An Interview with Gina Frangello

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Gina Frangello’s newest novel, Every Kind of Wanting, focuses on a gestational surrogacy and its life-altering reverberations through an ensemble cast of characters. I sat down with Gina to talk about the technical aspects of managing a large group of characters, alternating points of view, and what it really means to be a Chicago success story.

TQ: A gestational surrogacy is a great frame for a story. It’s a perfect reason for a group of characters to be together in a highly charged, emotional situation. To pull off the story—you really had to be highly technical. There’s the retrospective element, there’s the timeline of the surrogacy and the present-day action, there’s the ensemble cast of characters and alternating points of view. I’m very interested in how you put it together—were there any moments where you thought, “Oh shit, this is not going to work”?

GF: Oh god, of course, there are always moments. There are always those moments. I can’t imagine writing a book that in its first draft is close to 400 pages and not believing at many different points that this is never going to come together. In this book’s case, it really continued to evolve until very close to the end.

TQ: How did you decide what character would give what information, and where? Did you feel your way through? Did you outline?

GF: I do outline, though usually not until I’m well into a project. I start writing and feeling my way through, and sometimes, if I’ve got 75, 100, 150 pages, I stop and think, wait, what am I doing here, I’m going to outline what my agenda is for the rest of this project. Of course, the outline proceeds to break constantly and change and morph. But one of my goals with this book and the use of multiple points of view was that the characters would contradict each other’s realities or truths or perceptions. It was somewhat of a challenge to not repeat the same ground, yet to be able to incorporate things that had already happened or that you’d seen from one lens and get the perception of them from another lens. The times that it was hardest to juggle when information would be revealed had to do with the backstory of Miguel and Lina in Venezuela and the mystery surrounding their father’s death. I really revised that a lot. I found that it came much too early in the initial draft of the book and that I needed to pace it differently. I think a large ensemble cast and various points of view, and even the illusion of various points of view, it’s something that I’ve been working toward for a long time in various books and stories that finally reached a bit of an apex here.

TQ: We don’t hear from Chad and we don’t hear from Nick until the very end of the book. Can you talk about why you made those choices?

GF: This isn’t a spoiler—it’s pretty much announced in Act 3, which opens the book instead of Act 1, that Lina is to some degree telling the story and pulling the strings. I didn’t include Chad’s point of view because I didn’t think that Lina was particularly interested in it. And I kept reminding myself that the book is filtered through her and not through me. I really tried to dictate what kind of space and how much space and how intimate the point of view the characters got, based on Lina’s interest as an author or as a storyteller. So, of course, you know it would’ve been impossible to leave the novel then, without hearing from Nick. But I didn’t want it to be woven in throughout, because it would’ve been too much of a he said/she said. I thought Emily provided enough contrast for Nick’s home life and what Nick’s identity was, because obviously Lina and Emily see him in very different ways. And then at the end he felt like a point-of-view character because of the things that had happened.

TQ: Let’s talk about your life in Chicago as a writer. You’ve been doing it a long time—you’re one of Chicago’s success stories. You’re a full-time working writer—you have a family—there are all these challenges—

GF: Working as a full-time writer (laughs), what does that even mean anymore? I’m not doing that at all! I’m teaching four classes. I’m teaching full time at University of Illinois–Chicago and I teach one class in Roosevelt’s MFA program. I’m editing a magazine. I do not work full time as a writer, because I can’t make a living at it. Which is the case, I think, for almost all writers. Certainly very much the case in the Chicago literary community. I’m forty-eight—I suppose I am a success story, I have four books and I worked in publishing for twenty years, but you know, I think what success story means is a really nebulous thing. I feel very lucky that I get to write the books I want to write and that I’ve found publishers who will put them out. But I think that’s a whole different thing than the concept of actually being able to support oneself on one’s own writing, which is a goal that some people have that was really never my goal. I wanted to write what I wanted to write. And I recognized that might mean there wasn’t big money attached to it.

TQ: I think at the beginning people don’t really understand that you’re going to have to hustle, that you’re going to be hustling, and that you can be rewarded in a lot of other ways more easily. Like through a traditional job, where you can have a salary, health insurance, a 401K plan, what people call a “good job”—it’s much easier.

GF: What you’re saying is very, very real. I tell my students all the time, you have to be in this for the process. It is not like you go to law school and now you get a job as a lawyer, or you go to nursing school and now you get a job as a nurse. That is not how the world works in the artistic fields. You can be in hideous debt from getting your MFA, you could’ve moved around the country for your work, you can be only working part time so you can finish your novel, and you can be unable to buy your own home and unable to do certain things economically because you’re spending so much time working. And maybe in your mind you have this belief that at the end of the rainbow I’m writing a bestseller and I’m winning the National Book Award. But it’s like, no, probably at the end of the rainbow, if you’re lucky, a really cool indie is going to publish your first book, and then you’ll get an agent from that, and then a little bit bigger house will publish your second book, and then you’ll think you’re home, but they reject your third book, and you’ll have to start from scratch, and then your agent will disappear, and you’ll have a personal crisis, and you’ll need a new agent—the arts world is a continually evolving thing, you’re never “there,” you are always in progress. And I think you have to be in it for the process of what you’re writing and continuing to grow and continuing to just want to see what’s going to happen next in your next book, and you can’t be in it for a certain level of commercial or economic success because it simply isn’t predictable.

TQ: You have a family, you teach, you edit—how do you make the time to write? Do you work on a schedule?

GF: I’m not an every-day writer, and I always feel shame when I say it in interviews—I feel like we’re supposed to tell all the aspiring writers that we wake up at four in the morning, but it’s just no. I’ve been writing since I was five years old. I’ve been a binge writer my entire life. I don’t write every day, every week, every month. When I am working, I am very obsessive, and I give it sometimes seventeen hours in a day. So much of that used to be dictated by balancing my life with small children, and when they finally went to school, I was spending a lot of time while they were at school working, but now that they’re older and more independent, a great deal revolves around my full-time teaching load. And so it has become a situation where I’m just able to write a lot more when I’m not teaching. I write more in the summer. I wasn’t teaching last spring when I was in treatment for cancer, so I had a lot of time in my house because I wasn’t able to work as much, and it turned out I was able to revise a book at breakneck speed even though I wasn’t feeling very well. Now I don’t have a lot of time.

TQ: Do you find you’re able to be relaxed about that? Like you know now that it ebbs, it flows?

GF: Yes. I’m always wishing I had more time to write, but I am no longer plagued by the terror that somehow this means that I will never write again. That passed a good decade ago. I mean, I think at a certain point, if you’ve gotten through graduate school and you’ve written the first book and you’ve persevered through a gazillion rejections and the first book came out and for some insane reason you actually wrote another one—there comes a point where you realize this is just what you do and that even if you didn’t write for a year, you’re going to write again, and that there is not really a reality where you don’t write.