An Interview with Joan Frank

I recently reviewed Joan Frank’s Make It Stay, a story of love and loss set in North California wine country.  In the interview, we talk about the writing process, unreliable narrators, and the volatility of literary taste.

What inspired you to write Make It Stay?

I wanted to tell a story in the approximate shape of Ford Madox Ford’s THE GOOD SOLDIER, where two couples’ stories are told by a semi-unreliable narrator with her own stake in the proceedings.

I began with wanting to investigate the story of a perplexing, larger-than-life character in my own orbit, and expanded from there. Also: music sometimes provides a mysterious key. There’s a short piece by Tchaikovsky, in the form called barcarolle, meaning the song sung by a gondolier, one who pushes a boat along.

How do you create your characters?  Are they modeled on real life or do they get fabricated whole cloth?

Both, simultaneously. You take from life and also invent as you go.

What is your take on pleasure?  In the novel, Mike is described as a hedonist and Rachel, the narrator, constantly judges Mike because of this.

What a fascinating question! I think that Rachel cannot fault pleasure if it hurts no one else. There’s a passage in the book recalling the period when Mike and Tilda had first met, joyfully zooming around town on his motorcycle, living in a flophouse room above a delicatessen and frequenting a sordid bar. Rachel muses: “I don’t like thinking about the way they probably lived then  . . . On the other hand they harmed no one, and never pretended to be other than what they were. Isn’t there still something to be said for that?”

Can you go into your writing process?

A lot of time is spent dreaming. I’ll have a stock of random lines in a notebook, or an image. I’ll scan these, and wait for one or another to make that small silent internal “ping” of resonance, pituitary-tiny. I’ll type the line, and if it has something that tugs at me, I’ll see if I can tease a next line out of that–something like the way a mass of wool is teased into thread. I keep going where it takes me, in fits and starts. Then I comb over and over what I’ve got and push it on a little further each time, trying to be alert and compliant about where it seems to want to take me. I just keep at it that way, until I realize

I’ve got something going that has to be seen through. But I try very hard, the whole time, to “keep myself in delight.” No self-punishment, no elaborate rules or anguishing if I can help it. I’m dissatisfied and edgy during all this, of course, but also often pleased. After you live long enough you learn to shut the door against all the noise, both internal and external.

Are there specific writers who have influenced your writing?

There are so many, and it’s always so hard to name just a few. I’m a reverent fan of Alice Munro, Lori Moore, the late, astonishing William Maxwell, Gina Berriault, James Agee. Here are more, living and dead: Laurie Colwin, Mary Gaitskill, Antonya Nelson, Colm Tóibín, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nicole Krauss, Edna O’Brien, Annie Dillard, Mavis Gallant, Shirley Hazzard, Paula Fox, Mary McCarthy, Grace Paley, W. G. Sebald, Katherine Anne Porter, Somerset Maugham, Carson McCullers, Marguerite Yourcenar, E.M. Forster, Scott Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Bowen, Sherwood Anderson. Dickens. Flaubert. And first and last, the Russians: Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoevsky. Lately, Hilary Mantel. And a marvelous writer named Simon Van Booy. There are many, many others.

Any writers out there who deserve a shout-out?

So much depends upon people’s taste, and I’m more convinced than ever that literary taste’s one of the most volatile subjects around. I have tremendous admiration for Simon Van Booy, as mentioned, and would urge everyone to gather up any title of his and then clear some time, because he’ll sweep you away. The Bay Area writer Thaisa Frank (no relation) makes mysterious, reverberant, deep work. Justin Torres’ WE, THE ANIMALS blew me away.

Are there any current trends in fiction publishing that annoy you?

God, yes. I’m annoyed (and sometimes in despair) about a popular thrall for work that is saturated by a quality of self-immersed, cheeky cleverness. There’s no nourishment there, no light nor love nor help for pain. That brand of cleverness belongs elsewhere; not, for my money, to literature.

You’ve recently had a book published on writing.  Any word for aspiring writers out there?

Certainly: first, I dearly hope they will grab a copy of BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO: A WRITING LIFE (University of Notre Dame Press) and that in turn, it will delight them. To answer the question in essence? If you understand absolutely clearly that writing is what you have to do, fling yourself body and soul into making best work, believe in it, care for your health (because the body is the instrument)—and be driven.

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