This week, Gina Frangello, author of Slut Lullabies, answers five questions from Zoe Zolbrod, author of Currency, on writing about friends, getting reviewed, and the ultimate goal: connection.
1. To a one, the stories in Slut Lullabies are highly dramatic, featuring characters who are dealing with issues such as drug addiction, spousal abuse, mental illness, suicide, blackmail, and rape. A number of these stories are based pretty closely on people you know, and you’ve said in interviews that before the book came out you had to take some friends out to lunch and lay it on the line with them, and that they eventually gave the all-clear. Knowing you, I see they must have meant it: you have a close-knit group of friends and family who adore you. But I’ll admit that adoration has not been the response I’ve gotten from the few people whose lives I’ve explicitly tapped for material, and it’s not uncommon for authors to become estranged from friends and family they write about. My question is: How do you get away with this?! Do you think there’s something in the nature of your writing or the nature of your friendships that lets you borrow freely without crushing people’s feelings or trust in you?
This is a really hard question, because it’s probably one that my friends and family could answer with more authority than I can. But I will say that I’ve had my share of people becoming angry at me as a result of my fiction, so it hasn’t all been roses and understanding. My mother-in-law stopped speaking to me for nearly half a year after my first novel,
, came out—and that novel was not remotely based on her! It was a contemporary retelling of a Freud case study, with very little autobiographical component when it came to direct plot. So sometimes people have very deep, subjective responses even when no life-borrowing has been involved. My work, as you point out, deals with a lot of “loaded” issues, and for some readers, that enough is sufficient to enrage them, or cuts too close to a bone.
I’ve made some jokes in interviews about having to prep my friends for the stories in this collection, but really the truth is that there was only one touchy situation. My three closest friends—all of whom have stories highly based on them—were never anything but supportive from the get-go. They loved “their” stories, and believed I had portrayed them with a complexity that was worthy of their situations, both when I was writing things that were very close to the truth and when I was fictionalizing their material more liberally. I should add that none of these friends are writers, so their understanding has little—if anything—to do with a sense of artistic license or having done the same kind of life-borrowing themselves. It has a lot to do, though, with the level of intimacy in the relationships. I think that all three of these people really got, in a full sense, that I had written about them from a place of viewing them as meaningful, with psyches or lives worth exploring in a way that was as deep as I could go—that I write from a place of trying to get inside something fully and understand it from the inside out. I was writing with love, even if the material could be blunt or ugly at times.
Oh, I will add that one of my friends who loves “his” story still definitely did not want his family to read it. So he told them all that my book sucks, in an effort to deter them from buying it. Now whenever I run into them, they’re all going to give me pitying looks like, Poor Gina—she wrote a crappy book. So I guess he paid me back in his own way!
2. We’ve just finished up a summer of book touring together, hitting something like 15 cities. Again and again, I was impressed by the warm reception we received thanks largely to your presence online as the fiction editor of The Nervous Breakdown and as a regular contributor to many other literary blogs. You have a great national presence in the indie lit community. Flash back to early 2006, when your first novel, My Sister’s Continent, was published by Chiasmus Press, and, I think it’s safe to say, your national platform was much less established. Yet at that time, larger media outlets were giving more space to books coverage, even for titles from small indie presses. It might be early in the Slut Lullabies game to make an accurate assessment, but can you talk about whether and how changes to literary media have affected the reception to your books, and how they affect your writing life in terms of time spent, rewards found, and expectations?
Well, let’s just put it this way: when My Sister’s Continent
came out, it was immediately reviewed in Booklist, even though I was an unknown writer, whereas this time around, though I had a larger “platform,” as you point out, and even though my first book had received a rave in the same publication, Slut Lullabies
was not reviewed in Booklist or any of the big pre-pub venues like Publishers Weekly
. So there definitely is a change in the climate that’s very visible.
That said, I’m not sure I’m in any position to complain. Slut Lullabies
got coverage in Vanity Fair
magazine, which are not typical places for books by small independent publishers to be plugged, so I’ve been extremely fortunate. Review publications are struggling to stay afloat, and can’t afford to be as generous as they once were because it’s a matter of their own survival. So I try to approach the lack of review space as all of us being in this same literary boat together, working our asses off to keep it afloat through an economic and technological transition.
Touring, though—that’s another story! I mean, look, touring is not financially rewarding...if anything, it’s usually the opposite. But there’s nothing quite like it, is there? I missed being able to tour in 2006—I was home nursing during my novel’s “season”—so I resolved this time to go anywhere that asked me and do as much as I possibly could live and in person. And it’s made the entire experience for me. Reviews are great, and blogging is great, and money (uh, so I’ve heard) is great. But writers write to connect with readers, and there’s nothing like a book tour to connect with other literary people. Many of the people I’ve seen on our tour are people I’ve known online for years but had never met face-to-face. Getting to hang with friends from The Nervous Breakdown, or writers I used to publish in Other Voices magazine, or my Emergency Press editor in Seattle, and of course getting to spend so much time on the road with other writers like you and Cris Mazza and Davis Schneiderman and Allison Amend, has been a highlight of the whole thing for me. It’s priceless, and there’s no question that social media is what makes it possible for writers like us—without big budgets or big publicity engines—to network and form relationships in a way that makes the whole country our literary “community.”
3. Speaking of online communities: There’s an ongoing conversation about women writers’ representation on tastemaker lists such as Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of . . . and in prestigious venues such as the New York Times. What, if any, role or responsibility do women have in changing those numbers?
I recently wrote a post about this very issue as part of my blog tour—it was on a fellow She Writes member, Rebecca Rasmussen
’s, blog The Bird Sisters.
The ironic thing is that women run publishing, really. Most agents, publicists and editors are female—in overwhelming numbers. Women don’t run the media—a long way from it—so we may not be as in control of what books are assigned for review at the NYT
, or to whom they’re assigned, and some of that is still a very male game. But women to some extent have ourselves to thank for the channeling of female writers into limiting categories like “chick lit” or “confessional memoirs” or endless diet or dating books. We are the ones who are writing these books, publishing them, and choosing how they are marketed. We are also the ones buying and consuming certain types of books overwhelmingly more so than other books, because women read in far higher numbers than men. So I’m afraid this is not a situation where women can cleanly point a finger at the male power hierarchy and say, “Look what they’re doing!” Where that hierarchy exists, it is doing some damage...but in other arenas, where women are running things, I still see a big failure in the literary culture in embracing “serious” books by women in greater numbers, or mismarketing literary titles as “women’s fiction” in an effort to sell more copies in the superstores or through female-centric book clubs, where the money is.
That said, a bigger aspect of this same problem is that male readers will not read any book marketed with even a vaguely “female” angle, and that some male readers will not read any book by a woman writer—even highly literary, prize-winners like Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore or Toni Morrison. I wrote a piece about this issue for She Writes
earlier this year. So while women-run marketing departments may be choosing PR spin for certain titles, women are certainly not responsible for the underlying fact that female readers will read books by men, but male readers are reluctant to read books by women. This is simply an extension of the fact that the male experience is regarded as normative or “universal,” whereas the female experience is regarded as gendered or specialized. In other words, this is sexism, which is still very much at play in our cultural consciousness.
And we can’t overlook the fact that, while women are dominant in the publishing industry, they don’t run most of the corporations that now own publishing companies, whose shareholders editors and marketing departments now must answer to more so than to literary tastemakers.
So this is a very complex problem. But at the very least, it’s one women ourselves need to take the reigns regarding and really shape what the future will look like—we are not powerless, but thus far we have not always been our own best advocates in publishing.
4. You and I have talked about the lack of sex in Dan Chaon’s book Await Your Reply (one of my recent favorites) and you asked me about the lack of explicit sex in Currency. Given that My Sister’s Continent is partly about a sadomasochistic relationship, and that many of the stories in Slut Lullabies deal with sex in one way or another, I doubt the "Where's the sex?" question has ever been put to you. But it does seem to me that most of the sex in your published books is not of the garden variety. To what degree is this a case of, to borrow from Tolstoy, all happy vanilla sex being alike, while unhappy (or at least Neapolitan) sex contains unique, character-revealing ingredients?
To a very large degree!
Yes, I mean, one of the things you mentioned when we talked about is that you imagined Robin and Piv, your protagonists, to be having very simple, happy, heady sex. And while this can be great sex to have, it’s not always the easiest—or most relevant—sex to write about, right? It’s like Janet Burroway says, “In fiction, only trouble is interesting.” Sex can be troubled in a wide variety of ways—it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be kinky. But the kind of sex that’s worth depicting on the page generally is going to be complicated and quirky enough that the writer doesn’t need to spend much—if any—time talking about what body part is going where. If all you have to say about the encounter is to describe the usual physical mechanics and how great it all felt and how in love everyone is...well, generally in fiction, fulfilling, cheerful sex reveals a lot less about characters than sex that may be darker, more unconventional or even dysfunctional.
Here I have to add that I think writing a lot about sex is very different from writing a lot of sex scenes. I write a great deal about the theme of sex. I don’t write a lot of sex scenes. I do write some, and I’m not squeamish about doing it, but even kinky or comic or brutal sex becomes predictable if you’re writing it scene after scene. I’m far more interested in the psychology behind sexual dynamics/politics than I am in the bodily logistics, no matter what people flavor’s being served up in the bedroom—vanilla soft serve or blood orange sorbet.
5. We've also talked a lot about how much unpaid work literary endeavors require, especially for someone like you, who, in addition to writing, edits for your own indie press, Other Voices Books, and for a busy online collective. Currently, your agent is shopping your new novel and has asked for some revisions based on the first round of editor feedback, but you have said that in revising it, you’re doing so to make it the best novel it can be, not to sell it to a particular New York editor. Glowing reviews, wide readership, or money: Assuming for the sake of conversation that they can’t all be had at once, what would mean most to you at this point in your career, and why?
Everyone likes money, I’m not immune to that—I love to travel; I like to shop—but why I write has nothing to do with money. Money is not a factor for me in terms of what makes writing rewarding. The biggest role money plays in my creative life is in my awareness that I’m very privileged—to have health insurance, to own a home, to be able to afford things like organic produce or preschool tuition—in ways that make it possible for me to write instead of having a job where every moment I spend working has to translate directly into revenue in order to assure my family’s survival. I grew up below the poverty line and never met a published writer until I was in my twenties so it still makes me giddy to be able to live this kind of writing life without having to worry about how to put gas in my car.
Reviews mean something to me, sure, but I think mainly because they can be indicative of passion—a review shows someone putting effort into discussing your book, and that’s both flattering and fascinating. It’s not the cachet so much as the way the review might allow a writer to glimpse the way her book impacted someone. For me, writing is fundamentally a form of communication. I’m not trying to communicate with the entire world—I don’t need or want a million Twitter followers or anything resembling “fame”—but I care a great deal whether I communicate effectively with whatever number of readers I do encounter. I mean, at the end of the day, if even one reader—uh, not counting my mother, obviously!—comes away feeling my book impacted her or his life, or is a favorite to return to again and again like a touchstone, that means way more to me than a check, or than a blandly positive review in a high profile magazine. Not to sound naïve, but really, doesn’t it mean more to most literary writers? Starving in a garret notwithstanding, I think it does. This is why we’re writers instead of engineers or doctors or attorneys—if we were just in search of money or prestige, there would be far more reliable ways to pursue those goals. And it’s also why we write what we write instead of sending away to Harlequin for a formula, or writing speeches for political candidates or copy for an ad firm or articles on how to trim your thighs for fitness magazines.
We’re all—writers and readers both—in it for connection, to help make sense of the things in this world that aren’t black and white, that scare us, in an effort to find some kernel that makes us all less alone. Other perks can be nice, but in the end, nothing trumps that.