Gina Frangello is capable of magic. She’s the kind of person you meet and you know seconds after meeting them, they’re capable of things you’d never be able to accomplish.
In Gina’s case, not only do you get this feeling when you meet her, but also when you’re lucky enough to sit down with one of her books and digest the absurd, the grotesque, the sexual, the hilarious, and the magical stories that lurk there. Frangello wears many hats: author, editor (Other Voices Books and Fiction Editor at The Nervous Breakdown), professor, mother, and wife.
Having first interviewed Gina after the release of her first novel, My Sister’s Continent, Angela Stubbs caught up with her to discuss her latest release, Slut Lullabies, a collection of stories recently published by Emergency Press. They discussed sex, aging, therapy, and what it means to be Gina Frangello.
The Rumpus: Your second book is a collection of stories, Slut Lullabies. How did you decide to publish a collection after having published a novel?
Gina Frangello: Well, I didn’t so much decide as that I had a streak of really shitty luck that ended up resulting in something good. I’d had a novel called London Calling in the queue for publication by Impetus Press, and while my novel was in production Impetus went bankrupt. Because this was just at the beginning of the publishing Armageddon that hit a few months later, my losing my publisher got a bit of media attention, which for a while was really depressing, like being a D-list celebrity going through a messy divorce.
But it turned out to be a good thing, in that some other indie publishers took an interest in the story, and a friend of mine, Cris Mazza, who had a book coming out with the New York- and Seattle- based indie, Emergency Press, was talking with her editor, Bryan Tomasovich, about it, and Bryan ended up approaching me and asking to see London Calling. For a bunch of red tape reasons, I wasn’t at liberty to give that book to anyone at the time, so instead I asked if he’d like to read a collection… About a week later, he offered to publish Slut Lullabies.
Rumpus: You have the unique and fantastic ability to write about sex and awkward situations with grace, humor, and ease. Is this a chore, or is it somewhat effortless?
Frangello: Um… do I look like an asshole if I claim it’s effortless? Look, there are many things in my writing that are indeed a struggle or a chore. I think what those things are vary from writer to writer. For me, writing sex—whether erotic or brutal or awkward—is not one of those things. It’s very organic and integral to, I guess, the fibers of what I write about. That’s been true from the time I first began writing.
Rumpus: At what point did you begin picking stories to be a part of Slut Lullabies? These stories had all been previously published—how difficult was that task of looking at your stories and trying to decide what you’d include?
Frangello: By the time I sent Slut Lullabies to Bryan, there was already a rough form of the manuscript. My former literary agent, Bill Clegg, had helped me compile it when he was shopping my first novel, My Sister’s Continent. Bill had read pretty much all my published stories and suggested which ones I should include and in which order. Our basic logic at that time was that none of the stories that featured the same characters who appeared in My Sister’s Continent would be in my collection—we wanted the collection to have an entirely separate feel, not to be derivative… so that took a lot of pieces off the table right there and simplified things.
I did add a couple of newer pieces and I changed around the story order, because Bryan and I had our own opinions about that, given we’re both editors, and story placement is really important to both of us—that balance changes every time you add a new piece to a book.
Rumpus: Speaking of My Sister’s Continent, which is a fantastic retelling of Freud’s “Dora” case study through the dysfunctional lives of two contemporary twin sisters: As a former therapist, do you ever find yourself thinking about using info from old sessions of former clients in your fiction?
Frangello: I’m deeply inspired by my years as a therapist. I met girls and women during those four years who had been through things that were on the level of what you might live through in a war zone… I encountered a lot of abuse that was not just ugly and oppressive in a way that is sadly all too common, but things that were truly bizarre in their brutality.
The most extreme of those things are not the circumstances I write about. There are two basic reasons: one is that the insanity of those situations were so specific that it would be hard to write about most of it without literally stealing someone’s life and breaking confidentiality. The other is that some of these circumstances were so over-the-top that I’m not sure I could tackle them in literature without it seeming sensationalized and cheapening the truth rather than honoring or deepening it.
But in general, the women and girls I worked with in New Hampshire and Vermont in the early 1990s had come from extremely abusive—physical and sexual, usually both—backgrounds and most of the women currently lived in abusive situations, perpetuating the cycle either out of fear for their lives if they left, or out of simply not believing they truly had other choices or options. The foster girls had been taken from their homes, almost invariably because their mothers refused to believe their stories or to leave the men who were hurting [their daughters] even when they witnessed it with their own eyes. So in addition to the most horrific abuses at the hands of men they had also suffered a profound rejection from their mothers.
Those years and that work informed me a great deal about the powerful survival instinct many people possess, but also about the ways some demons are never fully overcome, and how the past lives with us every day in a very present way. The Rumpus’ amazing “Dear Sugar” column once featured a post about what it is to do this kind of work—how it impacts you and what you learn about both the world and the human spirit, and especially how it is essential to redefine what might constitute a “successful” outcome for someone who has, for all intents and purposes, lived through a war in which there were no limits or rules. Sugar expressed what I feel about all that more eloquently than I could say it here. But those girls are always with me when I write. Though most of them will no doubt never read any of my work, it would not be untrue to say that I write for them.
Rumpus: Your subject matter and characters are extremely varied and diverse. Is there a place you feel you have yet to go or yet to write about in your fiction?
Frangello: I have written very little from the perspective of characters who are parents. In Slut Lullabies only one of the stories’ protagonists—Victoria in “The Marie Antoinette School of Economics”—is a parent. Most of the main characters in my published work have been in their twenties—sometimes teens or early thirties—and not yet in that stage of life. I tend, for whatever reason, to focus on characters 5-10 years behind me, age- and lifestyle-wise. I definitely feel like the Next Big Frontier of my writing is to incorporate parenthood and middle age into my characters’ lives. I do not mean in a Mommy Lit kind of way—I mean in the way that people’s lives remain complicated, political, sexual, intense and story-worthy even if they are out of their early thirties and are parenting children. The big surprise of aging is that it does not actually make people less interesting if they were interesting to begin with, but rather makes them more so—or it certainly should if done right.
Rumpus: You’re an editor for Other Voices Books and a fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. What’s the most challenging part about each of those jobs?
Frangello: In the general sense, the most challenging part of having any job other than writing is that other work takes time away from writing. I have three kids, ages ten and under, so I feel this very acutely because my demands on the home front are also considerable. I tend to take on far too much, to the point of it being something of a joke among people who know me. It’s a little absurd. I even take on things I have no particular skills at doing, such as uploading material to The Nervous Breakdown, which necessitates coding and such—I’m a tech idiot and I’m still worried on basically a daily basis that I’m going to somehow contribute to the utter crash of the entire Nervous Breakdown someday with a technical blunder.
Rumpus: Your agent just called. You’re afraid she’s going to tell you… what?
Frangello: Well, my agent, Ellen Levine, is pretty heroic and supportive. I’ve been working with her for five years and—since both of my books have come out from indie presses—have yet to really make her any money, but she’s remained incredibly loyal and invested in my work. That said, I suppose every time I talk to her I’m afraid she’s going to tell me that if I don’t revise my current novel in a way that makes it more “commercial” or able to be marketed more with that “popular women’s fiction” angle, then there’s nothing more she can do for me.
I’m not sure this is a realistic fear—I mean, she represents Michael Ondaatje and other highly literary, even experimental writers who have found success without making artistic compromises. But this market right now… it’s bad. New York publishing is in a scary place right now. I think your last advance has to have been pretty big for you not to be at least a little bit afraid that your agent could break up with you at any moment.
Rumpus: What comes next for you? What are you writing now?
Frangello: Right now Ellen is waiting on my newest novel, A Life in Men, about a woman traveler with cystic fibrosis. The novel is framed between the  Lockerbie Disaster, and September 11. Every chapter takes place in a different country. I’m obsessed with this novel, so it makes me kind of sick to my stomach to take it out into the world. It’s like sending a child off to military school or something…
Meanwhile, I’m also writing some short fiction for the first time in years. I just wrote a short story that may be my favorite of any I’ve written, though probably I always feel that way at the time. There are writers who hate everything they write, even if it’s brilliant, but I tend to fall far too deeply in love with my characters to be that sensible and self-protective; when it comes to my characters… well, I guess I’m a slut.
Rumpus: You recently said in a “self-interview” at TNB that you are “particularly interested in the way people are ‘othered’ by their sexuality in a variety of ways… and in the end I’m probably more fascinated by exploring the way my characters alienate themselves, and why, than with what other people may do to them externally.” You write so incredibly well when it comes to human issues regarding sexuality. My Sister’s Continent explored those issues in part from a lesbian perspective, and here in Slut Lullabies, one story features a gay Latino who’s dealing with marriage issues. How do you get inside characters so different from you or your own life?
Frangello: My husband’s cousin recently asked me a variation of this same question. Basically, she said, “How do you experience so many different emotions? Do you have Multiple Personality Disorder?” She was kidding, of course. But maybe it’s true that identity is a little permeable to writers. I think most of us experience—at least in our own minds—a kind of empathy-telepathy where it’s always been extremely easy for us to think we know what the other person is thinking or feeling in any given situation. We feel a little like mind readers. I don’t mean this in any mystical way—I am not a mystical or spiritual person, for better or worse—I just mean in terms of insight.
Good therapists, bartenders, medical doctors, educators, and salespeople can often possess this same talent. And sex workers! It’s a talent that’s very inborn, and extremely unrelated to whether or not you will make a lot of money or anything, but I think most fiction writers with any modicum of talent possess this trait, often to degrees that it can be intrusive in our daily lives—that we take on other people’s emotions or put ourselves in the shoes of others so compulsively that the only way to satisfy that urge is to write.
But I think this question also gets to the heart of how we define “difference.” And certainly somebody being gay or having darker skin is not how I fundamentally quantify how different I feel from them. This isn’t to undermine cultural differences, or the fact that some people face discrimination that I don’t have to deal with as a white, married woman—I’m just saying those things aren’t what makes somebody seem foreign to me internally. I grew up in a largely Latino neighborhood in Chicago, and went to a high school with 6,000 people in it of all different races and from all over the city, and I’ve lived in a few different countries, so—like a lot of urban people of my generation or younger—multiculturalism is not “exotic” to me, it’s just a fact of life. I also grew up below the poverty line, but I’ve had close friends who are wealthy and I now lead a pretty solid middle-to-upper-middle-class existence, so class-hopping is of a lot of interest to me and something I feel a fair amount of facility with.
It’s funny: When I was a kid, the Italians in my neighborhood didn’t consider ourselves white—we referred to “white people” meaning the wealthy, the WASPs, just like our Latino neighbors did… I had to get quite a bit older before I realized how deeply white privilege actually did apply to me. But my daughters aren’t white: they’re Chinese. They were adopted from China, and a lot of their peers—the kids of my friends—don’t have “traditional” birth stories either. Our best friends are a gay couple with two babies by a surrogate, and one of our closest women friends is a single, Jewish mom who just adopted from Ethiopia. So my dad and my daughters and a lot of our friends are either first generation Americans or moved here as kids. In this way, the kinds of difference that I tackle in my fiction—that’s very much the stuff of my real life, even if it’s not always about a character who would identify with the same labels that would be applied to me personally. Difference is much more about who you feel you can empathize with, who you think you can believe, than it is about what somebody looks like or who they sleep with.
Rumpus: You recently wrote a three-part essay about your father turning eighty-eight. Have you ever thought about turning those essays into something bigger?
Frangello: I have an entire novel written about my old neighborhood. It’s fiction, but very autobiographical in a lot of ways, and covers some of the same kind of material from those essays. Right now the novel, which is called A Beautiful Violence, is on my desktop and not being revised or submitted or anything, because of that very reason. I’ve come to realize that I probably have a nonfiction book in me about all that, and the novel was just practice for it. I’m not sure when I’ll ever write a larger work of nonfiction, but I think it’s something that’s building. It’s interesting the way learning to recognize what material is simply mine—not about making up a story to surround it or turn it into something else—is something I’m only now really discovering, past the age of forty. I always believed fictionalizing things would make them more interesting, free them up to tell larger truths, and sometimes that’s true, but sometimes it’s just the opposite, and the real story—or my version of it, I mean—has everything it needs already, and is just waiting for its writer to find the courage to tell it.
Rumpus: Tell me why it’s good to be Gina Frangello.
Frangello: Oh, man, Ang. I mean, just look at this. Need I say more?