Joan Frank is the author of four books of fiction, with a fifth, a new novel called Make It Stay, coming out in early 2012. Joan’s recent story collection, In Envy Country, won the 2010 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction, and was named a Finalist for the 2011 California Book Award. Her first novel, Miss Kansas City, won the 2006 Michigan Literary Fiction Award, and was nominated for a Northern California Book Award.
Her second novel, The Great Far Away, was also an NCBA nominee. Her first story collection, Boys Keep Being Born, was a finalist for both the Bay Area Book Reviewers’ Fiction Award and the Paterson Fiction Award. She is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the Dana Award, Michigan Literary Fiction Award, Iowa Writing Award and Emrys Fiction Award, and recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Fund and Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. She holds an MFA degree from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC; has taught Creative Writing at San Francisco State University, and lives in Northern California. Check out her website.
Let the conversation begin!
What’s one rule you’re dying to break?
I love to read a certain kind of novel in which nothing much outwardly happens, in which most of the action is internal, psychological or emotional, and fairly intricate. (Wharton, James, Toibin, Brookner, Munro, Sebald; lately, Teju Cole’s Open City and Laura Furman’s The Mother Who Stayed are knocking me out.) Peter Handke’s Afternoon of a Writer takes place entirely in one man’s head, in the space of an afternoon and evening. The writer goes for a walk, has a beer, and goes home. I love these models, and I think that much of what I write is drawn, reflexively, toward them. So I already break one major rule, or at least one I presume makes the rounds regularly.
Easier to write before or after you published?
What an interesting question. I think that after my very first book of stories was accepted (Boys Keep Being Born, the University of Missouri Press, 2001), I felt it was a sign from the cosmos that I was doing something right, that I wasn’t crazy, and therefore I could go ahead and make new work with excited confidence—very much like the wooden Pinocchio becoming a flesh-and-blood little boy.
Are your characters completely fictional? Or do you base them off real people?
I’ve written an entire lecture around this tasty subject. (Author David Huddle also made a good essay about it, called “How Much of That Story is True?”) The short answer: most of my characters come from people I’ve known, dismembered, and sewn together using new combinations of disparate (and made-up) body parts and personality elements. They’re Frankensteins. And they generate their stories.
Hemingway said this: From things that have happened and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason.”
What advice would you give young writers?
Be driven. Protect your health by every available means, so that you can stay driven.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
“Wear your heart on your sleeve, Joan, but not your writing.” In other words: do not give the game away. Don’t talk about work too much or explain it to death.
What one word describes you?
How many words do you write each day?
It doesn’t matter. Whether it is 50 or 1000, just getting some words down is the thing.
Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants writer?
A famous author described the writing process as something like driving at night: only able to see the portion of road right in front of the car headlights. That’s how I do it. This is perhaps its greatest sustaining thrill: discovery. Often I’ve no idea where I am going or what will happen—or I have a vague idea, which gets fleshed out in a series of many passes.
When are you the most productive?
Mornings are magic, whenever possible. But I’ll also squeeze the writing in absolutely whenever I can. You have to be a creative thief of time.
What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?
Exercise. Workouts, swimming, bicycling, hikes. It’s the new booze, I think. And reading, of course. Reading is food.
Do you let anyone read your WIP? Or do you keep it a secret?
At first, no one. When I feel it’s as ready as it can ever be I give it to one person, my dearest friend, who is also a writer and teacher, who has a superb eye and reading ear, and who’ll suggest any problems to me in a way that I know will not chop off my hands, will not traumatize me. Then I show it to my husband, who’s usually incredibly kind. Then, after I’ve made adjustments and revisions, out it goes into the world, looking for a home.
What are you working on now?
I’m happily working on a new novel, but cannot say more about that, because of the Silence, Exile and Cunning law cited above. Meantime, I’m offering both a novel and essay collection out there, awaiting news. The essay collection’s about the writing life, so although I can’t yet say more about it, I hope your readers will look for it when it appears! I also write occasional personal essays and regularly review literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. And I haunt the library!