Monday, September 5, 2016
Surrogate families, surrogate mother, the bonds that break and tie. Gina Frangella talks about her masterpiece EVERY KIND OF WANTING
We live every day on top of fault lines, Nick—well, i don’t need to tell you that. What I mean is that maybe everybody does, at every moment, and it’s just that some people don’t hide it well—we wear visible rifts and fissures on our skin and in our eyes, in our disreputable professions and fringe lifestyles and mile-long medical charts. For others, the shifting plates are way below ground, biding time where no one can see them, everything on the surface Stepford-pretty while underneath, forces are brewing that can swallow entire cities whole.
I’m trying to wrap my head around what lies beneath. Around what people who are not like me might call the Truth. But for me, truth only ever slides around like the mercury from a broken thermometer, ricocheting around inside a white sink—truth offers two choices: touch it and be poisoned, or watch it wash down the drain.
(c) Counterpoint Books 2016, excerpt from Every Kind of Wanting, by Gina Frangello
This is a novel about how we matter to each other, and why, and to what end. At its center is the nervy and undeniable Lina—so lovely and yet so wounded—who lives out her life at the juncture of pain and desire. It is a labyrinthine story, complex, recursive, and crafted around the unflinchingly intimate honesty that marks everything Gina Frangello writes. WHAT A BRUTAL BOOK. WHAT A BEAUTIFUL BOOK."::JILL ALEXANDER ESSBAUM, NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF HAUSFRAU
No one, NO ONE, captures the urgency and heartbreak of the contemporary family, in all its complexity, better than Gina Frangello. GORGEOUSLY WRITTEN, SHARPLY OBSERVED, Every Kind of Wanting is the literary equivalent of a hand grenade. I loved it.”
::JOANNA RAKOFF, AUTHOR OF MY SALINGER YEAR
In Every Kind of Wanting, Gina Frangello unspools an EXQUISITELY LAYERED STORY about desire that takes us to astonishing heights and necessary depths. In a novel that is sensual, shocking, and wise, she delivers truth after truth about lust—whether for a lover, for a baby, for (in)fidelity, for hidden meaning, or, as she so powerfully redefines it, for love.”
::DYLAN LANDIS, AUTHOR OF RAINEY ROYAL
I can't remember when I first met Gina Frangello because it seems as though we grew up together, that we've always known each other. We went to a sweaty authors' party together. We sat in a bar and talked and I had the honor of interviewing her and the amazing Rob Roberge. We email and talk each other off the ledge. You'll want to read each of her brilliant novels: My Sister's Continent, Slut Lullabies, and My Life in Men--and especially Every Kind of Wanting, which is so smart, so rip-your-heart-out moving, so provocative, and so Gina. I'm thrilled to have her here and I'm thrilled to support her AND her wonderful publisher Counterpoint Books. Thank you Gina.
I always want to know: why this particular novel and why now? What obsessed you into writing it?
This is always such a hard question, because I’m a writer for whom novels tend to gestate as ideas for a long time—as long as a decade sometimes—before they start to explode out onto the page. The surface answer to this question is that my closest friends were involved in a gestational surrogacy like the one in Every Kind of Wanting, and that the situation was so complex and compelling that I decided to fictionalize it and turn it into a novel. But the truth is that that surrogacy happened nine years ago, and the things that made me finally write this particular novel probably aren’t about that central concept. My lifelong friend and emotional sister, Kathy, died of ovarian cancer in 2011, and her death influenced this novel in enormous ways—both in terms of the way cancer and mortality haunt the novel on a plot level, but also in terms of the way her death impacted me and upended my own life…and Every Kind of Wanting is very much a novel I wrote in the midst of being upended.
It’s strange and important to stipulate, though, that during the writing of it, I had no idea, really, how much the novel would come to parallel my own life. For example, though divorce looms heavily in the novel, at the time of its writing I had been married for more than 20 years—whereas by the time I was editing the novel for Counterpoint, I was myself in the midst of a divorce…as well as in the midst of chemotherapy. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2015, a couple of years after having written a novel haunted by cancer—I had no knowledge of my own illness when I began or even sold this book. My experiences became life imitating art, which is not uncommon for me or, I suspect, for most writers. The writing comes from a very deep place that sometimes knows things before we know them. That sounds more hoo-hoo than things I like to say about the writing process, but I’m forty-eight and I’ve discovered that for me this is simply true.
You've had a year that would upend anyone. I always believe that trauma of any kind cracks open our hearts and transforms us. How do you feel changed? Has it impacted your writing?
I’m not sure I can even speak coherently and intelligently about precisely how I’ve changed, because I don’t have the distance yet to know how things will gestate inside me over time and impact who I am. What I do know is that this has been the most crucible year (and a half) of my life. Specifically, from September 2015 until now, with the release of Every Kind of Wanting, my father—who lived downstairs from me and with whom I was extremely close—died after a decade of increased debilitation, during most of which I’d been his primary caregiver, and about a month later, what had been a fairly amicable, though still traumatic, separation with my ex-husband turned far more turbulent and contentious. By the day after Thanksgiving I had been diagnosed with cancer and around the New Year had a bilateral mastectomy that was supposed to take care of the problem, as I was very early stage, but genetic tests like the Oncotype DX and MammaPrint revealed that I was at a high risk of future metastasis and two oncologists recommended that I get chemo, which I had not anticipated at all and which, though I’m glad to have done it because I have three kids and am highly motivated to increase my chances of disease free survival, also almost killed me—after months of debilitating side effects, I ended up hospitalized with neutropenic fever after my final chemo, and had essentially no white blood cells or neutrophils and was in a quarantined room with its own self-circulating air system and on IV antibiotics used to treat the Plague…
Chemo was far more disruptive both emotionally and physically than the actual mastectomy had been, and the impact of it on my body lasted months after my final treatment. Although I now feel back to normal physically, and am cancer-free, and my divorce also ultimately came back from a brink and resolved in a civilized way in mediation…still, my emotional terrain is simply not in any way similar to what it was before these cumulative experiences. And during the same time period, my mother was also becoming increasingly disabled, and I’ve had financial imperatives that made working more hours and jobs necessary, when I was supposed to be “recovering” from cancer and many people around me kept stressing the importance of self-care and taking it easy. This fall, I’m teaching five classes at three different universities, releasing this book, serving as faculty editor for a magazine, writing and editing as much freelance as possible, and of course parenting my children, who have been a constant source of beauty and laughter to me and come above everything else in importance. But what I mean is that I have not, to be perfectly blunt, had a lot of time for self-care, and I won’t anytime soon. By the same token, to some degree even introspection has been a luxury lately that I haven’t been able to much afford. What I know is that I am still staggering out of a certain wreckage and that nothing is the same anymore. There is no way I could be the same writer, because I’m not the same person.
I can also say that starting from the time of my marital separation in early 2015, I had become committed to living a more radically honest life than I had been doing. I had become someone, over the course of many years, who had an extremely different private inner life from my public life or persona, even among those closest to me—I’m not proud of certain ways that manifested, and I had decided, well before the cancer, not to live that way anymore. To say that having a serious illness and body-changing surgeries and treatments reinforced that decision would be a vast understatement. Personal authenticity—which was always important to me in my writing—has become a governing principle in my lived life.
Every Kind of Wanting is about a complex group of people trying to have--and parent--a "community baby." So much of it is about desire, and yearning, and what we want, and what we're prepared to sacrifice to get it. Can you talk about this please?
I think for me the novel centered around a couple of emotional/psychological/philosophical issues, which had to do with who “owns” love—or rather whether other people are things to which we can be entitled or have ownership claims—and also the question of the continuum between selfishness and martyrdom, and the risks and costs and intoxications and rewards of various choices on that spectrum. I wanted to explore and interrogate love and desire in different forms: between parents and children at every age and stage of development, between longtime and compromised spouses, between clandestine new lovers, and even in friendships, which are underemphasized in much literature. I also wanted to look at how the impact of privilege, money, and various forms of identity politics may influence choices people feel able to make. I like your use of the word “desire,” because I think ultimately desire can be, as Buddhists claim, the source of all suffering, and yet it is also perhaps our most primal life force. I don’t mean only sexual desire, obviously—I mean that without desire, there is no love, there is no art, there is no social change. The ferocity of wanting propels the human race in both our most negative and positive ways.
I always love the complicated characters you create, which I believe takes a huge amount of craft. Want to tell us how you do it?
I’m very flattered by this question, but truly, writing character is the hardest thing to put into the language of craft. I love talking about craft when it comes to things like point of view—which I like to really experiment with in my work—but it’s much harder to articulate what makes a character truly breathe and come alive. I think it comes down to several craft issues, sure, but also to certain things that are unquantifiable.
For starters, I think writers need to resist all impulses to “prove moral points” through their characters or use characters as points of “instruction” to the reader. All characters should be flawed, should have independent and palpable stakes (i.e. not just be “foils” for other characters’ desires or obstacles) and should be individuals rather than “representations” of x or y “type” of person. So maybe we can all agree with these things on a craft level, sure. But that isn’t what makes a literary creation truly resonant and compelling and unforgettable…
When you look at a writer like Elena Ferrante, why is she simply better at character than most other writers, even brilliant ones? What is it that makes her explorations so much deeper? This kind of psychological depth is, I believe, what resonates with the public about Franzen’s work, too, despite other things about his writing that seems to annoy some readers, like a certain condescension. But he’s a genius at character development, and in the end, we all read to inhabit someone else’s skin for a while.
As a writer, I believe in trying to write from the inside out as much as possible. I believe in trying to get as close to the wire of a character’s demons and desires and joys and pains as possible, but in order to do that, I think a writer needs a certain amount of (what might seem “crazy” to a non-writer) obsession and a suspension of disbelief where she begins to believe her character is a real person, someone whose needs and psychology is as complex as her own, not just a vehicle for plot or the writer’s agenda. For me, the character has to become more real to me than the acquaintances and casual friends of my own life, and needs to become as intimate to me as a family member or a lover. I don’t think, Why would my character do this or that?—I think as the character, I guess like method acting, but it’s not as volitional, it’s almost…involuntary. But if a piece of fiction isn’t revealing more about a character than their therapist or best friend would know, then it probably isn’t doing its job. You can’t be afraid of showing something ugly. You can’t be afraid of what a character’s deepest places might reveal about you. You have to be loyal to them, above your own ego or even your own intellect, and in a sense that maybe that isn’t entirely about craft skills.
What's obsessing you now and why?
I’m teaching a class called “Women on the Edge” at Roosevelt University—it’s basically a survey of experimental or risky women’s writing from Modernism to now, and it’s allowing me to revisit some of the writers who have had truly primal influences on me, not just as a writer but as a woman. Kate Braverman, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Kathy Acker…it’s my dream class, really. I wish it could last about three years, because there are too many writers I can’t fit on the syllabus who are crucial parts of the conversation.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
You always ask the best questions. You ask all the questions that make me nervous to hit “send” because I feel like I probably said too much. But like with writing itself, if an interview doesn’t make the subject feel that way, then why do it?