The Rumpus Interview with Cris Mazza

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Cris Mazza is an indie lit icon. Her debut novel, How to Leave a Country, was a PEN Nelson Algren Award winner, and since then she has gone on to publish more than a dozen books of fiction and nonfiction at some of the most interesting independent presses in the country, recently including Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls (Emergency Press), Trickle-Down Timeline (Red Hen) and Waterbaby (Soft Skull). The editor of several controversial fiction anthologies, Cris is also a fierce advocate for other writers, and has served on advisory and editorial boards for FC2, American Book Review, and Other Voices magazine, among others.

A native of California, she now heads the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois-Chicago and is a vibrant figure in the Chicago literary community…where she’s also my former professor, longtime mentor, and—for many years now—a close friend with whom it’s always a pleasure to discuss all things writing and publishing. Cris can be counted on to pull no punches, on the page or in life.

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The Rumpus: Your new novel, Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls, has a storyline in which a middle-aged woman, full of regrets about her sexual past and roads not taken, accidentally stumbles across migrant Mexican sex workers in a field near the plant nursery where she works. Shocked by the youth and apparent “captivity” of the prostitutes, she becomes obsessed with the idea of rescuing one of them.  I know you’re originally from Southern California, where the novel is set, but talk about what else inspired you to write about the issue of sex trafficking, and to do so from the “outsider” point of view of a white, American woman.

Cris Mazza: While I recognize that a different sort of writer would, in fact, have endeavored to write about sex trafficking from an insider point-of-view—to research by infiltrating rather than reading reports and then imagining—and would produce a novel focusing on one of the teenage sex-workers instead of through a character who observes them from the fringes…I am not that kind of writer.  For various reasons: One is that, in this case, as opposed to researching-by-infiltrating the life of, say, a caterer, a wildlife biologist, or a stage director (occupations of other characters I’ve written), real-life research of sex-trafficking is extremely dangerous.  It could be assumed I am too cowardly to produce a true exposé.  But the other reason (that I am not that kind of writer) is that an issue like this is wrapped with other kinds of layers, and how the middle-class “dominant” culture reacts to the knowledge of human abuses going on “in broad daylight.” (My cliches in quotes!)  I read in a literature discussion blog a complaint from a male reader about “women’s writing” that went something like, “[women] authors may put things like school shootings or heart transplants in their … books, but those things are strictly window-dressing for the books’ main crises, which always revolve around how that window-dressing affects the main female characters’ lives and how those female characters feel about it all.” The reality is that for most of us, how major news events affect is, and how we feel about our own lives because of our reactions, is all we have to go on. We weren’t the one ducking under a desk; we weren’t the one throwing ourselves on a grenade; we weren’t the one handing our dripping heart over to someone who needs it more than we do (except, of course, metaphorically). It’s of tremendous importance that there are novels that do give us those direct experiences to vicariously explore. What I’m offering is how the remote horrors in the world are also affecting those who observe, and even those who choose to creep closer to stare more directly…then skulk home again and try to “go on with life” as though nothing has changed.

Rumpus: Various Men explicitly engages the question of what type of story merits being told—what kind of suffering is “important” enough to matter. Your (ironically named) narrator, Hester Smith, circles this question often as she encounters the plight of underage, illegal immigrant prostitutes, whose lives are so overtly more dire than her own—and yet as you just pointed out, like all human beings, in the end Hester lives deeply and irrevocably inside her own skin, where her own past demons, though objectively on a smaller or more middle-class scale, continue to haunt her and demand emotional primacy. There’s a great James Baldwin quote where one character says to another, of suffering, “That might be the only equality any of us has.” In other words, suffering is suffering, regardless of the larger political or social implications, regardless of the drama quotient, regardless of more overt issues of oppression. How true is this, in your opinion, or in the ethos of your novel?

Mazza: I’d like to think it’s true in every ethos. That’s why I used the epigraph from Luis Urrea: “Everyone, no matter who, no matter how rich or poor, has lived in the Tijuana garbage dump. One’s type of suffering does not rate, in my book, above or below anyone else’s.”1 In some  regards, this stance probably speaks to a condition in American literary publishing (fiction and nonfiction): your book is only as good (artistic, significant, valuable) as the ranking on the “horrific scale” of the abuse or suffering; and an author is more talented when the suffering is greatest.

That doesn’t mean I don’t believe there is such a thing as trivial whining!  But who are we—who is anyone—to decide for others that their experiences are petty and their stories aren’t important enough?  That’s why I wanted my character to struggle with that question, and make that struggle part of her personal struggle to understand herself.

BTW, “understanding ourselves”—characters who, by the end of the book, have a different way of looking at their own lives—is a unifying element in all my books, and what else do any of us, really, accomplish in life that’s more personally important, that’s more truly our own?

Rumpus: I agree that seeking to understand ourselves is a profound personal and artistic impetus. But how does this intersect with issues of social responsibility? You mention American publishing—well, one of the frequent complaints about American literature, made by those outside our country as well as within it, is that American writers are narcissistic or insular. The story goes that we write too much about our personal psychology and not enough about wider social issues. Although Various Men definitely addresses wider issues, are you saying that, in fact, in the end facing the self is even more important—artistically or in other senses—because the self is the one thing we own or over which we have some modicum of control? This is probably an unanswerable question, but would it be better to be a writer who exposes and makes readers face difficult socio-political issues and want to somehow take action, or a writer who makes readers look inside and face themselves? And who are some writers you admire who do one vs. the other, or who do both?

Mazza: I don’t know of any books that have actually caused readers to take action in the face of socio-political action. Novels maybe used to do this. I have a moment where I had Hester Smith face this question inside Various Men:

I can hear the ashamed middle-class Liberal protests now: so tell that story, tell Lena’s story. Yours is so irrelevant. The same people who are overcome with helplessness over what they can’t do about what they can’t stop themselves from wanting to know? The ones who go out of their way to learn about it, go out of their way to brood over global problems that barely make it into the media and seem unsolvable. People tortured by their remoteness and inability to generate change. So they want to hear more, and know more, and they think reading about it makes them better people, makes them people who didn’t, after reading what they thought they wanted, go check their e-mail, or go take dinner out of the oven, or go turn on the end of a ballgame.

It’s more possible that books (these days only nonfiction) can cause organizations to take action.  But recently even that is dubious. So The Jungle helped bring about the regulation of the food industry, but did the fast food industry change after Supersize Me? All the difficult issues exposed and absorbed in a long list of frank Vietnam novels didn’t prevent Afghanistan or Iraq (and the WWI and WWII  novels before that didn’t prevent Vietnam).  I do think facing one’s self, one’s own weaknesses, vulnerabilities, regrets, bad judgment and bad character can be more difficult than just “knowing” about a more distant social ill, and making significant changes in ourselves is even more difficult.

I think my favorite writers have asked characters to face themselves rather than (only) asking me to open my eyes to a heretofore unacknowledged problem in the world without simultaneously challenging a character’s sense of identity. Alice Munro, Susan Minot, Flannery O’Connor (who does both), Edith Wharton (who also did both, in some lesser known novels involving late 19th and early 20th century industry).

Rumpus: You’ve written a memoir that will be published by Jaded Ibis in 2012 or 13, that has many sexual themes in common with Various Men as well as with your earlier novels. Like most of your fiction, your memoir has several interwoven themes—but a key one has to do with shattering myths around (and simultaneously giving voice to) the issue of female inorgasmia, or what is derisively called “frigidity.” Amid today’s glut of tell-all memoirs from sex addicts, strippers, dominatrixes and even harem members, can you address the importance of telling a sexual story that might be seen as the cultural opposite of the current zeitgeist? What do you hope will be gained by sharing your story?

Mazza: Good question. What I gained personally might not be the answer, since I could have tucked away my personal gains and put the MS (appropriately enough) under my bed.

But I’ve been told by a fair number of both women and men that others can gain by someone being the first (or one of the first) to speak about this. I suppose in the same way that so many women acquired, or gave themselves degrees of freedom to own, their sexuality and acknowledge unmet sexual longings and tacit sexual desires, after Jong’s Fear of Flying was first to give candid (female) voice to so many aspects of (female) sexuality. But that she, and those who have followed, and the new wave of sexual confessions, weren’t including inorgasmia. In fact, just the opposite, they tended to imply that sexual bliss was every woman’s undisclosed gift-to-herself—to suggest the lack of same was a disgrace that shouldn’t be admitted, should be keep closeted.

Recently, someone on FB posted how difficult it was (for her) to write good, serious and meaningful sex scenes. Then, almost immediately, she followed-up and posted that she was good at doing it, she just didn’t know why she wasn’t good at writing it.  Firstly, not a surprise: that someone who was good at “it” wasn’t good at writing it, because a lot of people have difficulty writing “it” (even though I never seemed to have had that trouble). What struck me about this post was two other things: (a) being good at “it” is something she wanted to make sure everyone knew, and that no one assumed not being able to write it meant she didn’t “do it”… and do it well!  And (b) it was easy for her to confess being bad at writing it but good at sex. Could she have confessed to the converse, being bad at “doing it” but successfully pretending to do it in writing? Culture has now decided that’s the more devastating admission. Are we still cowed by the popular/cool girls who were bragging about having sex in junior high? We thought, “What’s wrong with me”?  Among the other things this book proposes to address, to accomplish, to solve, it does try to answer that … in some ways without altering the word “wrong”…but perhaps shifting the spotlight.

Rumpus: As a writer, you’re already no stranger to controversy.  The NEA was once subject to congressional hearings based on having funded the now-infamous, sexually explicit and experimental Chick-Lit anthologies, which you edited for FC2 (before the term “chick lit” was co-opted by mainstream publishing to mean something entirely different).  This is a question with two parts.  One: can you briefly recount what happened around those hearings; two: it seems to me that this kind of creepy political intrusiveness into artistic content may actually be small-scale compared with our current political climate and the slashing and burning of arts funding. Does it seem that way to you, too? How does our current cultural temperature compare with that of the mid-90s when these hearings occurred?

Mazza: Well, the FC2/NEA controversy in 1996 was not too long after the Robert Maplethorpe NEA furor. That particular event brought Maplethorpe into the mainstream’s consciousness–and remember, all publicity is good. My naive hope was that FC2’s brush with NEA bashers would produce the same result. Unfortunately, it did not. I guess the mainstream doesn’t know how to get into an uproar about printed material, unless they’re putting it into a pile and burning it. What happened was this: a family-values watchdog group (probably Focus on the Family) saw a review of Chick-Lit: Postfeminist Fiction in the Washington Post that said, in part:  “You never saw so many wigs and crew cuts bleached white, or so many female genitalia… Not many straight women here either. …The National Endowment for the Arts funded part of this enterprise, and it is couched in words and concepts that are sure to give Jesse Helms a conniption fit.” I think Focus on the Family must have a clipping service; the review was forwarded to the chair of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations (the oversight body for the NEA), Peter Hoekstra (R. Michigan). He pronounced the book, “an offense to the senses.” So the “investigation” ensued. Four of the books FC2 published that year were included (those supported by the NEA), and at one point Helms was seen holding one of the volumes aloft as he addressed his colleagues about the NEA. That seems to have been the extent of the “investigating” done by congress. And the reaction: There was no march on the Capitol, no rally on the steps of congress. A few actors spoke up because another targeted group in the same investigation was a women’s avant-garde theatre. (Surprising that it was an anthology of women writers and an all-women theatre group?) Without today’s blogosphere and social networks, the whole firestorm fizzled.  The NEA promised to be more careful. Instead of bringing FC2’s product into the mainstream’s eye, the term chick-lit was co-opted by commercial mainstream presses to mean the airheaded brand of urban-girls-looking-for-love-(and-new-shoes) that filled the face-up book tables at Borders for many years (have they abated yet?).

I don’t think the political intrusion has gotten any worse or better. I almost wish we could stamp “funded by the NEA” on our new anthology [see next question] just to see if anyone notices.  Maybe this time we’ll get truly Maplethorped.

Rumpus: Yes, speaking of your next anthology—for the last two years, you and I have been co-editing a fiction anthology (with Stacy Bierlein and Kat Meads) titled Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience, which features 28 stories by women writers that depict sexual situations from male characters’ points of view. Narrative cross-dressing, if you will. The anthology includes a wide array of writers from Aimee Bender, Susan Minot and A.M. Homes to Wanda Coleman and Lidia Yuknavitch. It crosses corporate and indie publishing divides and includes both traditional and avant-garde, or experimental, writers. This book—which will be published by Other Voices Books in October—was your brain child. Tell me about your inspiration for its theme.

Mazza: I was between projects, and it had been ten years since I’d co-edited the Chick-Lit anthologies, so I thought I was ready to make another contribution to the plethora of anthologies, and to try to make one that would both stand out and be useful, would say something that needed to be said, and perhaps could only be said with a chorus of voices.

I’m going to risk sounding pretentious and answer this question by quoting my own Introduction to Men Undressed, because I answered this question with a lot of thought there and can’t think of a better way to say it:

My first lengthy foray into the sexual life of a male POV character came in a novel, GIRL BESIDE HIM (2001, FC2).  The man I chose to live vicariously through was cloaked with masculine trappings I’d never experienced in my own acquaintances: a sharp-shooting champion, helicopter pilot, wildlife biologist. He was also sexually repressed, badly scarred by adolescent experiences, and was a 40+-year-old virgin before a movie made this condition into a comic sketch. Above all, or as a consequence, neurotically apprehensive that he was a sex-killer-waiting-to-happen, thus viewed any sexual arousal as a danger sign.  Reviewers and critics did not comment on the close third person perspective of a male character written by a female author. But before the MS was placed, editors did respond to this aspect of the book…male editors. Most memorable was the comment: “Men don’t think about their erections like this.” This was before the wave of erectile dysfunction drug-advertising on television and in the backs of sports and hunting magazines. (Which might have prompted me to respond: men think about their erections with every metaphor possible!)  At the time, however, my case was merely practical: maybe most men don’t –but is it inconceivable that one troubled man could think this way?  That’s why there’s a book about him, instead of about all the normal men who don’t think this way. I’d long known that I didn’t think about my body in exactly the way Isadora Wing (Fear of Flying), Theresa Dunn (Looking for Mr. Goodbar), or Anna Wulf (The Golden Notebook) did. And yet I was still able to feel my gender–human–connectedness with them. Books are written about particular characters, not the composite of “normality” in case studies, so the determining factor shouldn’t be that “most people don’t think this way” but that it’s plausible that one could, and isn’t it interesting when one does?  And what can we learn about ourselves when we imagine living it?

That question might have been the true inception (conception?) of [Men Undressed]. But before I ever saw a submission or searched my bookshelves for published stories in this vein, the reasons I wanted to gather this type of story had as much to do with another way of learning about women’s views of sexuality as they did exploring this example reaction to my gall at trying on a man’s sex life. Wouldn’t it be true that the ways women imagine how a man views, thinks about, remembers or approaches sex, say something about the view we might have of ourselves?

Rumpus: You’ve been publishing books with some of the country’s best and most innovative independent presses—from City Lights to FC2 to Coffee House to Chiasmus to Red Hen to Emergency Press—since the 1980s. How has the indie publishing community evolved over that time, and how has the identity of the writer changed?

Mazza: In some ways, the identity (or the label) of the indie writer hasn’t changed at all…as most writers continue to seek corporate contracts first and turn to independent  presses when that commercial avenue is exhausted. That is, publishing with an independent press becomes plan B, what to do with an “unsuccessful” manuscript, etc. Perhaps defensively, they say, “Well, why shouldn’t I try to be paid for what I do, and get better distribution?” And who can argue? But the very chronology of circulating a manuscript to the corporates, and then turning to independent presses is like saying “This one isn’t good enough for the top tier, let’s go down a grade.”

What does America want to read?  The corporate publishers have decided they know the answer–because they’ve invented the answer. Then they compare their sales numbers to those of independent presses and call it verification. But when they have the publicity machines and corporate distributors supplying corporate bookstores, when they have the relationships with corporate book review pages, then comparing sales numbers to indie titles means nothing except that theirs are the books general reading audiences hear about.

College students pride themselves on discovering and knowing obscure independently-produced musicians and bands, going to concerts and downloading music that has no mass distribution. Largely, those same music consumers don’t know any independent-press authors, and might have read the latest rock-musicians’ (or their relatives’) memoirs, or the hottest fiction title of the year—how many college students asked me this year if I read Freedom?  (I haven’t, but partially because of how much hype I heard about it.  It gets in the way of my reading. While reading a book, it’s as though I like to feel I’m the only one with a relationship with that book, not that I’m sharing it with a stadium full of other people reading the same pages.)

Okay, I’m off the subject of your question. On the plus side, the number of independent publishers keeps growing, they are stretching and breaking out of the boundaries of not only traditional narrative and content, but traditional publishing as well, blending genres and art mediums, and tackling new models of printing, publicity and distribution.

Rumpus: You head the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Program for Writers. What do you love most about teaching? Does teaching and mentoring other writers fuel you in a different way than writing your own work does?

Mazza: Most professors in graduate programs probably find, as I do, that their jobs afford them one of their only opportunities to sit with smart, talented, energetic writers and discuss the craft, theory, and business-climate of our art. Shop-talk, so to speak. My students come from a variety of regions and experiences, each brings a unique expertise and perspective outside just the processes of creating fictions. We have our resident theatre and film enthusiasts, our medical experts, our cultural-history lovers, our wilderness wanderers, our former military personnel (Vietnam era to Gulf-war vets), our law school graduates. We have students experienced with caring for severely disabled family members, with having unexpected children, with relatives attacked by knife-wielding thieves. Their approaches to writing are just as wide-ranging, and together we’ve all shared the stretching of own boundaries. Most recently, my students’ interest in re-exploring, redefining, or just creating a new form of omniscient narrative has been stimulating to my own writing (as seen in some of the stories in my 2009 collection Trickle-Down Timeline).

Rumpus: Although you’re only in your early fifties, your career is so long and illustrious—you have well over a dozen published books under your belt at this point—that, although this question may be premature, it also seems fair to ask: What do you hope your writing has contributed to the multi-generational, eternal dialogue that is literature? How do you want to be remembered as a writer?

Mazza: What I hope to contribute, or accomplish, is to see the question of age and the word “generation” disappear from discussions of writing.

I actually answered this question last because I didn’t want to answer it. Then I realized my resistance to answering it is an answer. I think literature has become far too age-conscious, even ageist.  If the VIDA count surprised us about the disparity in numbers of women being published, I wonder what an age-related survey would do (especially if counting only first books)?

Then I wondered how many of my male contemporaries have been asked this question, with an estimation of their age included?  I’d like to hear from some.

Rumpus: Point well taken there…although I do think age is, for better or worse, becoming a bigger part of literary dialogue for both genders in this era when memoir is such a dominant form, with writers explicitly tackling various stages of life and cultural conceptions of those stages. And I actually think it’s exciting to be part of a profession where it’s possible to talk about a writer’s “mature” work—where you don’t age out like a dancer or an athlete, but by contrast may have to reach a certain age to hit the peak of your powers. Ironically, though, where I think you’re entirely correct is that even though there is no age-limit on writing, there is ageism in publishing. So in a way the fact that you didn’t entirely answer my last question leads me to a new one: is today’s publishing climate explicitly set up to cater to younger writers than it was in days past? With the vigorous self-marketing expectations on writers these days, from online social media to vigorous and innovative book tours, is this a system that favors a younger, tech-zealous, footloose writer with fewer career or familial obligations, who can spend more time traveling and online?

Mazza: Well…yes…and no. I do think ageism tends to originate in publishing/publicity (or it’s a chicken-egg thing: what the media can hype because of what the public will consume), but I don’t think those with and without tech-savvy are automatically divisible by age…I was reacting more to the commercial hunger for that “first book by a fresh new voice,” (a book blurb cliché for decades), and the way marketing departments and even agents want to see a promo-photo right up front, want to see an attractive face (and body)—i.e. young. beautiful, in the could-be-a-model sense—the media will embrace. Add to that, in literature, the way “coming of age” is still a formula for success, and you have literary writing following—maybe subtly and thankfully lagging way behind—performance genres like popular music and acting into age-bias.

Rumpus: The rise of memoirs, which used to be exclusively the terrain of the rich and famous but have now become a popular and highly marketable form of self-expression for many writers, seems to polarize the literary community.  Some readers devour them and believe they possess a core honesty that even the best fiction cannot quite attain, whereas others decry them as sensational or attention-seeking and even claim they are less honest than fiction. Still others claim there is no essential difference and these are merely “marketing terms.” Where does the truth lie? Why do memoirs sell so much better than literary fiction, how do they differ from novels, and how do you see their role in the literary landscape?

Mazza: There’s no truth here either, of course. Except the truth that in general memoirs sell better (all else being equal), and that most people who read fiction will also read memoirs, but many more people will only read nonfiction.

It would actually take an anthropologist/sociologist studying this aspect of modern culture to hypothesize an answer for why this happened in the literary landscape.  It’s also a chicken-egg scenario: did the public’s hunger for “true” or “real” stories come first, or did individual access to media create that thirst, which then created more product, which created more demand, etc.? But how did people change from not wanting attention brought to personal lives to desperately seeking personal attention?  (I think the answer to that would be, simply: money. “Fame” became an occupation in and of itself, not fame by being an actor or musician or politician, but becoming famous for becoming “known,” becoming famous for becoming … famous.)

The internet was once called the world’s largest vanity press, housing self-published manifestos, fiction, science fiction, fantasy, romance, and memoir. This was predictable enough. But blogs take some real psychological study: how are all-about-me websites interesting to other people?  I understand that some of these were employed to keep relatives updated on progress of a pregnancy or toilet training, but where did the expectation arrive that everyone else should also be interested, and how did it happen that so many unrelated people could actually be interested?

Specifically about memoir: I’ve heard more than one serious literary fiction writer speak with abject loathing and disdain for memoirs, while they publish their thinly disguised autobiographic novels. Then again, as someone publishing a (second) memoir, I’m still willing to admit that some disdain might be warranted. These are two quotes from early in this decade that seem to have summed up the negative issue:

“All too often, authors of memoirs tell us that writing was a way for them to come to terms with past events, or to understand themselves. … [But what’s in it for the rest of us?” (Maria Russo, Salon.com, October 26, 2000).

“Most [memoirs] never transcend the narcissistic coma induced by perpetual pats on the ‘I’ key… [and] …the unprocessed emotional seepage typical of so much [memoir] writing.” (John Dicker, Austin Chronicle, Sept 16 2005).

Rumpus: You have a beef with the over-saturation of first person fiction narratives in the marketplace, and even wrote an essay on this topic for AWP Writer’s Chronicle. Yet Various Men is written from Hester’s first person point of view. Talk about this decision, and the importance—and misuse—of the first person.

Mazza: I believe this problem––which at one time I thought, with optimistic delusion, was waning, but soon realized it was still utterly robust––is diluting the true power of first person narrative because far too much fiction employs it for only surface reasons: it’s “easy” for inexperienced writers to speak as themselves, it provides direct access to character thoughts, and of course it is a “voice” therefore the (erroneous) claim is that it’s the only way for fiction to have a unique quirky or fresh “voice.”  But these surface uses ignore and usually eliminate more interesting, complex, and I think necessary layers like irony, temporal distance, unreliability, and the nature of memory.

Like most fads, this one has had a circular current. Many editors began to prefer it, so more of it was published, so more of it was read, so it influenced a new crop of younger writers to see it as the only way to have “voice,” to be intimate, to explore the interior of a character.  I also think that, unconsciously, some  younger writers––when they’re not producing undisguised autobiography and when it’s not because they’re only comfortable writing as themselves––have taken on first-person narration, because of the popularity of memoir, as a means of making a story feel more “real” or, god-forbid, “realistic.”

After so much rumination about the overuse of first person narrative over the past decade––which I didn’t necessarily keep to myself––I started to feel like it had been so diluted and reduced by the surplus, I couldn’t bear to use the point-of-view myself.  Then it occurred to me that in my writing, as soon as I start saying I can’t, or I won’t … that’s when I have to try.  But what I needed (and decided) to do was not just return to first person, but to use it in all its messy, layered, complicated glory––use all the baggage that I’ve been complaining is ignored when it’s used just to make a narrative feel like a familiar acquaintance sharing a personal experience. So the first person narration in Various Men Who Knew Us as Girls combines the conditions of self-consciousness with unreliability, with agency and agenda, with self-delusion and unintended mental blockages to utter sincerity. The narrator is completely conscious that she is producing a narrative; so conscious, in fact, that she anticipates how others will quarrel with or dismiss her, frequently questions her own memory and sometimes narrates in questions, wonders if what she’s remembering has been distorted by experiences she’d had or realizations she made since a particular event, digresses in flash-forwards to layer what she knows now over what she knew then. Most importantly, and something I didn’t plan but which might have come out of my own first person motto–the fact that a character in the story is telling the story has to be part of what the story is about–a significant catharsis for the narrator occurs as she is writing the culminating scenes–scenes that, obviously, have already happened, several years before she is narrating. But it is the act of narrating, of wrestling with those questions about memory and compulsion distorting “truth,” that causes her to grasp a new glimmer of insight about herself.


Gina Frangello’s fourth book of fiction, Every Kind of Wanting, was released on Counterpoint in September. Her last novel, A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), was selected for the Target Emerging Authors series, has been optioned by Universal Cable Productions/Denver & Delilah, and was a book club selection for NYLON magazine, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She is also the author of two other books of fiction: Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010), which was a Foreword Magazine Best Book of the Year finalist, and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She has nearly 20 years of experience as an editor, having founded both the independent press Other Voices Books, and the fiction section of the popular online literary community The Nervous Breakdown. She has also served as the Sunday editor for The Rumpus, the Executive Editor for Other Voices magazine, and the faculty editor for TriQuarterly Online. Her short fiction, essays, book reviews and journalism have been published in such venues as Salon, Dame, Ploughshares, the Boston Globe, BuzzFeed, the Chicago Tribune, the Huffington Post, Fence, FiveChapters, Prairie Schooner, the Chicago Reader, and in many other magazines and anthologies. More from this author →