And now I'd like to welcome an amazing female author from my neck of the woods, Chicago, who I really admire: Gina Frangello. She has a powerful collection of short stories out now that is called SLUT LULLABIES.
Let's meet Gina, shall we?
Q: Tell us about your new collection of short fiction, SLUT LULLABIES? I'm a very character driven writer and from reading these stories, I can tell you are as well. Perhaps introduce us to some of the characters we will meet in these stories and why you were inspired to write about them?
GINA: Yeah, I'd say "character-obsessed" would be pretty apt, actually. You can probably relate to this--I mean, when I'm writing a story or a novel, I usually get so overtaken by it that the characters in the story seem temporarily more real to me than those in my actual life . . . once in awhile, this can be a serious problem! But mostly, it's short-lived enough to just be really fun and exciting, like getting to live alternate lives.
The characters in SLUT LULLABIES are, I hope, very diverse. The oldest is a late-middle-age headmistress of an exclusive preschool whose money is dwindling as her husband slowly dies of a debilitating illness, and the youngest is a blue collar high school girl in rural New Hampshire, who is trying to seduce her English teacher in order to blackmail him into giving her the money her pregnant stepmom needs to escape their abusive home. Two of the 10 protagonists in the book are male: in "How to Marry a WASP," Miguel is a cynical gay Latino who grew up rough in Caracas and is now marrying a very privileged, idealistic man who comes from old, North-Shore-of-Chicago money. In "Attila the There," Camden is only sixteen when his mother abruptly moves him to Amsterdam, but he's already haunted by complicated sexual misdeeds in his past, and struggling to reinvent himself in a new world where the gender roles are difficult to navigate. In one of my favorite stories, "What You See," an Intelligent Woman and a Beautiful Woman are embroiled in a turbulent friendship full of jealousies and misconceptions, when in truth their struggles and insecurities are not so dissimilar. In the title story, shy Emily, one of the most likable characters in the book I think, must negotiate her emerging sexual identity with that of her promiscuous mother's--a former party-girl who is now dying of breast cancer . . .
Wow, starting to describe all the characters just makes me realize all the things I'm leaving out. Probably my favorite "voice" in the book belongs to an unnamed narrator who is addicted to painkillers, cheating on her husband, and possibly a bit of an emotional sociopath . . . though I mean that, I hope, in a loving way. I love all the characters in the book, even the most flawed--or maybe especially the most flawed.
Q: If SLUT LULLABIES (or certain stories in particular within it) had a soundtrack, what are some of the songs that would be on it and why?
GINA: I'm in the middle of making a soundtrack for Largehearted Boy right now, so I don't want to preview it too extensively here since I've committed to doing that, but let's just say that my list is wonderfully and disproportionately full of music from the 1980s and 1990s--my soundtrack will definitely not be filling any kind of "Steve-Almond-like" purpose of introducing readers to entirely new, cutting-edge bands they've never heard of, but I hope it will remind many readers to revisit old favorites, or maybe connect some younger readers to music slightly before their time, but that would still resonate deeply with people in their teens or 20s today. I wrote most of the stories between 1996 and 2006 (before starting my most recent novel, which my agent is shopping right now), but I've recently realized that my characters tend to exist around 5-10 years behind where I am in my own life, so the music of my high school (through graduate school) days is really most prevalent here. And a lot of female vocalists. Ani DiFranco. Tori Amos. Beth Orton. Emmylou Harris. Early Sarah McLachlan. Some weird surprises, too, though, who don't fit that mold at all, like the Latin rock band Jarabe de Palo . . .
Q: Who are some of the people that inspired you to become a writer or keep writing? Since it is Women Who Rock Wednesday, we particularly love to hear about the women, but feel free to include men too.
GINA: I've had a number of mentors in my writing life, both male and female. But in terms of inspiration to write to begin with--hands down, that would be my mother. I grew up in a very working class Italian/Latino neighborhood, and not only was writing fiction pretty much an unheard of activity for a young girl (or anyone for that matter!), but even being studious or reading a lot of books was kind of frowned upon and regarded as weird, dorky, and probably indicative of the fact that you would end up an unattractive spinster living at home with your parents until they died, and then moving into the home of some male relative and his wife and caring for their kids as a way to earn your keep. This sounds like I'm being sarcastic, but seriously, when I was a kid everyone I knew either worked at a grocery store, drove a truck, waitressed, bartended, or maybe--at the top of the pyramid--was a cop. The fact that my mother was a secretary in an office and wore heels to work was seen as very strange and potentially indicative that she was a snob. Nobody went to college, and although young girls were judged almost singularly on how pretty they were, by the age of thirty most people lived lives almost like the elderly, wearing housedresses and sitting on their porches all day, gaining a lot of weight and just watching the world go by. Though we were all poor, most women did not work outside their homes unless they were divorced, and quite a few women--my mom included--did not even know how to drive.
Amid this culture, I had a mother who took me to the library constantly, bought me diaries, brought home those butcher-rolls of brown paper and would meticulously cut them into stacks of blank pages and give me the privacy--difficult to carve out in our small apartment--to write stories and, by the time I was 10, a fledgling novel. She listened to me yammer about my characters as though they were real people and brainstormed with me about what might "happen next" in their stories. Yet she also backed off and respected my space if I didn't want to show her my work. I didn't major in creative writing in college because I already understood that for most people, "writing doesn't pay," and I needed to make money to pay back student loans and probably support my parents in their old age. But the fact is that I was ALREADY a writer when I got to college, and it was too late for anyone to beat it out of me--even when I tried to beat it out of myself by majoring in psychology, and even getting my master's in counseling and practicing as a therapist for several years. My mother allowed me to "become" a writer in an environment where doing so was exceedingly rare and not remotely supported or encouraged.
I've had later women mentors, such as the writer Cris Mazza--a former professor of mine--or my fabulous agent, Ellen Levine. But without my mom, I would probably have gotten married at eighteen and never done almost anything I've done in my life, including writing.
Q: What's next for you? What are you working on now?
GINA: I have a novel coming out in 2011, LONDON CALLING (with a lot of musical influences actually!), and my agent is shopping my newest novel right now, which is called A LIFE IN MEN and is about a woman traveler with Cystic Fibrosis and is framed between the time of the Lockerbie Disaster (1988) and 9/11. So there's a lot on the horizon, but lately I haven't been writing that much--I've been too busy with other pursuits, from my three kids to my life as an editor or my teaching, and also doing a lot of touring and promoting for SLUT LULLABIES, which can feel like a full-time job. But I recently wrote a new story--my first piece of short fiction in literally four years--so that was unbelievably gratifying and exciting for me.
I'm also going to Kenya in December because I won the Summer Literary Seminars contest, judged by Mary Gaitskill, who is one of my favorite writers, and the winner basically gets an all-expenses-paid trip to Kenya for two and a half weeks. My husband and kids are coming out at the end and we're going to do a family safari . . .
I'm not one of those writers who writes every day. Or every week. Sometimes I don't write for six months, and once I didn't write for an entire year. When I write, I binge on it. It's all I can do. I couldn't sustain that on a daily basis. But I've always been that way, and it's a system that works for me. I don't choose when to write, exactly--it chooses me. It's not a discipline or a "practice" so much as a compulsion that wins out over all my other efforts to schedule my time, or all my sanity . . .
I should add, of course, that I always read constantly. Unpublished work, published work, short fiction, novels, creative nonfiction. Between editing, teaching, reviewing and just reading for pleasure, I read the equivalent of several books each week. I think this keeps a writer "fit" between marathon seasons, so to speak . . .
Q: In addition to writing, you are the executive editor and co-founder of Other Voices Books, which I'm sure is something a lot of my book-loving blog readers would be interested in hearing about. Can you talk a bit about that job, how it evolved, and how it informs you as a writer?
GINA: You know, I do a lot of different things in the writing world, but nothing has informed my work as much as my journey with Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books. When I finally accepted that I was not going to be able to have a career outside the writing arena, because I simply became too obsessive about my writing and couldn't commit fully to anything else, I defected my job as a therapist, where I was making 50 bucks an hour in 1993, and went back to grad school at University of Illinois-Chicago, in the Program for Writers, where initially I made no money at all. I had not been an English major and had not read any of the "right" things for a writer. I didn't know what the word "postmodern" meant. I didn't understand the difference between indie publishing and self-publishing. I had only ever seen a couple of literary magazines in my life. I mean, I was very much a neophyte to that entire world, even though I'd been writing since childhood. One of the first ways I tried to immerse myself in writing culture was to volunteer as a "first reader" on the editorial staff of Other Voices magazine, which was housed at UIC . . .
I loved the work more than I could possibly have anticipated. When the two longtime assistant editors stepped down simultaneously in 1997, I took their place, and when the founder of the magazine, Lois Hauselman (she was another great mentor to me!) stepped down in 2002, I took over as the Executive Editor of the journal. In 2005, one of the other editors, Stacy Bierlein, and I decided we were going to launch a book press from the magazine, and we co-founded Other Voices Books. We didn't know anything about book publishing. We had to start from square one, learning about different distributors and about book tours and sending galleys out to the media. We had founded the press because of the ways we saw corporate New York publishing marginalizing the short story form. A lot of agents and editors in New York wouldn't even read collections anymore, due to the prevailing belief that they just "don't sell." Stacy and I knew all these amazing writers who had been widely and reputably published in lit magazines, who had won contests and awards, but who could not even find anyone who would read their collections and were always being told, "Call me when you have a novel." We launched the press to champion short story collections and themed anthologies--just a couple per year, but in an extremely intensive way--and provide writers and readers with one more outlet that would keep the short story form alive and thriving as a part of literary culture. We felt there were many literary magazines doing this, but fewer book presses (or at least not enough), so in 2007 we closed Other Voices magazine in order to focus exclusively on book publishing.
We now have a novel series too, the Morgan Street International Novel Series, focusing on fiction set outside the United States, which is another area we feel is weak in corporate publishing. The big publishers tend to put out one or two highly publicized "exotic" books per year, and so even if those are great writers, we feel like this is really insular and limiting. Our first title in the series is CURRENCY by Zoe Zolbrod, about animal smuggling and a cross cultural love between an American woman backpacker and a Thai man. It's an extremely gripping story--a great beach read as well as intelligent and provocative--but a lot of publishers didn't want to take a chance on it because of its setting in Thailand or the fact that one of the narrators is a Thai man. That character, though, whose name is Piv, is one of the best characters I've ever read in contemporary fiction; I consider it a real privilege to be the one to bring him to the world in book form.
There's probably nothing new I can say about the way editing informs me as a writer, so I will just say for the record that there is probably nothing anyone CAN do as a writer that would inform their work more. Reading dozens and dozens of submissions every week for the past fifteen years has done more in terms of teaching me about common foibles and mistakes writers make, and how to edit and revise my own work, as well as themes or ideas or phrasing that is over-used, than any MFA program or fancy workshop in some glamorous setting every could. It's taught me even more than reading published, brilliant books, because if all you read is brilliant material, you don't necessarily learn how to differentiate what works from what doesn't. And beyond the ways editing informs my own work, it's also demystified the publishing and submission process for me. A lot of writers think editors are living some cushy life up in a tower somewhere, blithely rejecting them, but of course most of us are writers ourselves and a vast majority of us are either unpaid or radically underpaid. We do this as a labor of love. We take time from our own writing and from paying work to do it. We want nothing more than to fall in love with a piece we read and make a connection with a new writer. We are not callous. If someone were callous in this field, they would be extremely foolish. You can be better paid for your callousness elsewhere. The only reason to do this work is love, period.
Q: I have two standard questions for my women who rock. The first is a two-parter. What was the first album you bought and the first concert you attended? Be honest, we don't judge :)
GINA: Oh my god. Probably that Dolly Parton album with the single "Jolene" on it in 1974?! I must have been six years old. I heard the song at my cousins' house and become totally enamored of it and made my parents buy me the album. My poor parents--they were jazz fans. The most "commercial" they ever got was my mom listening a lot to the folk singer Kenny Rankin. They were suicidal listening to me wander around singing country music all day, with Dolly Parton on repeat.
I don't remember precisely my first concert. I grew up here in Chicago and concerts were kind of everywhere. I heard Ministry and Siouxie and the Banshees at clubs here in the city when I was sixteen or seventeen, on this really casual basis--you'd just show up somewhere, like Medusas or Smart Bar, and they'd be there playing. I think one of my early concerts was Eurasure playing with Echo and the Bunnymen, though. We saw them outdoors, I remember that, so I assume for that one I must have bought actual tickets and gone there purposefully to see the show. There was a lot of good music happening everywhere in the 80s. And nothing was expensive yet. It was a good time.
Q: Tell us about your biggest rock star moment, perhaps it's a moment of real success in your career, a time when you met someone super cool and had that Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" moment, or just a time where you felt like you got the rock star treatment. I get a huge variety of answers for the questions, so it's pretty much whatever "rock star moment" means to you!
GINA: Well, I made a total fool of myself gushing at Dorothy Allison once at Columbia College's Story Week about how much I loved her work . . . but I'm going to go with the interpretation of this question of "when did I feel like a rock star?" And I'm going to say that one of the best nights of my entire life was my recent Chicago release party for SLUT LULLABIES at Katerina's jazz club on Irving Park. There was nothing bizarre or celebrity-culture about the night or anything . . . it was just that the turn-out of support was kind of overwhelming. The place was really packed, and everyone was so happy and warm and enthusiastic. I wore a pretty dress and I got to drink champagne, whereas at my first release party (for my novel My Sister's Continent in 2006) I was 9 months pregnant and so swollen I was wearing my mom's shoes because mine didn't fit. I recently spent a week in Los Angeles, and I had some interesting and maybe more eccentric or "glam" readings out there (one at Hustler Hollywood!), but nothing can top a real outpouring of love and support from the city that knows you best, and the people you know and love best. That night at Katerina's was one I'll always remember.
This sounds like such an amazing moment and it is so true. My local launch party was my favorite as well and I love love love what Gina said about her mom.
Now that you have learned more about Gina and SLUT LULLABIES, you probably want the book more than anything, right? Well, you are in luck! Gina is giving out a signed copy to one lucky winner.
To enter all you have to do is leave a comment. However you can gain additional entries:
+1 for tweeting or posting on facebook about this interview
+1 for tweeting or posting about SLUT LULLABIES.
+5 for blogging about SLUT LULLABIES.
Note your additional entries in your comment as well as giving me an email address or some way to contact you if you win.
I'll announce the winner on July 28th when my guest is Shari Maurer!