Making Sense of Things: An Interview with Joan Frank by Abby Frucht

Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of twelve books of literary fiction and nonfiction. Her new work is Juniper Street: a Novel, winner of the C&R Press Fiction Prize, and the essay collection Late Work: A Literary Autobiography of Love, Loss, and What I Was Reading. A MacDowell Fellow and recipient of many honors and awards, Joan also reviews literary fiction and nonfiction for the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and other venues. She lives in California’s North Bay Area.

Abby Frucht: By what means did you navigate the tension between the things the story knows, the things that your narrator is ready (or not) to understand, and her propensity to get ahead of, or behind, herself? Does your choice to tell a long story via short book play a role in that navigation?

Joan Frank: Truth: I believed Juniper Street to be a novella, but publishers seem to hate that designation. I don’t mind calling it a novel, but hope it lives up to that in a reader’s experience.

I’d kept notes on these memories (as a list of small bits) for many years. But every time I tried to work with it the project felt like a black abyss that threatened to swallow me whole. I couldn’t find a way to both shape and get at it. I kept trying, between other books. I also noodled with it sometimes to escape from other projects. But there was a sucking vortex of discomfort associated with this story’s exploration of what is essentially part of my own life story. And it covered so much time; I often felt completely overwhelmed. But I kept chipping away at it: If the project had a sound it would have been the tink-tink of hammer and chisel.

Your words ‘things the story knows and…things [my] narrator is ready (or not) to understand‘ exactly describe the friction, or combustion, that drove the need to tell this story. Problem was, I couldn’t handle the intense pain recalling the real and imagined trials of the characters: Mary, her brothers, her mother—not least the recalled early stages of my own, younger self. What finally let me square off with all of it was (though it sounds simplistic) age, and time. A moment arrives when you understand you’re old enough to trust yourself with whatever insights come about a story. Bonus: no one’s around to care, or argue.

So I let the story dictate what it knew, as best I could. At the same time I urged myself to climb inside the head of the barely teenaged me, and to a small degree into Mary’s head, too. The way in, it turned out, was by challenging myself to simply relive parts of it as best I could, walking right up to the Hamlins’ front door and simply vocalizing everything I saw and felt and smelled, holding fast to concrete details via all the senses! Taste, colors, textures, temperatures, sound, light. These particulars wound up giving instant power and momentum, triggering so much else—including those sickened teenaged feelings of fraudulence, confusion, and shame. But there were also solid intervals of amusement, love, and joy, which gave relief: the ridiculousness of the nattering, doddering old parents; the sumptuous food, the magical chaos of the Roseville Auction; Mary’s delirious happiness showing me her paintings; the romantic delight of plotting a trip together to exotic Paris. I began to see that panning back and forth, then-to-now, allowing distance and perspective in which to “marinate” the memories as I told them, was an emotion-protector. I found I could handle dipping in if I knew I’d still able to dip out—into a present-tense which had, somehow, survived all of that.

Poet Maggie Anderson once reminded me, long ago, of a famous qualifier from the great Walt Whitman: ‘I can tell you some things, but I cannot tell you everything.’

 AF: Your narrator tells her haunting story from what she calls “the freeing vantage of age…Once,” she says, “the body’s urge was to leap to intervene. Now it can only witness.” Should this be mourned or celebrated?

JF: I understand you’d want to mourn a certain level of agency, relinquishing the impulse to intervene. But when we get older I think we better understand we’d probably not have had much success trying to intervene anyway. People will, generally, do what they want to do. And if you’re lucky enough to have decent health? Got to celebrate the ability to tell the tale! Age can give a writer new strength, freedom, and, with any luck, compassion. So much garbage is shed: stupid concerns, stupid battles. Plus: the act and function of witnessing has a holiness about it. I don’t mean this piously. I mean a sacred, timeless sanctity. I now better understand the poet Derek Mahon’s line: ‘There will be dying, there will be dying/but there is no need to go into that.’ The human pageant, he means, cannot be remedied but must be witnessed, and can be answered only by the artist demonstrating its unanswerability.

AF: Your narrator’s childhood house “felt very sorry for what was happening inside it.” Tell us a little about the temperament of your own childhood house. If your readers would like to name the temperaments of the houses they live in, what kinds of details should we look at first?

JF: My house was small, simple, gentle and soft, and loved us all mutely and haplessly while it held us. My heart feels sore thinking about it, yet of course I cherish this awareness, sadness and all. For anyone wondering how their house feels about things: mentally roam its surfaces, sounds, temperatures, textures, colors, and smells—and let that agglomeration seep in. It should talk to you.

AF: Mary is an artist, whose paintings often use “Van Gogh’s technique of many tiny strokes, communicating both energy and a certain anxiety: the images seemed to vibrate—also, to beseech.” The same things can be said of the vivid yet tremulous colors and gestures of this novel. Do your earlier works occupy similar emotional territory? How might your new, forthcoming collection, Late Work: A Literary Autobiography of Love, Loss, and What I was Reading, answer this question?

JF: Thank you. I think of my books as islands in an archipelago, connected underwater, made of similar materials and with an emotional currency that is kin, or sibling, to all the others. All my books, I do ardently believe, “vibrate and beseech” while asking “How should we live? What do we mean?”

But also, there is unsolvable tension (at least in my mind) between the necessary, implacable, Buddhistic nature of witnessing described above, versus the cri de coeur which art must also rally: “Attention must be paid!”

Late Work passionately—and I mean, moltenly—demands attention be paid. It asks—and tries to answer—why on earth anyone should continue to make art, in the face of wars, pandemics, and a shatterbelt culture addicted to novelty and speed. By exploring my own writerly confoundedness, as well as the joys of reading—of connecting with a readership and other authors—Late Work says ‘Look. This is what’s out there, these are the things from which we must not look away.’

AF: Who might you, Joan Frank, be now, had you been one of the Hamlin’s  “wondrously beautiful” children, growing up in the 1970’s in the “splintering, listing Victorian,” with its shivery staircase, dilapidated piano, and shambling, cursing, fumbling parents?

JF: Oh dear. It’s awful to contemplate. I’d probably be a mess. I’d have surely fallen in with one or another of the Hamlin kids, and trailed them into some wretched trouble. Maybe I’d have spent time in juvenile hall, or jail. Or been stranded by scrabbling poverty. In all likelihood I’d have never escaped the trap of the shabby suburbs, never found my way out. I’d probably now be living on cat food in someone’s garage.

AF: This book is ripe with longing…but the thing for which Juniper Street seems most nostalgic is nostalgia itself. Is the gap between the way things are now and the way they were fifty years ago simply too wide to cross? Are our digitized selves even able, any more, to long for what’s past? Are some thresholds irreversible? Is that, after all, what this story is about?

JF: Let me suggest, somewhat shamelessly, that Juniper Street has been made in the spirit of So Long, See You Tomorrow or A Christmas Memory. That is: a narrator longs to get a complicated memory told, of a group of characters once close to her, now mostly lost to time and space, that has dwelt in her unresolved: partly in order to understand both it and herself better—to work something out. But there’s also in the telling a sense of reliving a particular, intense sweetness.

Maybe all thresholds are irreversible. I don’t know that I can prescribe for anyone’s ability to assimilate or make sense of the gap between the way things are now and how they were fifty years ago. (Go back to your home town after fifty years away, you feel like the protagonist of some lousy science fiction.) But we never, never stop longing for the irreversible threshold with its inarticulable sense of innocence lost, or for a shining friendship like mine with Mary in its earliest, sweetest days. We never stop longing for a purity (real or imagined) of perception lost. I believe that that longing, along with the promise that it can never be met, drives most art. My good friend, the brilliant author Thaisa Frank (no relation) notes, “You hear a big bang in childhood.” It’s often that first universe we never recover from, that we write about over and over.

AF: We know a lot about your narrator, even her longings, her secrets (those, at least, that she allows herself to recognize.) Why doesn’t she tell us her name.

JF: I know I wanted her to be two things at once: I wanted her voice and perception to be real, fleshly, with a personality and life trajectory and milestones and tragedies—but also translucent, a witnessing narrator, a neutral, floating, observing device; a camera lucida. Here’s a lovely definition online, together with this enchanting illustration from an 1879 Scientific American:

camera lucida: “an optical device consisting of an attachment that enables an observer to view simultaneously the image and a drawing surface for sketching it.”

Abby Frucht won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize for her first collection of stories in 1987 and has since published eight books of fiction. Maids, which breaks from that tradition, reckons in poetic form with Frucht’s memories of the women who cleaned her parents’ house when she was a girl—a doctor’s daughter—on Long Island.  Frucht lives in Wisconsin and has served as mentor and advisor at the MFA program in Creative Writing for more than 25 years. You can find her along with some of her essays at www.abbyfrucht.net. You can find Maids for sale on the Matter Press site.

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