I first met Thaisa Frank at the Library Bar of the Hotel Rex in San Francisco this past summer. It was a panicky moment, with me freaking out about going on stage alongside Cheryl Strayed for her Tiny Beautiful Things release party, but still I wanted to meet Thaisa during this twenty-minute window we scheduled. A mutual friend put us in touch with each other last minute so I had yet to learn about the amazing writing Thaisa has produced. I didn’t know the power of her latest collection of short stories, Enchantment. I hadn’t read her phenomenal novel, Heidegger’s Glasses. I didn’t know she wrote a pivotal book on voice more than fifteen years ago (Finding Your Writer’s Voice), along with several other collections of stories.
The place was called the Library Bar, but there weren’t many books and there were no drinks at that hour. So we had to sit there bookless and drinkless. It was awkward in a fabulous way. The whole thing felt like a Thaisa Frank story—the event seemed to float above reality as we talked about things like the insanity of writing a book, yet our time together was still so grounded by the little details, like how there was no way to sit at that little round table without bumping our knees against the legs. Or how our nearly-identical silver cars outside of the hotel confused us so that we didn’t know whose was whose. Our short, nervous conversation was so fascinating to me that I’ve been wanting to interview her ever since. A few months later I tricked her into a Skype conversation and then I painfully boiled those ninety minutes down to just a few of the many amazing things she said.
The Rumpus: When we first spoke, you mentioned that you were a title-driven writer. And you also spoke about how titles relate to the element of surprise when writing a story. I’ve been itching to hear you elaborate on that ever since.
Thaisa Frank: I often feel there’s a triggering event that makes me want to start a story. There is a title often, but the title contains the stuff of the story. The title is like a packed piñata, even if it’s made of iron and I have to beat it and beat it for the stuff to come out. At some point, the story has to generate, and I improvise within the structure of the triggering event. It’s like building a house: at first it’s freeform—you can build it any way you want—and then pretty soon you have floors and walls. I almost always find there is a point when the triggering event falls flat, when I don’t know what to do. The whole story seems really bad to me. It seems like shit. And it’s the failure of the intended story that usually guarantees, if not success, then the forward motion of the final story.
I am not a character-driven writer. I get really jazzed by titles and by weird scenes. If I know where my characters live, then I usually know I have the story. And then the characters have to show up like actors for a play. They audition and I’m grateful to them because the characters help the triggering event generate. The way they do that is always a surprise to me. Characters are always ambiguous because they’re modeled after people. There are trillions of scales inside of people. And usually what makes the story turn around is that one character, who has a range of ambiguity, either does something that changes the story or almost does something. It’s usually a surprise. I get surprised if I box myself in and sit with this sense of abject failure and don’t let my characters do too much.
My analogy is like those Zen stories of guys sitting on this cushion for twenty years, and they can’t get it working, so they go to the master and they say, “I can’t get it.” The master takes their heads and plunges them in the water, and then they say, “Oh, I’m enlightened!” But what they’re doing for those twenty years is setting themselves up to be enlightened and surprised. And so all I do is to set myself up, by staying still with what isn’t working. I might be cooking dinner or driving, but it’s with me and I try different things and that’s when a character surprises me. This process somehow twists and torques an anecdote into a real story. That is, it turns an incident into something much more universal. And I don’t really understand how that happens, but it does.
Rumpus: As for not understanding how things happen, after reading and re-reading your incredible collection Enchantment, I noticed that you do something so wonderful in many stories that I can’t quite describe. On one hand, the stories are so grounded in real world objects—like the map or the antique writing chest or the strapless bra in the “Mapmaker” series of stories. But you also float above this grounded-ness into something beyond the real. In “The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire,” the character is literally floating above it all, but in other stories there is also this sensation. I’ve read reviews that have both accurately and inaccurately talked about your stories as “surreal.” I cringe at that word simply because it is overused and misused. But there is something realer-than-real about your stories. Do you buy that?
Frank: Yes. I think the old-fashioned notion of “surreal” has been lost. Old-fashioned surrealism is where you take one or two extraordinary things and have them in a world that obeys all the laws of reality. So there are no angels flying around. When I was writing Heidegger’s Glasses, I was writing about people who believed in the occult but the absurdity was that they were answering letters to the dead. And I do have a kind of totemic sense of objects. They are very alive to me, and I think they often carry the past with them. But I don’t think they are going to fly around and start to do things. So I am very rooted to their existence in real space and time.
I’m also very interested in classic surrealism, where you take one thing that really couldn’t happen —like how Kafka took a guy and turned him into a bug—but after that, everything proceeds pretty logically. The world is just the world. I like that form, whatever you want to call it. Because it shows us something about the world that actually is true all the time. There’s another thing I think you’re talking about, too, and that is where something seems like it’s going to be a certain way, flowing along on a fairly realistic path, and then it references something unexpected. In “The Loneliness of the Midwestern Vampire,” there are passages where he talks about his loneliness in a kind of ordinary way and then it switches to the fact he has been lonely for two hundred years, with very solid explanations to back it up. So it isn’t surreal, but the switch is from human loneliness to a kind of eternal loneliness.
Rumpus: Yes! This also reminds me how the tension in your stories comes from a different place than other stories I’ve read. The tension comes from the unexpected. Or from the quiet moments between the big events. I’ve sat in on too many writing workshops that fixate on more overt forms of conflict and tension—loud fights and violent physical acts. But you go at it differently. I’m curious how you teach this sort of writing.
Frank: I talk about Aristotle’s three unities: unities of place, unities of action, unities of time. It’s one place, one time. Even if it is a flashback, it’s a flashback in one place and one time. I talk a lot about how if you stay within the unity, if you box yourself in, something’s got to crack open. You don’t know what’s going to crack open, but I think that tensions can arise just by sitting with smaller spaces.
Another tension that interests me a lot is tension in relationships. There is a kind of fiction that I think of as relationship-driven fiction. Raymond Carver, at his best, did that. There is one really interesting story called “Whoever Was Using this Bed,” about this couple who gets a phone call in the middle of the night. They are woken up, they are of course smoking like mad, and they get into this speculation about if one of them is on life support, would the other pull the plug. They don’t sleep, they stay up all night, and then they decide they would reveal their decision the next day. The guy goes to work—you don’t know what kind of work he does—and then he comes home and they each tell each other their decisions. There’s a small twist at the end of the story, letting you know that no one’s in control. But it’s the tension and frenzy of the relationship that creates momentum. Momentum tricks the reader into thinking that the time they’re reading about is really happening.
Rumpus: So I’ll need to speak with you offline about how you might provide insight to my own relationship issues, in the meantime… You wrote a book on voice many years ago. I suspect you wrote it before “voice” was such a trendy thing to talk about in writing. What is your take on voice today?
Frank: I think, actually, the book helped voice become kind of a meme and a kind of buzzword. I thought of voice as who you are and how you express yourself artistically—the combination of those two. If you do one without the other, you don’t have it. The writer’s voice is a tricky combination of who you are as well as how you talk—the language of your street, your inner sense of the rumble of literature, all work together, left and right brain, to create voice.
Voice is so often confused with style. But voice is the fire that gives rise to style. You can imitate a writer’s style, but at some point, it’s like swimming out to sea on a rope—you won’t get further out to write your story. You can imitate O’Connor’s style or Raymond Carver’s style, but you cannot get the story out of style. Since writing that book I’ve come to think voice is larger than what I thought it was. In addition to the voice of the line, there’s also the voice of the story. It starts to involve vision and imagination and is very hard to talk about.
One of the interesting things to me is that anyone can write a good piece of flash fiction with voice but not everyone can write something longer. Since talking about voice and then sweating myself while working hard at longer fiction and a novel, it occurs to me that one of the things we don’t have in teaching fiction is a true poetics of fiction—a way of talking about fiction without getting tangled up in the content. I would love to write about this someday.
Rumpus: Your writing has an intensity to it that makes me curious about when and how you write, even though I typically hate those kinds of questions.
Frank: I’m a sprinter, unfortunately, I’m not a marathon runner. I don’t write every day. I mean, I feel bad about not writing every day. But if I’m really on it, I sometimes wear my clothes to bed so I can get up in the morning and go right back to work. Being a writer for me is like being unemployed every time I finish a story or a novel. During that period of unemployment, I usually do my best work at night, much to the consternation of my partner. But when I’m employed again, it’s a loop, it’s the last thing I think about at night and the first thing I think about in the morning. I’m a fairly erratic writer.
Rumpus: Okay. Here is the required question: what are you working on now?
Frank: I’m working on two things. I’m working on the story that didn’t get into Enchantment and that seems to be spawning a series of stories. I’m doing that to loosen up my voice, but I’m also working on a longer novel. I know it’s a novel because I started it ten years ago and it won’t let go of me. But I don’t yet know what it is.