stuck/unstuck: Gina Frangello on inner conflict
In life, we are destined, it seems, to repeat certain experiences until the meaning or lesson of the experience is conscious. Since the writing life is not separate from life-life, can you share how you’ve moved through a certain block that had always influenced (hampered) your writing process? How did you enter, tolerate, remain with the internal conflict you were dealing with, how did it show up in your writing, and how did it, eventually, resolve?
Continuing our stuck/unstuck series with contributors from the anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience, is Gina Frangello, whose co-edited and contributed to the collection. Gina is the author of the critically acclaimed novel My Sister’s Continent. She is the executive editor and co-founder of Other Voices Books and the editor of the fiction section at The Nervous Breakdown. She is the weekend fiction editor of The Rumpus.
by Gina Frangello
I recently sold my third book of fiction . . . but like many writers, this is merely the third book I’ve sold, not the third book I’ve written. It’s actually the fifth: four novels and one short story collection. Two of the novels remain unpublished–one was slotted for publication a couple of years ago but the publisher went bankrupt, and the other has never really made very serious submission rounds. My (former) agent sent to a few places, but we quickly took it off the market due to my uncertainty that it was really “ready.” I thought that novel might still need a lot of reworking, though I was soon onto another project and have yet to return to figure out what such reworking might entail. Anyway, that’s a long preamble to indicate that–like many writers who are now forty-something–I’ve produced rather a lot of work, only some of which has made it into book form . . .
What I realized, however, only recently, is that the work I focused on from my early twenties until selling my latest novel in July (shortly after my forty-third birthday), is that all of my fiction has been, to date, variations on a particular kind of dynamic between two women. Through four novels and many (though not all) of my short stories, I have worked and re-worked, reinvented and attempted to exorcise the same old story that once played in my own life: that of two young women who are intensely–even passionately–connected to and intimate with one another, who ultimately suffer a rift. The similarities go deeper than that, too. In each project, one of the women (and they range in my fiction from age 13 to their early 30s) makes a heroic, though ultimately misguided, effort to “save” the other from an outward danger, real or imagined, and some fairly terrible things happen as a result, ultimately setting the rift on its course. In two of the novels, one of the two girls ends up dead; in two others, the severing is so extreme that it might be fair to say one of the two is “missing” by the novel’s end. In other words, the attempts to rescue are radically unsuccessful–even calamitous and a burden–despite coming from places of love. Heroism doesn’t pay off for these characters. Girls, in some places–the dark places I tend to write about–are simply too easy to “erase,” either by violence or by their own self-destructive hands. Or so it seems on the surface . . .
Many writers, of course, revisit the same psychological themes or demons over and over again. Milan Kundera, one of my favorite authors, could surely be accused of this. But upon this realization about my own fiction, I had the urge, I guess you could say, to . . . be done with this conceit. To move on, conceptually and in terms of character dynamics. All the plots of my novels differ radically. One is based on a Freud case study; one is a literary thriller set in the traveler’s subculture of London in the late 1980s; one follows a terminally ill woman traveler around the world as she collects lovers and tries to outrun death; and finally–the one I never really tried hard to publish–is about two young girls, cousins, who come of age in an Italian-American neighborhood in the early 1980s, amidst a culture of rabid misogyny and abuse and gangs and petty Mob crimes, and who try desperately and valiantly to hold on to one another in a world that doesn’t prioritize relationships between young women–that doesn’t prioritize them–and in which they both ultimately become different kinds of prey. In other words, this final novel–while there are elements of “me” in everything I write–is the “autobiographical” one, and the emotional template for the others. It focuses on two characters extremely similar to myself and my same-age cousin, growing up, and all the ways we needed, loved, worshipped, saved, sabotaged, betrayed and lost one another on the way to adulthood, and in my struggle to leave my neighborhood behind.
I think I kept reworking this concept/relationship in numerous other projects because I didn’t feel I had done it “right” in the early novel I tried to write, autobiographically, about my own youth. Ironically (and cathartically), I ended up doing a much fuller job of it in its other–more fictional–incarnations. Only lately, examining all this, and the threads buried through all my novels like a map to some central hidden place where the treasure or the demons are hidden, did I realize that I think I’m finally . . . done. That I’ve explored this dynamic enough; that I understand what I can understand about it–that my characters and plots and fictional worlds are straining to break beyond into new terrain.
I still may, someday, revise that early novel, for its own sake. There are still things l love about it. But I doubt that its echoes will continue to follow other, new characters into their fictional worlds the way they used to. I feel I have finally done them some kind of justice, and honored them enough–and now I can let them go.