By Naomi Huffman
I first met Gina Frangello in 2011, when I was an undergrad studying writing at Columbia College; I took a fiction seminar class she taught my senior year. When she introduced herself she talked about her novel, which she was revising, and which would turn out to be “A Life in Men,” released last month from Algonquin. She went on to talk about the books we would read and study that semester (“You guys are going to love Milan Kundera,” she insisted—she was right), and then she talked passionately for several minutes about the books she was reading, written by friends and by writers she admired. Her enthusiasm was palpable; right away, I began to admire her support of other people’s work.
The summer after I graduated from Columbia, I was hired by Gina and her husband David to nanny her twin daughters Madeleine and Kenza and their friend Siena, who were then eleven years old. I picked them up three days a week from their home in Roscoe Village, which has the kind of beautiful slatted hardwood floors, gaping windows and dark wood trim I’ve come to associate with old Chicago houses. There was often some sort of minor tragedy unfolding when I arrived at their home those summer mornings—a misplaced shoe or transit pass, a forgotten lunch box, teeth or hair that needed brushing. I don’t know what she did when we finally left, but I liked to think of Gina writing, savoring the new quiet of the house, working in her small office just off the main rooms of the house, which does not have a door.
In the three years that I have known her, Gina has revised, shopped and published a novel, joined the staff at The Rumpus as Sunday editor, organized an annual writing program in Queretaro, Mexico, continued to teach, published and promoted the work of countless writers at The Nervous Breakdown, and proven to be an encouraging mentor and friend. On a recent Monday evening, I met her at her home to talk about her book, her writing process, and to marvel, once more, how she writes or edits or reads anything without a door.
I just read a line in “A Life in Men” that really struck me: “You’re a lot of different people over the course of a lifetime.” So, I want to ask, who do you think you are right now?
Oh, god. You won’t remember this because you’re young, but this is totally like when Barbara Walters asked, ‘What kind of tree would you be?’
Wait—who did she ask that?
Katharine Hepburn. And Katharine Hepburn said she would be an oak tree. Of course Katharine Hepburn could not be felled by the question. I… I don’t know how to answer that question. I have more identities simultaneously than I ever have in my life. When you’ve got kids, you know, there’s a lot of times in my life where I’m just a mom. But I also travel more for my work than I ever have before. I have book tours, I go twice a year to a low-residency MFA that I teach at. I’m physically separated from my family and my kids more than I ever have been in the twelve-and-a-half years that I’ve been a mom. So, my life is more dual than it used to be.
In terms of my professional identity, I’ve always thought of myself as a writer first and an editor second, and a teacher third. Teaching is wonderful, and requires a lot of the same muscles that you exercise to edit, and a lot of the same thrills, but I make money teaching. I’ve primarily edited unpaid for most of my life in the non-profit world. It’s the thing that I do respective of whether [or not] there’s going to be any money involved. It’s a passion for me, like my writing. I’ve come to realize I will always edit in some capacity. It’s really important to me to be able to bring other people’s work out there, and also to work with people on shaping a work for publication, which is different from shaping a work the way it comes into a workshop. Every once in awhile, you’re shaping it for publication, but a lot of times it’s not anywhere close to that yet, so it’s a much different process. I love that. It makes me feel like part of a community.
I don’t know if I answered that question!
How long did the book take to write?
I say it took three years to write the book. During the time that I had a title for the book, and was writing to that title, it was about a three-year process. But the fact is that I wrote a short story that later ended up as the kernels of this book in 1989—it’s the story of the characters being kidnapped in Greece. I started writing that when I was still in college, based on an experience a girlfriend and I had while traveling, and fictionalizing it. I wrote the whole first draft by hand, and my mother accidentally threw the story away. So, then I started to rewrite it, and I didn’t like it. I never rewrote it. A couple years later, in 1990 or 1991, I wrote about Arthog House in a short story. It was different, but those locations with those roughly similar plots were there. I started actually writing the novel in 2007, and then finished in 2010. And then I went to Kenya. And then I came back from Kenya, and I rewrote the entire book from scratch.
Of the things that inspire you as a writer, where does travel rank?
Very high. There are so many things that are important to a person, you don’t know where to rank them. But travel is, for example, more important to me than owning a house. Definitely. Travel is huge. I’ve wanted to do it my entire life. I started traveling when I was nineteen. As you know, I grew up below the poverty line. I was broke, but when I started traveling I slept on floors, I took overnight trains so I could sleep on a beach mat on the floor. I would work to get the money to get a ticket to somewhere and go. It’s a big part of my life. I met my husband traveling. We adopted our daughters traveling. Other than the people in my life, there is not a lot I would put ahead of travel.
Your descriptions of each city—like the winding cliff-side roads and small villas in Mykonos, Greece—are quite detailed. How did you write about the places you haven’t been to for many years?
Some of the stories take place in similar years to when I was actually there. Others do not at all. That was a really interesting process. I had to do a fair amount of research: I’d read online travel blogs, or travel books from the year that my characters were going to be there. Mary lives in the exact house, Arthog House, that I lived in. She lives there in 1990, I lived there in 1990. I worked at the pub she worked at. It is literally the exact same environment. In that case, research wasn’t remotely necessary. David and I have been in Morocco twice. We did the hike that Mary does, but it wasn’t completely sharp in my memory—sharp sensory details were missing. So I read about [the hike], and re-read old journals, and read other people’s chronicles of having done it. So that was research and memory.
What is your writing process like?
I have a lot of hats, so it’s not like I write fiction everyday. I have a lot of different projects I’m juggling. Usually, if I’m going to be writing fiction, I have to start that day straightaway, as soon as I drop my kids off at school. If there are too many things to do before I get started, it’s not going to be a good writing day. But for all my other jobs—I have two editorships at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown, and I have a new professorship—I’ll juggle all in one day.
We’ve been in this house since 1999, that’s been my office [points to a small room behind us, separated from the dining room where we’re speaking by the living room, where her son, twin daughters and her daughters’ friend are watching Harry Potter on television], but lately it’s been so frickin’ cold that a lot of times I’m bringing my computer upstairs to my bedroom and cloistering up there.
How does your process change when you move from your office?
It’s interesting; it is different. Particularly, I can’t get anything done up there on weekends, because it’s sort of a hub: my husband and son are playing video games together, there’s an elliptical machine in there, so various kids will come in and get on the elliptical… There’s no privacy. But during the work week when the kids are at school for the bulk of the day, it doesn’t matter that much where I am. If I’m alone in a space, I don’t really see the space after I start working.
I also have sporadic membership over at the Writers WorkSpace, because, as you see [points again to office], there’s no door, and there are at least three kids at all times. If I’m really on deadline, I’ll go there on weekends, or when there’s going to be a lot of people around.
When you write, do you begin at the computer?
I do everything on the computer now. I used to write by hand for many years. I don’t know if people still do that now! But I didn’t even have a computer until I was twenty-three or twenty-four years old. I never wrote on a computer, or even on a typewriter, when I was in college. I wrote everything by hand and then transcribed it onto a typewriter. Finally, when I hooked up with [my husband] David, he insisted—he was like, ‘It’s taking you a million years to revise anything!’ Very shortly after that, I started doing everything [on the computer]. I type very fast, which is hilarious because I failed typing in high school [laughs]. But my typing can keep up with my brain much more efficiently than I can do so by hand. In fact, I used to journal like a crazy person when I was younger. I had so, so many volumes of journals. Eventually journaling became a little bit of a different process for me because I was thinking faster than I could write by hand, so now I journal less than I used to, which sort of sucks.
Working from home, in an office with no door and kids and everything, you have distractions. How do you get back to the writing?
Well, sometimes I don’t write for like, nine months! I’m really, really good at being disciplined if I’ve already done the first draft of the project. If I’m revising a project, I would never go nine months without working on it. Sometimes starting something new is very, very hard, because I have so many other things going on and it takes a certain space to get into it.
Tell me about this desk! It’s beautiful!
Yes, isn’t it? This desk belonged to my mother-in-law, and I coveted it for years. My mother-in-law did not like me, but surprisingly, she gave me the desk before she passed away. I’ve had it for awhile now. And I have this nice ergonomic chair because a couple years ago, my husband’s company bought everyone in the company new chairs. Otherwise, I’d be working on a folding chair or something.
What books are on your shelves that are inspiring you?
Some of these books have been here for a long time. I’ve got ballet reference books… This side of my bookshelf doesn’t get much action, but this side is constantly in rotation. I’ve got books that I’ve taught here, like [Stephen Elliott’s] “The Adderall Diaries.”
Do you organize them?
[Laughs] No! I am not Charles Blackstone. The best I do with organization is like, most of my Milan Kundera books are together. But no, no organizational system whatsoever. My organization system is like, where can I put it?
What are you reading right now?
I just finished Roxane Gay’s “An Untamed State” in galley form. It’s really powerful. I also just started “Slaughterhouse Five.” I’d never read it! You know, I was not an English major as an undergrad. I was a psych major. There’s a lot I haven’t read. I mean, I read a lot of new fiction. At The Nervous Breakdown, I’m constantly slotting new authors to feature. Almost everything I read is either pre-pub, or it’s student work, or submissions to The Rumpus. There are people like Matt Bell who keep blogs of the hundred books they’ve read in a year, which is so impressive to me because I don’t read nearly that number of published books in a year. So now I’m trying to read an old classic, or a book from another country. Generally, I’m reading about three books at a time.
So, what’s going on for you now? Didn’t you recently finish another novel?
I’m not done yet. I loudly talked about how it was going to be done by the first of the year, but it’s so not done. I had one chapter left, and then I realized the last 150 pages were going to be rewritten, so I started over. So I’m not done. I’m touring through April, so I probably won’t start again until after that.
“A Life in Men”
By Gina Frangello
Algonquin, 432 pages, $14.95