Welcome to the newest installment on The Manifest-Station! The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. (Thanks Elissa Wald for coming up with that name.) I am so excited by the idea of this series. The readership on the site is so high that I figured it was time for something like this. Today’s interview is between authors Elissa Wald and Gina Frangello, two women I adore. Elissa can be found here and her latest book, The Secret Lives of Married Women, can be ordered here. This is a huge honor and I can think of no better way to launch this series. Now, go enjoy Seven Questions With Gina Frangello and buy her book! (It’s really, really good.)
By Elissa Wald:
I loved Gina Frangello’s first two books. I was deeply intrigued by the exploration of dominance and submission in her debut novel, My Sister’s Continent. I admired the smart, assured and fascinating stories in her collection of short fiction, Slut Lullabies.
And yet. Her most recent novel, A Life In Men, is something else again. Simply put, it is an astonishing feat: of story and structure and characterization and cultural commentary and worldly detail and setting and relentless tension. It takes place over more than a decade, in at least half a dozen countries, and it renders a tangled web of intimacies and liaisons and betrayals and loyalties without ever leaving a loose thread. It’s about the immediate and long-term repercussions of sexual violence. It’s also about marriage and female friendship and terminal illness and the many forms of familial intimacy and the fraught relationship of the American traveler to other cultures. It’s about self-destruction and entitlement and privilege. It’s about terrorism and death and redemption. You would think it could not possibly be about all of these things without meandering, becoming muddled, spreading itself too thin and/or succumbing to an identity crisis. But you would be mistaken. You would be underestimating Gina Frangello.
Gina’s schedule is especially hectic these days: besides being an acclaimed author and devoted mom, she is the Sunday Editor for The Rumpus and the Fiction Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. So I was very grateful that she made time to talk with me about her novel’s evolution as well as its formidable and fully realized ambitions.
Elissa Wald: A Life In Men is such a structural, logistical and emotional feat. There are so many characters, jumps in time, and layers of revelation. How long did it take you to write, and can you say something about how that structure emerged?
Gina Frangello: Well, my official answer is that the novel took three and a half years to write. But the behind the scenes answer is that the earliest kernels of what made it into A Life in Men come from work I had started between 1989-1991, when I was living in London and then had just returned to the States, and I began trying to write short fiction about very autobiographical experiences I’d had there, such as living in Arthog House in London in 1990, the same house that appears in the novel’s second chapter, “The House of Reinvention,” and about traveling in Greece with my friend Amy in 1989 and being quasi-kidnapped (I talk about that on BuzzFeed, here) by a couple of psycho pilots. These were two separate stories and both were abandoned long before I ever “decided to be a writer” and began grad school in 1994, and they were forgotten for many years. But later, in 2007 or so, I was playing with the London short story hoping to turn it into something I could send out for publication, and I suddenly broke from the autobiographical mode the piece had been in and gave my protagonist cystic fibrosis, and the story cracked wide open for me—so wide that I fell so far into it I knew I wouldn’t be able to climb out without a novel. Then, in 2010, after the entire novel was written and my then-agent was beginning to shop it, I spent a month in Kenya and came home and rewrote the entire 400+ page monster in a couple of months, changing almost everything about the structure. I broke up what had been one long Greece chapter into an episodic parallel narrative. I added Kenya to the early parts of the novel and then changed everything that came after it. I think the only real answer to your question is that it took a damn long time to write and the structure emerged…slowly.
Elissa Wald: Something I thought the novel illuminated beautifully: I think for people who are very conscious of life’s brevity and their own mortality, there’s a tension between the drive to experience as much adventure and pleasure as possible, and the desire to make some kind of serious contribution, leave a mark. Often these impulses are in direct opposition to each other: to get great at something, execute a vision, usually requires a huge sacrifice of time, something in short supply for Mary and others in her situation. At one point in the book, she runs through a dazzling checklist of all she’s experienced, and at another point she says: “I should have done something… I haven’t made any impact. I drink mint tea and buy carpets. It’s all been meaningless and now it’s all going to be over.” I was trying to understand what drew her to Kenneth and thought part of it might be this shared pursuit of instant gratification at the expense of any long-term investments. Do you think there’s anything to that?
Gina Frangello: I do think there’s something to it, though I also think Mary has a lot more traditional long-term investments than she gives herself credit for. Not everyone can go launch a school for girls in Afghanistan, but Mary isn’t…well, she isn’t really the way she describes herself, either—she isn’t always a reliable reporter of her own identity, which I think is true for so many people. In truth, she is a character who manages to get a graduate degree in education despite having a time-consuming and very serious illness, and she has a teaching career from her mid-20s through her early 30s, at both the university and high school level. She writes and receives a grant to aid her Somali students; she teaches high school English for years; she also has a marriage that, while not 100% honest, lasts until her death. Her life is extremely different from Kenneth’s, and that’s as much a part of what draws her to him as anything else. She also longs, for much of the novel, to have a child, but is prevented by various obstacles, initially not to do with her CF but then later because of her worsening condition, and in this way she is also denied an opportunity to…well, perhaps to have the most common “long term investment” sought by human beings, which is the investment in that continuing cycle of life through family. So I think the answer is yes and no. Mary is very drawn to living as large a life as humanly possible within her constraints of both physical ability and time…and that desire, to cram an entire lifetime of experience in to essentially just over ten years of adulthood…is at odds, yes, with the idea of long term investment and the nurturing of time and energy and focus it takes to leave a mark outside oneself. She behaves in ways that can be selfish and dishonest in the pursuit of her own large canvas, and she uses her illness and limited time as an “excuse” at times for not having to heed the feelings of others or the standards others might set for their own integrity. And I think Kenneth understands this, and sees and recognizes it, and doesn’t judge it and isn’t repelled by it, and she is able to show him that face. She’s able to find honesty even when she’s unpalatable, and she is trusted to make her own decisions even when they aren’t according to conventional wisdom or safety. There is something deeply unconditional in their bond that can be truly hard for adults—even ones who lead much more “typical” lives than Mary and Kenneth—to find. But I think Mary is wrong that she doesn’t make a mark. She leaves a mark on many people, such as Leo and Sandor, and while that’s on a smaller scale I don’t hold that to be remotely without value. Most of us do not choose to “save the world.” Even if we aren’t dying young or we aren’t junkies. For most of us, our human relationships are what will ultimately define our mark, and in that way I think Mary ultimately realizes her life has been richer than she gave it credit for being.
EW: Mary’s final emails to Geoff seemed to me a kind of parallel to the ones Nix sent to Mary after Mykonos: insistently superficial, evasive, generic, maddening. There’s this love for the recipient but a secret so huge (in Mary’s case: Kenneth and her intention to die away from home) it completely removes the possibility of intimacy. Was this a deliberate reprise?
GF: Not exactly—I mean—wow, I love this. You’re right! It was intentional in the sense that yes, Mary’s emails were supposed to be…evasive and superficial and fundamentally dishonest, yes! But I had never realized until this moment that she was writing these letters leading up to her death, full of lies, just the same way Nix had been to her. I can’t believe I didn’t see that, but it’s true. The parallel was wholly unintentional. God—I love hearing something new about my own novel this way! Thank you.
EW: Another theme I thought A Life explored very poignantly is this notion that your relationship with another person doesn’t end with their death. In the above-mentioned missives, there’s something so bittersweet about the writers’ desire to protect their loved ones. This impulse forecloses the possibility of real intimacy in the moment, but the luxury of life’s continuous unfolding can (and does, for Mary at least) ultimately yield a sense of deferred and deepened intimacy, experienced by the survivor. Can this one-sided evolution rightly be called a relationship?
GF: Yes…I mean…one of the things I was most intent on exploring in the novel is the ways in which “protection” precludes real intimacy. I’m fascinated by that. I’m fascinated by the way that the most altruistic kinds of love often distance us from the beloved, and prohibit us from being truly known and understood. I think for example that this is the case in many parent/child relationships, where the parent’s desire to protect the child also makes the parent in some way a fundamentally unknowable shell, loving and protective but artificial and somehow distant. And many kids—and adult children—have a lifelong journey of “discovering” who their parents “really were,” including after their parents’ deaths, that isn’t in some ways different from what happens with Mary and Nix, even though they’re peers and their situation—the necessity of protection and dishonesty—is more dramatic and rare than a more typical parent/child dynamic. But I think this dynamic can carry over into many types of relationships, between siblings or friends or lovers. There is a ruthlessness implicit in really hardcore intimacy. There is almost an unwillingness to protect, or a sacrifice of protection for the sake of being fully seen and known. How do we walk that line, you know? How can we be fully known and yet still protective? Where is the balance? For some people, such as Mary, that has to involve two different men. For Nix, it has to involve lying to Mary about their largest shared experience. But yes, I think relationships quite often continue beyond the death of one party. I don’t have any sort of faith in life after death, so I suppose “relationship” may not be the exact word, as only one party can continue to grow and understand and change…yet maybe a relationship itself continues to evolve, as long as either party is there to perceive it and rework it.
EW: Part of what made Mary brilliant as a character is that she is both survivor and someone who is survived. To me, she’s a reflection of all of us: while we’re living, we’re dying, and even those among us who are the most visibly dying are also living. Mary survives Nix and she is survived by her loved ones. Was this pretty-much-universal duality a conscious theme for you as you were writing the book?
GF: Yes. It was extremely important to me that Mary not be somehow a cipher for Tragedy in the novel, if that makes sense. Tragedy is cheap, even as it is unspeakably potent in individual lives. Dying young women still outlive millions of other people on the planet, who die in acts of violence, natural disasters, starvation, you name it. A Life in Men isn’t an overtly political novel—Mary and Nix are not political characters—but I didn’t want a sense of insularity to Mary’s looming expiration date, or a sense of her somehow being singularly tragic and important or something. I wanted her to survive and be survived by, and for a sense of that cycle—interpersonally and globally—to exist. People are not either Tragic or Normal, and we don’t either Live or Die. We are all dying, of course. We all also are (or most of us are—most people who are buying and reading a novel, let’s say) lucky compared to someone else. It’s all a chaotic continuum. Partially that can be measured in time/years, but it’s also about various ways we quantify the impact of a life, which is partially quantified in terms of what we experience, and partially quantified in terms of how others experience us. I wanted Mary to be part of a system, absolutely, not some focal point…you know…like, get the tissues, here is the tragic damsel who has it so much worse than everyone else, or to buy into the concept that some bad dose of luck makes a character noble, either.
EW: Yet another aspect of the novel I deeply appreciated was this thread of American exploitation that seemed to run through the book: American entitlement, American appropriation of other cultures, the foreign experience as a trophy on the American mantle. And something I saw as incredibly brave of you as the author was the juxtaposition of this attitude on the part of Nix with the assault she suffers as a direct result. She enters the bar with the explicit intent to use these men for Mary’s benefit. If it weren’t these two men, it would have been another pair or yet another: there’s the implication that they’re interchangeable. She ponders whether she’ll “take” the hotter of the two men and decides to “give” him to Mary. She thinks nothing of stringing the sidekick along; she holds up her glass peremptorily in the expectation that he’ll pay for her ongoing drinks; she seems to have no doubt that she’s in control of the situation. When it backfires so terribly, there’s this feeling that it’s a kind of cautionary tale, and to me that felt risky. Did it feel risky to you?
GF: I think it’s always risky to depict violence against women in any situation wherein it has been acknowledged that the woman was not a “saint,” because our culture (by which I mean human culture) has a deeply ingrained desire to believe that somehow only certain “types” of women will be targets of violence and that, if we can suppose this is true, those women also somehow court or deserve it, as though violence is the natural outcome of being stupid or being adventurous or being careless or being promiscuous (whatever that means in a given slice of our human culture) or even being an asshole. We tell ourselves stories in which people earn violence. In which violence is the logical outcome, which I think is fundamentally a false paradigm that always favors the violent, and somehow casts them in the role of the oppressed. So that’s one thing. And yet I think most writers—certainly of books I want to read—are also not interested in portraying saints or hapless victims, even if that person is raped or abused or something. Agency is important to a character and to the complexity of a story and to the reader being able to contribute to a story and interpret it, rather than just being hammered over the head with a message or a point. So I think the answer to this exists in a couple of parts for me. The first is that yes, like many people who have traveled, I am in fact quite interested in American entitlement, exploitation and appropriation, of which I am very much—as an American and a traveler and someone who has spent money in cultures where most people have far less money—a part, while also being creeped out by that, which is of course not mutually exclusive and often feels…icky and hopeless, because—well, there is no clean answer or way to extricate oneself. American privilege is such a deep thing that even sometimes those people who selflessly try to “do good” can never fully understand the culture they seek to “help” and are presuming some level of superiority or some greater wisdom or preferable lifestyle to impart, and may do more harm than good, so even the most generous and selfless among us are on sticky, shifting ground—nobody knows what the fuck to think or do. If we scream about how wrong it is to cut off the clits of nine year old girls in some village on another continent, we will be accused of one thing, and if we excuse such things in the name of culture or religion, we will be accused of yet another thing, and if we simply ignore the whole damn thing and go on safari and take pictures of animals, we are of course guilty of some whole other thing entirely. And Nix is part of that. She wants pleasure and experience and thinks very much that it is all hers for the taking. Yet I do want to back up. Because while I don’t disagree with you on any of that, I think Nix’s entitlement is also about youth and the culture of female beauty and sexuality that has been shoved down her throat. Zorg and Titus aren’t exactly some underprivileged victims of American entitlement in any clean way either. They are older than Nix; they are educated and have access to cars and beautiful villas and are presumably employed as airline pilots and go all over the world. So while those topics all interest me, I absolutely did not in any way intend for Nix to represent American decadence and for Zorg and Titus to be the cautionary tale of what it reaps when you cross those you oppress or something. Western entitlement and the entitlement of affluence also play complex roles that aren’t mutually exclusive from American exploitation. Gender is also our first and primal binary. I intended Nix to have greatly misread her power, yes. To have mistaken a global obsession with female beauty, with youth, and perhaps even with Americanism, with the dubious fact that because one individual is in possession of those things, it makes that person powerful, and means she holds any cards. Almost every young woman on the planet who lives in a culture where young women are let out of the house without chaperones has, in some manner, played with the fire of the myth of female power at some point or other, and most—luckily and because most men are not in fact violent or sociopathic—escape this experimentation relatively unscathed. Some don’t. This is not just true for American women, clearly, nor is it only true for American women hoping to “use” foreign men. Men and women who live in and hail from the same cities, towns, nations, attempt to use one another everyday and try to jockey with one another for power. So while I think the issue of American entitlement is a deeply fascinating one and one I sought to explore in some ways in the novel, I did not intend Nix to in any way embody that entire system, especially as if she did, she would simultaneously also embody so many other systems of power and exploitation that are about more than the United States.
EW: Thank you so much for talking with me in such depth about A Life In Men. I hope any readers who haven’t yet read it will not deprive themselves any longer. In the meantime, is anything new in the works? What’s ahead for you?
GF: I’m currently most of the way through a draft of a new novel, called Every Kind of Wanting, which explores the dynamics, relationships and unexpected dramas surrounding longtime couple, Chad and Miguel’s, efforts to have a baby through a gestational surrogacy. Though the novel is framed by the nine months of the pregnancy, it also reaches back 30 years, to Miguel’s childhood in Venezuela and the unsolved murder of his father and mysteries surrounding the birth of his younger sister. I’m hoping to be completely ready to turn this thing over to my agent by September, but in the meanwhile I still have a lot of travel on my plate this summer, including Queretaro, Mexico, which as you know figures in A Life in Men, and which happens to be the location of an intimate, spectacular little writing program I run every year (www.othervoicesqueretaro.com). We kick off June 27, so if you want to come, hurry up!
Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane and the founder of The Manifest-Station. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. She’s currently finishing her first book Beauty Hunting. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor and another writing retreat to Vermont with bestselling author Emily Rapp. Check out her site jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up: Los Angeles, Seattle, London, Atlanta, South Dakota, Dallas. Find her on twitter at @jenpastiloff.