Sunday, May 2, 2010

Read this Book: Slut Lullabies by Gina Frangello






Gina Frangello is the author of the critically acclaimed novel My Sister's Continent. She's the executive editor and co-founder of Other Voices Books, and the editor of the fiction section at The Nervous Breakdown. She's also one of the funniest people on the planet. Thank you so much, Gina for answering all my questions.

First, let’s talk about the title, Slut Lullabies, which conveys a mix of shock with tenderness. How did you come up with that title and how do you feel that it evokes the stories?

I’m almost not sure how to answer in terms of the mixture of shock and tenderness, because there’s too much I want to say about that. That, right there, conveys just about everything I’m trying to do with my work. Not “shock” per se, but the juxtaposition between violence and tenderness, ugliness and beauty, exploitation and empowerment, victims and perpetrators—all those lines that, in my view, are entirely too black and white in most narratives, not just in books of course but in film, in all media. Whereas the blurring of those lines is what interests me. The being both things at once. The contradiction or ambiguity, and the way one thing doesn’t erase the other but heightens it. Like, I recently read on Facebook a comment someone made that I had “reclaimed” the word slut, and I like that, I’m certainly for the reclaiming of words that have been used to oppress women or racial groups, but I don’t mean to redefine slut or reclaim it so much as I mean to evoke all its many truths simultaneously.Slut can be a fun word, a girl-power word about freedom and lust and gratification and self-ownership . . . but it can also be a very harsh word, not only in terms of judgments made by others but in terms of practical reality. Sometimes being a “slut” is no fun at all.Sometimes it really is ugly, and powerless, and desperate, and unsatisfying or even violent.Sometimes it can be all of those things at different times for the same woman, in the same life.There is rarely one Truth; there’s only one truth at a time.I feel very tenderly towards contradictions.

The actual title “Slut Lullabies” came to me once in a hotel room and obsessed me for at least five years before I wrote the title story of my collection.It was one of those jarring moments when a phrase comes to you and just sinks in its hooks. I didn’t know what the title meant at the time—what the lullabies themselves were going to be. My original concept was quite different, in that my first idea for a story by that name was about a young mom who had lied to her husband about her sexual past, and now found herself trapped, in a sense, in her new identity, and increasingly aware that the person she was pretending to be—the role model she was providing her children—was not really “her,” not just sexually but on any level . . . that she was acting, playing a part, and in a sense there was offering up her children an artificial person with whom to bond. I may write that story someday, but now it will have to have a different title. “Slut Lullabies” became something else—the story of Emily and her dying mother, a former party girl divorcee. In both contexts, “lullabies” was tied in with the intersection of sexuality and mothering, though. In the first story, it would have been more literal.The later context—the sounds of Emily’s mother’s bed banging against the shared wall of their respective bedrooms while her mother slept with various neighborhood men, and that sound being the “lullaby” of Emily’s youth—is very different, more loose and metaphorical, which appeals to me more.

You’ve written both a novel and short stories. Is the process different for you, and which do you prefer and why?

I have actually written four novels—not including the ones I wrote prior to the age of eighteen—it’s just that only one,My Sister’s Continent, is already published. Another,London Calling, which was actually the first one I wrote chronologically, is coming out next year, and my most recent novel, A Life in Men, is being shopped by my agent Ellen Levine right now. Another is in a drawer, so to speak . . . which now means a computer file, of course. Hopefully not forever, but for now.

There is no question that the novel is the form that compels me most as a writer. Even my stories, as you’ve seen, tend to be on the long side, certainly for today’s trends of very short stories. I have spent the vast bulk of my life, since the age of 10, working on some novel or other. For me, short fiction is like a very intense but brief affair, whereas a novel is like a whole marriage, like having an entire family. There is no saying that one of these experiences is more powerful than the other in an absolute sense—we all know older, long-married people who look back on their lives and feel their most vibrant memories, or when they were most “alive,” was during some short affair in their youth. So I don’t doubt that there would be readers who feel that my short fiction is the thing that speaks to them most strongly among my work, or where they would find the most resonance. That is a subjective thing that is far beyond the hands of the writer.But for me, novel writing is my obsession.

The why of that is . . . complicated. Some of it has to do with the freedom to roam that a novel provides, whereas short fiction is so much about economy and choices. But it’s far more about how the duration of time it takes to complete a novel impacts a writer’s psyche, and the depth of how lost in that world the writer can get. Some of my short stories are written in a single sitting or a few days, whereas a novel might take me four years. Like many writers, I get a certain high, that writerly brand of runner’s endorphins, where I hit a certain stride in a novel and the lines of reality begin to blur for me, where I’m truly living in the pages, and a kind of perpetual buzz takes over. Most writers have been there, where you can’t eat or sleep and don’t answer your phone because the obsession is too strong. It’s like drugs or like the longest lovemaking session of your life, and it is damn hard to top. Novels just sustain that in a different way than short fiction can. Novels are dangerous for this reason; I think novels can be dangerous to a writer. This is why they’re so seductive.

What I loved is how you explore class and sex with such edginess. The surprises—in one story a girl blackmails her teacher to help her stepmother escape domestic violence, another wants a window washer to watch her having sex—are raw, unsettling and funny. I’ve seen reviews where you’ve been called a feminist writer, and I was wondering, given that you seem to target all genders, if you think that’s accurate and/or limiting.

This is a great question. This is a question I have always wanted to be asked. God, bear with me for a minute, because this is the kind of question you almost have to break down in pieces to get at, if you know what I mean. The first thing I want to say about all this is that it utterly freaks me out how successful the media has been at branding the word “feminist” to mean something that would not be of any interest to men or is anti-male. I am always amazed at how most of my twenty-two-year-old female students do not want to be labeled as “feminist” for fear that guys will think they’re vitriolic shrews who aren’t interested in sex—that only crunchy hippies with unshaven armpits and socks under their sensible sandals would want to be identified with feminism.The concept of feminist as an offensive and alienating word that is mutually exclusive with sexiness and pleasure stuns and concerns me really deeply. At its root, doesn’t feminist just mean—I mean really, at the most basic level—the belief that women should be afforded the same fundamental rights as men? Isn’t this something that most people . . . well, maybe I should say most people who read literary fiction at all . . . completely endorse already?There is almost nobody I associate with on a regular basis, male or female, whom I would not consider feminist in a basic philosophical outlook on life. The entire corporate publishing industry, as everybody knows, is virtually run by women editors and agents, and so is almost by definition a feminist industry.And yet perhaps no other industry is quite so absurd and strident about trying to label what “women” want, i.e. chick lit or celebrity memoirs, vs what male readers will not find palatable in literary women writers, i.e. don’t call them feminist or the men will run like hell.

I feel like this whole concept is a farce. If you break it down, most European countries, and certainly Blue State America, are already feminist entities. By that I do not mean that women are always fully actualized or have perfect lives . . . men don’t have perfect lives either.Feminist isn’t synonymous with Utopian, and I don’t mean that we don’t still need more women in the Senate or what have you.But I mean that in the world I inhabit, or probably anyone reading this inhabits, we all share basic belief systems about the validity of women’s intelligence and human rights, and yet somehow feminist is a dirty word, even in this kind of global community. It’s very silly.

There is no question that my work is extremely concerned with gender politics. Two of my favorite women writers are Mary Gaitskill and Margaret Atwood, both of whom are, of course, absolute masters of gender politics on the page. But their reputations are quite different. Atwood is thought of as an explicitly feminist writer, whereas Gaitskill seems to eschew gendered labels like that, or to have somehow transcended them. Why is this?Some of it may be generational.Atwood wrote some now-canonical second wave feminist fiction when it was cutting edge to do so—in the early 1970s—and that work may seem dated now. Gaitskill became known as a writer in the 90s, when the term postfeminist was all the rage in academia and the media alike. Both Atwood and Gaitskill write extremely complex characters of both genders, and play with both male and female points of view.Both are fundamentally far more interested in flawed, human characters than they are in easy saints or villains. Both deal with the way men and women grapple with each other—but also with many otherthings—in and out of the bedroom. Here I’m going to resort to a stereotype and even say that, stylistically, Atwood would seem to write fiction that appeals more to men because she tackles fantasy, distopia, sci-fi, whereas Gaitskill writes . . . and I’m using this term very ironically here . . . more “domestic” fiction, fiction about relationships, families, sexual mores, etc. Yet in fact, the exact opposite is true in terms of their readership. I know scads of men who worship Gaitskill’s work, whereas when I recently attended a Margaret Atwood reading in Chicago that was packed with hundreds of fans, maybe one-tenth of the audience was male, and they all seemed to be with their wives and girlfriends. I was really shocked. Atwood is a Booker Prize winner, and her new book is sci-fi, and she’s widely considered one of the best writers alive today by critics. So why aren’t men reading her more? I think that label, that simple generational label of her having been branded as a “feminist” writer, whereas Gaitskill came about late enough to avoid that label or has perhaps actively worked against being pigeonholed in that way, is the answer.

I’m, of course, not Atwood or Gaitskill. I have two books out with indie presses, and I am thrilled when anyone at all reads them! But I’m also very incredulous about whether a writer has to specifically avoid being labeled as feminist in order to attract male readers. If they do, then I guess I’m happy not to be more “famous” because I don’t think I’d be any good at that game. Yes, I very much want men to read my work. To be perfectly honest, the men I’ve met in the writing world have by and large been my biggest supporters—I do have some very strong women mentors, but coming up as a writer, it was male writers, professors, agents who took the most interest in what I was doing and with whom I formed very close bonds. Most of the blurbers for Slut Lullabies are male, and my editor, Bryan Tomasovich, is obviously a man. It would totally bum me out if guys thought they were not going to like this book because I am a “feminist writer.” That would be a great loss for me in terms of the connections I get to make with readers, because I think men are some of my best readers.

But this is just a branding issue.Whether critics call me a feminist writer, or whether I self-identify as one or not, on a strictly literal level of course I am one. To be honest, every writer I have ever read who has seemed relevant to me is a feminist to some extent, whether they label as such or not, including the men, including old guys like Milan Kundera, around whom many of the self-proclaimed feminists rally in despising—including Doctorow or Updike or Roth.Maybe this just has to do with how people are defining feminism. If the definition seems scary or alienating to them, or dated and irrelevant, or only applicable to a kind of politically correct, didactic writing, then maybe they just are not defining it in the right way.

I love your statement that writers are liars, gossips and thieves, which also seems to apply to your characters. Care to elaborate?

Yeah, I suppose all of humanity is constituted of gossips, liars and thieves, right? Writers are just foolish enough todocument ourselves as we gossip, lie and steal. We have to answer to all the people we condensed, morphed and approximated on the page.

My short fiction is much, much more based on real life situations than my novels tend to be, because there is less room in short fiction to spin a plot out into its own fully independent realm. Yet to admit that is risky, because then people sometimes think that everything is literally true.If that were the case the book would be a memoir—they sell better these days anyway than short story collections! Of course the truth is that even in creative nonfiction, memory is subjective, perspectives vary, and writers as divergent as Stephen Elliott and Pam Houston engage concepts like there being many aspects of memoirs that fall far outside the realm of fact checking. As a fiction writer, though, I don’t name names—I couldn’t since most of my characters are blends of a number of people along with fabrication. Very little in my fiction is literal, even when it’s autobiographical. Like many writers, I may take a kernel of an event or a fragment of a person, and begin weaving from there . . .

Still, for this book, I confess I’ve had to take a few friends to dinner and say, “Look, you need to read this story right now and if you want to yell at me, do it right here and now so we can get it out in the open.”Thus far, nobody has yelled, and people have been interested in the stories that were “about them,” and how the real and the fabricated intermingle, and how I’ve recast them or imagined alternate lives for them. What I’ve said to friends—and I mean this quite sincerely—is that if you recognize yourself at all in my work it’s a compliment because it means I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to decipher you, and something about you fascinated me.Honestly, I have probably spent way more time on you than you have on me in this case. So maybe it’s if you’re not in there that you should be miffed!

What do you look for when you’re looking at manuscripts? And does that impact your own writing?

I am not one of those writers who reads “everything” voraciously. I love to read, of course—nobody would work as an editor of a literary magazine for twelve years and then launch an indie book press if reading were not a major passion, since I’m certainly not in it for the money! But I’m a very picky reader. I find a lot of what I start to read dull. I am easily bored, so my single biggest requirement as a reader is that something actually grip me and punch me in the gut.Many things are competently written, with a decent plot, yet I feel indifferent to them; it’s too easy to walk away and put them down.

This is about character—about intimacy vs. distance. A lot of literary fiction seems, to me, to hold the reader at too great a polite distance from the characters. The prose is often beautiful, and the plot intellectually relevant, but I feel like I’m reading from behind a gauzy veil, where there is too much style over substance, or substance over heart. I think it goes without saying that I don’t mean heart in the sense of “sentimentality”—what I mean is that I want to be able to really get inside a character and touch their brain, swirl my fingers around in their blood, to put it bluntly. There’s this great Kundera quote that says, “Love is a constant interrogation.”Reading has to be like falling in love. You have to feel like you know a secret and are about to find out another. Like you understand something about the object of your love that nobody else knows. It has to feel intimate, and a little raw, and a little scary, for it to be worth the investment.

I talked about Mary Gaitskill earlier, and she’s brilliant at this. Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things made me feel like I was inside the characters’ skin in an entirely private world, even though it was told from an editorial omniscient, roving point of view. Roy’s prose is what I’d call “hot,” but Kundera can work that kind of magic too, laying people out bare for you without ever breaking the “cool” of his style of omniscient narration. You have to possess an exceptional talent to get a reader that close to your characters while also doing the kinds of stylistic gymnastics that Roy or Kundera undertake. It is no mean feat.

Probably the most intimate book I’ve ever read is probably E.L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel.That novel changed everything I believed about what novels could “do.” Two other really intimate novels, in entirely different veins, are Francesca Marciano’s Rules of the Wildand Kate Braverman’s Lithium for Medea. The writer has to be willing to really expose the characters, all their demons and selfishness and desires.When you read something like these novels, it’s hard to pick something else up without it feeling dry.

So I look for the same thing as an editor as I do as a reader, period. I want to be knocked on my ass. I want to feel like if some other editor published this instead of me, or if I had never found this book, my heart would be broken. I want to feel like the writer can read my mind, or better yet, make me feel like I am no longer in my own mind but inhabiting someone else’s whose thoughts are overriding mine. Other Voices Books specializes in short fiction, and I think great short stories are even harder to pull off than novels because you are allowed fewer missteps. A collection has to feel both continually fresh and yet resonantly cohesive, which can seem mutually exclusive but of course is not. A short story collection should feel perpetually electric, where each new piece offers an opportunity to give you a shock.

What’s obsessing you now in your work?

I’m a binge writer and right now I haven’t written new fiction in literally nine months.This sounds treasonous, I know. I’m supposed to say I get up every morning at four a.m. before my three kids are awake and I spend two hours at my computer no matter what, even if I only write thirteen words.But I don’t do that. Sometimes I don’t write for a year. I have three kids under the age of ten, no childcare other than the hours when they’re in school, and I run a book press, an online magazine (I’m the Fiction Editor of The Nervous Breakdown) and teach at two universities, plus I’m about to go on a book tour for Slut Lullabies. I have exactly thirty hours per week when my children are not all in the house, and my home office doesn’t have a door, and my husband works traditional hours and isn’t home until after six. On top of all that, I love to go to readings, to parties, to dinner; I travel a lot; I talk on the phone to friends almost as much as a high schooler; I volunteer at my kids’ school’s Green Committee and am running a 6th Grade Fiction Writing Residency in a Chicago Public School where there is very little creative writing offered. So my own writing just isn’t always the dominant thing in my life, and when it can’t be I tend to go cold turkey.

The thing is, if I let myself write, I won’t get anything else done. I can’t say, Okay I have an hour to write, and leave it at that. Though I sometimes wish I were, I’m just not built that way. When I’m working on something new, I will write twelve or fourteen hours a day if it is at all humanly possible. If I have to stop after four or five hours, I will write inside my head obsessively until my hands can get back on the keyboard. I manage not to starve my kids when I’m writing, but truthfully that is often about all I can manage other than the work—it becomes all-consuming. I know you can relate to this! Many writers can, though I guess not all: for some it seems more a practice and a discipline, not an obsession.

Right now, though, I am still coming down from A Life in Men. After finishing a novel, it’s common for me not to be able to write new material for at least half a year. A Life in Menhit me harder than any other novel I’ve ever written in terms of that mania that takes hold when I’m finishing a project.But I do have three other novels in my head now, starting to elbow each other for which will be the first to come out. I won’t know really until I get the chance to sit down after mySlut Lullabies tour is over and I have the physical and intellectual space to explore that in a real way. Then one of them will just claim dominance and that story will begin writing itself. Thinking about it makes me crave that—that energy and inspiration and possession—but it’ll be awhile yet.

What question should I be mortified I didn’t ask you?

Well, I live for the opportunity to pimp my Other Voices Books authors, so since you asked what you didn’t ask, I’ll gladly tell you about our new spring title, Currency by Zoe Zolbrod.Zoe and I will be touring together in Austin, New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle and a bunch of other places. Her novel is the inaugural title of OV’s Morgan Street International Novel Series, and it’s a sexy literary thriller about exotic animal trafficking, Southeast Asia, and a cross-cultural love affair between an American woman backpacker and a small-time Thai hustler called Piv. I first read a draft of this novel ten years ago, when I didn’t even run a book press and wasn’t publishing novels, and Piv got under my skin way back then—I couldn’t get him out of my head. He’s one of the most vibrant and memorable characters I’ve read in contemporary fiction, published or unpublished, and I’m so thrilled that Other Voices Books can be the one to bring him, and Zoe’s exhilarating debut novel, to the world.

3 comments:

Arnold said...

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Alena

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LitPark said...

I finished SLUT LULLABIES this weekend, and it's so rich in detail and in real, multi-layered emotions and relationships. I absolutely agree about the marriage of shock and tenderness, ugliness and beauty.

And if you'll indulge me, there were some lines I loved so much, they just kind of buzzed in my head even after I'd moved on to other stories...

"we spent most of our time in my bedroom playing elaborate imaginary games that involved things like Charlie's Angels living behind my wall and Marie Osmond secretly being my mother..."

"The last time I saw my dad beating Crystal she was two months pregnant..."

"plus, lots of ugly people are married and most married people are ugly. So she has no choice but to blame her personality..."

"Heaven's just a bunch of harps and junk. Nobody cool goes there. I'm going to be a Satanist so I can go to hell and see my dad..."

"I sent him a bottle of Chicago rain, and later, my dishwater-brown ponytail wrapped in a blue ribbon when I got my hair bobbed to surprise him. Alex acted pleased by my new hairdo, but George said the ponytail was creepy like Fatal Attraction and had scared his aunts, who apparently had no qualms about opening their seventeen-year-old nephew's mail."

Well done, both of you. And Gina, I'll see you at your Piano's reading.

Gina Frangello said...

Holy smoke, Sue--I am late coming to this comment but reading it now made my night! Nothing like being "quoted!" What a thrill. Can't wait to see you in NYC. And thanks again, Caroline, for having me on!