So often protected by her parents because of her cystic fibrosis, A Life In Men‘s Mary lives her life on borrowed time. But when her healthy best friend, Nix, suddenly dies, Mary turns her entire life upside-down on a quest of self-discovery and life fulfillment. In this interview, author Gina Frangello talks with us about who she’d spend her time with if her own days were limited, the connections between sex and death, and what makes her next novel so different from this one.
Bookish: A Life in Men appears to be the lovechild of your first two books: Slut Lullabies, about the dynamics of sex and gender; and My Sister’s Continent, the complicated relationship between two sisters. Did any of your previous research on those novels influence this one?
Gina Frangello: Well, I’d say previous “obsessions” influenced this novel more than previous research. Slut Lullabies, my collection, which comes from various angles on gender, sex/sexuality, class, religion, and other elements of identity and power dynamics, didn’t require a great deal of research. The novels were more research intensive. My Sister’s Continent is inspired by Freud’s “Dora” case study and exists in a kind of dialogue not only with psychoanalysis but also feminist revisionists, French feminism, and quite a few literary texts. It also takes place in part in the ballet world and required a fair amount of research into Balanchine and other aspects of Kendra’s life as a dancer.
Likewise, A Life in Men required not just extensive research (more than any I’d ever done) into cystic fibrosis but also into the particular years in which Mary finds herself in different parts of the world, which are at times different by a good decade or so from when I may have spent time in a given country. And yet at the heart of it I’d say that all three books circle certain issues of body, of power, of loyalty, of recognition and acceptance, of how the past bears down on the present, on sexuality as both a form of celebration and self-destruction in turns. There is always an element of truth to that sense of writers circling and interrogating certain obsessions throughout their careers. If we push ourselves, if we go as far as we can and as we should, there’s evolution there, there’s redirection, there’s growth and discovery and epiphany and maturity. But I think the core kernels of what compels someone to become a writer usually remain as a kind of heat coil in the center of the work.
Bookish: A lot of your writing intertwines sex and death, juxtaposing high and low points that define lives. Can you talk more about why you connect the two in your writing?
GF: I mean, even the question of intertwining sex and death is so complex and can be answered from so many different angles. Sex is, perhaps more than any other form of human expression, a terrain that is both nearly universal and yet profoundly raw and revealing. It’s hard to beat it as a tool of character development and revelation, or exploring the dynamics between people (and between a character and his/her own psyche). It’s also, like food or alcohol/drugs, something that can be used as an expression of joy, a celebration of life and human connection, or conversely as a form of self-obliteration, annihilation, anger, haunting, revenge…sex is complicated. Unlike food or drugs, we need no outside source, and the origin of all this immense complication exists entirely within our own bodies.
But even beyond this truth, which is the case for any writer, and any human being, I’m particularly drawn to how sexuality manifests when the body isn’t always strictly an ally. When there’s chronic pain, or disease, or difference. We are all, of course, facing a “limited number of days.” One of the whole areas of exploration in A Life in Men is the fact that a life-shortening illness doesn’t necessarily mean you have less time than your best friend, than the person standing next to you. No one knows what’s coming. One of the great complications of life is the drive for security and stability vs. the drive to cram as much life as possible into what limited time we all have.
These urges aren’t mutually exclusive for everyone; they aren’t even necessarily at odds. Not everyone is drawn to intensity and adventure and a certain chaos. But many people are, and that draw conflicts with other needs, and other loyalties, and I’m definitely… well, part of that tribe. I live in Chicago to help care for my elderly parents, and I stay put in one place due to things like stability of my kids’ schooling, and those things can be very much at odds with my own personal desire for movement and new experience. But the truth is that every life contains the necessity of choice, and prioritizing.
Bookish: Mary struggles with knowing that her days could be limited, especially when she fights to hide her cystic fibrosis and, as a result, doesn’t take care of herself the way she should. If you were facing a limited number of days, what would you do? Where would you go?
GF: If I had a week to live, I wouldn’t have the luxury of time to focus on ways I can integrate these sometimes-conflicting desires. Love would trump that and I would be unilaterally focused on spending time with my children. By assuming more time, I’m able to aim for things like “balance.” But if I knew I would die next month or something, I wouldn’t be thinking about seeing India or Cuba. I would be holed up with my kids, trying to inhale every single second.
Bookish: What one book would you read?
GF: Which book I’d read would be impossible to call. Probably, in all honesty, whatever new books my closest writer friends were working on in that moment. If I knew I was going to die very soon, I would want to go out with my friends’ new work, to know where they were going, where they were heading as writers. I’m not sure I would revisit my favorite books, much as I love them. I think I would want to swallow bits of the future, of the writers and people who have meant the most to me, for a sense of who they would be and what they would put into the world once I was no longer physically present.
Bookish: Mary’s struggle with her illness seems to have been inspired by a number of people you’ve known: a friend with cystic fibrosis, another a cancer survivor, and your own three year struggle with chronic pain. What was the process like in melding all of these experiences into one character?
GF: Most characters are composites of real people along with being partially imagined. I was going to say most fictional characters, but even in nonfiction, even when writing about oneself, it’s never possible to capture a living person’s essence entirely in language. The character on the page inevitably takes on a life and scope of her or his own and separates from the person the writer is trying to capture, even the self. I didn’t make any effort to make Mary faithfully similar to any of the people whose life circumstances had inspired the novel. For me personally, as a writer, doing that would have crippled me and resulted in a kind of flatness, trying to hit certain “talking points” of different real people.
It took me a long time after I decided to write A Life in Men to actually… well, write it. And that’s because it took Mary a long time to present herself to me. It took a long time before I was hearing her voice and Nix’s inside my head where I was taking dictation instead of trying to replicate abstract ideas of people or concepts. I try not to even start the writing until the characters can’t be silenced and are louder than the world around me, in a kind of state of urgency that would be incompatible with attempts at replication and facsimile.
Bookish: After Nix dies, Mary goes on a journey to find herself—which includes, in some ways, becoming more like Nix. But Nix and Mary are such distinct characters. How did you decide which of Nix’s traits Mary would absorb?
GF: I’m not sure I did decide, actually. Neither of these women felt… I guess “external” enough for me to think of them in terms of things like a list of traits or something, where they would both possess some and then differ in other ways. I mean, I would probably have fun now, in retrospect, coming up with some kind of Venn diagram of Mary’s and Nix’s respective personality traits—the overlaps and divergences—but at the time they were just palpably there, and doing and acting.
I had a general sense that Nix thought of herself as a selfish person but that in reality she was someone whose immense capacity for courage and sacrifice would be revealed under pressure. I also had a sense that those traits are not merely unilaterally “good” and heroic but can carry a destructive power, too, both towards the self and towards relationships with others. I had a sense with Mary that many of the characteristics she admired and believed were outside of her own range of possibilities were actually very deeply a part of who she is, including a certain steely self-focus and hunger for experience, which she attributes to Nix but which may be more true of Mary herself.
Bookish: Did you have a favorite, of the two, to write?
GF: I found both women deeply pleasurable to write, but I think it took longer for Mary to click. Nix, both her voice and her essence, came fairly effortlessly to me, and she presented herself more fully formed.
Bookish: Your next novel, Every Kind of Wanting, also takes place in a variety of locations (Venezuela, Chicago, Michigan). Can you tell us about it?
GF: Every Kind of Wanting is much less about geographical choice than A Life in Men. It’s less about travel or wandering as self-exploration and more about displacement and necessity. Miguel and Angelina, the brother and sister who are at the center of the novel, are not like Mary and Nix in the sense of traveling for self-discovery or adventure or growth. They grow up in Venezuela, desperately poor, and are brought to Chicago by their mother after their father’s death, which happens under darkly mysterious circumstances. And various deaths and secrets keep in a sense propelling them tomove, physically—to Beaver Island, Michigan; to Miami. They are people who are in a sense exiles, whose own lives are full of truths inaccessible to them. And like many immigrant kids, reinvention is a big part of their identities, and who they are as adults seems so far afield from who they were as children that there’s a sense, too, of radical displacement or of being imposters and living someone else’s life.
Bookish: There’s also a lot of change that occurs when people travel. What place have you been to that’s had the most profound impact on you?
GF: My own life has been fueled more by travel similar to Mary’s and Nix’s. It’s been extremely formative in a positive, self-directed way. Probably the two places that have changed me the most were London, which is the first place I lived, studied, and worked outside of the United States, when I was in college and still very much in a state of rapid becoming; and China, where I adopted my twin daughters in 2001 and immediately, overnight, went from being the person I had always been to the mother of two babies who already carried their own complex and weighted history, and the priorities of my life shifted with a speed previously unfathomable to me.
Bookish: Do you have a favorite indie bookstore?
GF: I have two Chicago favorites: the seminal feminist bookstore, Women & Children First, which is one of the oldest and last feminist bookstores standing in the United States, and The Book Cellar, which is my walking-distance local and hosted my book release party for my novel and has a hell of a wine list.
Gina Frangello is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), which has been a book club selection for NYLON magazine, The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown; Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010), which was a Foreword Magazine Best Book of the Year finalist, and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). She is the Sunday editor for The Rumpus and the fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown, and is on faculty at UCR-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program in Creative Writing. The longtime Executive Editor of Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books, she now runs Other Voices Queretaro ( www.othervoicesqueretaro.com), an international writing program in the Central Highlands of Mexico. She can be found at www.ginafrangello.com