To live on a large canvas : a conversation with Gina Frangello
The people carrying the fish wear executioner’s masks and black robes, and every so often they spin around and chase the crowd, the onlookers shooting off to opposite sides of the narrow streets. Mary is right there with them, caught up in the excitement, letting go of Geoff’s hand, so that he has to bolt forward to keep up or lose her with the crowd. He thinks he hears the beating of drums, though over the voices and shrieks it’s hard to be sure. Members of the procession are so disguised that several times, when Geoff sees friends meeting up with each other, both parties seem astounded at the recognition. A man dressed as a widow bats his false eyelashes at Geoff, and suddenly there is Mary again, whipping a brightly colored Mexican shawl out from her straw bag and wrapping it around Geoff’s head, nudging him, but by the time he catches on and tries to bat his eyelashes back, the “widow” is gone. The procession moves on, but Geoff remains still.
“Come on!” Mary cries again. It may only be the second or third time she’s said it, but it feels to him like the hundredth. “Hurry up, we won’t be able to see what happens next.”
–Excerpt from A LIFE IN MEN by Gina Frangello (Algonquin Books, 2014)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Your protagonist Mary, a young woman with cystic fibrosis, was inspired by a friend you met in your early twenties while studying abroad. You’ve said that this novel grew out of a desire to honor her life, yet you were also determined as you wrote to keep this a work of fiction—neither a eulogy nor a book focused on the disease itself. Were there details you originally intended to include that didn’t make it into the novel? How did you maintain this balance?
GINA FRANGELLO: There was a great deal of research I did on CF that I originally imagined I’d need to use that never ultimately made it into the novel, yes, as I realized slowly that bogging the novel down excessively in medical details would make it feel like a reference manual, or would—even worse—make it seem to be “trying too hard” for authenticity, with the exact opposite result, because people who are in the middle of something, to whom that thing seems “normal,” are not in fact going to chronicle their conditions that way, like someone writing a research paper. It took some time for me to begin to allow myself to omit—and then still more time for me to allow myself to at times imagine, and not remain slavishly literal about all aspects of Mary’s disease, so afraid of making a misstep that I would be unable to write anything “individual” and emotionally compelling. So those things were challenges that smoothed themselves out over time as I began to know Mary fully enough that she felt entirely real, flesh and blood, and not an intellectual or creative exercise—which is, of course, a place we need to get to with all characters, not only those who have an illness.
In terms of the balance with my friend’s actual life, though, no…I lived with my friend Sarah for only about five months, when we were 20 years old, in college. The only thing in the novel, really, that is in any way faithful to her life is that she was a woman who was passionate about travel and tried to experience life fully despite that specific disease, and that she once had a boyfriend (though he was similar to none of the men with whom Mary is involved) who nicknamed her “Cystic.” I was attempting to honor certain concepts of my friend’s life, if that makes sense—what it means to live on a large canvas in a very limited time; what kind of bravery it takes to believe you can be more than medical statistics or well-meaning doctors and friends may think you can be—but I was not attempting to honor her factually-lived-life in any literal way. The novel is not only fiction—which is of course the primary distinction here—but in terms of it being in any way autobiographical, it ended up being far closer to my own experiences as a traveler than to my friend Sarah’s, most of which I wouldn’t have had close enough access to to write a novel about anyway.
AR: On the surface, A Life in Men appears to follow Mary’s adult life, her travels, and the progression of her disease, through a series of relationships with men. But the feeling that emerges so powerfully for me throughout the novel is her longing for female companionship, her grief for Nix. There is always a man, sometimes multiple men, in Mary’s life. And the memory of Nix is a true constant in Mary’s emotional life, refracted through the lens of each new country, each relationship. Paradoxically, the use of “men” as framing device works well to tell the story of an intense female friendship. Was this a choice you made at the outset, or did it develop over the course of writing the book?
GF: I always envisioned the novel as broken up by countries/men, yes, but I think it’s safe to say that I didn’t see some of the paradox or irony of that until I was actually writing it. Mary’s relationship with Nix was not part of my original idea for the book, and though it (or, rather, Nix) appeared early in the writing—as the overarching narrator, even—her haunting absent presence for Mary, and parallel storyline, grew significantly over the actual process of writing and revising, only finally reaching its full fruition in the final draft. That Mary’s life is framed by male relationships fundamentally because of her sense of great loss and grief and unfinished business with Nix is something that emerged only over time, and as I came to understand the complex knot between these two women.
AR: The narrative shifts settings almost effortlessly– a shared flat “one step above a squat” in London, a Kenyan safari, a luxury resort in the Canary Islands, the Kik Plateau in Marrakech, an airport tarmac in Newfoundland —to name a few— all rendered in vivid detail, and interspersed with flashbacks to Mary and Nix’s ill-fated summer trip to Mykonos. Did you have a specific sequence of locations in mind, and did that change significantly as you wrote?
GF: I did have a set itinerary in mind to some degree, but of course like anything it shifted. At one point there was a chapter set partially in Bogota, Colombia, but it was later cut. Kenya wasn’t originally in the novel, but I spent a month in Kenya after the first draft was written and came back completely convinced that Mary had been there—and ultimately, writing that chapter blew the rest of the novel open. It was where I realized that Mary wanted to become a mother, and how her identity would be shaped by that effort and its trajectory. It changed everything that came after it, so—since Kenya appears fairly early in the book—it actually mandated a more or less complete revision.
AR: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that you’d been to all the places that appear in the book. What was the most challenging setting to revisit through the lens of this novel, and why?
GF: I haven’t been to Gander, Newfoundland, the setting of the novel’s end. That’s the only place—of the ten locations—I haven’t spent significant time, and therefore was definitely the most challenging and required a lot of reading and research. The other locations were places I have a deep personal connection to and to which I felt an intrinsic connection, even if in some cases I wasn’t there in the same year Mary was.
AR: Your characters are so grounded in physical detail—I find this really refreshing as a reader. So many writers shy away from depicting sex, or even giving their characters bodies, it seems. You rarely fall back on the safety of a dissolve. Your characters experience sex in all its iterations, from rough to transactional to tender, and filled with surprising, vivid details—like the feeling of crumbs on Mary’s back from sex on a kitchen floor. There are plenty of nonsexual examples of this corporeality, too: Joshua’s trapeze act, Yank’s search for a score, Hasnain’s interrupted prayer, and the visceral details—not for the squeamish—of Mary’s hemoptysis. Is “writing the body” something you make a conscious effort to focus on in your work, or is it simply one of many ways to make these characters come alive?
GF: I think that’s not an either/or answer for me—it’s very much both things. Writing the body is an instinctual thing for me—it’s something I would have to make some kind of conscious effort to avoid if for some reason I decided to eschew it in a particular project, since it’s been a constant in probably all of my work, and was one of the first characteristics of my fiction to be identified consistently in undergrad writing classes and beyond. One of my favorite descriptions of my work, ever, was that it was “the love child of Mary Gaitskill and Philip Roth” in its physical sexuality and psychology—and accordingly, not surprisingly, my favorite writers are deeply physical and sexual writers like Gaitskill and Kundera. I do consider the particulars of the body, and of sexual psychology too, to be one of the most natural ways of defining and illuminating not just characters but human interactions, power structures, driving forces. The writers who do this well have blown my head open when I read them, and have made me feel more deeply than when characterization is more distant and polite. While illness isn’t as dominant a theme in my work as sexuality, I am fascinated by the intersection of these things, of the body’s needs and imperfections and struggles and the complex, knotty brew of that. At this point…I mean, I’m 45 years old and I’ve been made aware by readers and critics that writing the body is definitely a tradition in which I’m working, so it’s become somewhat more conscious and deliberate in terms of the way I think about literature; I do craft lectures about it, and my debut novel, My Sister’s Continent, plays very consciously with French feminist theories of writing the body…but all of that is honestly just a more cerebral way of talking about something that I would do even if there were no language or set of critical thought to frame it. I’m not sure how to divorce a person from either their physicality or sexuality, and am not particularly compelled by literary characters who seem disconnected from either thing.
AR: Can you tell us about your research, drafting and revision process for a novel? Do you tend to complete a full draft first and edit at a later stage or revise as you go? How did the research fit into the process of writing A Life in Men?
GF: A Life in Men is the only novel I’ve ever written for which I did a great deal of research before I began writing in any seriousness. Usually those two things would happen in tandem, but I researched CF for quite some time before I began what could honestly be called a first draft, this time. I had written a first chapter but nothing more…there was a long chunk of time between the first chapter and the rest of the drafting process. In this case there were also several very distinct drafts, which doesn’t preclude revising as I go along, but I mean there were immense changes, structurally and even conceptually, to the entire manuscript in each subsequent draft, which isn’t always the case. The novel I’m writing now, Every Kind of Wanting, has been revised much more as I go along, more stop and go, more obsessively in its small details. The first draft of A Life in Men was written in a very manic burst, kind of…globally or holistically…once I really fell under the sway.
AR: It’s interesting to learn that there was such a large gap between drafting the first chapter and what followed. Nix and Mary’s Mykonos vacation—which opens the novel—continues to unfold in flashbacks interspersed with scenes from Mary’s present-day life. That first chapter hints that something terrible will happen, on this trip and after, but the details emerge gradually, almost incrementally, ratcheting up the tension over the course of the novel. Did you write the Mykonos story in one piece before interspersing the “present-day” sections?
GF: I did, yes, not only write it all in one piece but had no idea that in the novel it’d be broken up. It was originally simply the first chapter of the book. It was only after I rewrote the rest of the novel to accommodate my change in vision of the characters brought on by the addition of the Kenya chapter that I realized, quite suddenly, that Greece should be broken up and interspersed throughout. That Nix’s story should be a parallel storyline, not all dumped up front—that the novel is essentially a novel in tandem, of both women’s stories, even if Mary’s takes up more page time. Obviously once I decided to break Greece up and intersperse it, it also required a nearly total overhaul. The original version was just a test run. In fact, a terribly early version of that story—with characters who are completely different from Mary and Nix—was written in longhand in 1989 and accidentally thrown away by my mom while I was away at college. I have a long, long history with that story.
AR: This is your first experience with Algonquin, which you’ve described in interviews as your “dream” house. And you are also a champion of independent presses. Can you talk a little bit about the process of finding the right house for A Life in Men? Having published your own books through three different presses, and from your own perspective as an independent publisher and editor, what questions (beyond the obvious who will publish my manuscript?) should an author consider when seeking a good publishing fit?
GF: One of the things I love about Algonquin is the fact that their list is so small—fewer than 25 books annually—which is very in keeping with the kind of smaller staff, longer lifespan for each title, and level of personal attention that means a great deal to me given my long history in the indies. Algonquin isn’t a house that puts everything into a frontlist and then essentially doesn’t pay much attention to the rest of its dozens or hundreds of titles. All Algonquin books are marketed pretty much within an inch of their lives, and everyone on the Algonquin team is working for every single book, even though you have certain publicists or editors who are obviously in charge for that title. I love to tour—I love traveling and I love connecting with readers and getting to see and do events with my writer friends around the country—so the fact that Algonquin is very old world about touring appealed to me on a deep individual level, as so many of the trade houses don’t really tour most of their authors anymore, or tour only to a couple very “obvious” places.
So Algonquin has many of the sensibilities of the best indie presses but it actually—there is no delicate way to put this—has, of course, a budget beyond just a few small grants and donors. So it can afford to actually do all the things that as an independent publisher, I believed in so strongly but really needed to rely on my authors to help with, such as tour budgets or nurturing unbelievably close and on-the-ball relationships with booksellers all over the country. In my work at The Nervous Breakdown and The Rumpus, I’d seen the way Algonquin did business and got behind its writers because I’d been the recipient of its author pitches, so I had enough insider knowledge to understand how good they are. And of course, Chuck Adams’ reputation precedes him. I mean, he is one of the most respected editors in the business, and one of the most knowledgeable, and getting to work with him would have been a rare honor and opportunity no matter which house he had been affiliated with.
All that said, I would still advise aspiring writers to take phrases like “dream house” very lightly. We rarely get to choose who publishes our book. We can always decline an offer, but we can’t conjure one that isn’t forthcoming. Writers need to be their own dream author and create their own dream publishing experience to whatever extent possible, by collaborating with and assisting publishers with marketing—by doing their research and by finding compatible agents or presses or both, and by doing all they can to reach readers and communicate. I do all of this with Algonquin just as if I were still on a small micropress like my first two books, and the book was print on demand or something and I had no real money behind me. I still approach every book as though the future of the press depends on my not falling down on the job and try to show my appreciation for their taking a chance on me. I’ve loved Algonquin, but I would want to do the things I have done no matter where I was. The lucky thing for me was that they were very much on the same page and it was never an uphill battle.
AR: Can you tell us about the evolution of Other Voices Books and the eventual decision to transition away from Other Voices magazine to a book press-only enterprise? In your 2007 “farewell” post for the magazine you cited the robust health of literary journal and zine culture and the relative deterioration of book publishing as one reason for the shift: a call to action for those who wanted to see literary fiction—particularly the short story—survive in the world of book publishing. Now that OV Books is entering its tenth year, can you talk a little bit about more recent developments in the book publishing climate and how OV Books has grown and adapted? What recent titles are you particularly excited about having published?
GF: Well, I stepped down from my longtime position at Other Voices Books in September. The press has been absorbed into the larger Dzanc Books umbrella and is now being run by Guy Intoci and others at Dzanc. My last project there as an acquiring and head editor was THE COST OF LIVING by Rob Roberge—Rob is a writer I’d wanted to do a book with for more than a decade, since publishing a story of his out of the slush pile at Other Voices magazine in 1998, and his collection—later published by Red Hen—being a finalist in our second contest at the press. So I went out, really, on the best possible note I could have gone out on. But at the time I launched the press in 2004, I did feel, yes, that there were increasingly vibrant venues for publishing short fiction, but that the short story form was being all but completely marginalized in trade publishing, in book form. I wish I could say that I feel differently now, but of course the same is still more or less true. There are rare writers like Aimee Bender or Jhumpa Lahiri or of course Lorrie Moore—and the recent Nobel Prize for Alice Munro—who continue to thrive in the dominant publishing industry with short fiction but this is radically the exception to the rule. Most writers are told to “come back” to an agent or editor when they have a novel.
Independent and academic presses have become—have been for the past 15 years or so, really—the gatekeepers of short fiction in this country. It’s a paradox because on the one hand, a short-attention-span culture should be one that devours short stories, which are digestible in short reading bursts. But the truth is that the publishing industry is defined by marketing culture, and short story collections, particularly “traditional” collections that are not linked or novelistic, are impossible to break down into a one-sentence tagline that the marketing world demands. There is no way to quantify in some talking-point language what a great collection achieves or “is about.” And it’s therefore harder to translate such projects into neat PR and profits. Independent publishers have become the keepers of this literary tradition to some large extent, because the financial goals are quite different—are lower, are less the raison d’être, so to speak. It’s ironic, given that novelists used to write short stories explicitly to make money and pay the bills while slaving over a novel. That tide has turned radically. Of course now, even journalists can’t make a living. Short form writing has become nearly impossible to be paid for, which is a whole separate issue.
But back in 2004, our passion for the short story form drove us to want to provide writers another forum for publishing books of short fiction—anthologies, collections, novels-in-stories—and to give them as high quality a publishing experience as we could. That mission changed very little over time, during my tenure at OVB. We did do a couple of novels that I regarded as exceptional, the kind of thing I had gotten into publishing to help foster into the world, but mostly our passion for the short story form was the impetus for the press and remained a constant. Thankfully, in the thriving indie press community, we were far from alone in that mission. At The Nervous Breakdown and The Rumpus, I continue to celebrate the short story and essay form as an editor. I wish writers could more easily make a living on this form, but at the very least I’m thrilled to see wide readerships invested in the conversation.
GINA FRANGELLO is a cofounder of Other Voices Books and the editor of the fiction section at The Nervous Breakdown, as well as the Sunday editor of The Rumpus. She is also the author of one previous novel and a collection of short stories. She lives in Chicago.
Photo credit: Blair Holmes