In her three novels and two short-story collections, Joan Frank has chosen one of the most difficult (and interesting) of all topics. As she puts it, "Contemporary relations between men and women."
The added layers of family and friendship dynamics make her stories philosophically thought-provoking and reflective, while the language is almost musical.
Frank's new novel, "Make It Stay" (Permanent Press, $26, 160 pages), received a starred review in the prestigious Kirkus Reviews magazine.
It tells the story of two California-based couples whose friendships with each other over three decades lead to surprising yet inevitable life changes. As she explained in a broad stroke, "In the end, the camera has to pan back and show the cosmos to give us a reminder of who we are in the vastness of existence."
Frank has won numerous grants and awards, and has written hundreds of essays and short stories published in anthologies and literary magazines, including the Antioch Review, Folio and Furious Fictions. She also is a Pushcart Prize and Bread Loaf Fellow nominee.
Frank attended high school in Carmichael, majored in English literature at UC Davis, holds a master's degree in creative writing from UC Berkeley, and has taught creative writing at California State University, Sacramento.
Frank and her college professor husband, Bob Duxtbury, live in Santa Rosa. She offers tutorial and editing services at her website, www.joanfrank.org.
A lot of cooking goes on in "Make It Stay."
The use of food and cooking gets a lot done. For one, it establishes an era and a demographic. Certain kinds of foods are used by certain people with certain incomes and tastes. It's also an expression of personality and mood. When one character, Neal, gets bad news, he roasts a turkey as a way to deal with impossible stress.
You were aware of your writing gift early on, you have said, but you "ran away from it," living in West Africa, Hawaii, France and San Francisco. What were you running from?
Parental expectations and performance anxiety. I'm the daughter of college English professors. My father in particular I worshipped, and I lived in horror of failing to achieve brilliantly for him.
I knew I was gifted with language, but it was not at all clear that I could go forth with it and make a life based on creative writing.
But you did.
Yes, but very late. It took waiting until I had lived awhile, to the age of 40, and for my parents to be dead with all respect to feel free enough to perhaps fail utterly and not offend anyone.
You made a mini-industry out of writing essays for metro-politan and literary magazines.
Yes, but I realized essays are only a very flat dimension of organized information, and that I was missing something desperately deep. It finally occurred to me that it was time to investigate literary fiction. So I took a writing workshop at UC Berkeley and began. After that, everything happened very fast.
Your conversational and writing styles are eloquent. You once said, "You champion what you love while you live, and after that it's up to the stars." In "Make It Stay," you liken the sound of crickets to "small, winking lights," and refer to "the heavy sweetness of roses spilling over fences in popsicle colors." Where does such vividness of language come from?
I can only suppose it's the genetic legacy from my very gifted parents. I feel my gift of language is almost like fairy-tale (magic). The words pop forth and string together, almost as if I don't have agency in the matter. I feel it's a God-given gift, and I feel morally bound to exploit all my power while I still have my wits.
There are so many authors of popular fiction, but your perspective is much more literary. When does fiction become art?
When it transcends the particular and becomes universal, and enters people like a benign radiation and lives in your body for the rest of your life.
How do you balance the reality of family and other social interactions with the private universe that lives in a writer's mind?
That's a riddle to stump the Sphinx, and I've wrestled with it the last 20 years. It's been tense; there has been stress, and the paradox is you need the real life to feed the writing life.
It was hard initially on our marriage because I had to work a full-time day job, be married and try to write. Recently, however, I'm in a position of having time for my husband and family and friends, and time for myself to dream at the computer.
There is concern within the publishing community over the reading habits of the younger, hyper-socially connected demographic.
I used to sink into a mind swamp of despair, supposing that the truncated attention spans of young people would preclude any ability for them to sink deeply into the dream that a novel hands us. But what's happening is the form is changing, and they're going for series like "Harry Potter," "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games," which are textured and substantive. I am worried about attention spans, but for heaven's sake, as long as people are reading, I'll take it.
"Because You Have To: A Writing Life" comes out in September. It's the real inside look (via essays) of why writers do what they do. It's part memoir, but also has good advice and some dishing about publishing.
Your advice to aspiring writers?
Take care of your health. Exercise goes a long way in shoehorning a writer out of existential paralysis. Also, have drive and cultivate a skin so thick (against rejection) that you can hold lit matches to it.
Any parting thought?
The (fiction writer's) duty is to tell one's truth as best one can. To get it right.
JOAN FRANK BIBLIOGRAPHY
"Make It Stay"
"The Great Far Away"
"Miss Kansas City"
"In Envy Country"
"Boys Keep Being Born"