Fran is my friend and only now am I realizing how similar the word “Fran” and “friend” sounds. We met for the first time in 2013, for coffees in Portland, Oregon at the infamous cafe Crema. We began chatting about writing, ambition, books, authors, films—life, really—and never stopped. Fran was working on a book project when we met that morning. And when I read the first version of I Don’t Blame You, I was so impressed by the emotional risks she took, the knack she had for describing the un-describable, like how the light comes through the window, or the first hours after you’ve given birth.
The book is about a young woman named Ana, who loses her mother to cancer only two months before she becomes a mother herself. While Ana was pregnant, she travels between her home in Portland, Oregon to Jersey, to be with her mother and with her family—a time that makes her reflect on a lot about her not-so-easy childhood with a not-so-mentally-healthy mother.
It made me think: about family dynamics, place, neuroses, the challenges that life throws your way when you least expect it. How do we survive it?
Fran continued with the manuscript and we continued with our compulsive talking—on the phone, emailing, meeting in San Francisco to walk around in the sun and drink rosé, in Manhattan to see a play, New Jersey for Christmas, in Portland for yoga classes. We were of the same kin, and we never once stopped writing and talking. I am so honored to talk with Fran about her novel, and can’t wait for the world to read her, as reading her is like being friends with her, and being friends with her adds depth and humor to your life, like all good novels do. I Don’t Blame You is a novel for everyone.
Frances Badalamenti is a tour de force, trained as a psychotherapist and now working as an editor and project manager. I spoke with her recently about music, therapy, rejection, and the genre that informs her unique style.
The Rumpus: You started this book about five years ago. What did the initial draft look like, versus the final outcome? I remember you were conflicted over whether it was going to be a memoir, a novel, or a short story collection.
Frances Badalamenti: At first, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I didn’t know much about book-writing and was pretty much self-taught outside of some workshops. But I was reading tons. It was that time of all the memoirs and so I figured I would just write one of those. The first draft was way more about coming-of-age during adolescence and you’ll love this—your mom read it and her only comment was that there was too much about high school partying. She didn’t care for those shenanigans. I legit took her advice and stripped a lot of that out. I ended up taking it down to the bones after that round and rewriting the front-story narrative and then it got much closer to what it is today. It wasn’t even close to being a final draft, but I should still thank your mom for that epic feedback. Who the hell would want to read about dumb ass teenagers with crimped hair partying in backwoods of Jersey?
Rumpus: At times while writing this book, you were a working therapist. How do you think therapizing other people informed you while working on the manuscript? How did it help you create Ana’s character and inner world?
Badalamenti: The book and my work as a therapist were quite intertwined during the early drafts. I would see a few clients in my office and then I would work on the book. Sometimes you would even come by and we would talk junk about writing and relationships. I was also in the process of figuring out what it meant to experience trauma and how past trauma informs a person. And I was learning how to process trauma with clients through narrative. They would tell me what happened, I would record it, transcribe it, and then narrate it back to them over and over again until I could see that the story wasn’t so loaded anymore. It was intense work and it got me thinking about my own trauma, which became Ana’s trauma in my book. I came to the realization that if you go through hard shit, you gotta really process it or else you have a hard time functioning as a person in the world and in relationships. So I decided to stop practicing as a therapist so I could focus on my book and on my own unprocessed shit. I found a really good therapist and began the process of unraveling and uncovering. A lot of my own work is evident in Ana and in the lens through which she saw her mother’s trauma.
Rumpus: I always love knowing people’s writing schedules. Give us a day in the life of Frances Badalamenti if it’s a day you’re off work and writing.
Badalamenti: Me too. I want all the details. I wake up super early and meditate and practice yoga for an hour in my dark living room. Just kidding! No really, I wake up a few hours before the two guys that I live with, so the house is quiet and I drink milky black tea and I sit in the living room and I read. Maybe I’ll plot something out in my notebook. When the dudes wake up, I open the kitchen and make breakfast, plus lunch for the kid if it’s a school day. After I shove them out the door, I tidy up the house a bit and then I go to a café and write. I’ll write for about two hours and then I am all wired on coffee and freaked out about my writing so I go to a yoga class. After getting wrung out at yoga, I’ll either go to another café or I’ll come home and work for another hour or so in my studio or at the kitchen table. All of the writing has to have something to do with a hot beverage, so once I can’t consume any more hot beverages for over-caffeinated reasons, my writing day is complete. I’ll take a hot bath or a shower and then I’ll read a bit before dinner. After dinner, I’m worthless when it comes to writing. I will generally read before bed but at some point, the kid comes into my room and we watch a couple of dumb sitcoms.
Rumpus: Your uncle is Angelo Badalamenti, of Twin Peaks musical fame. How do you think coming up with a family of musicians played into your becoming a writer?
Badalamenti: When I was growing up around all of that, I never thought that I could be a working artist. Both my uncle and my father (and a male cousin) were quite accomplished musicians, but I think because they were also such old-school Italian men, it didn’t register for me that woman could do what they did. It’s hard to articulate, but I think it was cultural. I was a kid and I was a girl and I don’t think I was taken very seriously. They were not mean or anything, but it’s just how it was. I truly believe that kids and teenagers need to be nurtured if they have talents, pushed to practice or whatever. That never happened with me. I always felt like a dope with a bad mall haircut and greasy glasses. But I did see firsthand how musicians live their lives and it definitely informed who I became as a person and later in life, as a writer. My father practiced his trumpet every single day. It was structure and there was consistency. And I witnessed my uncle working on huge film projects and how time-consuming and intense yet rewarding that could be. In a lot of ways, I observed these things for many years and once I built up enough confidence (thank you, therapist person), I finally felt that I could express myself creatively through writing. The gifts were always with me, I was born with them, but the courage wasn’t. I had to grow the courage. I had to nurture them for myself.
Rumpus: You live in Portland, Oregon, and have for years. What would you say are the pros and cons of living there? How does it inform your writing style? You also travel quite a bit and have been around the block—Amsterdam is almost a character in your book. How does traveling and visiting other cultures and environments play into your novel?
Badalamenti: You know this as much as I do—Portland is a city that is easy to hate on. It can be really annoying and cliché and trendy AF. I’ll never forget the day you said you needed to leave Portland. I basically told you to go, even though I didn’t want you to go. I was living vicariously through you, because I’ve wanted to leave ever since I got here almost twenty years ago. Since this city has undergone so much development and change over the past decade, a lot of this place is not very genuine. But there is still so much rad old vintage shit lurking in the cracks; it is also very beautiful and clean. We are lucky because we got our house super cheap a long time ago and wouldn’t even be able to afford our own house if we bought it now. So life is mostly super chill and affordable and living here has allowed me to have a base to travel and to write and to live quite well. But I can go on and on about all the dumb changes and all the annoying ass people who think it’s so precious here. You know me, though—I like writing in cafes like it’s Paris in the 1920s and you can’t do that everywhere. So I have learned not to bitch too much about The Portland Bubble.
In terms of the novel, though, a sense of place is for sure a character. I tried to speak to tension around where Ana felt like she belonged. Her roots were East Coast yet she had fled those roots and moved to Oregon. When she found out that her mother had terminal cancer, she was living and working temporarily in Holland. So she had to decide where she needed to be and for the year following that diagnosis, she vacillated between those three places. Jersey (and New York City/Brooklyn), Portland and Amsterdam. They all meant such different things to Ana. Jersey was home and it represented family, but it came with a lot of emotional baggage. Portland meant her relationship with Drew and a chill life, but she missed her home and her people. Amsterdam meant a total escapism, epic, cultured Euro life, but her work there was stressful and chaotic. So in many ways, these environments really drove the narrative. Had Ana never left home, this would have been a much different book.
Rumpus: Like all writers, you’ve gone through the ringer with rejections. What did you do when you felt really stuck on the book? How did you persist and not let those voices get you down? You write and read more than anyone I know.
Badalamenti: You saw everything that I went through. I got beat down hard by a few near publications and many, many rejections. It’s was like Eddie Murphy in his comedy special Delirious from the 80s talking about a kid dangling an ice cream cone in another kid’s face saying, “Want a lick? Psyche!” It seemed like everyone else had the ice cream and I couldn’t even get a lick. What I didn’t realize at the time was that weathering rejection is such a crucial part of the writing process. So rejection was my teacher and even though I went through many existential crises and a few nervous breakdowns, there was never a point that I was going to let this book go. And I was never going to give up writing. There were times that I did step away from the book and didn’t submit or query and ironically, one of those times was when it got picked up. But more than anything, I used literary rejection as a tool to become a better, stronger, way more humble person. There’s so much about ego that can get tangled up in an artist’s work. I used to let myself take rejection too personally. Like it meant that I sucked as a person, because in a lot of ways, I felt like I sucked as a person. Being rejected validated my own personal feelings of sucking, so I needed to learn how to fight back. And I worked the shit out hard in therapy. I didn’t want to become an art monster. There’s nothing worse.
Rumpus: The lick of ice cream is so on point! Speaking of art monsters, I recently heard someone describe themselves as “aggressively consuming culture.” You love attending theater and seeing films. Were there any specific filmmakers or playwrights that you had in the back of your mind as you structured the novel?
Badalamenti: There haven’t been any who were direct influences; although, writing this book and the novel that I have tucked away in the drawer, has for sure inspired me to want to write a screenplay. I know, every other asshole writer is working on a screenplay, but as we’ve talked about a million times—it’s something that I have been pining to do for a while. I mostly love the work of writer directors like Kenneth Lonergan and Ingmar Bergman and Noah Baumbach. I am drawn to strong character studies and super intense, emotional narratives, but I find the structure of screenwriting too hard to wrap my head around right now.
Rumpus: What’s some perks of being on an independent press and having your husband help with some of the design stuff?
Badalamenti: It has been a really positive experience working with this small, local press and being granted a lot of creative control. I’ve learned so much. As you know, I am a super aesthete and design snob and my biggest fear was ending up with bad book cover. Having a husband as a talented designer has allowed me to collaborate very closely on the cover art and the marketing bits. I’m really happy with how everything has been going. Now I just have to figure out how to sell books.
Rumpus: How does it feel to be done with a project you’ve been working on for so long? What are you going to do to celebrate?
Badalamenti: We’re going on an all-inclusive vacation. No really, I don’t have a solid plan just yet. I’m having a launch party with my friend’s band here in Portland, but decided on no other events. I’ll be in NYC for pub day so maybe I’ll do what I have always loved to do when I lived out there, which is to go to a movie, to walk around checking shit out and to sit in a park with a deli coffee. You should come in a hang with me. We can go see a play and laugh during the uncomfortable parts like assholes.
Feature photograph of Frances Badalamenti, and photograph of Frances Badalamenti and Chloe Caldwell, by John Phemister.