Gina Frangello is the mainstay of the Chicago literary scene—journalist, novelist, editor for OV Books (and long-time editor of its predecessor Other Voices magazine, and winner of this year’s Summer Literary Seminar’s Unified Contest ((fiction category). She’s also featured in The &NOW AWARDS: The Best Innovative Writing, which I co-edit for &NOW Books.
Davis: When did you decide you “were” a “writer”?
Gina: This is a tricky one, as it probably is for most writers. I’ve always written. I was dictating stories to my mom and illustrating them before I could even print. I started writing my first “novel” when I was 10, on one of those long rolls of brown paper you had to tear off, and by the time I was 15 I had 3 manuscripts—I’d progressed to notebook paper by then—of about 400 pages each, all about the same characters. Then I started partying and I was always either out or on the telephone and I forgot about writing for four years.
In college, I got the idea to take a creative writing workshop as an “easy” elective my sophomore year, and although I immediately learned that there was nothing easy about it, I never stopped writing after that. Still, it was quite a long while before I began to identify as a writer. I majored in psychology at Madison, and went on to get my master’s and practiced as a therapist for three years. I thought of writing as a hobby. I had grown up urban poor, and when I entered college my family made less than 10K per year, below the poverty level—I had never even met a published writer, so to me majoring in creative writing or deciding to “be” a writer as a career was something rich kids with parental support or trust funds did. I needed not only to pay the bills but also, probably, to support my parents in their old age. The only writer I’d ever met as a kid were a jobless alcoholic who lived in my parents’ garage with a shitload of ants, and a frustrated cop who wrote unpublished, sprawling novels about the Russians trying to take over the United States by infiltrating all the McDonald’s. They did not make writing look like a viable profession.
Truthfully, for plenty of people, writing is not a viable profession. Most writers also teach, of course, but tenure is hard to come by and in many cases adjuncts would make better money waiting tables. Still, even that being true, when I was about 25 I started working on a novel and became so obsessed with it that I started calling in sick to work all the time, stopped sleeping, and wrote 450 pages in 3 months. My husband suggested I go back to grad school for creative writing, and the idea was that I was going to do this for two years and then return to my profession as a therapist—I planned to get a Ph.D. and open a private practice. Needless to say, that never happened. I started editing Other Voices magazine in grad school, and teaching adjunct and publishing—all my economic worries about the lack of financial viability of the writing world were completely accurate, but it didn’t matter because there was no looking back, I was just hooked.
Davis: Where does the title SLUT LULLABIES come from?
Gina: I think up titles all the time. Usually I don’t know for a long while where they’ll end up or what characters they’ll be connected to. I thought of the title “Slut Lullabies” while I was in a hotel room in the early 90s. I started writing in my notebook, and at the time I thought the story was going to be about a young mother who had lied to her husband about her sexual past and had reinvented herself and was trapped in that new identity. I wrote a few pages longhand but never finished the piece. About ten years later, I started writing a completely different story about a recent high school grad whose mother, a former party-girl divorcee, is dying of cancer, and the title came to me again and ended up feeling more organic to that piece. It later became the title of my collection, mainly because people had such strong responses to that particular title. One anecdote I love is that when I was working with Mary Rockcastle, the editor of Water~Stone Reivew, on the title story, which was first published in her mag, we had to sub out the word “slut” every time it appeared in the ms. because otherwise her university’s email wouldn’t allow the attachments into her inbox.
Davis: What feelings will reading Slut Lullabies induce in the reader?
Gina: Well, of course who knows, right? The stories in the collection are not related, so I hope they induce a range of feelings. Some are fairly satirical or a little goofy, and even the darker ones are, I hope, funny in their own way. But mainly I hear that my writing tends to make people emotionally uncomfortable. All the blurbs on the back of the book say this in one form or another, I think. Most people who have said this mean it in a good way. A few—mainly in corporate New York publishing—have meant it in a negative way. But I like the idea of my work making people uncomfortable. To me, if that’s true, it’s a great compliment.
Davis: If you were to receive a bad review of Slut Lullabies–which of course
will not happen–write that one sentence that you’d keep reading over and
Gina: Every story in this collection wants to be a novel.
Davis: What’s the Emergency, really, at Emergency Press? Are we supposed to stop or encourage this emergency?
Bryan Tomasovich, my editor at Emergency Press, could speak to this better than I can, but I definitely believe that EP is on to something in the industry that’s in transition and needs to be seized. We’re in a place right now where publishers need to figure out what is still viable about the old models of the business vs. what needs to be discarded. What I love about Bryan is that he’s absolutely committed to old school editing and to vigorous, diverse marketing strategies tailored to an individual author’s strengths. Like all indie presses, EP is not flush with cash, but they’re also not afraid to spend some money promoting a book, which I—as a publisher myself as well as an author—think is pretty imperative, still, but can be woefully rare in indie publishing. What makes this possible for EP is that they’re also taking advantage of new technologies and platforms that make operations cheaper and challenge traditional models in the industry, like the Depression Era distribution model that rapes small indies and bankrupts them. Bryan believes in truly collaborating with and busting his ass for his writers, and it’s a privilege to work with anyone like that. This is a jaded business, where in corporate publishing the bottom line is almost always about mass-market appeal and shareholder profits, and in indie publishing there can be almost the diametrically opposite view that can make writers and publishers feel gauche for aspiring to earn any money at all. I would say, happily, that Bryan and EP are not buying into either of those mindsets.
Davis: Describe Other Voices Books aesthetic or mission.
Gina: Other Voices Books is committed to filling a gap that used to be addressed by the dominant literary publishing industry—short story collections, anthologies, international fiction—but no longer is because of a combination of the corporatization of publishing and the way politics and the economy have impacted the books industry in the past decade or so, especially since 9-11. We at OV see ourselves as carrying a torch that has been irresponsibly and negligently dropped by mainstream publishing. While we seek work that pushes the envelope, we are probably more known for risky content than for avant-garde stylistics. Our work is by and large accessible to a literate, fiction-loving readership, in no way limited to academics or other writers. We see there being a large gap between the more hardcore experimental presses and the giant corporate houses that churn out by and large formulaic and reductive genre work. I believe that much of what Other Voices Books publish would have, at one time, been snatched up by the serious literary editors in New York, often for a decent advance, before these editors had to answer to their shareholders and were forced to become drones for corporations. Now, we are lucky enough to get that work instead and we aim to champion the hell out of it and show it a good time.
Davis: Where do you see Other Voices Books in 20 years?
Gina: The publishing industry is changing so rapidly that I think anyone would be in error if they made a sweeping prediction for where their press will be in two decades. In 20 years, I’m not at all sure I’ll still be doing the same things I’m doing now, in terms of my career passions, but I very much like to think that if I should choose to move into any new arena, I would find a passionate successor just like my own former boss and mentor, Lois Hauselman, who founded Other Voices magazine, found in me. I feel confident that eventually most enterprises require new blood to stay current and vibrant. In 20 years, I’d like to be doing a lot of traveling that having three young children in school can inhibit. Right now, running my own business out of my home is the perfect work for me, but I think once my children leave the house, I would want to be on the move quite a bit more, so who knows what kind of work will seem most exciting then?
Davis: If you could pulp any existing hard copy book for all time, which, and
Gina: Although it’s arguably an important historical document, I certainly wouldn’t mind pulverizing Malleus Maleficarum for all eternity, for reasons that probably don’t require much explanation.
Davis: If you had to sacrifice character, setting, or plot as part of a
gruesome mystery cult ritual, which gets on the chopping block?
Gina: I have written stories, and even one novel, where setting was not particularly important. When I was younger, I think a more general urban sensibility was part of my intention—that I even shied away from extremely specific settings. That’s no longer true, though. My newest novel, A Life in Men, is highly contingent on place. It’s about a woman traveler with Cystic Fibrosis, and each chapter takes place in a different country—I hope each location is as vivid as any character in the story.
Davis: Do you write, or does the writing write you?
Gina: Both things happen.
I write nonfiction pretty lucidly and volitionally—though I get carried away to some extent, I’m always still somewhat present and conscious of the craft of what I’m doing, what I’m trying to accomplish.
With fiction it’s very different. Particularly with longer projects, I tend to lose all track of myself. I often experience the concrete world around me as extremely surreal and fake when I’m working on a novel, because the “real” world of my characters seems to exist behind a veil I can’t quite reach, as though I’m trapped in an alternate space and can’t get back to where I’m supposed to be unless I’m at the computer working, living there, with those voices and those people. This can go on for a long period of time, but is always at its most intense in the final month or so of a first draft. That stretch, for me, really is about entering another reality pretty fully, and having to leave a lot of this world behind temporarily.
I think writers (and all kinds of artists) often experience this kind of—well, what is called “mania,” at times of heightened productivity. In many ways, it is a delicious period, being on a continuous high without much need for sleep or food, with your brain and body constantly buzzing. In other ways, it can be terrifying. Mania is accompanied by reckless behavior, which in this context can be an effort to bring a gravity or extremity back into your practical reality—an attempt to jolt yourself out of that alternate, imaginative space. People experiencing mania can be delusional too, but maybe writers are always borderline delusional in some ways, so that can be hard to call with us . . .
Luckily for me, this hits most acutely when I’m finishing a first draft of a novel, and I’ve only finished novels four times in my life, so as intoxicating as this state is, I don’t inhabit it the bulk of my time. I love writing and entering those other worlds, but I love the life I lead off the page even more passionately, so I would never want to leave it on any permanent basis.