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I Have a Character in My Head: Gina Frangello

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Writers On Writing

I Have a Character in My Head: Gina Frangello

Gina Frangello is the author of two critically-acclaimed books, the collection Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010), and the novel My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006.) She is also the co-founder and Executive Editor of the indie press Other Voices Books, now an imprint of Dzanc Books, and the Fiction Editor of the popular online literary collective The Nervous Breakdown. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in many lit mags and anthologies including Fence, Five Chapters, ACM, and Men in Bed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. She has contributed journalism, reviews, and creative nonfiction to The Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Reader. Gina teaches in the Fiction Department of Columbia College Chicago, and recently served as the faculty supervisor for TriQuarterly Online at Northwestern University. Stephen Elliot calls Slut Lullabies “beautiful, daring, triumphant.” Vanity Fair says, “Gina Frangello’s Slut Lullabies will seduce you.”

Michael Kimball: The first thing the reader notices about Slut Lullabies is the title, two words that seemingly don’t go together though they do have a nice acoustical resonance. How did you choose the title of that story as the title of the collection rather than, say, “The Marie Antoinette School of Economics”?

Gina Frangello: Well, the runner-up title was “Stalking God,” which is the final story in the collection. In the end, though, I thought about the various story titles—”Marie Antoinette” included—and realized that while aspects of those titles—religion, economics/class—are fairly important in the collection, the overwhelming theme of the book as a whole is sexual politics. While faith or class or things like ethnicity/nationality play dominant roles in some stories, there are no stories in the entire book where sex (and the power dynamics therein) isn’t prevalent. So choosing the title of the first story, “Slut Lullabies,” as the one to represent the entire book felt like as much of a no-brainer in the end as it had when I first thought of it. And I do feel as though, on the whole, people have very much gotten what I was trying to do with that title, with the juxtaposition of moods and nuances, and with “slut” holding both an ironic and literal meaning simultaneously.

Kimball: One of the next things the reader notices is your openings. So how do you start a piece of fiction—with a title, an idea, a word, phrase, a feeling, a situation, a story, a character, or something else?

I Have a Character in My Head: Gina FrangelloFrangello: This varies somewhat, but not as much as it might seem. For me, character is almost always the inspiration. It’s only once I have a character in my head, hounding me, following me around, talking to me when I’m driving in my car, forcing me to write things down on napkins, that I begin to see the story inhabited by that character. Much of the time, the plot ends up being something I’ve already known about—either because aspects of it really happened or because I thought it up a long time ago and it’d been on a back-burner, waiting quietly until I found the right person to live it. But the difference between character and story/plot is that the plot, for me, can sit quietly, can wait, whereas once a character gets under my skin, I’m on very borrowed time before I have to sit down and write and get it all out.

There are exceptions to this, of course, but even the exceptions tend to be character-driven. For example, my new novel, A Life in Men (an excerpt of which is in Five Chapters), which my agent is shopping right now, was definitely inspired by a central character who wouldn’t let me go. But much of the novel’s ultimate direction was led—spurred on, in a way—by an image I had in my mind of two tall, skinny men who had at one time been enemies, embracing in the doorway of a hospital room in Morocco, with the light from a window shadowing their bodies a certain way. That image haunted me before I knew who one of the two men was, and kept pushing me forward when I didn’t even yet understand how my protagonist, Mary, was going to end up in Morocco. It was so vivid that I would often write the scene—or write about it—before I understood it. The final incarnation of the scene was completely different than what I’d first envisioned, but it’s still in the novel, very near the end, and the rest of the story would probably have been completely different if it hadn’t been so dominant in my mind, guiding me on.

Kimball: So when character comes to you, how does that happen? If you could maybe talk about the first-person narrator in “Slut Lullabies,” or the characters of the “Intelligent Woman” and “Beautiful Woman” in the third story, “What You See.”

Frangello: In some cases, of course, characters are variations on people in real life: composites or exaggerations. While I don’t think that makes a character any less (or more) interesting on the page than a character who is 100% fictitious, it may make the process or inspiration less interesting, right? I mean, a lot of people who are not writers experience things—or know people to whom something bizarre happens—and think to themselves, “Oh, if I liked to write, or if I were good at writing, or if I had the time, I’d love to write a story or a novel about that.” Or they encounter somebody really strange or memorable and feel like, “Such-and-such would make a great character in a book or movie.” So the inspiration for those kinds of stories, that are autobiographical to some extent, or that are inspired by real life, isn’t all that mysterious, even if “writers” are the ones who actually then sit down and translate the inspiration into an actual piece of fiction.

I think what’s more . . . crazy or mysterious, I guess . . . is the fact that fiction writers are constantly making up—without even meaning to—people who do not exist in our real lives in any form, and becoming so compelled by and intimate with these characters that they begin to seem more familiar and real to us than many of the people we work with or hang out with or see everyday. An example of a character like that for me is Camden from “Attila the There.” Camden is a sixteen-year-old guy from a Midwest suburb, whose lesbian mom moves him suddenly to Amsterdam so they can shack up with her new lover, a wheelchair-bound Dutch poet. I used to live in Amsterdam, but other than that I have absolutely no idea where the inspiration for Camden or his situation came from . . . one night, in 1998 in Amsterdam, I was walking home from my writing group at night and I saw the lights from a bridge reflecting off the water of the one of the grachts—canals—and they looked to me like shimmery lines of cocaine. I thought that thought, about the lights reflecting like lines of coke, but I was simultaneously thinking the line and then thinking of Camden thinking the line: Camden, whose name came to me fully formed even though I didn’t know him yet, walking home in A’dam at night and seeing the lights and thinking about them in this way. I didn’t know yet what Camden was doing in Amsterdam, but by the time I got back to my flat in the Jordaan, I knew he was there with his mother and that she was gay. I knew he was very young, not out of high school yet, and I could see his face and that he was exceptionally handsome and ashamed of that fact, though I wasn’t sure yet why.

This was over ten years ago. I finally wrote about Camden maybe in 2002. He lived with me for a long time, both in Amsterdam and back here in the States, but I didn’t know why he was with me yet. I thought he might be a secondary character in a story about his mother—normally I don’t write a lot about sixteen year olds, especially sixteen-year-old boys, so I think I mistook him for a while as a supporting character. For a few years I kept brushing off his voice, waiting for the “real” or “adult” story to come to me. But finally it became clear that Camden’s story was an adult story, a fairly dark one about sexual violence, and what it is to be a perpetrator of that and yet at the same time a very real, young human being who is not a monster or a misogynist and who is capable of love and change, but who is haunted and feels ruined already at sixteen—that his story was extremely real to me and couldn’t be shaken off. Small details of his past would just occur to me at random. I never plotted him out—the story doesn’t even have much of a “plot” per se, compared to some of the stories in the collection. But you see things—you listen to a song or see something like lights on a bridge reflecting on water—and you’re seeing it unintentionally through someone else’s eyes. By you I mean, of course, I—though probably you too since you’re also a writer. But non-writers don’t do this, I guess, or most don’t. Eventually, songs reminded me of people Camden knew, who were not real, who I didn’t know I knew—that kind of thing. This can go on for a while, but eventually the character overtakes the lens of my vision—all of it becomes so overwhelming, so loud, that I have to write it down. Once I start writing, the character claims everything for a short time, during the writing, and then there is the crash, the part where it’s hard to let them go, and then eventually after that passes they can quiet down and I get to inhabit my own space for awhile before somebody else comes along.

Kimball: That part about writers seeing through somebody else’s eyes—I’ve always liked the double-ness that exists in my life because of that. I see things through my own eyes, of course, but then also through the eyes of a character, or, more often, for me, hear things through the voice of a character. I’m saying all that trying to get to the next question, which I’ve just figured out: How has being a fiction writer changed your life?

I Have a Character in My Head: Gina FrangelloFrangello: Uh . . . I’ve always been a fiction writer, on some level, so I’m struggling with how to answer this. I feel like the way you mean the question is how it’s changed my life on a creative level, in terms of the things we were just talking about—what you said about hearing the voice of a character and my last answer. But I don’t have an answer to that because I have always written, my entire life, since before I could actually write—I’d dictate stories to my mom, and I’d illustrate them, and sometimes I would play elaborate, months-long games about particular imaginary characters concurrent with writing their stories, and my best girlfriend and I co-wrote and co-played a whole novel series between the ages of 10 and 13. So I just have no frame of reference for what it would be like to not be a writer, to not hear the voices, to not see the shimmery lines of light on the gracht through both my lens and a character’s lens simultaneously. There is no “other” way for me. I think like most writers, I chose writing less than it chose me, and that it was a compulsion long before it became a profession. In some ways, I can more easily imagine being of another race or even being a man more easily than I can imagine not being someone who writes, and who lives with one foot perpetually in that imagined world.

So the only way I can answer this, truly, is not on a creative level but a “professional” level. I was always a fiction writer, but I wasn’t in the literary world professionally until I was in my late 20s, having already gotten a master’s in counseling and practiced as a therapist for several years. It was a huge life leap for me to leave a more secure profession like counseling, where I was able to make pretty good money and feel concretely “useful,” and instead dedicate myself to fiction writing, which has yet to, in a direct way, result in any true “income” (I make money teaching, or some small money through editing, but almost no real money—and certainly no regular, steady money—through fiction writing), which is isolating on top of being the opposite of lucrative. So that was a big leap and very much changed my life.

How? In every way possible, right? I don’t have a 9-to-5 job. I can work in my pajamas. I don’t have a “boss.” Because I’m indie, I don’t even have to answer to demands of an editor or marketing department who expect my books to conform to certain salable perimeters. This is an insane kind of luxury. And yet, of course, the flip side of that freedom is that I also don’t have health insurance (though I do through my husband) or an income that would allow me to have any of the things people are taught to pursue in life such as home ownership or children, and so I’m conscious constantly that without my husband’s “straight” job, I would be effectively either childless and still living with five roommates, or I would have had to give up my writing, or extremely marginalize it, to pursue a day job that would sustain me financially.

At the time I gave up being a therapist to pursue writing, my husband David was a post-doc in the sciences and made almost no money either. So the way being a fiction writer changed my life was that it returned me to my childhood roots financially, i.e. back to a state of near-poverty, which was something I had believed, all my life, was my sole objective to escape. It taught me that there were things I wanted far more than money, which when you grow up poor is not always obvious. It also taught me that what constitutes “class” is as much about social environs, educational level and opportunity—exposure to things—as it is about actual income. Most of the other struggling writers I met and still know were not what would be called “working class” or certainly blue collar, despite that some of them live in near-poverty conditions. I remain intrigued by the way the arts community seems to exist outside the conventional class stratosphere. I could say a lot more about that, but it veers so far from the original question that I’ll stop, and just say that I learned that to write is to risk, on many levels. Financial risk, emotional risk. Without risk, there is no work, or I should say that in the absence of risk, the quality of the work is generally nothing I’m interested in.

Kimball: Well, now I have to ask: Could you talk about the way that the arts community exists outside the conventional class stratosphere?

Frangello: Okay, so I just got finished saying that I could go on and on about this, and believe me, I can, but I’m not sure I’m going to say anything new, or things that haven’t been said and observed by a lot of people, over a number of generations. Anyone who grew up in a family or neighborhood where nobody tends to obtain a high degree of education knows the difference between economic class and cultural class. Many artists—one might even go so far as to say “most artists”—are not affluent in practice, or in their daily lives. But I think it’s fair to say that a majority of artists—writers and visual artists at least; this may be different in terms of other arts like, say, rock musicians—tend to come from a background where education has been the norm for at least a generation or two, and certainly most writers are themselves educated people, with college degrees and often graduate degrees. These are generalities, and there are always exceptions, but in the United States, it is not hugely common to come across people who self-define as “writers” who are not educated. So starting with that, you have an immense cultural difference between the working poor or the traditionally blue-collar and the literary/artistic community.

When I was a kid, most of the adults I knew had never gone to high school. My father had not finished eighth grade. He had gone to work at a factory when he was thirteen. The only adults I had ever met who went to college were my teachers. There was no such thing as a concept of “culture” or “the arts.” People did not own a book. That’s not an exaggeration—most adults I knew did not own a book, did not buy the newspaper, did not buy books for their children, did not go to the library. My mother had maybe a dozen books, and used to take me to our crappy little public library a lot, so she was regarded basically as an intellectual—I should note that this was not a positive way to be regarded. My neighborhood was blue-collar and working poor: people had food on the table, but cheap, unhealthy food. Everyone, almost without exception, was overweight. Nobody had traveled—most people had never left Chicago and some had never left the actual neighborhood. We were not poverty-stricken—there are far, far poorer neighborhoods in Chicago than where I grew up—but violent crime was common and sometimes people were murdered, including kids, in gang fights or as bystanders or as part of organized crime, right out in the open such as in the playground across from my house. Rape was openly known about, but never reported to the police, including gang rape. Kids came to school sometimes covered in bruises, but teachers didn’t mention it and we had no school counselor. We had, in fact, no “science” class or science textbook. Our parents didn’t understand to complain about this because many of them had no concept of what science really was, and many did not keep track of what we did in school, period. School was just a form of babysitting. Corporal punishment was the norm at home and not uncommon at school. Substance abuse was rabidly prevalent across generations . . .

When I talk like this, it can make it sound like there was nothing good there, or as though I’ve lost sight of what was good, and that’s not true, really—there was beauty there, and history, and family, and ethnic heritage, and a certain brand of irreverent gallows humor and lawless fun that frankly I sometimes miss in my current environment. But I can say clearly that there was not a great deal of intellectual stimulation. And more than that, there was not a lot of exposure to other options. People kept living the way they lived because they had no idea what other situations were really available. There were no “other” schools that were better. There were no “other” jobs that were better paying. You couldn’t afford a plane ticket or a hotel so you didn’t go anywhere else and see how anyone else was living. It was wholly insular, like a small town. People were born there and died there. There was little element of “choice” involved in the economic or cultural situation: this was what there was. If you had any inclination otherwise—as I did—then you would probably feel trapped. Trapped, with no other goal in life but to “get out.” It didn’t matter where. Out and up. That was the entire goal.

This is immensely different from any artist community, even when that community is financially impoverished. For starters, there is never the kind of homogeneity among artists that there is among the “uneducated” poor, because among the artistic poor you have people who are literally poor, who don’t have families at all or whose families are in abysmal shape on all levels including financially, and you also have those who have trust funds that just haven’t kicked in yet, or parents who are paying their rent so they can write or paint, and a lot of other middle-class kids who don’t necessarily have active financial support from their parents but whose parents are college educated and have a nice house in the suburbs where they could always go if things got really bad. In the artist community, all these people mingle with one another and often congregate in the same kind of neighborhood where lofts are going for cheap and there are certain types of bars and maybe community-based workshops or galleries and hip cafes. Most people choose to be there. They are there because they find it stimulating and exciting. Some people are there because they literally cannot afford to be anywhere else, and as in any community some people have serious issues like addiction or mental illness that make entry into a more “mainstream” segment of society an impossibility for them—but the majority of artists who lead unconventional, more bohemian, non-materialistic lifestyles do so by choice, because of ethics or philosophy or a sense of community or rebellion—for a myriad of reasons some of which are pretentious and some of which are very genuine and valid.

I mean, look, okay, I could still go on here, but it’s really this simple: when the working poor have children, this cycle of poverty tends to simply repeat, and sometimes kids move up and get out, but the cycle repeats for generations in many families, with the economic situation and educational situation and sometimes the violence too all remaining essentially static and unchanging. Often, you find twenty-something artists living in the same level of poverty and in the same neighborhoods as a lot of generationally-and-educationally poor people . . . but when those artists hit their late 30s or their 40s and many of them end up having kids . . . well, their kids have science class, and school counselors, and if their daughters god forbid are gang raped the freaking police get involved. Their kids eat organic fruit, even if they have to buy all their clothes at the thrift store to afford it. We live in an anti-intellectual nation and I am not claiming it is easy or societally embraced to be an artist in the United States, but education is a form of privilege, just as money is, and having a family with money and education is often the same as having it yourself, in terms of how you are perceived. In terms of how the police treat you, or how an ER doctor treats a white kid who graduated from Oberlin, but happens not to have any health insurance because the arts do not tend to offer either a living wage or benefits. In fact, some artists, even if impoverished, would perceive themselves as being part of a more elite social class than a police officer, despite his superior income, because of education or culture.

Class is a very complex thing. It’s complex and different in every country, and within different parts of a country. In urban America, in the north, the artist exists outside of a traditional class structure, because income—or even how much money the artist has access to at that moment—simply does not define the larger artist culture enough: there is not enough homogeneity of class-of-origin within that culture to define it in an overarching way. It defines itself more by its interests and pursuits, which it views as valuable and “higher” than many other pursuits, including the pursuit of money. Many artists see it as their role to act as cultural critics—to see the world that way—and I would support that and concur with it. But certainly that in and of itself implies a certain confidence, and perhaps also some privilege.

Kimball: I usually don’t ask so much about the biographical, but I can’t help it here. How then, in that environment, did you come to identify as a writer at such a young age? And do any of the people from the old neighborhood know that you are writer now?

Frangello: Oh, everyone pretty much knows I’m a writer, yeah—my parents are still in touch with a lot of people, like my mother’s card club of ladies who lived on our block . . . and some of them are even on Facebook now and read an interview with me from time to time, or if I write something for the Chicago Tribune. A lot of my cousins seem sweetly proud of me and always excited if they see me in the paper, though I don’t believe any of them actually read my books—or if they do they don’t mention it! Here I should add that a number of my cousins and other kids I grew up with did also make it “out” and now lead safe and comfortable lifestyles, just not in an artistic milieu. (Then again, another cousin of mine was murdered about five years ago in a gang-related killing, so part of my family remained very much stuck . . .)

When I was young, it was my mother who made a creative lifestyle possible for me, in an environment where it would otherwise have been impossible. She isn’t Italian and wasn’t raised in our neighborhood. She wasn’t Catholic either. She had graduated from high school and worked in an office as an executive secretary; she wore heels and pumps to work, which was completely unheard of in our environment. No one had ever even been in an office—since my mother left work to be a stay-at-home mom, I never entered one myself until I was in my 20s! But my parents were jazz buffs and my mother sang in jazz clubs sometimes—they had met through jazz circuits. So basically, my mother was just enough of an “outcast” in my father’s blue-collar, insular Italian world that she was able to serve as a small example to me of some other kind of possibility. Her favorite book was The Brothers Karamazov and she liked to go to the library with me and would read aloud to me. When she saw me writing, she gave me privacy, which was not an easy thing to do since we lived in a one-bedroom apartment, where my bed was in a large closet under the stairs, because there was nowhere else to put me (here I should add that at least I had my own room, as an only child, whereas my friends’ apartments were no bigger but there were often three or five kids). My mom bought huge rolls of butcher paper and cut sheets for me, because I went through so much paper that this was the most economic way of supplying it to me. My first two “novels” were written on that kind of paper, and illustrated by me, before I was twelve, though no one was permitted to read them, even my mother.

When I was a child, I hid my writing from pretty much everyone besides my mom. I already had a hard time fitting in, and people knowing that I was working on a novel would surely have made it worse. The only writers I had ever met were two of my father’s friends from the bar where he worked. One was an unemployed alcoholic who lived in our garage, and my cousins and I would peruse his Playboys when he wasn’t looking. He had ants all over his floors and he died young. The other was a Chicago detective who wrote a series of (bad) detective novels about the Russians infiltrating America by taking over all the McDonald’s. He was an intelligent guy but very fucked up, never married, drank too much, never published anything despite writing compulsively. These were not role models that would indicate writing was a viable career.

So Michael, I’m not sure I did identify as a writer back then, you know? If somebody asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I certainly did not say, “I’m going to be a writer.” That would have seemed completely ridiculous, to myself included. I simply wrote. I always wrote. I was born that way. Who knows why some people are simply born with a creative bent, where writing or painting or composing music is mandatory, a necessity, not really a choice? I did not want to be a writer. I wanted to be like everyone else: street-tough and athletic and uninterested in books and crazy about the gangbanger guys and into partying in the alleys or some burnout mom’s basement instead of going to school. I knew my life would be easier—and at the time I even believed “better”—if I were that way. But I just wasn’t. The guys in my neighborhood repulsed me to the point that I think everyone in my neighborhood was fairly well convinced I was a lesbian by the time I was twelve, because I never made out with anyone. I was constantly accused of using “ten dollar words” I’d picked up from books . . .

There’s this wonderful line in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things where the mother is described as simply not being “that kind of animal” in terms of being raised to be a servile Indian girl, and it not taking. I was just not the kind of animal who belonged in my neighborhood. I was born a writer-animal. There was no making me into any other kind.


Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, is now in paperback in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005). His three novels have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. His work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, Open City, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and two documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).

Michael Kimball’s novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, is out in the US, UK, and Canada (http://michael-kimball.com/). The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunnin …read more

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