Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The sublime Gina Frangello talks about her devastatingly great novel A Life in Men, how illness defines us, how others save us, and so much more

If you had to choose one person to hang out with over a glass of wine, you'd want to hang with Gina. Funny, smart and warm, Gina's also something of a genius writer. When A Life in Men came through my door, it was one of those books that literally changed my life. About two friends, about illness and what it does to us and to others, about memory and how we choose to live our lives, this extraordinary novel is unlike anything I've read before.

Gina's the Sunday editor for The Rumpus and the fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown, and is on faculty at UCR-Palm Desert's low residency MFA program in Creative Writing. The longtime Executive Editor of Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books, she now runs Other Voices QuerĂ©taro, an international writing program.

And On February 11, at 7, Brooklyn's fabulous Word Bookstore, I will be interviewing Gina and Rob Roberge. Come see us if you can!

And Gina, as always, thank you. For this, and for everything else.

I always ask, what sparked this book?

It’s strange what a hard question something this basic can be—which I’m sure you well understand.  The most direct answer is that the novel was inspired by a college friend of mine, with whom I briefly lived in London in 1989, who had Cystic Fibrosis, as Mary does in the novel, and who was then—and became even more so—an avid traveler despite the very real challenges of her disease.  I found her a deeply inspirational person, in a very non-cheesy, anti-Hallmark kind of way: she was bold and funny and irreverent as hell and wild to the point of at times seeming a bit reckless, or at least impulsive.  We were close briefly, and I saw her only a couple of times in the next ten years before she died when we were 30.  She was at that time living in Jordan among the Bedouin people, while pursuing a degree in cultural anthropology.  I had a kind of short-lived sentimental obsession with the idea that I should write her biography, and even wrote her mother (who probably had no idea who I even was) a letter about it.  It was sort of a crazy idea.  I had never published a book and nonfiction was not my area and in reality I barely knew this woman as an adult…we had lived and traveled together for a few months when we were both very young, and the gulf between 20 and 30 is a wide one, and whoever she had become in that period was not someone I had any claims on.  Anyway, that idea quickly dwindled.  I went on to write several other books—all fiction—and two of them were published.  Then one day I was writing a short story inspired by a place I had lived and worked in London the year after studying abroad, and out of nowhere I gave the main female character, who was actually based…well, on me, cystic fibrosis.  My friend who had CF never lived in that house or known the men the other characters were inspired by—she and I were not even in touch at the time.  But it became clear to me that the ways she had inspired me were still…at work, I guess.  And suddenly A Life in Men was off and running, not attempting to be true or factual to its inspirations but becoming solely a work of fiction.

This novel is so multi-layered and so ambitious--and also so totally harrowing, moving and alive. I’m wondering about your whole writing process, so please spill the beans. Did you map it out ahead of time? How did it morph and change through the writing, and what surprised you about the book? What did you discover that you didn’t know before? And were you scared writing?

I never outline short stories but I do always have an outline for novels by the time I hit a certain stage in the writing—and of course the outline always ends up changing by the very end.  Two major changes completely upended this novel during the course of the writing.  The first was that initially, the character of Nix, Mary’s best friend, was going to appear only in the first chapter—the Greece chapter—and the entire “truth” of what happens to Nix and how it impacts Mary was all revealed in the first 30 or so pages of the novel.  But after initially writing it that way and my former agent even approving that and beginning to shop it, I realized that I needed Nix’s presence threaded more throughout the entire novel, and for Mary’s revelations about what occurred and what their friendship had meant in her life to be more gradual and to serve as echoes for the events of Mary’s own life, as she moved into true adulthood.  So I broke that chapter up—expanding and changing it a great deal in the process—and ended up creating kind of a dual narrative where Nix’s story, though much shorter than Mary’s in pages, threads throughout the entire text too.  The other major change, which happened around the same time, was that I spent a month in Kenya thanks to Summer Literary Seminars, because Mary Gaitskill (whose work I worship) chose me as the winner of their fiction contest and that got me sent to their Kenya seminar all expenses paid, and then prompted me to travel within Kenya once I was there.  I came back from Kenya basically…well, knowing that Mary had been there, and that I had to include that part of her story.  The Kenya chapter became the second chapter of the novel, and necessitated, in a radical way, a revision of all of the other chapters.  Which, yes, was terrifying.  As an editor, I’ve seen that sometimes writers don’t know when to let a project go, to surrender and trust that something is done, so I wondered whether I was in fact fixing something that wasn’t broken and if I would consequently ruin everything.  But ultimately I believed so strongly in the new direction that I would not have wanted the previous version published anymore, so I really had no choice. 

So much of your novel for me was about the people who save us, in both friendship and love or just in experience; the people we want to save us; and the ways we can try to save ourselves. Would you talk about that, please?

I both love that you asked this question, because there is nothing in the world more interesting to me or that I would more like to talk about, and yet I’m horrified that you asked this question, because it’s a deeply difficult thing for me to try to articulate.  I think the most accurate thing I can say on this front is that I have something of an obsession with the ways in which people love and save one another, and how that doesn’t always look the way we are told it should.  But that sounds more general than I mean it.  Here is what I mean: I think in life, unconditional love and a kind of primal recognition are about the hardest things to find.  I believe that most lucky people are able to experience love and a certain level of intimacy, but that even this being true, many people also go through life feeling fundamentally alone and misunderstood, even if they have best friends and siblings and spouses and decent relationships with their parents and whatnot. 

It seems to me that many people feel, perhaps without even consciously realizing it, that a certain amount of loneliness is simply the human condition, or that there is a core of ourselves that we would be less loved, less approved of, less embraced if we revealed fully, even to ourselves.  Some people, like Yank in the novel, have very dramatic secrets and guilts, or past traumas like what happened to Joshua in South Africa or Nix in Greece, whereas other people simply feel that somehow the “essence” of them is not quite as good as what they are performing for the world, even if they can’t place why this is so and are not explicitly hiding anything concrete and haven’t committed any crimes.  There can simply be a great deal of disconnect between the level of intimacy we would like to feel with others versus what we really do feel, even in very close, loving relationships.  And we are all told relentlessly in this culture about how no one else can “save” us, and this is…well, frighteningly true on one level. I mean, no one can be saved, or experience true intimacy, if they insist on coming at the world from a place of self-loathing and alienation and victimization and viewing people as fundamentally Other from themselves.  No one can be dragged into a state of peace or self-acceptance.  And yet, without an intersection with others, saving and loving oneself would be nothing but a lonely business.  That intersection of what it is to do this for ourselves juxtaposed with what it is to fully trust, to stop performing what we think the “best version” of ourselves is, to let other people really see and know us—I feel like there is a level of trust or recognition that can happen between people that can almost shock the human system and rewire it, and that fascinates me.  I believe that when these connections happen, it gives self-saving a new meaning.  I’m not sure this was very comprehensible or articulate, because like most things that mean a great deal, it’s very hard to express cleanly.  And yet, it’s really for me what the entire novel is about.

Tell me about the title. It works perfectly and yet it’s so evocative.

The title has a couple of functions, really.  On the one hand, Mary’s relationship with Nix, as a kind of absent presence, is so psychologically dominant for her through much of the novel that the title is almost ironic, because the relationship in Mary’s life that impacts her the longest and the most is with another woman.  Mary also spends much of the novel pining for and imagining her biological mother.  And yet in a sense, because of the dominance these two absent-women have in her psyche, she is not terribly good at letting other, real-life women in, including her adoptive mother, but also other potential female friends over the years.  Consequently, she is far more comfortable and unguarded with men, and her life, on the surface, seems entirely shaped by her relationships with the men she encounters, whether familial like Leo and Daniel, or her husband Geoff, or friends like Sandor, or lovers like Joshua and Eli, or those like Yank who straddle a line between many of these things.  Mary is a collector of experiences, very volitionally, and in her early years men like Joshua and Eli are almost, for her, like collecting new countries.  By the end of the novel, the men of her life serve very different roles and functions than in the beginning.  By the end, she has come to both understand Nix more and yet to have outgrown her dependency on that phantom relationship, and to have forged more intense intimacies with men who really know her on a level she and Nix never allowed themselves to be known by one another—for noble reasons, probably, out of a desire to protect one another, yet that kept them as distinct islands regardless.

There is a thread about terrorism that runs through the book, but you touch on many different types of terrors that people live with, as well.  The terror of a life not lived well. The terror of losing a friend. The terror of illness. Do you feel that human connection can save us?

I probably said quite enough earlier in terms of my thoughts about the nature of how we save ourselves and each other through connection, but I guess here, in terms of the way we process danger—because, I mean, life is danger, right?—I would add that human connection is all that can save us.   Mary’s life is impacted by many terrifying forces, whether it’s the Lockerbie Disaster or the threat from inside her own body, at work in her genetics, in her lungs.  But of course, every body on the planet is born to eventually break down and die.  Whether we never survive childhood or whether we live to be 90, no one gets out of Life alive.  Whether we live through the extremity of genocide or a holocaust or a 9/11 or losing a child, or whether we simply face the more “ordinary” tragedies of caring for our dying parents and losing some of our friends in middle age to cancer or accidents, excruciatingly painful loss is a fundamental part of the human experience.  Everyday life includes war waging somewhere and earthquakes and tsunamis, and even the safest and most fortunate life on the planet ends with death and loved ones left behind grieving…I mean, it’s hard to understand, existentially, what it’s all about, and probably there is no answer to that question, there is no ultimate Meaning or Purpose.  But the moments that transcend fear or that make loss bearable are all about human connection.  A lot of people have experienced moments of such complete love and happiness and connection that they have felt variations on “If the world exploded right now—if the walls fell down—if my heart stopped beating—I would die perfectly happy and I have had enough.”  Those moments are almost always inextricably linked to connection and love.  If there could be a “why” in terms of why we live and why it matters, I cannot really imagine what else on earth it would be. 

The novel also brilliantly captures what it’s like to be young and out in the world and unaware of the dangers, even though they are very, very present for both Nix and Mary. One of the passages that really undid me comes at the end when Mary is reflecting, in the midst of tragedy, on what a lucky life she’s had, and it was at this point, I felt she was truly an adult. Actually, a lot of the characters have this hard-won knowledge at the end, coming at a time where they can’t really use it anymore, but it’s still incredibly valuable to them because it shapes their lives. Can you talk about this, too?

I believe strongly that a great deal of both luck and happiness lies in perception. Take a look at my essay  This Is Happiness” from The Nervous Breakdown.  I mean, I want to be clear about this in that I feel very cognizant of the fact that there are a lot of people in the world whose levels of just being dealt a shitty hand are so astronomical that “perception” would be a ridiculous and privileged way to frame it—no one is going to tell someone who, for example, is watching their children waste away with hunger that they should get their ass in gear about “perception.”  And yet that said, there is something I have long found deeply objectionable about certain “entitled” aspects of the American consciousness that pushes people—especially those of us who are educated and have enough money to live comfortably—to believe that somehow perfect health and the attainment of all our goals and living to be eighty-five is, like, our birthright or something. 

The truth is that illness and struggle are intrinsic parts of life and that no one is entitled to have it easy as some natural order of the universe.  In the late 90s I was chronically ill with a pain condition for three years—it was one of the darkest periods of my life, maybe the darkest, really, because when you’re in extreme bodily pain all the time it’s very hard to access other kinds of joy over achievements and relationships.  Yet it was also desperately important to me to understand, fully, that this shit just happens.  Like that it wasn’t the world somehow singling me out and screwing me over.  It’s not a “why me?” situation.  It’s not a Somehow-The-World-Would-Be-A-More-Fair-Place-If-This-Happened-To-Someone-Who-Was-Not-Me situation.  I’ve always been kind of shocked by that phenomenon, you know, when someone is devoutly religious and then their wife gets in a car crash and dies, and suddenly that person is shaking their fist and saying, “How can God allow these unfair things to happen?”  Like they had never heard of the Holocaust or no one else’s wife ever died.  If your world view and perspective is contingent on the world having to be “fair” to you amidst the wider chaos of other people’s misfortunes…I mean, it’s a recipe for misery and stagnation.  Life is very difficult.  Even the easiest of lives is full of challenges. 

There is virtually no horrible thing that can possibly happen to you that has not happened to thousands or millions of other people throughout history.  Tragedy can be horrifyingly impersonal.  It is impossible to make sense of it.  And yet life can be blindingly beautiful, too.  Almost no one wants it to end.  We humans love it—we cherish it.

Perspective matters.  Mary is born with a life-shortening illness.  Some genuinely awful things also happen to Nix, that are even more violent and disturbing than being terminally ill.  It would be very “easy” to see either of these women as victims of a bad fate or unlucky circumstance.  And yet to see your own life that way is to guarantee your life being unsatisfying.  It is to guarantee that what time you have, however long, will be full of thrashing anguish and unfulfilling and full of feeling cheated and frightened and enraged at what “should” have been yours.  It felt incredibly important to me that both Mary and Nix, in their separate ways, would come to a place of being able to choose love and joy over bitterness and victimization.  Nix writes in her letters that for her this is not about some Buddhist notion of detachment or emptying herself of desire—she is someone who desires profoundly, as does Mary.  They don’t achieve acceptance by distancing themselves from their feelings or their own stories or the scale of their lives, but by the exact opposite, if that makes sense.  Both Mary and Nix, separately, ultimately come to a place where they desire joy more than they desire bitterness or self-pity or score-keeping.  It turns out to be, for both, very late in their short lives…but I would say that it is not at all too late.  I think it’s never too late.

Mary struggles with being chronically ill, hiding it, while trying to gulp down the life she does have. As someone who survived a critical illness for a year, I have to say, you got this so, so exactly right. What was your research for this like? How did you know what you know to put into the book? 

I read a lot of books about cystic fibrosis, of course, and a lot of blogs and things like that, but honestly this part of the novel, psychologically, comes much more from a very close woman friend of mine who had—and survived—cancer twice in high school, and who almost never admits to anyone, even now, that she was ever ill because of the fear of being seen differently, and pitied or treated awkwardly or with kid gloves.  Also, when I was in chronic pain for three years, where every single day was kind of an unremitting physical struggle, it very quickly became exhausting to me to be asked “how are you feeling?” by well meaning people, because the answer was never what they hoped to hear or what I wanted to say and was never new.  I learned very quickly to hide how badly I was feeling if I wanted to be able to interact with people about anything that was remotely compelling or interesting to them or to me, because illness and pain are, while brutal and horrible, also in some ways relentlessly boring.  No one wants to be defined by having to talk to their friends and lovers and colleagues as though they’re at a doctor’s check up.  People who live with their illnesses every single day are often sick of the way illness dominates.  When Mary goes to London and takes Nix’s name and doesn’t tell anyone she meets that she has CF, she is hoping…well, she is hoping for reinvention and escape, not so much because then she can believe she isn’t dying, but because then it might be possible for her to live as though she isn’t just in some suspended animation or Waiting Mode, but as though things are possible for her.  And what she finds, oddly, is that of course they are.  That all any of us has is this moment, this day.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I’m working on a new novel called Every Kind of Wanting, which is about two gay men who decide to become parents and pursue a gestational surrogacy…but that’s just part of where the novel goes.  It spans thirty years and parts take place in Venezuela and other parts in Chicago, on Beaver Island in upper Michigan…it’s about family secrets, and about losing and finding various forms of desire, and about birth and the body and death and the things we carry, because all books I want to read are about all of those things.  Like A Life in Men, it has multiple points of view, and unlike A Life in Men maybe it doesn’t have a “protagonist” in a traditional sense but is a true ensemble piece, which is different for me.  It is also, in my own admittedly weird opinion, very funny.  It’s goofier than other books I’ve written, even though parts are serious or even dark.

And if you asked me anything else, your audience would kill you, as clearly I never shut up.

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