Living in the Realm of the Subconscious: Talking with Melissa Fraterrigo


From the first paragraph of Glory Days, Melissa Fraterrigo’s haunting new novel-in-stories, readers will find themselves immersed in Ingleside, Nebraska, a nuanced and richly imagined farming community with its vivid cast of strivers and ghosts and farmers living out their sometimes tragic, sometimes hopeful lives on the wind-swept Great Plains.

Glory Days centers on characters linked by circumstance and, in some cases, family ties. Luann is the adopted daughter and only child of Teensy—a farmer who lost his parents in a fire when he was a boy. Luann is also intimately connected to Gardner, a prosperous farmer, along with a troubled young man named Footer, one of the town’s most sinister residents. Through flashbacks and present-day scenes, Fraterrigo offers us startling and poignant insights into her characters’ interior lives and shadowy pasts.

Fraterrigo, founder and executive director of the Lafayette Writers Studio, and the author of The Longest Pregnancy, has great empathy for her the troubled characters, even when they are riven by their darkest impulses. Her lyrical, elegant writing has for years lingered in my mind. Recently, we corresponded about Glory Days over email.


The Rumpus: You grew up on the south side of Chicago, not exactly farmland territory. What spurred you to write a novel set in rural Nebraska?

Melissa Fraterrigo: While my upbringing was indeed set amidst brick bungalows rather than farm acreage, Glory Days is very much reflective of some of the darkest times of my adult life. In the winter of 2011, a few months after moving to Indiana, someone very dear to me was diagnosed with leukemia. Writing had always been a means for me to make sense of the world, and suddenly I couldn’t read a paragraph, much less write one. I was unable to sleep and wasn’t doing much eating. Rather than tossing and turning, I got out of bed, made myself the strongest coffee, and began to read poetry.

Rumpus: Why poetry, and not, for example, essays or short stories?

Fraterrigo: Something about the conciseness of the form really spoke to me. I found myself captured by the strength of an image and how a poet could use such imagery to allude to an emotional state that often meant more than one thing at a time. I began to pay close attention to the words on the page and even the white space that surrounded a poem. I started an image journal where I copied phrases and images that felt particularly electrifying and I really let myself dwell in the space of this language, sometimes reading and rereading the same images to gain a better impression of them.

At this time, I also found myself feeling more attuned to the landscape of Indiana—the farmland that lay dormant a few miles from my home and the stories that felt inherent in such quiet places. The year prior, I had been living in an apartment in Philadelphia, and the only land I was privy to was the postage-stamp bit of grass where I walked my dog in the evenings.

Small towns and the back roads and hard-to-get-to places of the Midwest have always appealed most to my imagination, and anytime I am working on a project, I must feel personally invested in it. Glory Days stemmed from place—the hardscrabble town of Ingleside, Nebraska, and from my own emotionally vulnerable existence.

Rumpus: What was the genesis of the book?

Fraterrigo: One day, the parking lot attendant of our local library told me he’d just come back to town, that he’d been down south burying both his mother and sister. I don’t know whether it was the look on his face or something else, but I heard a line: “Gardner hears dogs scrambling up the trees after a squirrel or a neighbor’s cat, he tells himself, eager to be calmed.” This became the first line to “Teensy’s Daughter” (eventually one of the chapters in Glory Days), but unlike other stories I had written, the characters remained with me. I had to figure out why Teensy and Gardner hated one another and I had to discover what Luann, Teensy’s daughter was doing fooling around with Gardner, a guy thirty years her senior.

I should also note that the novel was initially set in the fictional town of Ingleside, Indiana, but my editor at the University of Nebraska Press, Alicia Christensen, after sharing the sort of effusive words about the manuscript that a writer waits her lifetime to hear, asked how I might feel about moving the book’s setting further west. She wanted the book for the press’s Flyover Fiction Series, books that are set in and around Nebraska, and since I already had such a wonderful impression of Alicia and her passion for the book, I knew changing the state from Indiana to Nebraska wouldn’t much impact Glory Days.

Rumpus: There are ghosts, clairvoyants, and a number of chilling, otherworldly situations in this novel. Do you think of some of these chapters as leaning toward speculative fiction, or were you working in a realist vein that you later realized had skewed toward the speculative?

Fraterrigo: You know, my first book, a collection of short stories, The Longest Pregnancy, is definitely considered magical realism. For instance, in the title story the woman is pregnant for seven years straight. Yet in Glory Days, I was really more interested in realist work. I was reading a lot of fiction writers: Ann Pancake, Cormac McCarthy, Stewart O’Nan, Michelle Hoover, Breece D’J Pancake, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Daniel Woodrell, and Kent Haruf, as well as the poets Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Sharon Olds, and Diane Gilliam Fisher. A lot of these authors write really atmospheric work that adds additional layers to the narrative.

I wish I had a definite reason for why the work “skewed toward the speculative”—which is totally accurate. All I can say is that I was surprised by it and I really love these sorts of surprises. I think as writers, when our work amazes us, we really are in the thick of the creative process—living in the realm of the subconscious. As I mentioned, this person in my life was ill and I suppose I was fixated on death. This certainly comes out in “Fredonia the Great,” when Fredonia, a woman who works at the Glory Days amusement park, is skilled in the way of “laying hands,” allowing her to experience the deaths of those living or dead. When I discovered Fredonia had this power, I wasn’t quite certain how she fit with Teensy and Gardner and Luann, but as I focused on what I knew about Ingleside and its reliance on the land, I worked backwards from “Teensy’s Daughter” to figure out why Teensy and Gardner had such animosity toward one another and I needed to understand why Teensy was so financially strapped. I knew it had something to do with the farmland and that fact people in this community were cut off from the land. When I realized developers bought up acreage and erected an amusement park—Glory Days—this both ushered in dark times and also helped me combine both the fantastic elements of the book with its more realist components.

Rumpus: You published many of these chapters as stand-alone short stories. How did this book first come together? Which story/chapter is the first one you wrote?

Fraterrigo: Well, “Teensy’s Daughter” was the first chapter that I wrote and while I was working on it I really didn’t think I was doing anything other than writing a story, only unlike anything else I had written; after I finished the chapter I kept thinking about all of these characters. Soon I had written about Gardner and Teensy as boys and how Teensy moved in with Gardner’s family after his own parents perish in a fire. I also wrote about Luann’s birthmother, and while these pieces in their entirety never made it into the complete manuscript of Glory Days, they informed it nonetheless.

I was reading a lot of novels-in-stories at that time—Cathy Day’s The Circus in Winter, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge—and I really became attracted to this form and how some of these novels-in-stories were tightly written as novels, whereas others offered more ambiguity, with greater leaps of time. The gaps that existed in the latter reminded me of poems and how the author acknowledged that space existed alongside the form and that it was very much a part of the narrative—a pause where I felt welcome to add my own impressions.

Rumpus: Luann is adopted and loses her adoptive mother at a young age. Footer, a dangerous character Luann eventually throws her lot in with, also lost his mother very young and is raised by a violent uncle. Teensy likewise lost his parents as a child—did you consciously create these characters with the theme of fractured childhoods in mind?

Fraterrigo: I love this question mainly because it harkens back to how much of writing dwells in the subconscious. While I really wasn’t aware of how Teensy, Footer, and Luann shared fractured childhoods, I was mindful of how one’s formative years can influence a character’s struggles and triumphs. My own father lost his dad when he was thirteen years old and I witnessed firsthand how this influenced him. From an early age he learned about uncertainty and heartache and how you can share breakfast with someone near and dear to you, and then they can be gone a few hours later, without the chance to even say goodbye. There were times as a child when my dad would use this to make an impression and it always frightened me, even going so far to remind us that he could die tomorrow and how would we manage some challenge or other?

Sometimes, no matter how much time passes, a person is unable to recover from their upbringing. This could certainly describe my dad and our experience growing up with him. Teensy, Footer, and Luann were similarly haunted by their youths.

Rumpus: The Glory Days carnival from which the book draws its title is a highly evocative and important element, along with being a vivid physical setting where some pivotal events occur—is Glory Days based on a specific country carnival you’ve visited?

Fraterrigo: I love amusement parks, especially Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. Such parks evoke the American culture and all its conflicts like no other place I’ve visited.

Rumpus: What were some of the books, films, music, and/or art that influenced you as you wrote Glory Days?

Fraterrigo: I loved All the Real Girls and Winter’s Bone, and it seems I am always listening to Patty Griffin, Nick Drake, and Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator). And, as mentioned above, I was reading a lot of novels-in-stories at that time—Cathy Day’s Circus in Winter, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, etc. and much, much more.

This might sound odd, but my students also inspired this book. I am honored to read their work and have the opportunity to talk with them about literature and their writing in a live classroom setting. I love how my students bring with them a range of experiences and as such we have the opportunity to learn from one another. No matter how much I might be struggling with my current project my students compel me to try and be a better writer—to work harder, read closer, and sit down at my desk despite the doubts that threaten to halt every project.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

Fraterrigo: I’m working on a YA/MG novel about an epileptic teen who attempts to restore his mentally ill father to their town’s good graces.

Christine Sneed is the author most recently of The Virginity of Famous Men. Her stories have been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, The Southern Review, and Ploughshares. She has received the Grace Paley Prize, the 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, the Society of Midland Authors Award and has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She lives in Evanston and teaches for Northwestern University's and Regis University's MFA programs. More from this author →