Published on January 11th, 2017 | by Meg Lemke0
“Inescapable Truth”: An interview with Gina Frangello about EVERY KIND OF WANTING
Every Kind of Wanting captures how I wake up some days; certainly the state of babies; and as a title, evokes the scope of human experience of desire in Gina Frangello’s brilliant “twisted novel of family” (Kirkus). There is so much plot in this book that I’m hesitant to say too much and spoil it. In brief: it is about six people making a baby and the question of who owns it, as shifting incentives and consequences clash in a modern parenthood scheme. Frangello has accomplished an immersive character-driven novel that is also bursting with events and unveiling, with birth/death/(kinky and queer!) sex/betrayal all in turn. Alternating POV between characters who are simultaneously unlikeable and relatable, and variously related to each other, creates a transcendent Rashoman effect.
Here is an anecdote, behind-the-scenes of my publishing process and mostly about me being obsessive (so wow, I related to this book). I had received the bound galleys from Counterpoint’s publicist, but then stacked them (lovely cover) with others, later pulled down and carried around for days, with unrealistic expectations of how long it takes to dash out a few emails at a cafe before you get to the reading you really want to do before after-school pick-up… (envisioning the kid forlorn on the front steps as happens when one is late at the side gate). As I read the first section, “Private Beasts,” which is actually Act III—yes, we start in the middle of it all—I began to worry. The language is so precisely chosen—what if a word was changed in proofreading? The rule is to check final copy before quoting a book, sure. I’m used to reading galleys; I end up reading graphic novels where half the book is sketched and scripted and that’s what is available for review, you go with it. I’d never felt such anxiety about my own sacred reading experience, painfully aware I could be missing the decision of even one edit mark made by the author before press.
So, I stopped and waited on the hardcover copy mailed to me, putting my own desire and wanting before the pub date deadline. And here we are — the book is out and you can and should go to your local indie to get it in your hands. Here follows my conversation with Gina Frangello, the MUTHA of adopted twin daughters and a younger son. True to the generous authoring of her novel, she cracked open the questions I offered to tell a larger story about being political, a parent, and a creator in these troubled times. – Meg Lemke
MUTHA: What was your first vision of this story? Did it start with an image, a relationship, a line? Where did it go from there as you wrote?
GINA FRANGELLO: The impetus of Every Kind of Wanting was actually a short story in my second book, “How to Marry a WASP,” which focused on Miguel and Chad’s commitment ceremony, as well as some of the details of Miguel’s past in Venezuela. I wrote the story in one day, at a residency in Ragdale, and it was published in a magazine and then appeared in my collection, Slut Lullabies, in 2010. When some of my real-life friends did a gestational surrogacy, I found myself returning to Miguel and Chad, as well as the other people in their lives like their sisters, who are supporting characters in the short story but take on major importance in the novel. This is the first time I’ve returned to characters with a “ten years later” kind of lens on where their lives went after a previous story. Usually I just write those parts inside my head, because I never really let characters go.
MUTHA: Were you surprised by the way the plot developed? While this is a character-driven book, it’s also definitely a page-turner.
Gina Frangello: This novel constantly surprised me. I often had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. I began with a very loose idea of how something well-intended, like a group of people who ultimately love each other coming together to have a “community baby,” can go off the rails when issues of ownership arise. I wanted characters who all have very deep and powerful reasons for why they need what they need and do what they do, but whose stakes are at odds with one another’s, and that often not being a matter of easy rights and wrongs. But I had no firm idea of how that was all going to manifest, on a plot level. I didn’t, for example, even know that Emily (the gestational surrogate) was going to be a point of view character until very close to the final draft when my editor, Dan Smetanka, really challenged me and pushed for her inclusion. I’d say the early versions of the novel were mostly about figuring out who everyone was, in as much depth as I could excavate, and the final version, with Dan’s help, was about how to get the plot urgency to parallel the psychological urgency.
MUTHA: It’s also super sexy (even when the sex is remembered in melancholy). What’s the trick to writing good sex? Why is it so essential to your storytelling?
GINA FRANGELLO: I don’t know that there is a trick to writing good sex, but there are several ways to avoid writing abysmal sex scenes, and probably the very first one is to disavow yourself of any notion that you are writing sex scenes with the purpose of being sexy. The best sexual writing, like Mary Gaitskill’s or Steve Almond’s or Stephen Elliott’s, is always first and foremost a form of character development—a way of pushing characters into a raw place, in interaction with one another, and forcing them to reveal who they are. Often this is messy and sad and tinged with regret and bad decision making and power dynamics that are more easily masked in other situations. Everything important—desire, demons, lies we tell ourselves and others—tends to reveal itself in the sexual arena…in real life, the only brain we can completely inhabit during sex is our own, whereas in literature, we’re able to get inside other people’s experience and learn things about them that are very different from what we learn about them in other environments, or even, sometimes, than what we would learn about a real person with whom we have a sexual relationship. In that light, I honestly can’t imagine writing a character without needing to understand intimately how that character experiences sexuality and sexual dynamics. Sometimes the results of that may also be erotic, at least to some readers. Often the results are depressing or uncomfortable. One of my very close friends in graduate school told me that my writing made him never want to have sex again—I definitely considered that as big a compliment as anyone telling me that my work is sexy.
MUTHA: Without (I think) any dogmatic intent, the book does raise questions about the consequences inherent in the many choices available to make up a family. Have you seen reactions (in reviews or from readers) who are searching for how to make a family and may have been particularly affected by the arc of the story?
GINA FRANGELLO: Some of the people who have reached out to me have spoken about their own experiences of forming families by choice, through adoption (as I did, with my first two children) or surrogacy, yes…one man I know, the husband of a man I know better, told me that the novel was scarily “in his head” and it felt like I was reading his mind, although they chose to adopt, so it wasn’t that the plots were identical. But honestly, most of what people have addressed in either reviews or in person, hasn’t been directly related to issues of surrogacy or how to make a family. More people have talked about issues of social class, race, desire, as well as entitlement and privilege. The surrogacy is seen through so many different lenses in the novel that I hope no one reads it as either prescriptive or prohibitive of that particular choice. Meredith Maran’s beautiful review of Every Kind of Wanting in the Chicago Tribune addressed the novel as primarily being about having to let go of our children and the inescapable truth that they aren’t ours to own.
MUTHA: Chapters alternate between the perspectives of very different characters. What was it like to inhabit these people? Also, there’s been much public discussion about the risks of writing characters of color as a white author; how did you (or didn’t you) take on this on in writing the stories of the Guerras?
GINA FRANGELLO: I wrote a piece about this issue on the Powell’s blog, just before the whole Shriver controversy blew up. If anything, the issue is more urgent now than ever before, in the wake of the more open, almost jubilant American racism emerging since the election. I feel, with an enormous amount of sadness, that Every Kind of Wanting has almost instantly become “historical fiction” about the early days of the Obama presidency and the wave of idealism that was sweeping the country—not only about having our first Black president, but the climate that led to things like eradicating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and gay marriage becoming legal in every state. I, living in an progressive bubble, honestly believed that that tide of progress was inescapable, but I was, like so many people, incredibly, naively wrong. Obviously the signs of that “wrongness” were there. Violence against young Black men by the police has been epidemic during the same years we had an African American family in the White House. Things are not linear. Things are not neat. With progress comes an enormous backlash of hate and rage. It is…terrifying. My daughters are not white. I can’t believe this is the world we’re asking them to inherit, as women, as people of color. I honestly never imagined a United States, in 2016, that would be embracing the level of overt racism and xenophobia and homophobia that our presidential election has sanctioned…
This isn’t really what you asked. But I think really, white people have done enough to fuck this country up. White women have done enough to sell our gender down the river and hand the presidency—and maybe the Supreme Court—over to men who do not mean us well. No people of color supported Trump in the numbers white women did. It’s devastating. I think it is absolutely crucial, now more than ever, that literature includes characters from across the spectrum of America and that doesn’t buy in to the kind of all-white, upper middle class homogeneity that passes for the “norm” and against which everything else is judged. That is not, in fact, the norm. That is not how most people live. It is the norm in publishing, where almost everyone on the entire industry-end is white, and has some measure of financial security if they can work their way up the ladder for almost no money initially, in Manhattan or Brooklyn. The publishing industry is mainly a politically progressive place, but it is also an incredibly homogenous place—editors, agents, publishers, marketing departments—in terms of race and class, and that deeply impacts who is invited to the table, as writers.
What we really need is more writers of color included at the table, not as “exotic” exceptions but in numbers proportionate to the reality of our culture. But if that were true, Latino American writers would be on the verge of overtaking white writers as the most represented, and clearly that is…nowhere near reality. It is so far from true that it is still imperative that white writers do our very best to make our own work as inclusive as possible, because we cannot rely on sufficient writers of color actually being heard and included yet. I think it’s a luxury to think that white writers “shouldn’t” write characters of color out of a danger of appropriating or colonizing. Those things are real dangers, yes, but if we are so afraid of that…well, that in a sense we refuse to ambitiously fail, then the way fear conditions us into implicit acceptance of homogenization is even more dangerous. It is all of our jobs to challenge any homogenization that passes as Normative and defines all things outside its brackets as Other. It is the job of writers to possess empathy, to do research, to push ourselves, to find readers who can advise us, to take risks. I guess to me, ultimately it’s like saying that Flaubert or Tolstoy or Lawrence got female characters wrong, and therefore we would be better off if the only female characters in all of literature were those written by the few women—the Brontes, Woolf, Austen, Wharton—who were actually invited to the table. That theirs should be the only women in novels of that era because male writers would just fuck it up. Male writers often did fuck it up. Many also tried, and I for one am glad they tried, and glad for the risks in empathy they took.
MUTHA: The theme of this book is: wanting (every kind). It is also, profoundly, about loss. Is there a moral to this story?
GINA FRANGELLO: I certainly hope there is no moral to the story. I think the novel depicts a number of characters who put their own needs and desires first, and a number of characters who subjugate their own needs and desires for other people, and that I aimed to explore the risks, rewards, thrills and dangers of both choices. There is no answer to who owns love, and to what kind of love anyone is entitled. And loss is inevitable…there is no moral choice you can make, in this life, that will inoculate you from loss.
MUTHA: Picking up on that, a question I love to ask mothers—what did you want, before you became a parent, and how did it actually turn out? Was the future you saw for yourself anything like the reality you’ve lived?
GINA FRANGELLO: I’m not sure this question can be broken down into something like a yes or no answer… in some ways, I am living a life I planned and worked very hard for and dreamed of, and in other ways, absolutely nothing has turned out the way I planned. I mean, I became a mother very volitionally, with an enormous amount of effort, as is true for everyone who adopts—my ex husband and I adopted our twin daughters from China when they were 9 months old. We were part of the very first wave of parenting in our friend group—our daughters were the oldest—so there really was no template for me, as an only child too, for how this business of leading an artistic life while parenting numerous children was to…be done. I saw a lot of friends of mine, especially women, who stopped writing, either for a long time or permanently, after becoming parents, and it was definitely a tight rope walk, to continue to produce artistically in those years and to nurture close personal and professional relationships with other women writers who are also parents and who get it, even on the basic level of how something like planning a writing group meeting, with six women who all have children, can be like herding cats.
My debut novel came out the month before my third child’s birth, in 2006. And right around that time, my parents’ health went into a simultaneous sharp decline that heralded in about eight years of a “sandwich generation” reality, where I was caretaking three young children and both of my own parents, while teaching, editing, writing. And then last year, my father died—the same year I got divorced and was diagnosed with breast cancer. Life is a very complex see-saw.
Through all of that, though, being a mother has been the most…I won’t say “simple” thing because it’s probably the most complex identity I’ve ever inhabited, but I will say being a mother has been the part of my life, at any stage, about which there is not any ambivalence for me. I am always highly wary of the kind of rhetoric that makes it sound like a woman can’t lead a full life or be her highest self without becoming a mother, because that’s incredibly…well, it’s misogynistic, reductive bullshit…but for me, I have loved motherhood as I have loved nothing else in my entire life, with a kind of full-throttle simplicity. There is no other role I’ve ever been in about which I’ve been as emotionally clear. And professionally, to think of having four books out would have been inconceivable to me at one point, too. I grew up below the poverty line and had never even met a published writer. So in those ways, even amidst other challenges, I’m living a dream come true.
MUTHA: How do you balance writing/creativity and motherhood?
GINA FRANGELLO: Honestly, the balance for me is much more how to balance the need to work full time and earn a living with creativity and my own writing. My children take a lot of my time, of course—but they also make me feel things more deeply and see things differently in ways that I think have benefited me as an artist. Plus now they’re also older—the youngest is nearly eleven—so if my life were just juggling kids and writing, it wouldn’t be much of an issue at this point. It’s more that I teach four classes a semester and edit a literary magazine and do a few independent studies and take on freelance editing clients, because of financial realities, because my writing itself pays very little. So it’s hard to find the time to write, between four days a week on campus and chauffeuring the kids around and spending time with them and taking care of the house and the groceries and the cooking and all the at-home grading and prep and other work, plus my medical situation has been pretty time consuming in the past year. But it’s also true that I’ve always been a binge writer. It’s always been some level of feast or famine, with me. I’m 48 years old, and if life has taught me anything it’s that writing is a huge part of the way I process the world and it always comes back. I’ve been busy before, but when something is truly ready to be written, it waits for nothing.
MUTHA: Who are you reading, now—who do you love (and anyone who you don’t)?
GINA FRANGELLO: I’ve been reading a strange amount of poetry, for me. I’ve also been writing poetry, because of the shortness of the form, though my poems are over-long, which is probably a cliché among writers who primarily focus on prose. I’ve been reading things like Franz Wright’s Early Poems. In terms of prose, my first love, the books I’m most looking forward to are Stephen Elliott’s new essay collection coming on Graywolf, which I understand is on its way to me in the mail right now, and Josh Mohr’s memoir, Sirens, which I read earlier drafts of and am about to read the final version. My partner is also working on a new novel, and I used to be his editor on Other Voices Books, so I still pretty much harass him to send me everything he writes five minutes after it’s written.
MUTHA: What are you working on next?
GINA FRANGELLO: If we don’t count my sudden penchant for writing poems—which I am quite certain we should not count!—I’m mainly working finishing a short story collection and an essay collection. The former is closer to done, but the latter is where more of the heat is for me emotionally, so I’m not really sure which will end up finished first.
MUTHA: Finally, if you could give a few pieces of advice to a future mother, what would they be?
GINA FRANGELLO: I would say don’t read all the books, don’t follow all the rules—motherhood is not a multiple-choice test with one right answer. Just, you know…get to know your child. Try to keep in mind that we are not the CEOs of our children’s lives—that these are relationships, like any other relationship, and it’s about the alchemy between people and about what individuals need and what styles suit them. I would certainly remind any mother who is also an artist that most of us found our art in private and solitude, so to resist the current helicopter parenting and overscheduling trends to allow your children some space and down time if you want them to become people with a complex inner life and creative impulses. I would say that if you’re really lucky, someday your kids will know how to make you laugh better than almost anyone else, and if that happens, a lot of other things in life can go wrong and your life will still remain fundamentally happy and lucky. I would also say, do not be afraid to be a real person, with your own needs. It’s strange to think women still need to hear that in 2016, but I think most of us do. And wow, I would say that even though when they’re small and it seems like the half an hour between 3:30 and 4:00 pm takes several lifetimes to pass, god, it all goes so fast.