Steve Kaye (skaye) Tue 12 Jan 99 20:36
We're pleased to welcome our next guest, Thaisa Frank--fiction writer, creative writing teacher, therapist, veteran WELL host. Thaisa is the author of 3 short story collections: _Sleeping in Velvet_ (Black Sparrow, 1987), _A Brief History of Camouflage_ (Black Sparrow, 1992), and _Desire_ (Kelsey Street Press, 1982). She's also co-author of an excellent how-to book for writers, _Finding Your Writer's Voice_ (St. Martin's, 1994; paperback 1996). Here on the WELL, where she has numerous fans, she's been hosting the writers conference since 1990. Welcome, Thaisa!
Steve Kaye (skaye) Tue 12 Jan 99 20:40
Here's one of my favorite passages in _Sleeping in Velvet_, from the story "Milagros": Eduardo, however could believe what happened [the suicide of his adoptive father, Arthur], although he didn't say so. In fact, he feigned surprise only because people expected it. He could believe it because his mother had died and his grandmother had died and his uncle had also died and Eduardo knew death had a way of making itself known. Before the person departs the air opens around them and whenever one happens to look out a window with them the view is large. Eduardo's uncle Olivero had killed himself rather than be taken by the police, and the day before, Eduardo could read the space around his uncle's body as though it were a map. Not everybody who looked could see what was on the map. But his grandmother could. "Look at Uncle Olivero's back," she had told him. "But don't look too closely. You don't want to follow." Eduardo didn't. Death was everywhere. During those days in the sharp Maine summer, the air around Arthur was large, spacious. He also moved slowly, as though his body were inside glass. And his eyes looked straight ahead, stopping at a fixed point, as though there were nowhere beyond that point they needed to look. At night, Arthur sat in his study and drank strong cups of coffee. Eduardo knew he was fighting sleep because in sleep he would disappear. Once, Eduardo went downstairs to get a glass of Ovaltine, which he was allowed anytime because since coming from El Salvador he was always hungry. Arthur was sitting at the kitchen table drinking milk, surrounded by wild, friable air. Eduardo's grandmother had told him to look inside the air, as if he were parting curtains, so he could get a good last look at his uncle. He parted the air now, and Arthur was very much himself, except he was one notch back from the world and waiting.
Steve Kaye (skaye) Tue 12 Jan 99 20:41
I have a secondary reason for quoting that particular passage. I've been wondering whether it's really accurate to describe Thaisa as a magical realist, since the term seems to apply to some but not all of her fiction. Passages like the above, however, are the bits people mention when talking about Thaisa's writing--the woman who camouflages herself to blend in with the living room furniture, or the one who grows fur and becomes the family pet, or the one who steps into a white fur coat and becomes invisible. Thaisa, do you think of yourself as a magical realist? Is it something you strive for in your writing, or is it an outgrowth of how you see the world? Or both?
Cynthia Heimel (plum) Wed 13 Jan 99 11:32
Hey, Thaisa, what R U wearing?
Martha Soukup (soukup) Wed 13 Jan 99 13:07
I recently had two stories reprinted in an anthology that described itself as an anthology of magic realism--but they weren't magic realism. Some folks are starting to use the term as an upscale synonym for "fantasy".
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Wed 13 Jan 99 20:46
I am wearing: black velour socks a CP Shades grey skirt and a tight black sweater to diminish the baggy CP Shades look a big black coat, lent to me by Gogol, covers all of this well, you asked
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Wed 13 Jan 99 20:50
So about magical realism and all of these categories: I think of magical realism as being slightly different from surrealism in this sense: In surrealism, extraordinary things happen in an ordinary world. A man turns into a dung beetle. An overcoat walks around St. Petersburg. Ordinary life goes on, and no one thinks any of these occurrences are very remarkable. In magical realism extraordinary things happen, but in a world where people believe in the extraordinary. I would classify I.B. Singer as a magical realist. Marquez is definitely writing in the tradition of magical realism in _A Hundred Years of Solitude_. But maybe in his story _A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings_ about how an angel fell from the sky into a village that didn't treat the occurrence as a miracle--maybe this is more in the tradition of surrealism because the collective consciousness of that world isn't in awe of the event (although, if you read the story, you will find that a miracle occurred after the angel fell).
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Wed 13 Jan 99 21:05
Your question about how I see myself in that tradition is hard to answer. I was very pleased when one reviewer characterized my work as "domestic magical realism" and another said it was "American magical realism"-- so I must have wanted to do something there, but I'm not sure that I set out to be in one category or another. I guess I do believe that extraordinary things happen all the time in ordinary life and sometimes in my work I amplify those things, and sometimes I just put objects of the imagination to work in an ordinary world. When I wrote that about Eduardo, I don't even know if I was amplifying. I was remembering what it was like to be with a friend who was dying, and what it was like to look out the window with her at the hills. But when I wrote about the woman who camouflaged herself as pieces of furniture in her living room--well then I was definitely putting an object of the imagination into the world. What I've learned, though, is that the characters always have to do the work, even in a slightly tilted setting. The extraordinary world doesn't just write itself.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Wed 13 Jan 99 21:14
But I guess I didn't answer your question completely, Steve. Or not in a way that relates directly to myself. Two things seem to be the case in my cosmology: 1. The world itself is very strange. 2. People impose their imaginations on the world in such unconscious and literal ways, it's interesting to put objects from the imagination right into the world, so you can trip over them. And, Martha, I completely agree that magical realism can be used for anything resembling the fantastic.
Martha Soukup (soukup) Wed 13 Jan 99 22:03
Which is a shame, when it is, because it blurs a useful term.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Wed 13 Jan 99 22:43
<scribbled by thaisa Wed 13 Jan 99 22:44>
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Wed 13 Jan 99 22:45
And also makes the imagination very safe. I like it when the imagination becomes dangerous. About the only thing I remember about Coleridge (aside from the fact that he smoked opium) is that he made a distinction between the imagination and fancy. He said that in fancy you always remembered it wasn't real, but in the realm of the imagination you forgot it wasn't real.
Steve Kaye (skaye) Wed 13 Jan 99 23:12
I like that, and I also like your distinction between magical realism and surrealism. I'm fascinated to learn that the stuff about the air opening up around a dying person didn't come out of your fertile imagination, Thaisa, but from something you actually experienced. I've heard it said that if you've lived in Latin America for any length of time, the extraordinary events in the fiction of writers like Garcia Marquez seem a lot less extraordinary. Bizarre, inexplicable things happen as a matter of course, they say. I wonder whether it's true of your writing as well--if your readers could observe the world as you do for a while, some of the magical realist elements would seem more like pointed observations of the world as it is.
Steve Kaye (skaye) Wed 13 Jan 99 23:12
And if I may say so, Thaisa was wearing a fabulous, faux-vintage black velvet coat on New Years Eve, but she didn't mention anything about Gogol. But then she's not usually a name-dropper.
Steve Kaye (skaye) Wed 13 Jan 99 23:25
I wanted to ask you about the novella at the end of _Sleeping in Velvet_, "The Map Maker." Actually, I think of it more as a set of linked stories. Like that of most writers, much of your fiction has autobiographical elements. But I think these elements have a different character in "The Map Maker," and I think this is what gives it so much emotional resonance: They seem like stories from your life that had to be told. Or at least they seem that way to this reader. Is that how it seems to you, Thaisa? Did you feel you needed to write about your mother's death, for example? Did you consider writing about her in a memoir rather than in fiction?
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 14 Jan 99 08:43
Thanks for asking about _The Mapmaker_. If I had done it differently, I think I would have put it first in the book, because in a sense it's a signature piece as well as a novella. I think there are about 23 stories in _Sleeping in Velvet_, and if you look at the table of contents and "The Mapmaker" you think "oh, just another story." But it's different and came from a different place.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 14 Jan 99 08:49
The story of "The Mapmaker" is an interesting story to me. It illustrates, perhaps, why I am a fiction writer and not a journalist. (As I've told Susan McCarthy on the Well (sumac) I envy journalists. It seems so great just to be able to come out and say it.) This story had was grounded in absolute truth. My mother was dying and to keep myself sane, while I was visiting her in the hospital I rented a laptop (I have since bought one), and essentially I sat in the hospital and wrote down everything. I wrote down everything I said to her. I wrote down everything she said to me. I wrote down all the conversations of the nurses and I described the machine that dispensed free hot chocolate. I wrote about my father and my aunt. And I wrote about the professor's house my husband and son and I stayed in. (The professor was gone, but his life was in amazing evidence.)
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 14 Jan 99 08:56
My mother's death was very unusual. She was a person who could not take action in the world, but she willed her death with all the strength of a Zen master. To put it bluntly, it was probably the only thing she ever really wanted badly. She did not live her life in a very concsious manner, but her step into dying was a conscious one and quite heroic, to my mind, even though she had never read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or any of the new age books about dying. My father was violently guilty about what she was doing. He was guilty about it because he was, to put it bluntly, involved with someone else. So he did what a lot of confused and guilty people do--he tried to stop her. Indeed, he got involved in the sorts of horrific medical interventions that make you have romantic thoughts about deaths in 19th Century bedrooms. In a word, he opposed her living will, which is very strong in the state where they live. But she wanted to die so badly, she outsmarted him. It only took her longer. It was the first time I'd seen her overcome tremendous obstacles to do what she wanted to do.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 14 Jan 99 09:02
I had a tremendous moral battle with myself about whether to oppose what my father was doing. The living will is so strong in that state, I could have stopped him. Finally, I decided that he and my mother were involved in a karmic love knot that I simply couldn't interfere with. But I had been writing every day when I visited my mother in the hospital and much of the time afterwards, and I knew I had a story. And what I thought I had was the first piece of real journalism I had ever done in my life. Imagine! A magical realist turned journalist. But I balked at publishing the piece because I didn't want to hurt my father, and instead thought that I had written fifty single-spaced pages that could be easily turned into a novella. My mother's death had held up _Sleeping in Velvet_, and it was late. Finally my publisher said, "If I don't get that book in a month I don't ever want to hear about it again."
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 14 Jan 99 09:10
As Steve knows, I wrote that book in a month. I had written about 8 of the 23 stories. And the novella about my mother--well, I thought that wasn't going to be a problem. After all, I had fifty single-spaced pages. But three days before the manuscript was due (it was due on April Fool's Day), I printed it out, did some cutting and pasting, and saw that I had nothing. It wasn an anecdote, not a story--something that would be interesting if I told it to you over coffee, because you would see me as a found character, but not a story in the sense of transformation and surprise. No one ever learns what they teach. In _Finding Your Writer's Voice_ I went to great lengths to distinguish the difference between an anecdote and a story. But of course in the case a dramatic experience in my own life I thought it was different. Anyway, I could see that it wasn't a story. And with only three days I felt like a dressmaker who had to produce something from scraps. I scrounged around in my computer and found a story about my grandfather that I'd deliberately left out of my last book because he was a creepy guy and I knew if I put the story in, it would hurt my mother. (The story is called "Dimestore".) I fooled around with that, and then I found a fragment about a map that we used to have in our house that my grandfather gave us--a map of ancient Asia.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 14 Jan 99 09:18
That was one of those serendipitious moments. I had been thinking constantly about Ninevah, for some reason, and about Yeats' poem that ends where got I that truth? out of a medium's mouth, out of nothing it came, out of the forest loam, out of the dark night where lay the crowns of Ninevah For some reason, I felt that I couldn't write about the map unless Ninevah was on the real map that my grandfather had given us. I called my father, and found out that it was. A friend then told me that Ninevah had originally been the city of Eve, an ancient Goddess who helped women create their children out of their own ribs. This information is fairly incidental to the novella. But when I heard about all this, the city of Ninevah became a kind of key to me, a point of destination on the map. It involved a balance, in my mind, between what Ninevah was (and it also had housed an ancient library), and my Marxist's family refusal to talk about anything Biblical. So that map became grounded in Ninevah, and the map itself became a character in what turned out to be a story about my relationship with my mother, starting in my childhood. I wrote the novella in three days, and I didn't even have a sense of creating meaning. It was as though the images were logical notations, leading me from one piece to another. At the end of this, of course, I concluded that I simply wasn't a journalist!
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 14 Jan 99 09:23
They say that fiction writers write fiction because that is the way they understand the world. And that's probably why I end up couching autobiographical material in fiction. Robert Frost said "No surprise for the writer, no surpise for the reader." The story of my mother's death wasn't a surprise. It wasn't a new reweaving of my life. But the story that involved the image of the map ended up surprising me. It turned out to be a story about continuity and renewal. I had never guessed that it would be. So that answer to your question, Steve, is that I felt I needed to write about my mother's death, and that I was convinced that this would be a piece that I wouldn't fictionalize.
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 14 Jan 99 09:27
I ended up using five of the fifty pages I'd written!
Steve Kaye (skaye) Thu 14 Jan 99 11:56
Funny that you were willing to fictionalize many of the details (you don't, after all, have a daughter), but not the presence of Ninevah on the real- life map. I remember that, a few days before your deadline, you said that you wouldn't be able to have the novella ready in time. Then, on the day of the deadline, you announced with a gleam in your eye that you'd finished it. But I had no idea that you'd pulled it together almost from scratch in those 3 or 4 days. It seems so integral now, so planned, it's amazing that it came together so fast. You're clearly not one of those writers who toils at her desk every day of the year, generating a couple of pages of new prose, methodically revising until you can't think of anything else to do. Right?
Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 14 Jan 99 18:54
Right. But then, maybe the actual production is just the byproduct of a lot of other things. I'm definitely a sprinter, although when I get ready to finish a book I have to make myself work. I think that some writers are really marathon runners and I envy them. (How do you work, Martha?) It feels so great to put in four hours of work or write two pages, or X-number of words, and then say "I've worked." But I can just stare at the wall for weeks, and then somehow I'm managing to put in a very long day, even if I have to teach. My mother used to call me and say, "How are you? Are you WRITING?" As though I was doing it right then, like playing the piano. But in some sense I think I am writing, or preparing to write, because I am always thinking about problems and issues in fiction and I also need a certain amount of blank time almost every day, or I go crazy. It's not exactly 'down' time. I think of that as curling up with the newspaper. I mean staring-into-space-time. I mean time-like-a-blank- piece-of-paper. So this thought about the map had been in my computer for years. And the real map had been on the wall of my parents' house since I was a child. Something must have been percolating. It mattered to me, somehow (and maybe only in a superstitious sense), that I had been obsessed with Yeats' poem about Ninevah, without knowing that Ninevah had been on the real map, the map in my parents' house. And when I found out that it was on the map, something clicked for me, and I knew that I could make not just the map--but the country of Ninevah--a key symbol in the novella.
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Thu 14 Jan 99 20:46
I'm loving this, Thaisa. Thank you.
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