"Publications in Literary Magazines Validates the Time I Spend Alone at My Desk."
A Chat With Author Melissa Fraterrigo
Melissa Fraterrigo has published two books: the short story collection The Longest Pregnancy, and Glory Days, a novel-in-stories. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies including The Rumpus, Shenandoah, The Massachusetts Review, storySouth, and Notre Dame Review. She has been a finalist for awards from Glimmer Train on multiple occasions, twice nominated for Pushcart Awards, and was the winner of the Sam Adams/Zoetrope: All Story Short Fiction Contest. Currently, she is director of the Lafayette Writers’ Studio, which she founded in 2014 in Lafayette, Indiana. The Review Review caught up with Melissa to talk about her new book, Glory Days, which will be released by the University of Nebraska Press in September 2017. www.melissafraterrigo.com
Interview by Tanya Perkins
What was the starting point for your new novel-in stories, Glory Days?
Well, the book actually arrived at a time when I wasn’t writing and didn’t know if I ever would again. In the winter of 2011, a few months after moving to Indiana, someone very dear to me was diagnosed with cancer. I slept poorly and rather than tossing and turning, got up during the wee hours of the morning to read poetry. I read a lot of Sharon Olds and Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Diane Gilliam Fisher, and began to learn how certain images held tangible weight that extended beyond the page and could reflect a character’s emotional state.
I was also becoming more aware of Indiana and the place where I now lived. Part of my writing routine at that time was to visit our local library and work while a sitter stayed with my young daughters. There was a parking lot attendant who would welcome me to the library and one day he looked particularly stricken and when I mentioned I hadn’t seen him for some time, he said he’d just come back to town, that he’d been south burying both his mother and sister. I don’t know whether it was the look on his face or something else, but I heard a line: “Gardner hears dogs scrambling up the trees after a squirrel or a neighbor’s cat, he tells himself, eager to be calmed.” This became the first line to “Teensy’s Daughter” and that was it. I was back to writing stories, only now creating a place and accurately portraying its landscape felt as vital to me as the development of characters and their situations.
I’m glad you mentioned place! Ingleside, the setting, is a small, hardluck town in Nebraska, desolate but beautiful. What is the relevance of place in this collection?
John Gardner talks about the importance of creating a fictional dream for readers and says that you can use language to bring readers to another place and time and create a sort of dreamlike state for readers. I wanted to make the town of Ingleside real to readers, especially since I thought that some of these characters are not the most emotionally available. So by writing about this place, using some of the same tools I might use to describe a character, I was able to develop a mood and resonance the characters seemed to rebuke.
The use of place became integral to the creation of this short story cycle. I had a definite locale in mind where these characters resided and then in turn was able to see how this place transformed when developers moved in and erected Glory Days, the amusement park. I felt myself drawn to this idea of a town that was undergoing its own transformation, only one that was more obvious—a way of life that was changing—only instead of the memory being housed in one body, it would be held in an entire community—that of the fictional Ingleside.
Did you end up where you thought you would, or somewhere quite different, artistically?
I had a great deal of fun writing this book because I approached it very much like a puzzle. The first story, as I mentioned, was “Teensy’s Daughter,” which features Gardner on house arrest after causing the death of Luann, the daughter of his childhood nemesis, Teensy. Unlike previous stories, once I finished the piece the characters returned to me. I had to figure out why Gardner and Teensy hated one another and why Luann kept haunting Gardner. In that one story I had three characters that felt really compelling and I had to backtrack to discover how they ended up at this point in time.
The next story I wrote didn’t make it in the book, but it informed the book by helping me better understand their hatred for one another and I was able to salvage part of that story to explore in “Skin.” I love Hemingway’s iceberg theory that if a writer of prose knows what she is writing she may omit things and the reader will still feel them—the dignity of moment in an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
I was fascinated by how Teensy’s wife is only present as a ghost, through memory and reference. She’s not the only ghost (spoiler alert). What led you to bring in ghosts?
Well, I’m fascinated by the way we carry others with us. There are literal and figurative ghosts in all of our lives that we can choose to reflect upon or ignore. In my most trying times, I have called upon loved ones who have gone before me or even have lost touch with and I am calmed. This sense of connection beyond what is right before us can be a great source of comfort—at least it is to me.
Into what tradition or in what company do you see this collection fitting? Who or what do you see as its antecessors—who would fit beside this work on a bookshelf?
I imagine some readers will say that Glory Days is a story collection, as many chapters were initially published as stand-alone stories. But unlike my first book, The Longest Pregnancy, these characters haunted me and I needed to figure out not only how these characters were related but also what those relationships meant to the larger arc of the novel.
I was reading a lot of novels-in-stories during Glory Day’s conception—Cathy Day’s Circus in Winter, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge—and I became intrigued in the varying amount of “space” inherent in this form. Some of these novels-in-stories were very closely aligned to the novel, where various elements in the narrative fit together to create a very succinct whole, whereas other translations of the form included more ambiguity, with greater leaps of time and situations. With Glory Days, it became a challenge to connect the pieces between these characters and their somewhat tragic situations, while also leaving some space for readers to bring their own impressions to the book, making it theirs.
What is the most difficult part of the creative process for you? What’s the best part?
For this book, I really loved the structure and thinking about all these pieces and how the lives of these characters fit together. The puzzle aspect of it was extremely satisfying as was the initial sense that I had when I met Teensy, Gardner, and Luann. I knew from that first story—“Teensy’s Daughter”—that they deserved additional exploration. I was intrigued by all of them from the start.
The hardest part for me is not the work that I do at my desk, but what takes place later, once you have a final draft of a book and want to share it with readers. I spent about 1.5 years searching for a home for the book and the process was quite demoralizing. Fortunately I found the kind folks at the University of Nebraska Press, and my editor the stellar Alicia Christensen, and I could not be any happier. They are a phenomenal team and I am truly fortunate.
Can you talk about the process of creating a short story cycle, as a cohesive work? How does this genre feel different, to you as a writer, than a traditional novel?
I think the cohesiveness relates to my own understanding of these characters and this place. Perhaps it goes back to Hemingway all over again—I had a deep knowledge of how and why these characters made the choices that they did and I hope that comes across to readers.
For me, as a reader, nothing makes me put a book down faster than when I have the sensation that the author is not interested in my impressions or meaning-making. What I mean by that is the author has figured everything out in the narrative and isn’t interested in spending the time showing me the motivations behind a character. I am asked to accept things at face value and that feels so insulting. My favorite books are those where some gaps remain in the narrative.
With Glory Days I was really conscious of making sure there were aspects that remained somewhat open to interpretation. I wanted readers to feel welcome to bring their own impressions to the book. Sometimes whole years pass between chapters of the book. What happens during this time? Does the reader need to know? Perhaps in a traditional novel they do require this knowledge, but in a short story cycle, I think all bets are off and each book has the opportunity to stand on its own.
The characters that populate these stories are, for the most part, socially and economically marginalized, swept out of the American Dream by larger powers and by their own frailties and impulses. Why should we, as readers, want to spend time with them? Why do they matter?
Well, I can consider this now, because the book is written, but I have to say that during the actual composition of the book I was not thinking about focusing a lens on the socially or economically marginalized. Rather, those are the characters that came to me. And perhaps it has a fair bit to do with my move from urban Philadelphia to central Indiana—Teensy, Luann, Gardner—these are folks that I interact with when I’m gassing up my car or buying a dozen eggs. Many people live desperate lives and yet it is difficult to give credence to this—to empathize with strangers. How can we learn to recognize and value those who are left behind, who succumb to desperate measures in order to buy diapers or school supplies? If books cannot challenge us with these questions, I don’t know what can.
What responsibility has a writer, do you think, when depicting marginalized characters or those very different from themselves (for example, a white writer writing a black character or vice versa, etc.)? Or is there any, beyond writing a damn good story?
I think it all comes back to respecting people whether they are on the page or in the local laundromat. By writing this book I am not professing to know everything about what it is like to raise cattle or lose a farm or adopt a daughter, but hopefully the emotions feel honest and accurately portray these characters. I hope readers do not expect me to speak on behalf of marginalized individuals as these characters originated in my imagination. If I’m held to task on anything, I hope it comes down to whether the story felt real and whether these characters and their situations make a reader feel something—and that something is going to make them hesitate a second longer before they judge someone who looks or acts differently from them or their circle.
How has publishing in literary magazines helped your development as a writer?
In an ideal world, I would spend my day writing and would step away from the desk feeling good about that work and that would be enough. Yet writers need readers, and despite what I might hope, publications in literary magazines validates the time I spend alone at my desk, especially when I am challenging myself to explore new forms. For instance, I have no background in creative nonfiction, so when I receive word from a literary magazine that wants to publish an essay, I am encouraged, and this encouragement is vital for the all-too-frequent days when I’m tempted to hurl my work into the garbage and scurry beneath my desk rather than take a seat at it.
Several of the individual stories in Glory Days appeared first in other venues. Can you talk a little bit about which journals and how you went about choosing where to submit?
I’d love to say that I had some lofty publication plan, but I didn’t have one. There are a few magazines whose editors have responded positively to my work in the past (Notre Dame Review and storySouth), and I feel like I have a good sense of what they might find appealing, so I try to submit to both journals that are familiar to me and with whom I have a history and also try for new magazines that I admire and would love to see my work appear. I really think the publication process comes down to three things: persistence, an editor’s particular tastes, and luck. With Glory Days, I’ve been fortunate that many of the chapters have appeared in some really phenomenal magazines thanks to the good grace of some stellar editors.
Can you talk about your current project?
I’m working on a YA/MG novel that’s a double narrative with one section in the early 2000s and another section from the year prior. I have a draft of the novel and I’m enjoying it, but I also foresee a fair bit of work in my future. Fortunately, I like this part of the writing process.
What is the best advice you ever got, as a writer?
Take care of every idea that comes to you. Your brain learns pretty quickly whether you are really paying attention to it and the more you pay attention to your ideas, the more will come to you.
What would we see on your bedside table right now?
The stack is huge, so I’ll just name a few. I just finished the memoir The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs and am looking forward to Barrie Jean Borich’s memoir, Body Geographic. Also Liliane’s Balcony by Kelcey Parker and the novel Long Man by Amy Greene and the classic, If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.
Tanya Perkins is a lecturer and creative writing coordinator at Indiana University East. Her work has been published in The Chattahoochee Review, Big Muddy, Storyscape, Wilderness House Review and other journals. She has an MA in English from Western Washington University and an MFA from Murray State University.