20 Questions with Mourning Goats
INTERVIEW SIXTY TWO
Gina is a brilliant workaholic who has more creds under her belt than a normal person should be able to achieve. And, she made me ridiculously jealous when she told me about her UCR-Palm Desert Residency with Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, and Rob Roberge. Check out the interview below, and then pre-order her new book, A Life in Men!
1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?”
Probably Heidi. I associate goats with Heidi’s little quasi-boyfriend, Peter. Also, a goat ate half my skirt once, while I was wearing the skirt. So maybe nudity. This feels like a Rorschach test where the answer is sure to reveal that I’m deranged...
2. A Life in Men, due out in February 14', sell it in a sentence.
Uh. If you’re obsessed with sex, travel and mortality, this is definitely a novel for you?
3. Mother of 3, wife, teacher at Columbia and Northwestern, editor and co-founder at Other Voices Books, editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown... the list goes on and on, where do you find time for anything? Let alone writing a book?
I don’t sleep much. That’s the real answer. But about a year ago, I realized my schedule was untenable and that I needed to unload…I don’t teach at either Northwestern or Columbia College anymore, and in September I stepped down from Other Voices Books…the idea was to focus on my online editing at The Rumpus and TNB, my writing, and my family. But then this summer I was offered my longtime dream job of joining the MFA faculty at UC-Riverside Palm Desert—my former author, Tod Goldberg’s, program, where I’ve been a regular guest for several years—so pretty much everything I unloaded has now been consumed by that new gig, which I love. It’s funny because my husband had told me it would take me all of five minutes to replace the things I was letting go with new things that would keep the chaos in my life at a constant breakneck level, and indeed, he was right—actually, I took the UCR job even before I left Other Voices Books, so the chaos was already assured. I have to admit that I must like it that way.
4. You recently met with two women from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation about finding a way to contribute to the lives of people living with the same disease as the protagonist of your book, A Life in Men? What came of it?
It’s been really cool so far, and is still unfolding. Mainly, we’re trying to strategize as to how to get A Life in Men into the hands of anyone with CF who wants it, without their having to buy it. We’re trying to figure out ways to approach that without the CFF actually “endorsing" the book, which is tricky with such a large organization that serves all ages and kinds of people. But they’re helping me with outreach and awareness, because ideally I would like to give back to the cystic fibrosis community as much as possible. I donated ten percent of my advance to the organization too, but I’d love to get involved on a more direct and personal level if possible, with individual people.
5. You just had the pleasure of hanging out with 3 other Mourning Goats Interviewees (Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, and Rob Roberge) at the UCR-Palm Desert residency, how was it and how did you get involved?
Well, Rob and Stephen are both on the UCR faculty too—they were both hired well before my more recent hire—so I always see them there when I’m out as a guest, and Rob is also a former Other Voices Books writer (for The Cost of Living) and one of my best friends, and Stephen is a writer on Dzanc Books, which is Other Voices Books’ parent company, so we’re all kind of lit-kin. But Clevenger I was meeting for the first time, which was awesome because I hear about him all the time from mutual friends. He actually recognized me at a distance and followed me into the gift shop at the swanky resort where the residency is held, calling my name, so at first I thought he was just a crazy person, and then I realized who he was (in other words, a crazy person I already vicariously knew and loved) so I started hugging him in the shop. Did you see the photo of the three guys in their spa robes that I took at residency? You have to include it in this interview! I’m going to send it to you! They’re all always being branded as edgy, bad boy, “transgressive” writers, but seriously, there couldn’t be sweeter, funnier people anywhere. (By the way, haven’t you ever interviewed Josh Mohr? He was there too! If you haven’t, what are you waiting for—he’s perfect for your series. He left residency just in time to avoid being photographed with strawberries on his eyes.)
Some goats, relaxing in their natural habitat
(Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, and Rob Roberge)
6. As an editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown, what are your responsibilities there? Do you read everything that comes through?
Oh dear god no. I mean, no one person could possibly read everything that comes through The Rumpus and TNB even if s/he was paid six figures and worked ninety hours a week. Whereas in reality, both sites are run almost entirely by volunteers who have additional jobs. Both sites have a lot of different editors with varying duties, to make the situation manageable—and enjoyable--for everyone. At TNB, I only handle fiction, and my role is mainly curatorial. I book “featured” authors whose recently released books we spotlight with excerpts and interviews. I also publish some original short fiction, but not that much due to time constraints. And I have an amazing, superhuman assistant editor, J. Ryan Stradal, who does a lot of tech and copyediting work that makes it possible for me to manage my time and for us to showcase as many writers as we do. At The Rumpus, I’m in charge of all Sunday content, basically. I write the Lit-Link Round-up column for the blog, and I bring on original content, like an essay or a review, from another contributor weekly. I find the work I publish on The Rumpus mainly via people who already know me from another professional capacity, have written for The Rumpus previously, or are referred my way. What’s fun is that the content on Sundays is completely open—I even publish poetry once in awhile, for example. There, I do all my own uploading, so time management is important because I’m a tech idiot. If the entire internet ever crashes on a Sunday, it will be my fault somehow.
7. What are your thoughts on writing programs? Is an MFA necessary? Do you recommend it?
No, of course it’s never been and never will be necessary. There will always be the exceptional writers who are self-taught, or the many who have mentors and peers who help their work grow outside of the academic system. An MFA is helpful in several ways, the primary ones probably being structured time to devote to writing, a structured audience to read and critique said writing, and deadlines that help a developing writer learn discipline. Some MFAs, like UCR’s, are also extremely useful for networking with a wide array of published writers and industry professionals--but that varies a great deal among programs. Not all focus on those more professional aspects of being a working writer, and the philosophies as to whether they should differ widely program to program. All MFA programs, however, give students an opportunity for intense bonding with other developing writers, and with the working writers who are their professors, and for many people—especially those who don’t come from artistic families or live in major metropolitan areas—those experiences can be invaluable and world-changing. MFAs are also, bluntly, extremely expensive, and clearly they do not always translate directly into earning a living as a writer or a professor, and I consider it my ethical responsibility as a writer and teacher to acknowledge that. I recommend graduate writing programs very highly for people who go into them for the right reason, which is to learn more about their craft and the literary community within a structured environment of like-minded peers. If you go to be enriched, you will be enriched, as a writer and a person. You may or may not get a job or a book deal as a result of a program, so those are not the right reasons to go, period. Also, for people for whom money is a big issue—as it was for me—there are also programs where you can TA and receive a tuition waiver and even be paid to go to school, or low residencies that allow people to retain their day jobs and keep their lives mainly intact while pursuing their degrees.
8. You have a great social presence, do you think it's necessary these days? Especially for a writer trying to sell a few books?
Well, this is a really hard question. I’m a social person in general, and I’m especially happy to spend time among other writers and avid readers, so for me this is a perk of the job not a task or a hoop to jump through. But I know that not all writers feel this way, either because they’re more introverted or because they don’t live in places with easy access to literary events, or don’t have the job, family, or financial flexibility to do things like touring extensively. The internet, with things like Facebook, guest blog tours, and the wide array of literary sites, certainly make it possible for someone to have a social presence without having to be someone who goes out all the time or tours a lot. But of course focusing on social media can also seem like a full-time job to people who don’t enjoy that kind of thing, and even among those of us who love connecting with other literary types, it can prove a distraction from the actual writing. You can’t sell a book you aren’t producing. So this is really a mixed bag. Social presence is, more than anything else, something that should be fun and community building. Maybe it does help move a few books, sure. But the people whose books really move—I mean, a Franzen or Egan or something—that isn’t achieved by spending more time on Twitter or adding a couple of cities to your tour. Even presuming all other things being relatively equal, i.e. that the book is really fucking good, quite a bit of sales success has to do with the marketing engine behind the book: the publisher and the time, organization and money it fuels in for PR, etc. So it’s really all about keeping expectations realistic. You should be social because you like it, I think, not because you think it’s going to make you famous. It’s not going to make you famous. Only Paris Hilton gets famous for going to parties, and only Anthony Weiner gets famous on Twitter, you know? Those are…not goals.
9. Do you read every review you receive? Do you think they sell or stop someone from purchasing?
I’ve mainly kept up with my reviews…my husband has a google alert on me so he can see what comes out about my books, and once he knows something is there I find myself curious and usually end up reading it too. But I’m considering asking him to stop telling me. I think reading everything people write about you can really only lead to trouble eventually and that I should quit now before I get burned.
As an editor and book reviewer myself, I very much want to believe that positive press can successfully promote a book and increase sales. I get euphoric when one of my Other Voices Books authors receives a lot of press. The truth is though that reviews sometimes move books and sometimes don’t. There are very few clear formulas in this business. We all know critically acclaimed titles that fail to sell and books that the media scathingly mocks yet sell off the shelves. This is a capricious business. As a publisher, I have always vigorously pursued getting reviews for my writers, and as a writer I’m very grateful when my books are given attention, but I have no expectation that these things lead directly to radically increased sales. Sadly, I think very negative reviews may halt sales more than very positive reviews prompt sales. People are always looking more for a reason not to buy something than a reason to buy it. We all have too much stimuli, too many possibilities, and are looking for ways to weed down. No one can read every book out there, so if a respected reviewer says to bag it, people may be all too happy to take that advice. It may take more positive reviews to sell a book than it takes negative reviews to shut down a sale. Although nothing moves a book like controversy, so there are always exceptions and loopholes, i.e. James Frey and so forth.
10. Why did you start Other Voices Books? What was the hardest part?
My business partner, Stacy Bierlein, and I launched the press in 2004 out of Other Voices magazine, which had existed since 1984 and which I’d been editing since 1997, mainly to address the fact that trade publishers had moved stridently away from publishing short story collections. Story writers—even those who had won awards and published in highly reputable magazines--were having an increasingly hard time being read by agents or considered by publishers and were continually being told to "come back when you have a novel.” Stacy and I knew that as a small boutique indie we couldn’t rectify that industry-wide problem, but we saw that indie presses were more and more the gatekeepers for outstanding books of short fiction and we wanted to be able to offer a couple writers a year an intensive publishing experience in that vein. The press eventually broadened to include not just collections and anthologies but novels and an international series—and in fairness the corporate publishing industry has also started to embrace collections a bit more again, too, and the indie publishing community has completely exploded since 2004.
There are no “easy” parts to starting a press but the hardest parts are finding the money to stay alive when your financial cushion is small and one book that fails to generate revenue can potentially bring the whole enterprise down, and also finding a distributor to get your books into the world. I initially spent so much time trying to deal with these business-level hurdles that it began to feel as though actually editing was a “secondary” part of my job, which was extremely frustrating, and could have made OVB a very short-term endeavor had things continued that way. It was liaising with Dzanc Books in 2007, and beginning to operate under one financial and distribution umbrella with them, that dramatically changed my ability to focus on acquiring, editing, and promoting my writers, and made the business end of the work tenable for a much longer period of time than it would have been if I’d been spending all my time on grants, fundraising and sales. At heart, I’m an editor, not an entrepreneur. Dzanc did amazing things for my ability to prioritize the parts of running a press that I had made me want to launch one in the first place.
11. Of all your books, articles, interviews, is there one that makes you most proud?
I feel extremely lucky to be able to say that A Life inMen is, in my own opinion, my best book so far. Still, proud is a weird word, if that makes sense. I do have a series of essays on The Nervous Breakdown about my father—there are five in total, the most recent being “The Lion and the Mouse” —that I feel a lot of emotional satisfaction in having documented. I write very little memoir-styled nonfiction, and these were intensely personal and meaningful pieces for me.
12. As an interviewer myself, I'm so jealous of your past interviews, Margaret Atwood, Junot Diaz, Steve Almond, and many others. What do you think the hardest part of interviewing people is?
Well, the hardest part is sheer terror at having to call Margaret Atwood on the telephone, and then trying not to sound like you’ve been drinking bourbon at 9am because of how terrified you are…
I guess, seriously, the challenge is to be able to ask questions that yield something new, that push and encourage the subject to open up in some way that varies from their other interviews, that goes deeper or in a new direction. With so much readily available online, why do an interview if it will just sound like something the subject has already done 10 times or 50 times and those pieces are already at the reader’s fingertips for free, out in the world? I try to make it fresh, and the bigger the name of the person being interviewed is, the harder that can be to achieve, because a whole ton of other people have tried to do the same thing, and there is a lot of material and information that you’re trying not to just regurgitate.
13. Slut Lullabies has to be one of the greatest names of a book, ever. What was it like when you heard The Cult, Chuck Palahniuk's group, made it their book selection for November 2011?
Oh, it was so so cool! I was thrilled. For two reasons, mainly: first, the collection had been out for half a year already, so it was an incredible burst of new interest past the usual “season” of a book. But even more so, for me, it was exciting because I think it was a very public declaration that the collection wasn’t something only women readers would appreciate. I think women writers who aren’t yet widely known often face a knee-jerk response regarding…well, male readers assuming that their books are only going to be of interest to women. If you’re Mary Gaitskill or Francine Prose, and you have a wide literary reputation, you can overcome that gender bias of course, but I think most people in the industry understand that for whatever reason, it is harder to get a male reader to pick up a book by a new woman writer than it is to achieve the reverse. The Cult was a popular site among male literary readers, and they were able to introduce my book, I think, to a lot of guys who might not have known about it otherwise or realized it was something they would like. I think every writer appreciates a chance to get outside what might seem the natural “target market” for their work, and that most literary writers, actually, consider the concept of writing for any one demographic to be limiting. I absolutely consider myself a feminist writer and someone interested in gender politics, but I also strongly resist the notion that somehow that would translate to female readers being my only market.
14. How did you get an agent? Did you reach out or did they come to you?
I’ve had four literary agents. I mean, I’m 45 years old, and I got my first agent when I was 31. The first two, I reached out to; the third reached out to me; and the fourth, my current agent, was already a Facebook friend of mine for a couple of years before I found myself interested in changing agents and basically just FB messaged her really informally. My first agent, who mainly represented YA novels and cookbooks and things like that, wasn’t a terribly fruitful experience, but the next two—Bill Clegg and Ellen Levine—were both creatively formative and productive relationships for me, each in their own way. I think it’s important for young writers to realize that their first agent may well not be their agent forever, but that doesn’t mean it’s time wasted. Big agents like Bill and Ellen became so successful because they are extremely smart, and they have things to impart to their clients beyond just being a broker in a deal. I mean, I can’t speak to whether agents “get anything” from clients whose work doesn’t sell, and unfortunately I had the opportunity to be That Client for a few agents—but I believe if a writer is paying attention, s/he can always learn things and improve skills by working with a strong agent. To use a somewhat lame metaphor, it’s not that dissimilar from the way previous dating relationships or job experience is essential to who we become, even if we don’t marry our college boyfriend or keep working at The Latchmere Pub forever…
15. What's your writing process like? Every day? When the idea hits? Do you outline?
Dude, seriously, sometimes I don’t write for nine months. I mean, you were just remarking earlier on my insanely busy schedule and all the hats I wear and juggle—if I told you I wrote every single day, you’d think I was an alien with no actual life! Of course I don’t write every day. Wow. My gut reaction is to say “I wish!” but I guess if I really, really wished that, I’d do it. I’d quit all my other jobs—some of which do not even pay—and just do it. My other jobs aren’t an “excuse.” I do them because I love them. Because I get a very similar rush from bringing other writers’ work out to the world as an editor to the rush I get when my own work comes out—because I believe in a literary community and I want to be a part of it and contribute to it in ways beyond just…me. Teaching is a great job and I really enjoy it. Editing, I think, is a core passion in my life that I’m not sure I could entirely and permanently do without any more than doing without my own writing. I write when I can. Sometimes that is pretty often. Sometimes I have a very, very slow year. Inevitably in any long project, I will hit a kind of obsessive mania where I can’t do anything else and I don’t function that well for awhile, so to be honest I have to be judicious about the really long projects—about novels. I’m not sure I could live in that state all the time. Stories and essays spill out faster and leave my system faster. I outline, yes. And then I flagrantly disregard everything in my outline, usually. When I’m following the outline very literally, I know things haven’t clicked yet. When it clicks, it’s more like taking dictation. The voices keep talking even when I'm away from the keyboard or a notebook and the only way to keep up would be to wire a stenographer directly into my brain. Outlines don’t mean much in that stage, and that’s the stage I love.
16. How did you get involved with The Rumpus?
It was circuitous, like most things. A mutual friend, Joe Meno, asked me to read with him and Stephen Elliott years ago, when Steve was still touring for The Adderall Diaries. We had a bunch of friends in common, but I’d never known him when he lived in Chicago. Then later I interviewed him for TNB, and he liked the interview so he asked me to do one—with Rob Roberge, actually—for The Rumpus. Then I think I wrote a few other things for them. One day a couple of years ago, I saw that Steve had said on FB that they needed a new Sunday editor. He said some adorable thing, something like, “someone smart and good like Gina Frangello.” He tagged me. I’m pretty sure he was probably mainly just being nice and paying a compliment—I doubt he thought anything would come of it. But I loved The Rumpus, so I messaged him and asked what it would entail. And in, like, half an hour, it was settled.
17. Are you going to be doing a book tour of any kind with ALife in Men? Where can we expect you?
Um…yes. I am doing quite a book tour. It’s the first time in my career that I have a publicity engine and—you know—actual financial support from my publisher to tour. Algonquin is phenomenal about publicity. They’ve got me booked all over the place, book festivals and conferences and the usual bookstore readings. I’m a control freak with strongly indie roots so of course I’ve also booked a bunch of things on my own to complement their itinerary. I hit the road for the east coast onFebruary 8 and I’m really working my way east to west, with some strange detours down south, on and off until late April. I need to get my old website (www.ginafrangello.com) updated so I can get my tour schedule up there. You’re in New York, right? I’m at Word on Feb 11, and at the KGB Bar on Feb 16.
18. Who's currently knocking you on your ass with their writing?
Right now, I’ve had the incredible privilege of reading three absolutely kick ass powerful memoirs in manuscript form from Zoe Zolbrod, Rob Roberge and Joshua Mohr. It’s the first foray into this kind of nonfiction for all of them—they’re all primarily fiction writers—and their memoirs have completely stunned me, for both widely divergent and yet some overlapping reasons. They’re all extraordinarily intense. I feel like I need to go lie on an island somewhere and recover from the emotional power of those three books, cumulatively.
19. Every Kind of Wanting, what can you tell us about it?
If I don’t have a draft finished by the time A Life inMen drops, I’m jumping off the roof, for starters, because I doubt I’ll have time to write again until late summer. But presuming I’m still here…well, it’s a novel that on the surface centers around a gay couple’s efforts to have a child through a gestational surrogacy, but really it opens into something much wider than that. It spans thirty years, and is partially set in Venezuela, with parts in Chicago and Beaver Island. Parts are funnier than anything I’ve ever written, and other parts are so raw they’re making me very nervous and I’m not sure I can possibly show them to anyone, which I tend to take as a good sign…provided I get the balls to overcome that impulse, that is.
20. What's next for Gina Frangello?
Literally? I think a Jameson, and then checking the 40-something emails that have piled up while I’ve been answering this interview!