Gina Frangello on Identity, Characters That Bleed and the Chasm of Language

An Interview with the author of Every Kind of Wanting

Six lives converge for a surrogacy in Gina Frangello’s gut-punching novel, Every Kind of Wanting (Counterpoint 2016). Six people want, as Frangello says, “for [a] three-pound infant to save their lives,” and yet the desperation of each character — for truth, for acknowledgement, for legitimacy — consumes and ruins them. Some context: Frangello’s work centers on four Chicago area couples — Lina, an unreliable narrator and stripper, and her femi-nazi academic girlfriend and dom, Bebe; Lina’s brother, Miguel, who is haunted by his past in Caracas, and Chad, Miguel’s husband — they’re the ones who want a baby. Chad and Miguel involve various members of the moneyed North Shore in their quest: Gretchen, Chad’s sister, who donates her eggs to the cause, and Gretchen’s abusive husband, Troy, who she does not inform of her decision, the men also pull in Emily, the surrogate, and her husband, Nick, a playwright whose ties to Lina are questionable. In the midst of this tangled setup — one involving lies and pretense from every character as the baby is conceived — Frangello writes about how emotional vulnerability in relationships is as much a calculated decision as the lies we tell each other.

Frangello and I had the opportunity recently to discuss her story, as well as the satisfaction of telling stories through layers of perspective.

Heather Scott Partington: Lina says that “all empathy involves a kind of method acting.” In some ways, this novel looks at human emotion from an outsider’s view — many of the characters are trying to figure out how they should appear to feel as much as how they should actually feel. Every Kind of Wanting speaks to the duality of our persona — the interior vs. the exterior. Was that something you wanted to focus on? How has your approach to writing changed as you’ve published each successive novel?

Gina Frangello: I love this question because it was — yes — so much something I wanted to focus on, and there’s a thrill when an early reader identifies that. On both a craft level and a psychological level, I’m fascinated by what numerous points-of-view can offer a novel, in terms of the ways in which characters’ different truths contrast markedly. Perhaps nowhere is this more visible than in the schism between how a character perceives herself or himself, vs. how they appear in other characters’ narratives…so that, alone, is something I very much wanted to explore.

However, taking that a step further, yes: some of the characters in Every Kind of Wanting are also explicitly attempting to put on a kind of public face that contrasts significantly from their inner lives. The gap between who we may want to be seen as, vs. who we fear we are in the darkest corners of our psyches, is a deeply compelling space to excavate, for me as a writer.

I also love, in terms of point of view issues, creating the tension between whether the various characters’ points-of-view are even reliable and real. I was doing a lot of that in my early writing too, but back then I fretted over it, since I was often told that this kind of thing made my work unmarketable and too “cerebral.” I worried I’d never get published if I didn’t conform more to what the market expected, particularly of women writers, but I’m not sure I could have conformed to that even if it had been my desire. My brain just doesn’t work in those kinds of linear or binary ways, maybe. Janet Burroway has that great quote that, in fiction, “only trouble is interesting.” To me, only complexity and layers and contrasting truths are interesting. I’ve become unapologetic and don’t worry anymore about the “marketability” of things. There are amazing people like Counterpoint’s Megan Fishman to do that for me, but on a deeper level I also think “the market” is a diffuse and illusory entity and that making any attempts to cater to it just send a writer in wrong and inauthentic directions. It thrills me when a writer like Lidia Yuknavitch, who was once publishing on avant-garde imprints and definitely being judged as too damn weird and edgy for the mainstream market, is now a bestseller for essentially doing the same kinds of body-centric, language-centric work she’s always done. “The market” isn’t actually…you know…a sentient being. It’s just a set of conjectures posited by various disparate people in marketing meetings. A lot of times they get it wrong. Writers can only follow their own heat — that’s what makes writing compel us.

HSP: One of the most wonderful things about Every Kind of Wanting is how you write with sympathy for each character’s limited perspective. The idea that “we’re all the heroes of our own narratives” — there’s no clear bad guy in the story, although a case could be made for that role being shared a bit by everyone. Were you influenced by any stories or other writers as you took on that approach? I wondered as I was reading if your experience with trying to write the (capital letters) Other, which I’ve heard you speak on several times, informed how you tried to look into what makes people act in ways that unintentionally hurt those around them.

GF: In terms of literary influences, one of the pieces of fiction that made the biggest impact on me, and speaks in an implicit way to our all being heroes of our own narratives, is the section in The Unbearable Lightness of Being where Kundera gives us Sabina and Franz’s “Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words.” Essentially, Kundera interrogates the deep meanings that various words or concepts hold for the two, and the chasm of misunderstanding that is often unavoidable between people, even lovers or siblings, who each bring their own deep subtext to everything, and to whom nothing can possibly mean exactly the same thing. That section of the novel — I know it’s not in vogue to praise Kundera these days, and that he’s become pretty stagnant and politically outdated in his current work — but he taught me more about the editorial omniscient point of view than any other writer, and he also taught me things about the subjectivity of truth that were explosive to me as a fiction writer creating characters who would, yes, be the heroes of their own narratives, rather than simply foils for one dominant worldview in a novel.

That all comes to play in issues of writing the Other, too, of course — whatever Other may mean to a given writer. I’m massively against the idea of “representation,” i.e. that if I write a character who is bi, or Latino, that character is supposed to somehow embody all bisexual or Latino people and serve in any way to “educate” the reader about cultural and political issues. A novel may engage cultural and political issues, obviously — arguably more American novels should do so, according to many critics, though I would actually say that many do, and that sometimes “political” is defined too narrowly. But what I mean is that no one expects a white character, or a straight character, to serve in these representational ways — no one thinks Jonathan Franzen’s characters, for example, are supposed to represent All Straight White People — but readers and sometimes even astute critics will sometimes read fiction about various marginalized or repressed groups through that kind of lens. The problem behind that phenomenon is that much of the public erroneously and offensively continue to view Whiteness or heterosexuality as somehow cultural default norms, against which everything else is seen as “alternative” or “exotic” or “other,” and therefore homogenous in their opposition to straight whiteness, which is granted multiplicity and individuality in the cultural consciousness while anything else is often reduced to collectivity alone. And basically, I think that’s grotesque and false. I wrote extensively about this for the Powell’s blog recently, but at the bottom line what I mean is that we all bring so much deep individual subconscious material to our own realities, and identity politics is, of course, a part of that whole, but the differences between any two people of any particular “category” — two Italian-American women raised in Chicago in the 1980s — are still going to be so enormous that any illusion of representation is going to be not only false but flat. Characters have to breathe and bleed. In order to do so, they can’t be object lessons or political agendas or allegories. Writers have to be fearless and irreverent about anyone whose skin they crawl inside on the page — I would rather make spectacular mistakes, ambitiously and out of love for and intimacy with the characters I’m portraying — than to create something bland and safe and reductively instructional.

Characters have to breathe and bleed. In order to do so, they can’t be object lessons or political agendas or allegories.

HSP: Can you talk about why you structured the book the way you did? I didn’t realize until after I finished it and went back to the beginning that you start with Act III, and then go to I, II, and IV.

GF: I’m very interested in characters telling their own stories, and in order to play with that, structurally, at least one of the characters needs to be speaking from a vantage point of already knowing what “happens,” so to speak. I’m less enraptured by stories where the characters are just getting whalloped in the face by the plot and we’re watching them reel and there’s no sense of retrospective perspective or volition as to what is revealed and when. I don’t like “this happened, so that happened, which made the other thing happen” and we just sit there like passive spectators, watching the collision. I like a character’s ability to have volition and a kind of curation of the narrative, and in that sense I have a tendency to open novels — all three of my novels have opened this way, to varying degrees and in different ways — from a point that isn’t “the beginning” on the timeline. I don’t believe in starting at the beginning, maybe, because only from a later lens can we really understand what the beginning even was of a particular story.

HSP: One of the characters mentions the adage that history is written by the victors. In some ways, and I mean without a hint of nuance that this is a thing I love, this story is a history written by beautifully damaged and well-meaning losers. Stories are how we bear witness — just like relationships — another point made by a character in Every Kind of Wanting. Do you think that’s the particular benefit of story over history? Or am I making too much out of this tiny distinction? What was the first germ of this story that came to you?

GF: I could not agree more that this is one of the great beauties of literary novels — the ability not to have a glossed over “version” of the past created by those who most benefitted from given events. Art — and I, too, mean without a hint of nuance or irony that this is a thing I love — is the imaginative space that allows us to enter terrain on which history has often closed the door. Many novels engage that space far more than Every Kind of Wanting, which is a story about contemporary times and primarily focuses on people who, although they are very troubled, are also educated and have ways of expressing their own voices and stories, should they choose. But I’m thinking of a novel like Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account — you know, art is the space where we can explore facets and hidden doorways and silenced stories that didn’t make it into the history books. My debut novel was a retelling of Freud’s “Dora” case in ways that attempted to allow the young woman to speak for herself rather than being reduced to meaning by a middle aged man in a role of authority over her, potentially acting out after the “rejection” of her terminating therapy. From Morrison’s Beloved to the down and out drunks and “losers” in, say, Bukowski, novels allow us to explore the underbelly of history and move outside of the accepted textbook view of what human life looks like. It’s important to note that of course often there are actual recorded histories that reflect similar terrain (12 Years a Slave is a powerful example), but many times those narratives aren’t widely accessed by the public until art somehow draws greater attention to them.

Every Kind of Wanting was inspired by a real-life gestational surrogacy, and like much in the way of fiction, I was attempting to get at certain emotional truths by changing the facts. It might be said that novels try to get at the emotional truths left out by history — things invisible from the outside by just looking at the “end result.”

HSP: “A word about desire: there are no words about desire.” This refrain appears several times, yet it hangs over the desperate wanting that we see from everyone. I love how the ineffability of loving children, siblings, parents, and lovers is interrogated. “I don’t need to tell you about that night,” Lina writes,

“I don’t want to write about our first night because of what it means to me, and how schmaltzy, how cliché the narrative of adultery is, and how the act of pinning the words to the page like butterflies no longer in flight will cheapen them […] I refuse to try.”

There’s a sense that pinning things to words immediately creates falsehood — that rendering them with shapes on a page makes them untrue. And yet… this is one of the most honest inquiries into the raw, sometimes ugly need that comes with love that I’ve read in a long time. It seems like you relished the challenge of writing about topics that fall so easily into clichés, like love, mental health, and cancer. I’m not going to say it’s brave, because ew. But you write those things without mercy for the saccharine. How do you keep challenging yourself to write about traditionally cliché topics and emotions?

GF: There’s so much to this question that I care about more than just about anything else in terms of writing. First, just the essential, constant struggle to bridge the gap between language and experience, which is an unattainable pursuit on the most basic level. The best writer on earth cannot make our skin bleed by writing “she bled” — on a literal level, there is an experiential gap between how language permits us to communicate and the lived experiences of being in our bodies. And I am…obsessed with that. I’m obsessed with the ways we both illuminate and reduce, in trying to pin things down into words. I’m obsessed with what reveals most, which is not always direct presentation, and with the awareness, which Lina is grappling with, that there is no amount of revelation that can ever equal or reproduce the lived thing.

But we try. Literature — both fiction and the growing body of narrative nonfiction that explores previously taboo terrain — is how we feel less alone in the world. Studies prove — which those of us who love books could have told everyone without needing a research budget — that reading literary fiction actually rewires and develops people’s capacity for empathy. Books also, on a very literal level, save lives. Many of the people I care about most only began to believe there might be a place for them in this chaotic and painful world once they began to read voraciously and find their emotions and experiences on pages written by strangers, in the unbelievably intense, meaningful and endless conversation-across-the-generations that is literature.

Many of the people I care about most only began to believe there might be a place for them in this chaotic and painful world once they began to read voraciously and find their emotions and experiences on pages written by strangers…

These things seem to be at odds, but they’re not. It is impossible to capture in language what it is like to be alive and to live a life — and simultaneously we must try to capture in language what it is like to be alive and to live a life. We need to read stories of other people, being alive, feeling, struggling, loving, and of course wanting. To shirk away from subjects that most easily fall into cliché is to shirk away from the subjects that are the greatest lightning rods, emotionally, in our lived lives: death, illness, sex, love. Those are the things that interest me. The things that are the absolutely hardest to pin down in words, that are so elusive and can be butchered and turned hackneyed with one lazy misstep. That is where all the electricity is for me, as a writer. It’s where character is revealed and where language is pushed to the limits of what’s possible and where individual consciousness butts up most against cultural stereotypes and group think and clichés. It’s simultaneously true to say something like I don’t find writing about sex or illness hard because those are the things that burn and therefore are the things that compel me to write to begin with, and to say, Sex and illness are utterly impossible to write about because there is no possible way for language to replicate physical ecstasy or physical agony. Having fallen in love, having had cancer, I am acutely aware of that essential chasm every time I sit down to write. And bridging the chasm of language and these transcendent or brutal human experiences is also why I sit down to write. We are both alone and not alone, and that’s the paradox of human life, and of art.

HSP: What’s next for you? You’re one of those people who always have multiple projects happening — you’re certainly an incredibly busy citizen of the literary community. Anything coming up that you’re excited about?

GF: Most of my adult life and career, I’ve been an editor as well as a writer, often of numerous projects at once — for a while I was running my own independent press, Other Voices Books, simultaneously with editing the fiction section at The Nervous Breakdown and serving as the Sunday editor at The Rumpus. These days, I have to work more paying jobs than I once did, so I’m not able to be involved in as many philanthropic or volunteer nonprofit projects as I was, and that’s been difficult for me, because I loved that work and I derived incredible meaning from that work and getting to know and champion so many writers. I’m grateful for the opportunity to be the faculty editor, right now, at The Coachella Review, which gives me a chance to continue to offer writers a platform and connect actively with bringing work to readers. I’m not sure I could have a satisfying literary life without the ability to do that in some capacity, regardless of how well my own books might be doing. I was weaned on “community” in the lit tribe — I started reading for a literary magazine in 1994 and have never not worn an editorial hat — so right now, I’m excited to be helping the MFA students who edit The Coachella Review begin to shape our next issue, forthcoming in December. There is just nothing like the rush of falling in love with a piece of writing, and being able to actually be in a position to say, “I’ll publish that,” and letting other readers out there also fall in love.

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