Novelist, Editor, Mother Balances the Writing Life
An Interview with Gina Frangello
Author of My Sister’s Continent, and Executive Editor of Other Voices magazine and its fiction book imprint OV Books.
Posted December 2006
By Robert Duffer
Gina met me at an arty north side Chicago bar that used to be a coffeehouse. The owner stopped at the bar, gushing, “Oh, Gina, your book, phenomenal, spectacular,” referring to Gina’s debut novel, My Sister’s Continent, which came out the month before Giovanni, her nine-month-old son.
Husband David was currently at home with Giovanni, as well as six-year-old adopted twins Kenza Ling and Madeleine. Her agent is shopping around her second novel, A Beautiful Violence; the team she oversees as Executive Editor of Other Voices is polishing up the most recent issue, an all-third-person issue guest-edited by Cris Mazza; start-up OV Books is in the process of publishing its second collection of stories, O Street by Corrina Wycoff; and she is reading for the cross cultural anthology which will be OV’s third book.
Gina met me between breast feedings—on her birthday—to talk about My Sister’s Continent, Freud and Feminism, Motherhood and Publishing, and other things.
NewPages: When do you get the time to write?
Gina Frangello: I have a lot going on right now. I've spent a lot of time this year revising my new novel, but I haven’t started anything completely new since last year when I was eight months pregnant [just before she got double pneumonia and was hospitalized for a week]. I have to start a new novel, or at least some short stories, soon or I’ll start to lose it—the characters in my head will start becoming more real than the people around me.
Gina and Giovanni
NP: What are your titles, in order of preference?
Frangello: My most pressing title is Mommy. But I don’t think I could any more cease to be a writer than I could cease to be a mother. If someone told me I’d never publish anything again, no one would ever read anything I wrote again, I’d still write. In that sense, I guess I’m a mother/writer, then a partner/wife. Being an editor falls lower than all those things, which is funny because I give a lot of time to it. I love it, but you have to draw the line somewhere. If I had to throw something out the window, before my own writing or members of my family, it would be OV. A magazine or press should ideally be able to survive editorial transitions anyway—they should be bigger than any one editor.
NP: How do you prioritize everything—editing the magazine, the press, writing, and the family?
Frangello: Deadlines have a lot to do with it. OV has a lot of deadlines—production deadlines, grant writing deadlines—and when OV is in a phase like that, I’m just not writing. And having a newborn changed my life because my daughters were in school four hours a day, so if I had any childcare on top of that, I was able to get writing time and still do the magazine. Between the double pneumonia and a newborn I didn’t work for three months. I have a sitter now, but just enough to cover my obligations with Other Voices, not my own work. So it’s always a juggling act. I don’t have enough time for any of it, in truth. They say that if you want to do anything really well, you need to totally concentrate on that one thing—if that’s the case, I’m really screwed.
NP: Would you categorize yourself as a binge writer?
Frangello: Absolutely. I’m always floored and confused when I hear people say how they sit down everyday for, like, two hours even if they only get a paragraph out. When I write I’m writing nine or ten hours a day, turning out a lot of material. But then I’ll have down time between projects—at first I don’t want to write because I’m still in the last project; those are the people I’m with, the voices I’m with. Then slowly I’ll start fixating on something new. It gets to be so I’m constantly hearing dialogue in my head, whenever I’m in my car I’m thinking of lines, and I start maniacally making outlines on the back of napkins. Then I know it’s time.
If I had to throw something out the window, before my own writing or members of my family, it would be OV. A magazine or press should ideally be able to survive editorial transitions anyway—they should be bigger than any one editor.
NP: What is your rewriting process? Is it different for a novel than a short story?
Frangello: Definitely. I’ve published stories that I’ve written in a day, maybe tinkered with the next morning and sent out the day after, and that was the end of it. Not most of my stories, but a handful. Usually I give a story to my writing group, they read it, give feedback, I might get other feedback, and then I forget about it for a couple months. When I revisit it, it might take a week or so to go through it to get it the way I want it.
Novels, of course, are another story. It takes me longer to revise a novel than to write one. It’s never taken me longer than a year to get a first draft out, but it’s taken me two to three years each to revise my novels. Part of it has to do with letting other people read the work and getting feedback. This is especially true once you’re working with an agent.
NP: Describe My Sister’s Continent’s journey into print—wasn’t the first draft written while you were living in Amsterdam in 1998?
Frangello: Yes, my husband David used to work there, and I split my time between Chicago and Amsterdam. I spent four or five months there in ’98, spring and summer, and while he was working I was basically stoned in our apartment with nothing but time to write. I’d started the novel before I left, but the bulk of it was written there. Then I spent until late 2000 revising. I got my agent early 2001, and it then literally spent about four years between two different agents, having the novel sent around New York, getting rejections from the big houses. It had some close calls, but other editors were kind of horrified by it. One at Houghton Mifflin apparently told my agent, “I couldn’t wait to put this book down to leave the room—it was so disturbing.” Another editor said “I couldn’t explain this book to a marketing rep without blushing or breaking down.” So my agent said, “That means you want to buy it, right?” But of course that’s not how they think. I started shopping MSC to indie presses in spring 2005 and it was taken in a week. There’s no money in most indie publishing, but it’s been a very positive experience for me. The novel went into a second printing just a couple weeks after it came out.
NP: My Sister’s Continent is about twin sisters, and narrated by the more domesticated twin, Kirby, though she appropriates some of Kendra’s journal entries to tell her sister’s story. Kirby is engaged to be married but suffering irritable bowel syndrome, which prompts her to meet with her father’s therapist. The novel is structured as Kirby’s rebuttal to the family therapist’s case study of the family. This basic premise was inspired by Freud’s “Dora” case study—but in the acknowledgements you say, “I owe as much to the feminist revisionists and theorists who refuted Freud…”
Frangello: What was most fascinating to me about the Dora case study was how it continued to be so prominent in the imagination of feminist theorists 100 years later. The French feminists in particular, like Helene Cixous, felt an affinity with hysterics and often represented them, especially Dora, as early feminists or rebels who thwarted the patriarchy.
I had a very different perspective of the Dora case and hysteria in general. I agreed with some things—like the feminist theorists often called hysteria a ‘dis-ease’ instead of disease, meaning that intelligent women who couldn’t cope with their roles in society therefore started manifesting hysterical symptoms, psychosomatic symptoms to indicate unhappiness with their lives—I agreed with that basic premise, but what bothered me was that it felt like there was a lot of romanticizing or glamorizing of the hysterics by contemporary theorists.
I have a background as a therapist and worked a lot with women with eating disorders, substance abuse problems, women who might have been called contemporary hysterics who couldn’t cope with their severe oppression as women. Like my present-day clients, the hysterics were really fucked-up women, women who had trouble eating, walking, breathing, who were flat out miserable and totally disempowered not only by their lives but by their own illnesses. So there was a lot of misrepresentation on the part of these intellectual privileged theorists who would write things like, “the hysterics are my sisters,” meaning “they were outlaw feminists like me.” Well, no they were miserable, they often died young, their rebellion led to nothing, they didn’t overthrow anything.
Ironically, the woman dubbed “Dora” was proud and thrilled to be written about in that hideous manner by Frued. She died fairly young, an embittered, sickly woman. So I was interested in the recasting of hysteria, the power it still had over the imagination of current feminist theory, but the way that hysteria was not only miscast for 50 years prior to any feminist theory appropriating it, but the way it continued to be miscast by the actual feminists too. That was an area of interest of mine in graduate school and I wrote some papers on it—but it might have led nowhere except that I had already been writing a series of short stories about these characters who weirdly mirrored the Dora case study in a way that was completely unintentional and bizarre.
One of the powerful things about the case study is that a lot of what Dora was coping with is not that different from what it’s like to grow up as a girl now, which is sad but true. I was most interested in how it would be different now vs. how would it be the same. MSC is a contemporary retelling kind of in the vein of the way Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres reimagines King Lear. Structurally I followed Dora very loosely. You don’t need to know anything about the case study to read the novel.
NP: As a mother you’re not supposed to have a favorite child. But who was your favorite char–
Frangello: Kendra. She was the easiest character I’ve ever written. I felt very intimate with her. I’m still waiting to replace her in my affections, even after having written a whole other novel. I have a long history with Kendra, since 1993, when there was an earlier, semi-finished version of this novel, way before the Freud framework—that novel later evolved into a story cycle and many of the stories were published; Kendra was the narrator for most of them and some of them were told third person from Michael Kelsey’s point of view.
Cris Mazza, my former writing instructor at UIC, actually recommended the story cycle to FC2, and had it gotten one more yes vote it would’ve come out and MSC would never have been written. The stories were really different than the eventual published novel. Kirby was only in one of them, so it was only half the story I wanted to tell. Kendra pretty much eclipsed everyone else in the book. I ultimately thought her voice would be too much for a book-length work, and decided to tell Kendra’s part in third person and Kirby in first so as to work against that impulse in myself and get closer to Kirby.
Initially I conceptualized Kirby too much in opposition to Kendra. When I finally gave myself permission to see her more as a mirror of Kendra—that twins don’t have to be good vs. evil, a risky twin and a safe twin, the way they are in the popular imagination—then Kirby opened up to me right away. And I ended up liking her voice a lot. Kirby, in the end, is a better narrator than Kendra because Kendra’s a bit of a narcissist. Kirby is more of a classic narrator, peripheral in that Nick Caraway kind of way, and she’s the one trying to solve the mysteries of the family, whereas Kendra already thinks she knows everything.
NP: Did you have an urge to punish or slap around any of your characters?
Frangello: One of the things that really worries me in contemporary literary fiction is that good characters are so often rewarded and bad ones punished. It’s become prevalent in such a way that it’s shocking to me.
For example, The Lovely Bones [by Alice Sebold], which is a good novel—not as good as her memoir Lucky, but good—one of the things that accounted for its immense popularity was its fable quality, the way it let readers feel like they were taking a risk for about five minutes, with that grisly opening chapter, but then it walked them through it for the rest of the book holding their hands, reassuring them like, No, really the world is an okay place and justice will prevail. I mean, the afterlife is summer camp, mothers who leave come back, good girls get to marry their grade school sweethearts, and killers are miraculously impaled with icicles. But that isn’t the real world. Just read Alice Sebold’s memoir; she knows life’s not that way. But I think editors and book clubs want to believe that.
There’s an expectation that villains, so to speak, should pay at the end—believe me, I’m Italian, I understand all about vengeance, but I’m not interested in doing that in my fiction. I want to let the characters work it out. I don’t like to vilify them as I’m writing about them. I mean, I didn’t have enormous affection for Henry, the father, but I tried to be sympathetic to him to understand him. With a character like Michael, I wasn’t interested in punishing him for being kinky or whatever—I liked that character and thought it was important for me to like him if I was going to write him well.
NP: It feels to me like the characters are fighting primarily against themselves . . .
Frangello: Absolutely. These people all want to be decent people, they’re not sociopaths. But they stand in their own way because they got their own shit—
NP: So is each character an island?
Frangello: They were at the end of My Sister’s Continent, more so than originally. One thing that happened as I started telling the novel from the Freudian framework was that the cast of characters started to narrow down to those who had a corresponding counterpart in the Dora case. As the characters became fewer and fewer, everyone became more isolated, particularly Kirby and Kendra because they refused to be closer to each other, but they didn’t really know how to be close with anyone other than each other. In the early version of the novel, they were more Gen X party girls and loads of the scenes took place at parties littered with their twenty-something friends. They became, later on, pretty isolated, more introverted than they were in the original version.
NP: The more I think of it, My Sister’s Continent is a sort of love story—between sisters, about relationships, about the absence of love in a family. Did you intend on the novel having love as a central theme?
Frangello: The book was always very much a love story to me, yes. Between sisters, definitely, but also a family romance in the Freudian way. Kirby loves her mother in a way that is never requited; their father loves Kendra in a way that is never requited; the parents are so embroiled in their dramas with their children that they get lost to one another.
Kendra and Michael’s relationship is a love story—I say that utterly without irony. I see it as a love story in the same vein as Leaving Las Vegas [by John O’Brien]—a love between people who are extremely messed up in a way perhaps not palatable to others. They’re self-destructive, destructive of others, but they find each other and cling to each other with a kind of unconditional love because there’s a recognition that they’ve previously gone their whole lives without finding. It’s very tender in its way. It’s built on an extreme—perhaps pathological, but really almost total level of trust.
There’s a great deal of anger in the book. It’s often vitriolic, full of sarcasm, fighting, banter, even violence, so where would that lead if there wasn’t a flipside of a lot of genuine love being sought or experienced by the characters?
NP: The Kelsey’s are the estranged family friends. When we meet them there has already been a big falling out with the Braun’s. Describe the genesis of the Kelsey’s, especially Michael.
Frangello: Well, Michael became very different from what I intended him to be. He was initially a very peripheral character, this older lover who Kendra used to get back at her father, period. He was going to be this very civilized sophisticated guy who was in a way a little shmarmy, and there wasn’t much more to him. But he changed, started writing himself, doing things I didn’t expect him to do. All of a sudden my husband started saying things to me like, “Do you realize that Michael is always drinking herbal tea?” And then I conceptualized this path of dead women in Michael’s wake. He grew a backstory and his own quirks. I guess Michael did not want to be a stereotype.
Their daughter Rachel was in some of the stories and earlier draft of the novel, but Michael’s ex, Leigh, wasn’t, except by unnamed reference as an ex-wife. She evolved as a corresponding character to Frau K in the Dora case because that character was so central. Freud believed Frau K was Dora’s greatest erotic attachment, and the feminist theorists usually conceptualize Dora as a lesbian or bisexual woman.
NP: What was the hardest scene in the book to write?
Frangello: The law offices scene—the one readers might think of as “the flashlight scene.” It was difficult because, despite the novel’s many sexual themes, it’s really the only explicit sex scene in the book . . .
The best thing about getting the novel published is I’m now officially not allowed to rewrite it anymore.
NP: Yeah, there’s a lot of talk about it being a sexually graphic novel, but there really aren’t any sex scenes—the sex is all up here (pointing at my head).
Frangello: That’s right. It’s not full of, like, “his broad vermillion sheath” and “ride me like a wild stallion” [Gina explains an exercise she used as a therapist for sexually abused girls where the girls contrasted the language of romance novels and other media with their experiences; these were real quotes from that exercise.] Sex is hard to write, and that scene was especially difficult because Kendra and Michael weren’t in their usual roles. I didn’t know what would happen in that scene. Kendra is way too angry a character to be trusted as a top, and Michael is too nihilistic to be trusted as a bottom. So while, to some extent, they were reasonably safe with their usual sexual games, when the tables turned on their usual roles, it was all up for grabs and things were bound to go really wrong. Plus, that scene leads to the final climax of the book, so I wrote many, many versions of that whole chapter.
NP: How’d you know when you had it?
Frangello: It got published. The best thing about getting the novel published is I’m now officially not allowed to rewrite it anymore.
NP: There is so much going on in this book, so much drama. The father has AIDS, the Kelsey’s are separating, the mother is a picture of chained restraint, the twins are twins, Kendra’s on a downward spiral, Kirby’s impending marriage is causing irritable bowels…to summarize it would make it sound like a Springer episode. How did you pull all of this off, and do it with a sense of humor, no less?
Frangello: I think that Kirby and Kendra are funny. One of the scenes I’ve been reading aloud at events a lot is the Kendra-Guitarist botched S/M scene. I think that scene is hilarious…
NP: Where Guitarist rapes Kendra?
Frangello: (Laughs) Well, that’s not how I’d describe it exactly. But really, I wasn’t afraid of a heightened sense of almost melodrama because of the Victorian-era inspiration of the book. Freud is melodrama; a lot of Victorian novels are melodrama, so I wanted there to be a sense of that. But I wanted to do it in a way where the book had control of itself.
Many times as I was writing it I was like, Oh shit, how am I going to wrap this up, there’s so much going on psychologically, two different story lines, all these different characters with all their different interplay, illness, sex, sisterhood, eating, body, where is it all going to converge? I think it did—but this is not a quiet, subtle book. It’s pretty in your face.
NP: Let’s talk about “truthiness” a la Steven Colbert, and reliability. Each character has their own expression of reality. I’m still wondering what happened and what happens to Kendra, which I know you won’t tell me. But who is smarter when it comes to literature, the writer, the character or the reader?
Frangello: Well, the reader has the last laugh. In the sense of who gets to define reality as soon as the book gets published, the reader can dissent with whatever the author intended—the reader can decide that the characters were wrong about everything. In literature the reader ends up being the only one who really matters.
NP: Any dissent from your readers?
Frangello: Oh yeah, oh god, from everyone. People disagree about what happened with the father, of course. One reader had a very clear idea of what happened with Henry and the twins that is quite different from what most others inferred, so that’s great.
NP: You’ve had some interesting reading experiences…
Frangello: I think you mean that I gave a reading four days before my c-section for the Bookslut reading series. Jessa Crispin had said on Bookslut that she wanted me to read something dirty because it’d give her a kick given how pregnant I was. She introduced me by saying that she hoped my water didn’t break. I read the Kendra-Guitarist scene, which I think is funny but apparently you don’t (laughs). It is a dirty little scene. Everyone seemed to think it was weird or controversial because I was so pregnant. There is the Madonna-ization of pregnancy. It’s sort of like you could get up there and read anything you want if you’re looking like your normal self, but suddenly you’re pregnant and it’s like, “shouldn’t she be covering the baby’s ears?” You’re supposed to be all sweet—pregnant woman are not supposed to be sexual. I wish I could’ve traveled more when the book came out because I would’ve loved to read more dirty little scenes while nine months pregnant.
NP: What do you do when you tire of fiction? Do you read for pleasure?
Frangello: Not as much as a writer is supposed to, Rob. Or at least I read very little that isn’t fiction. I would like to say that if I didn’t work at Other Voices, I’d be reading theology and philosophy, studying French, but maybe I’d just be reading a lot more published novels. I read so much unpublished work that I don’t have a lot of time to read all the actual books I wish I could. But my husband and I joke that I’ve become a fictional savant—I don’t read much of anything else these days. When I’m not reading for OV, I’m reading novels and other lit mags to keep abreast of contemporary fiction for my work.
NP: What trends do you notice in the publishing world—what sucks, what inspires?
Frangello: The independent press community is inspiring. There are a lot of us. Many of the indie presses are really publishing things out of the mainstream and giving voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise have it and in some cases having remarkable successes. The blogs are a great development too—they’ve really helped my book and Tod’s. [Tod Goldberg’s Simplify was OV’s first collection of stories.]
I don’t want to say chick lit is bad, because chick lit isn’t bad in terms of its existence—it has every right to exist, and to be read by people who enjoy it. What’s bad is that somehow chick lit is influencing what women are allowed to do in literary fiction. Chick lit is not literary fiction and doesn’t usually pretend to be, so I’m perplexed as to why it’s influencing so many editors of allegedly literary imprints in the corporate publishing world. There has been a chick-litization of literary books by women, and it’s majorly impacting what agents and editors want from their literary women writers—that alarms me. I read Bridget Jones’ Diary and I thought it was funny as hell but I don’t want to write it.
I think it bothers a lot of women writers that there’s not a lot of room out there for women to do divergent, risky things, outside the realm of commercial trends. Like Donna
I don’t want to say chick lit is bad, because chick lit isn’t bad in terms of its existence—it has every right to exist, and to be read by people who enjoy it. What’s bad is that somehow chick lit is influencing what women are allowed to do in literary fiction.
Seaman [of Booklist] said that she hasn’t read a graphic, edgy book like MSC in a really long time, and I said that if my novel had been published ten or fifteen years ago, we wouldn’t be batting an eye—even Kathy Acker was being published by big houses in the ‘90’s; Mary Gaitskill was just starting to publish and her books came out from very big, reputable houses—back then it was fine to be kind of out there.
But then several things happened—a recession that hit the publishing industry hard, and the neo-Puritanism of the Bush Administration, and 9/11 where people got scared and depressed and wanted lighter, more inspirational forms of entertainment, not anything that would make them feel even worse or call their beliefs into question. So now editors want to make money and they think all the public will accept from a new woman writer is a plucky, sympathetic heroine who triumphs over adversity, preferably with a southern accent.
NP: You’ve done a lot of Chicago readings…
Frangello: Yes I have, everyone here must be sick of me.
NP: What do you think of Chicago as a literary home?
Frangello: Chicago has been very good to me. But it’s not a great literary city.
Frangello: There are hardly any fiction book publishers here—that’s why we started OV Books, actually, because even much smaller cities like Minneapolis and San Francisco had much stronger literary book publishing industries. Chicago has a lot of great writers, quite a few good lit mags here in addition to Other Voices, but where there’s no book publishing industry there’s much less of a social, cohesive literary community. Whereas in New York or even LA, literary readings can be very exciting social events and writers are sometimes treated as celebrities, here in Chicago the readings that are best attended are crossovers between theatre, stand-up comedy and music. It’s a very improv-centered reading vibe here, much less literary. Some of these series—like 2nd Story, which is part of Serendipity Theater Company, or your series, RUI [Reading Under the Influence] are fun and fantastic, but it’s still true that in Chicago, a really well-reviewed, established writer can show up to do a more low-key reading at a bookstore, and even if the local media hails the event, without beer and bands only three people may show up. That’s a direct result of the lack of a publishing industry here, the lack of industry people, and writers that the industry supports. OV Books and a handful of others are aiming to combat this, but we’re small and kinda poor and we have a long way to go.
Gina Frangello's website is www.ginafrangello.com
Robert Duffer teaches Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. His work has been published in Flahsquake, Pindeldyboz, Blues Legends and others. Though he's looking for a publisher for his first novel, his proudest work is his new son Calvin and his babymama.