inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #0 of 80: 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!
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #1 of 80: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #2 of 80: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #3 of 80: Cynthia Heimel (plum) Wed 13 Jan 99 11:32
    

Hey, Thaisa, what R U wearing?
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #4 of 80: 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".
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #5 of 80: 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
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #6 of 80: 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).
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #7 of 80: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #8 of 80: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #9 of 80: Martha Soukup (soukup) Wed 13 Jan 99 22:03
    
Which is a shame, when it is, because it blurs a useful term.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #10 of 80: Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Wed 13 Jan 99 22:43
    <scribbled by thaisa Wed 13 Jan 99 22:44>
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #11 of 80: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #12 of 80: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #13 of 80: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #14 of 80: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #15 of 80: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #16 of 80: 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.)
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #17 of 80: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #18 of 80: 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."
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #19 of 80: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #20 of 80: 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!
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #21 of 80: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #22 of 80: Thaisa Frank (thaisa) Thu 14 Jan 99 09:27
    

 I ended up using five of the fifty pages I'd written!
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #23 of 80: 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?
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #24 of 80: 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.
  
inkwell.vue.27 : THAISA FRANK, Magical Realist
permalink #25 of 80: Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Thu 14 Jan 99 20:46
    

I'm loving this, Thaisa. Thank you.
  

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