’ve seen a lot of in American fiction, and I was more interested in the aspects of this story that felt more contemporary and that are under-explored in literature.

CR: I loved the organic feel of letting the POV slightly shift throughout the novel. For example, most chapters are told in a close third-person point of view–from Gretchen, Miguel, Nick. But Lina’s chapters are told in first person.

Can you talk about why you chose the first-person address for Lina?

GF: Well, this is a complex question, because Lina’s first person chapters—which address Nick, her former lover, as though the novel is being written “to” him—also impact the way the other chapters can be read. The reader can just think, Huh, this is interesting, this character is being written in first person and the other characters are being written in third, or the reader can interpret that as seeing Lina as the narrator of the entire novel as a whole, and the voice in the Gretchen, Emily, Miguel and Nick chapters as being Lina’s narrating their stories too, in third person, based on her own speculations mixed in with the facts of what’s happened. And I did not plan that going in. I planned for Lina’s chapters to be actual letters, between her and Nick, while Lina was living up on Beaver Island nursing Isabel. I had a whole different perspective on what I thought Lina’s chapters were going to do. Then she started…talking…and poured out in a torrent. She wrote herself. In every novel I’ve ever written, there has been one character like that, someone who doesn’t take direction and just ends up taking the reins. This particular novel didn’t take its form and really come together until Lina’s voice became its governing force.

CR: You structure the novel in four acts…starting with Act III. Then you move to Act I and II and then the final Act. I loved this kind of double inversion. Did you write the novel in order and then restructure it or did you always have this structure in mind?

GF: The novel was originally non-linear and organized by which week of pregnancy Emily was in. So Week 15 might come before Week 7 and Week 20 might be followed by Week 32. I wrote things all out of order, and I enjoyed writing it that way, which I’ve never done before in a novel. However, once the first draft was complete, it became really clear to me and to all my first-readers that the nonlinearity was kind of gratuitous. It was already a novel with a lot of characters and a thirty-year timeframe, and there was no need—nothing was being gained—by also telling the story as entirely out of order as I was doing. So I re-ordered it, chronologically. But it was still important that Act III come first, due to the issues of Lina’s voice and perspective and her direct address to Nick, so I kept that as the opening. I still saw that as the novel’s beginning, even if it’s not what happened first.

CR: I love Lina. Which characters did you fall in love with? All of them? None of them?

GF: If the answer were “none of them,” there’s no way I could have finished the project, you know? I think after four published books and two unpublished ones, I’ve realized that one of my intense passions as a writer is the deep psychological excavation of characters who may not be traditionally “likable,” but in order to go as far inside them as I want to go, I have to be able to love them even when I don’t always like them, and I have to have empathy for them even when they aren’t behaving sympathetically. Without that, I think the writer maintains a moralizing or snarky distance that doesn’t interest me as a writer. Although I think it would be fair to say that Miguel and Lina are the characters who were closest to my heart in this novel, what may be more interesting is the way I came to love Emily and Gretchen, who originally compelled me less. Their characters ultimately seduced me and made me fall in love, whereas I came in loving Miguel and his fucked-up little sister, Lina. When a character changes your mind and emotions, that’s when I most feel things crackling.

CR: Which character felt most effortless to write (knowing that none of it is effortless…but which character arrived most naturally on the page)? Which character gave you the most trouble?

GF: So like I said, Lina was effortless in the sense that my “efforts” didn’t end up dictating her direction much, and she simply materialized as she was going to be, without my being able to analyze or plan her, per se. She was simply herself. Emily, on the other hand, was an immense challenge to write. I sold the novel without Emily being a point of view character at all, and then Dan at Counterpoint more or less beat me with a stick until I wrote new Emily-chapters, and added her interiority to the novel’s heart, and didn’t allow myself (and the reader) the luxury and comfort of only seeing her the way Lina or Nick or Miguel conceptualized her. You talked about “appearances” vs. who we really are, and I think Emily is the character that the other characters most project their own baggage onto, most try to create in their own image of what they need or want her to be…but in reality she isn’t any of those things. Her husband, who is cheating on her, or Miguel and Chad, who are using her borrowed womb for their surrogacy, or Lina, who wants to externalize her so as not to feel as guilty for her involvement with Nick…even Gretchen, who is jealous of Emily and doesn’t trust her—all the other characters reduce Emily, and project images of her on their own psychological walls and act accordingly, and one of the greatest pleasures—and definitely the greatest challenge—of this novel was discovering who Emily really is, separate from all those projections. Of course, because of the novel’s general concept, the reader still doesn’t know if this is the Real Emily, or the Emily Lina wrestles to life, to combat her former complacency about her. That answer is never given, and I’m not sure I know it myself.

CR: You write novels, short stories, essays. You are an editor and professor. You have a family. In what ways have these experiences – literary and not – shaped you as a writer?

GF: I don’t know that there’s a coherent answer to this, really. Everything shapes a writer’s work—the same person could never write the same book twice, even if the works were separated by months much less years or decades, because we’re always evolving. I’m 49 years old, and I have lived a lot of kinds of lives. I grew up being the brainy, artistic girl in a very rough inner city neighborhood where no one ever went to college, where we were below the poverty line and I had never met anyone in the literary or arts world, and at that time my life was full of an urgency to “get out” and to somehow reinvent myself and my life. Then I cycled through a lot of kinds of identities—I was in a sorority; I lived in squats full of drug dealers in London and worked as a maid or tending bar under the table; I got a master’s in psychology and worked as a therapist in rural New Hampshire. I got married at 25 and was married for more than 2 decades and raised three kids and took care of my aging parents—I was their primary caregiver for eight years, while raising three young kids. In the past two years, I left my marriage, my father died, I’m in another very intense relationship, I got cancer, I began teaching full-time after previously having been mainly an editor in the nonprofit sector, which would not have allowed me to economically support my family as a single mom. We are all so many people in the course of a lifetime—I mean that in the best way, if we are lucky, if we are incredibly lucky, life isn’t stagnant and static, and we keep changing, we keep discovering. I mean, all of this is only the scaffolding, too, you know? I had a chronic pain condition for 3 years in my late 20s, and in some ways those years were a life apart from the rest of my life; I adopted my daughters from China and that was a whole world unto itself, as it was happening. Cancer is like that too. Everything leaves imprints, etchings; everything changes you. Of everything that has ever changed me, being a mother has changed me the most, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only radical change—and I am on the verge of two of my kids leaving for college simultaneously, which will change me again. I’ve had a miscarriage; I’ve had a best friend die suddenly; I’ve kept enormous secrets and then decided not to do that anymore…all of that…everything…it all shapes my writing, and I am never the same writer I used to be. And yet there are also deep, intrinsic things. There’s also that almost all of my work circles sexual and gender politics, or certain issues of class. There’s a kind of psychological core that defines many of our obsessions, that dictates how we choose a story out of all the millions of stories that we might otherwise have chosen. The older I get, the more I live a life wherein my lived life takes priority, and my writing is what emerges from that lived life. I don’t make major decisions about my life “so that I can write,” for the most part. I will write when I need to write. Living my life, for however long that lasts, is more captivating to me than treating my identity as a writer like a singularly precious thing I need to live a careful life “around,” and prioritize above life experiences. This means I write less than many people, no doubt. I will often choose doing something with other people over spending time alone in a room with my computer. Still, I continue writing. The books continue to appear. Writing remains an elemental way in which I process the world. I could perhaps have been more “successful” if I hadn’t spend so much time editing other people’s work back when I didn’t need the money and could have focused only on my own books—I could certainly be more productive if I spent less time with my kids and friends and partner, or traveled less. Sometimes, in the past, I would agonize about those things. I don’t do that anymore. Life is a fleeting thing, and I am here to live it.

CR: My experience as an editor made me much more aware of the demands of the reader. Not in a surface-y way but just being aware of balancing what is needed and what isn’t. Like cutting to the bone to get to what’s important. Same for you? Or not?

GF: Oh yes—nothing in my entire life experience has changed the way I write than being an editor did, especially in the early days, when I was editing Other Voices magazine. Being an editor blows the top of your head off in terms of how you come to understand the work, the skeleton of the work, the structure. All the workshops in the world couldn’t have taught me what I learned from editing other writers.

CR: You have written two previous novels including My Sister’s Continent and A Life in Men and the short story collection Slut Lullabies. What have you learned over the years about your process? About the business? How has your process changed? How has the business changed in that decade since you published your first book?

GF: I’ve been in the lit world for 22 years, and the changes have been enormous, but also erratic and constantly shifting. Other than to say that much of the books community exists online now, and that there is less and less of an economy for freelance writers and journalists, there may not be anything I can say about how things have changed that would be sweeping and consistent. Zeitgeists come and go. The trade industry is sometimes very uptight and proscriptive, and other times it loosens and values risk, and it ricochets back and forth with that to varying degrees. Things are better now than they were ten years ago, and worse than they were 20 years ago, in terms of trends in the industry, I think. But the world I live in is mainly indie-driven and the same things are valued as were always valued, for the most part, among those of us who write and read what we need to, not what the market drives. Process…well…I’m very gentle with my process these days. I’ve always been a binge writer—I have never in my entire life written every day, or had a particular practice or discipline surrounding my writing habits. Never, you know—not even before I had kids. I have always lived my life multi-tasking, juggling. I teach, I edit, I’ve always been a full-throttle mom, running around with a posse of kids, or being the house where my kids’ friends come—that’s been my life for sixteen years now. Mainly I write in the summers, when I’m not teaching. But I also travel with my kids in the summers, I also take my eleven-year-old son on a lot of local adventures, and I have many friends who are artists and teachers and who are off for the summer and hanging out becomes easier then, so saying “I write in the summers”…well, there’s still no strict discipline to it, really. I just don’t do other full-time work in the summers, so that I can write if I need to write. This summer, I do need to write. It’s there at the surface, it’s brimming over. That, to me, is “process,” I guess. When you can’t quiet your head and you have to write things down and it becomes like taking dictation—when you’re pulling the car over to type things into the Notes of your phone. It’s a process of necessity, I guess. It’s not a process that’s influenced by the “business” side of the literary world. I’ve been lucky enough to find publishers for my books and have loved every editor I’ve worked with, and I have enormously rich and invigorating relationships in the literary world and feel deeply a part of it…but writing has not translated much into “business” for me in the sense of making a living or anything. There is some money here and there, and that’s lucky even because for most writers there isn’t, which is something I think a great number of people outside the lit world don’t quite realize. I engage in certain types of social networking or social media more because I believe in community and like connecting with people than because I think it’s going to do anything in particular from a business angle. I love editing, I love teaching, I love connecting with readers, I’ve loved working with editors who make my work better. But the truth is that I’ve never written anything that I wouldn’t have written if no one ever even published it, much less paid for it. When it comes to my own writing imperative, “business” is not really…an issue.

Find out more about Gina Frangello HERE.



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