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An interview with
by Jeanie Chung
Gina Frangello knows the fiction industry from all sides: as a writer, Executive Editor of the fiction magazine Other Voices and founder and Executive Editor of OV Books, an imprint specializing in short story collections. Her first novel, My Sister's Continent (Chiasmus, 2006), is a contemporary retelling of Freud's case history of "Dora," a so-called hysteric. The novel, set in modern-day Chicago, tells the story of Kendra Braun, a former ballerina with a self-destructive streak, who enters a physically and psychologically harrowing relationship with Michael Kelsey, a friend of her father's. The book also follows Kendra's twin sister Kirby, who is not-so-happily engaged and in psychotherapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. The book is written as Kirby's extended response to her therapist's analysis of the Braun family. Frangello's short fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Swink, two girls review and Prairie Schooner, among others. She lives in Chicago with her husband and children.
Jeanie Chung: My Sister's Continent grew out of your own early background as a therapist. What was the nature of your work?
Gina Frangello: I started out working at a battered women's agency in rural New Hampshire as an intern, and running groups there, seeing private clients. The following year, I started a women's wellness center at a hospital in Vermont. It's a prison town, so the center served a lot of low-income women with pretty graphic lives. The following year I worked for a private foster care agency with sexually abused foster girls who were taken out of their homes.
JC: So you drew from some of those experiences in writing the novel?
GF: It was an area of interest already, when I went into that line of work. I had grown up in a fairly violent neighborhood in Chicago. It's very different now, but my cousin was murdered there a few years ago, actually, so there still are aspects of what it was like when I was growing up. It was very gang-y. There's probably the same amount of abuse in any kind of neighborhood, but it was the kind of place where it was so patriarchal that it was not even something people felt all that compelled to hide. Kids would come to school with bruises and no one said anything. Once a girl was raped in my neighborhood and people rushed to the defense of the men who had done it; everybody took the attitude of "She deserved it," so my old neighborhood affected my decision to work with the population I later served. My experiences as a counselor started fueling a lot of the ideas behind My Sister's Continent. The version that I first started writing, in 1993, was a lot more influenced by my work as a therapist than version that was eventually published.
JC: I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but you worked as a counselor with women for whom you were doing a great service, obviously. And then, you stopped doing that to sit in a room all day to feed your muse. Did you feel guilty?
GF: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. At first I didn't, because the work could get scary and crazy. I used to take women to get restraining orders at the battered women's agency, and a lot of times their husbands would know who I was. They'd say, "I'm gonna kill that bitch! I know what her car looks like!" We'd have bomb threats when we had groups at the center. And I was young when I started doing this work--I was 22, right out of college. It definitely makes you old before your time. So at first when I moved back to Chicago to devote myself to graduate school and writing full-time, I was really thrilled to focus on things in my mind, to process a lot of the issues I'd been dealing with the past few years as well as in my neighborhood growing up. However, ultimately, yes, over the long haul--I haven't worked as a therapist since 1994--there are a lot of times when I think to myself, particularly before the book came out: what am I really doing? What am I really contributing? Who am I really helping? Am I wasting my time and everyone else's time? Other Voices helps me stave that off, though arguably, running a literary magazine--it is a service, and I do it for free, but at the same time, you're not saving anybody's life by getting them out of a violent marriage that's likely to kill them in a year.
You can always argue that literature can be viewed as self-indulgent, even though, ultimately, I really believe it is not, that it's really vital. I also believe that literacy and the things that literacy contributes to the human soul are in great danger in this country. So when I think of it in those terms, I definitely don't think it's self-indulgent to be a writer or an editor.
JC: You said the novel grew out of some short stories you were writing about the two families, the Kelseys and the Brauns. What was it like merging the stories into a novel?
GF: That was interesting, because most of the short stories were first person from Kendra's point of view, and a couple of them were third person from Michael's point of view. They all more or less dealt with the aftermath of this relationship between Kendra and Michael, which was somewhat different than the original version, but could still be categorized as an S/M relationship that had, in some ways, left both people wondering who they were and left them both shaken.
I started trying to compile them into a novel in stories, but even though the individual stories had done really well, when I first put them all together, people's reactions were, "Oh my God, I'm going to kill myself. I can't read all these stories in a row like this; it's really claustrophobic." The intensity of Kendra's self-destructiveness and her voice, it freaked people out. And this was in the '90s, when freaking people out was not viewed as the bad thing it is today! So it made me think more about giving the reader another guide through the story.
In the original novel I had tried to write about these sisters, Kirby had played a key role, but then she had receded in the stories. She was occasionally mentioned--I think she's only in one of the published stories. I decided to resuscitate Kirby and bring her in as the overarching narrator of the novel and tell Kendra's sections in third person to give the reader--and myself as the writer--a little bit more distance and a little bit more objectivity. But I didn't merge the stories and the novel very much. It was the same people, some of the same relationship dynamics, but it all started fresh when I decided to use the "Dora" framework.
JC: I really liked that aspect of it, the reimagining of the Freud case study. Tell me how that happened.
GF: I was teaching a class that I created called "The Hysterics in Literature;" I was interested in merging some of my background as a counselor with what I was learning in graduate school. I was studying French feminist theory--l'écriture féminine, writing the body--and I wanted to do a class that had a synthesis of psychology and literature. We were doing some of the French feminist theorists, but I taught the Freud case study as the introductory text--I taught it as a novella. Then, we went on to things like King Lear, Ragtime, a whole bunch of novels that had hysterical characters. I had read the case study before, but not as carefully and closely as I read it when teaching it. And I was just blown away by the similarities between the families in Freud's study and the families I had been writing about: the Brauns and the Kelseys.
JC: At that point, were you still actively writing about the Brauns and the Kelseys?
GF: I had stopped about a year prior, and was working on another novel. Then, I was overcome and swept back into that world, basically realizing how little has changed in terms of certain dynamics in families, certain dynamics of what it is to be a young woman coming of age.
I was also very interested in the way that the French feminists had interpreted Dora. I love Hélène Cixous and all those people and read them pretty voraciously in graduate school. But at the same time, because I had worked with battered women and sexual abuse survivors, women who had addiction problems, a lot of physical ailments, eating disorders--women who might be viewed as contemporary hysterics--I was a little bit taken aback by the way that feminist theorists were glamorizing hysteria, saying, "the hysterics are my sisters! They tried to thwart the patriarchy! They were rebels!" And I kept thinking to myself, no, really, they were women who were suffering enormously, physically, who were taken advantage of by the system, who usually had absolutely no concept of thwarting anything. They may have been angrier or more unsettled by the lives of women than their contemporaries were, and that may have contributed to their symptoms. But it led nowhere, except to their own misery.
So I was just interested in the dialogue that Old World psychoanalysis and contemporary feminist psychology and literary theory were having with one another: this unease between the two positions. I wanted to write something that was going to tackle both positions and let them debate each other in a fictional forum.
JC: Wow, those are some big ideas, but the novel doesn't come across as didactic at all.
GF: Thank you. I think that it would've been incredibly easy to fall into that trap if I hadn't already been working with these characters for about five years. It's fun stuff to talk about in an interview, it's fun to write about in your acknowledgements, but the fact of the matter is that I was really obsessed with these characters, and I had been for some time. As I think is true for many writers, they were more real to me at times than the people in my actual life were. So, while I did have a lot of these ideas, and I followed the case study in terms of some elements of structure and some elements of plot and ideas, I got as caught up in the characters' lives as I possibly could have been, and I was not sitting around thinking, "What would Freud say? What would Hélène Cixous say?" I was just thinking, "What would Kirby say? What would Kendra say?"
Also, I should say that my model of what I wanted to do was very similar to what Jane Smiley had done in A Thousand Acres, where she's retelling King Lear, but you don't ever have to have read Shakespeare to read that book. Obviously, much more so than not having read Shakespeare, I would have been in real trouble if I had expected people to have read Freud's obscure case studies in order to read my novel.
JC: Many people have said writing or storytelling is a form of therapy, but had you thought about the idea of therapy as a form of storytelling? Kirby has her version of events. Dr. Friedland has her version. Kendra has a version, but Kirby's the one who tells it to us. What you essentially have is competing narrators, all with varying degrees of reliability.
GF: Therapy is storytelling, of course. We all, in life or literature, have our own versions of truth. Kirby lies explicitly to Dr. Friedland at times, and she lies to Aris, and she may be lying to herself if we believe Kendra's version of events--but isn't that true of everyone to some greater or lesser degree? As a therapist, you have to choose which parts of the story are fact and which parts are perspective, and it's a delicate balance. Probably Dr. Friedland made many missteps where Kirby and her father Henry were concerned, in terms of things she took for granted. But as a therapist, it's hard to know when to take something at face value and when to doubt and probe further. So long as a client isn't delusional, the therapist certainly shouldn't go around doubting if, say, a woman claims her husband beats her -- her therapist isn't going to think, well, that's a matter of perspective, because a fist hitting you in the face is not so much a perspective thing. But if she says, "My mother didn't love me" . . . well, did her mother really not love her, or did she just show it poorly, or what was really going on? Probably the therapist isn't ever going to know for sure. Family therapy may reveal more because all the competing perspectives are there in the room, but in individual therapy you're always stuck in a first-person narrative, and every narrator is essentially unreliable, even if unintentionally.
I've been both a therapist and a client, and I can tell you I lied to my therapist all the time. If she asked a question that didn't interest me, I'd lie to make the answer simplistic or what I thought she wanted to hear so that we could talk about something else, or if I'd recently come to some kind of epiphany about my former behavior, I'd portray that past behavior to her through the lens of my recent epiphany, which may have played no actual role at the time.
There's an inherently cathartic property to storytelling-- that's what talk therapy is all about. Supposedly the more you tell the story to an impartial observer, the closer you get to truth. But look at Freud and Dora: Freud in the end wasn't impartial, and he just got further and further into a fictional story. If Dora really was in love with Frau K, she never told Freud and he never guessed until it was too late. So we'll never really know. That whole case study, to some extent, was already a novella long before writers began recasting it.
JC: What are you working on now?
GF: I just finished another novel. It's called A Beautiful Violence, and it also takes place in Chicago, but a very different Chicago than Kirby and Kendra's Chicago. It takes place in the neighborhood where I grew up, and it's basically a coming-of-age story about growing up in the early '80s in an Italian and Latino neighborhood.
JC: When you look at stories for Other Voices, obviously there are things you look for. You want a compelling character and plot, good writing, obviously, but do you think you consciously gravitate toward stories that are different from what you yourself might write? Or similar?
GF: I've been asked that before, and I have to say that it's a combination. Like probably any writer, there are certain things I like because I do them. And there are certain stories I publish that are not very dissimilar from what I or maybe friends I have would write. But when you're publishing up to twenty stories an issue, it might mean there's one or two of those kinds of stories in an issue. Because the main thrust of any issue is not to make it too homogeneous. The main challenge of running a literary magazine, other than, of course, funding it, is how to get enough diversity in there. It's been a major mission at Other Voices, to get racial and ethnic diversity, experimental vs. traditional diversity, age. It's our constant struggle to make our title reflect reality.
JC: You don't see very many literary magazines that even try that.
GF: Some do. But it's not common. Of course, from what I've gathered, it's also not common for a literary magazine to build its issues entirely from what is commonly referred to as the slush pile.
GF: Entirely. Our idea of soliciting work would be, maybe I run into a writer I know somewhere and I say, "Why don't you send me something?" But it's never a guarantee, and we read every single thing that comes across the transom in exactly the same way. The only way I would ever take something sight unseen would be if I'd heard it at a reading. We've solicited maybe four stories in the eleven years I've been at Other Voices.
Most writers who submit to lit mags are white. Most writers who submit to lit mags are out of academic programs. And we really try to, in every public forum possible, say that we want to hear from everyone else. If you've got a story, send it. It's got to be a literary story, but we're looking for writers who don't fit the mold.
JC: Other Voices, more than some other literary magazines, tends to embrace stories that push the envelope a little in terms of both form and content. People give lip service to the idea that they want something that pushes the boundaries, but few seem to publish them
GF: There's not a lot. There certainly are other magazines that do, but there are not a lot, even in the academic publishing community. Certainly there are independent presses that have built their reputations on doing these kinds of things. FC2 has always published risky work. However, while I like experimental fiction, I would also say that that phenomenon of the indie press being the domain primarily of very experimental fiction, with a lot of more conservative academic lit mags being terrified of that stuff, creates a huge chasm, where writers who are taking risks with content but are not necessarily formally innovative--just writing fairly traditional narratives but about real things in our culture, real issues of violence and oppression--these writers are finding fewer and fewer homes, because it's almost like now, to break into some of these indie presses, you've got to be super-freaky. And that's a small market of readers and writers.
I certainly don't want to not champion that, because I think it's absolutely essential that there exist houses that will publish these writers, but that's not really challenging corporate publishing in the same precise way. It's so far afield from what they're doing that it's not really saying, "Come on, we're going to prove to you there's a wide audience for riskier traditional work." Instead it's more like saying, "You stay on your side of the ring and I'll stay on my side, and we'll both pretend the other doesn't exist."
JC: What's going on with OV Books nowadays?
GF: We just chose our second collection, which is by a writer named Corrina Wycoff, called O Street. The collection is fantastic: it's a collection of linked stories, which is something I didn't think we were going to be doing, in part because our mission is so devoted to the short story form. I view that as the classic short story collection, because I think that's been even more marginalized by the big houses. However, we just fell in love with this book. It's a collection of linked stories about a woman who grows up with a schizophrenic, junkie, homeless mother, and her lifelong struggle after the experiences she had as a child. It's a harrowing book that exemplifies, not just because it's short fiction, certain things that the corporate market has trouble touching these days. People are really afraid of dark work, of work that doesn't have conventionally sympathetic characters, particularly by new women writers. There is a lot of the idea that women need to be writing about these spunky heroines who overcome great obstacles, where all the bad guys are bad and the good guys are good, and the bad guy gets impaled with an icicle at the end of the book. It's got to be something that would be good for the "Today Show" book club, or good for Oprah's book club. Or it's got to be "chick lit"--I think that's partly what's contributed to the marginalization of literary fiction by women. But Corrina's book is a scary, daring, dark, horrifying book that is beautiful.
JC: So, being on both ends, as a writer and an editor, do you get depressed about the state of publishing?
GF: I am depressed about the state of publishing. Honestly, I started OV Books because I was depressed about the state of publishing. I just wanted to give one writer a year a really great publishing experience, and I was determined to find a readership for these people, give them a good marketing experience, because I feel like a lot of the indies can't do a lot of marketing because they don't have much money. Other Voices doesn't have much money either, but we have been around for twenty years, so we have a certain amount of stability and credibility.
JC: I want to get back to what you said about the industry's fear of subject matter that's not uplifting. Why do you think that is?
GF: Post-9/11, post Bush administration Part I, there was a real swing toward Puritanism in this country. I see small signs that it's starting to fade, but it's gone so far in that direction that it's going to take years for any pendulum to swing back. Literary fiction now is often defined as these sort of quiet, subtle, pretty stories. But that's not all that literary fiction is. That's not what Philip Roth has been writing, for example. People have been writing books that scare people, books that shake people up and mean something. Books that are challenging. And now, I feel like literary fiction is starting, in the corporate marketplace, to mean something very different. The independent presses are becoming the gatekeepers to more challenging, risky work, especially by new writers.
If you're Margaret Atwood, you can still get away with things and the big houses will stand behind you. But if you're somebody no one's ever heard of--if you're Corrina Wycoff--they're gonna say, "Honey, forget it."
JC: You think that's more true of writing from women? It seems like it's always been OK for men to be more edgy. Look at American Psycho.
GF: Absolutely. There was a period in the '70s and then again in the '90s where women were starting to be able to write more honest, graphic, risky work. Mary Gaitskill is a good example of someone who really came into her own in the '90s and was published by very mainstream literary houses, but she might have a hard time getting published for the first time today. Even Kathy Acker was getting published by large houses. Kathy Acker, for God's sake--she'd get on a really short list to be investigated by the government, nowadays.
It's a very different climate than the '90s, when there was a lot of edginess, even to the point that I'd say that what I was seeing sometimes in student writing was edginess for its own sake. Things were going pretty far in that direction, as they usually do before a pendulum swings back.
I remember a friend of mine was reading a book where a character got mummified and had sex with a dog. And it was published by a big house. I can't remember what it was called, but she kept telling me about it and asking "Why are these editors saying that your book is too graphic?" But the answer was that that was a very commercial book. That's always been OK in that arena. If you're V.C. Andrews, your characters can have incest with their brothers and get whipped with a switch by their grandmother, and all of that has always been fine in that market. But in the literary market, there are windows of opportunity for riskier, more graphically violent or sexual work, and then the window closes up and you've got to be E.M. Forster. Not that Forster didn't write about difficult things, but you've got to be very quiet, and restrained and dignified.
JC: For me, that begs the question: in some ways, despite all the talk about "good writing," does the literary market have just as many constraints and conventions as any genre market?
GF: I wouldn't say "just as many" constraints, no, but of course there are constraints. I really don't think most people believe there aren't constraints, or that "good writing" is absolutely the only thing that matters, in the sense that we live in a capitalist country, and publishing is a business, and businesses need to make money, etc. The literary publishing industry is no different; it's simply expected that literary titles earn less money than some other, blockbuster-ish titles, and so expectations are adjusted. But there is still, by all means, a concept of "what sells" in the literary market, and what the public wants, and what will make money within the confines of how much money literary fiction titles are "supposed" to make. You don't have to follow a formula like a Harlequin romance writer, like "introduce romantic lead by end of the first chapter" or something like that, but there are conventions that the industry believes work, and those the industry believes don't work. Sometimes the industry believes that sex sells, and other times it believes that sex offends.
JC: And right now, they like these sort of well-crafted, domestic stories. Like Gilead. Which I am not by any means saying is a bad or poorly written book.
GF: No, but that very much exemplifies that kind of writing, and particularly for women. I think literary fiction has always been more of a domain of men. It's hard for women to break in, period. Though it's also still difficult for a male writer to write a really risky book. Don De Grazia's novel American Skin, a very violent book that dealt with white supremacists, even though in a very critical way, had a really hard time getting published because people said it was politically incorrect and the American public wouldn't be able to handle it. After that book got published overseas and became a bestseller, then Scribner's took an interest in it here. Certainly, men encounter things like that. However, I would venture to say that because more literary fiction is published by male writers, and because women are increasingly being associated with the chick lit movement, which has nothing to do with literary fiction, it is harder and harder for a serious literary woman writer to put out work that might be viewed as unpalatable or risk-taking by the editors and marketers.
JC: Were you happy with Chiasmus?
GF: Absolutely. Lidia Yuknavitch is somebody who is so filled with love for avant-garde literature and so full of integrity about what constitutes good literature that the only thing on her agenda is to find books that she loves, that she thinks are challenging and that really have something to say. Albeit the downside of that kind of idealism is often that it entails not necessarily being a voracious marketer, because to some extent marketing is corporate bullshit, and if you're not willing to play a corporate bullshit game, you can't do certain types of marketing. But obviously, most indie presses have arenas that they market to that they don't think are bullshit and that have a similar worldview to themselves. Chiasmus is very true to its values.
JC: I understand you worked with a publicist to help promote your book. Is that a step you'd recommend for writers?
GF: I hired a publicist primarily because I was eight months pregnant when the book came out, so I knew I wasn't going to be able to go around and tour, to do as much for the book as I would have liked. But now I would recommend that any writer who can should hire a publicist, yes.
I would especially say that writers can rely on indie presses for integrity, creative support, putting forth the money to print the book and getting it a distributor--these are huge things, and they're things you can't really do for yourself with any credibility. But writers who publish with independent presses need to understand that they need to do a lot of their own marketing. Tod Goldberg did it for OV Books--and I think we were actually a lot more willing to play that game and had more money to spend than a lot of the other small presses do.
If you aren't careful, publishing a book can be like throwing a party and nobody comes--if you're not willing to do a lot of your own legwork. You may need to set up your own readings. Go to other cities and read there. Send out a certain number of your own review copies. The press will help you do it, but some indie presses can only send out twenty review copies, and that's not going to cut it. You should be sending out twenty review copies to blogs alone. So if you have to buy your books at half price to send them out for review, think of it as a financial investment the way you would think of graduate school as a financial investment. You're not going to spend as much money marketing your book as you would spend on a creative writing education, but it might do more for you.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2006/2007 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006/2007