Author Archives: thaisafrank

Character: An Explosion between Strangers


For a long time I didn’t understand what people meant by “character”. In fact, the word still seems like an elusive function in an equally elusive calculus of fiction.    It’s a function with grave responsibilities: The main character, or characters,  must steer the story to shore or have a notable wreck. They must have conflicting motives–or (in simple language) things they want and don’t want. At the same time the writer is steering them, adjusting them, so the navigator isn’t really in charge.  Except for those times when writers say, “The character surprised me.”

This statement never seemed remarkable except  for the fact that the writer  seems surprised at the surprise when in fact all people—in and out of fiction—are unpredictable.

The innovative and radical psychoanalyst, Wilfred Bion, has said that when two people meet, a kind of explosion occurs.  I think everyone can relate to this because the explosion doesn’t have to cause fireworks:  It can be a small shudder, a tremor.  It’s the explosion of meeting a stranger and knowing that you are a stranger to the person you are meeting.  It’s also an interpersonal explosion because each person knows they are stranger to the other.

This happens for me with people in fictional worlds as well as with people in what we call “the real world.” And for me, this is the beginning of what we call “character” and feels much more like meeting a person

By explosion I mean something physical and kinesthetic—the kind you feel when a stranger walks into a room.  It’s the explosion of encounter, of sheer physical embodiment. And when this happens—invited or not—someone slips from being an imaginary person to what I’ve learned to call a “character” in my story.

Eventually, I make a contract with this person (or people):  They’re charged with steering the story and I’m charged with seeing that they do.  It’s a crooked contract because we each can hoodwink the other.  I’ll find out things about them that they don’t know and they’ll discover things things about me that I don’t know. They may change the course of the navigation and I may surprise them by adjusting the stars. We’re unacknowledged doubles, dancing in a funhouse mirror.

Even though this explosion happens in fictional space, it still feels like a literal explosion And when it happens in this space I want to follow them  because they’re literally, physically, separate from me.

In other words: It’s the explosion of otherness that makes me curious.  They’re only interesting at this stage because an explosion has happened between us.

This literal, physical curiousity, gets me to walk on their streets, enter their rooms, discover their hideouts.  I learn the physical map of their lives. I may not know what they look like. But I feel them moving through space.  In other words, they’re embodied for me.

Now and then I don’t allow the explosion to occur, just the way I might ignore someone at a party.   This happens most often with incidental people, or what we call “minor characters.”   I’m not snubbing them.  I’m just failing to take them into account, the way it happens when someone is introduced and I don’t quite pause, don’t give myself over, don’t allow a meeting.

Whenever I don’t allow this meeting—however minor—I get into trouble. The person wanders around the story without apparent purpose and I have to go back and allow the explosion.  It’s like: Yes! I’m going to meet you. And I’m going to let you meet me.

Having made the initial disclaimer about character, I am, after all, writing about a character for a blog hop. The person who invited me is the highly original and poetic novelist Harriet Scott Chessman who approaches character with amazing deftness  in The Beauty of Ordinary Things. Harriet  Chessman cares deeply about people in and out of fiction and her compassion, perceptiveness and respect for otherness illuminates her book, as it illuminates her earlier novels (Someone Not Really Her Mother, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper and Ohio Angels)

Her thoughts about character are at:



Someone Came Knocking


Some one came knocking

At my wee, small door;

Some one came knocking,

I’m sure – sure – sure;

I listened, I opened,

I looked to left and right,

But naught there was a-stirring

In the still dark night;

Only the busy beetle

Tap-tapping in the wall,

Only from the forest

The screech-owl’s call,

Only the cricket whistling

While the dewdrops fall,

So I know not who came knocking,

At all, at all, at all.

 (Walter de La Mare)

Ever since I’ve been a therapist, I think about people who are alone during holidays. When family surrounded me, I would think of clients who had no one to be with and nowhere to go.  This Thanksgiving I mentioned this to a few friends who felt I was spoiling the joy about being around people they loved.

Besides, you can always rent a Kurosawa movie, someone said.

Or curl up with a good book.

And why spend Thanksgiving with people you don’t want to be with, anyway?

That’s not what I meant, I wanted to say. I’m thinking about people who don’t have options.

On the evening before Thanksgiving I heard a faint knock on the door.  We live in a courtyard that’s so far back from the street kids miss us on Halloween.   The porch light wasn’t on.

Who is it? I called

No answer.

Who is it? I called again.

Again no answer

I opened the door to darkness.

Please, miss, said a wavery voice.   Please help me.

The voice could signal danger: A giant impersonating someone harmless.  An armed robber who worked in tandem with a nearly-inaudible voice.  Take the risk, part of me said.  Don’t,said another.  Close the door.  

If I hadn’t talked to my friends earlier, I would have closed the door. Instead, I turned on the porch light and saw an old man with a childlike face.   He had no teeth and was so thin his pants fell around him in folds.

How did you find this place?

I don’t know.  I just came here.  I thought you could help me.

He began to cry.

For a moment, I switched to a former therapist-mode.

You seem really lonely. You need people to talk to.

I know, I know. Highland Hospital. They kept me there like a jail.  They wouldn’t let me out.

Maybe you could talk to someone at a clinic, I said.


But it wasn’t advice he wanted.  It wasn’t even money.  Even so, I rooted around in my wallet and gave him what I had.  He cried again.

Just one thing, then, I said.

I know, he said.  Be careful.

Yes, I said.  Please be careful.

He walked down the steps holding on to the railing. His body was as wavery as his voice.

I told Keith when he came home.  I told him about my earlier conversations, about the feeling that I had to respond to whomever was at the door.

He was guided to you, he said. He was guided to test you.

You’re a software architect, I said. You never think like that.

I do now.

I never told anyone else about the man.   I was afraid they’d tell me I should never have opened the door.  He was casing your place.  He’ll be back.   Watch out.

The man never came back.  Now and then I think I hear a small knocking.  I open the door and no one is there.   The man was real.  And what he wanted was real.  Someone to cry with.  A handshake from a stranger.



The Mirror


Could I ever give my sixteen-year-old self advice?  Somehow I don’t think so—but I’ll try:


Whenever I think of being sixteen, I have an image that doesn’t seem (at first) like theright image  because it’s all about appearance::

Early spring in Pennsylvania: Because of a bout with measles, I’ve lost weight. And–as if my whole body has emerged–my hair, previously unmanageable, has become a long sleek pageboy. I spend hours (and hours) in front of my mirror, admiring the profile I always wanted.

Finally, I am beautiful. And I love being beautiful.  I can even stand my mother’s anger as she looks at my face.

Almost every night I climb out my bedroom window to meet my boyfriend.

Almost every morning I apply eye shadow a few blocks before school.

I also have a secret life under my bed.

In my house there’s always yelling and screaming. Sometimes it’s my mother yelling at me and throwing things. Sometimes it’s my parents yelling at each other. Their voices are so raw I hear the scrape of their hearts.

I am wracked by guilt about both of them:

For my mother, who can hardly get a meal on the table.

For my father, who is frightened of everything.

And for both of them, who wanted to be writers, and who hate me because I’m turning out to be that sort of animal.

I don’t want to be a writer. I simply am, against my will, writing my first story at eight, winning prizes at twelve. I have allowed myself a public life as a fiction writer because both of my parents once wrote poetry.  When I’m alone, I write poetry, too.

My secret life under my bed consists of eye shadow, fashion magazines, and an electric razor since my mother, although not a feminist, forbids me from shaving my legs.  There’s also the life of a beginning writer, hidden like a rat with a stolen egg:  Journals where I record my parents’ fights. Books my mother doesn’t understand and that my father (an English professor) resents because he doesn’t quite grasp. Kafka and Wallace Stevens are next to the eye shadow. Also poetry I’ve written.

My parents expect me to major in English and become a lesser version of my father–going on to teach high school but not for long, because I’ll stop working when I get married.  As for me, I know–without really acknowledging it–that I’ll become a writer.

When it’s time to go to college, I defy all three of us. Instead of English, I major in philosophy of science and learn the incantations of symbolic logic.  I’m less in love with camouflage (I shave my legs in broad daylight and no longer hide my books).  But I remain separate from what everyone–including me–thinks I should be doing. Philosophy helps me understand the breadth and limits of language: but–and to my annoyance–I often read it as a writer, remembering a passage in Hume where he leaps out of his philosopher-persona to describe himself sitting by the fire in his dressing gown. Nothing I’m doing quite fits and I most enjoy staring out the window.  But when I study philosophy in graduate school, I re-read William Blake and decide that philosophy has limits.

I quit school and become a proofreader. At Sports-Illustrated we work until four in the morning and get drunk on scotch.  I ride the subway home to save cab money and defy anyone to bother me. I live in a walk-up in the Village, read my poetry at literary events and start to study Zen. Zen feels right for many reasons, but one important aspect is cultivation of silence–the bedfellow of creative language.

Eventually, I become a therapist–a long road where I help people like my parents feel happier, and eases some of my guilt about them.  Eventually I teach in graduate writing programs, where I help people who (again like my parents) want to write–except they’re willing to learn from me.

Teaching eases my guilt even more. And one day I realize that I’ve become what I always knew I was, yet for many reasons tried not to be. It happens when I’ve published three books: I’m a writer. After all.

It’s been a zigzag path, interrupted by forays into fashion, and (via the women’s movement) forays away from fashion. It’s been reading Heidegger for a solid week in graduate school and emerging on West End Avenue stoned on his notions of time.  It’s been telling Tarot fortunes at parties and expounding about modal logic.

The path has also been about relationships–some that reified the pain and guilt I felt about my parents and some that were gifts.  Some that held me back and some that pushed me forward.  I also became the mother of an extraordinary son.

So what would I say to this sixteen-year-old, admiring her profile in the mirror, with a copy of Metamorphosis under her bed? I would say almost nothing: Because her tumultuous, painful, ecstatic zigzag path is taking her where she needs to be.

There are two things, though, I would want to tell her:

First: Trust yourself even more than you do. Trust your secret forays into fashion. Trust the books under your bed.  Trust sneaking out the window to see your boyfriend.  Trust the way you hear the ache in your parents’ fights. Trust your forbidden journals. And trust your elaborate camouflage.

Second: Thank you. Thank you for being brave enough to enjoy your image in the mirror. Thank you for your rebelliousness.  Thank you for being true to your path.


Original on© 2012 Thaïsa Frank

The Mirror by Thaisa Frank

Thaïsa Frank’s Bio:

Enchantment is Thaisa Frank’s third collection of short fiction and includes two semi-autobiographical novellas as well as thirty-three stories. Her most recent novel,Heidegger’s Glasses, takes place in the mythical haven of an underground mine during WWII, the safety of which is threatened by a courageous worker in the Resistance. It was published in 2010, reissued in paperback in 2011 and sold to ten foreign countries before publication.   She is also the author of Sleeping in Velvet and A Brief History of Camouflage, both on the Bestseller List of the San Francisco Chronicle. Thaisa has received two PEN awards and is a three-time Northern California Book Award nominee. Her stories have been widely anthologized–the most recent of which are in A Dictionary of Dirty Words, Harper/Collins Reader’s Choice and Rozne Ksztatly Milocsi.  She has published critical essays on writing and art and wrote the Afterward to Viking/Penguin’s most recent edition of Voltaire.

Thaisa Frank majored in philosophy of science and studied writing alone, turning down fellowships and working as a copy-editor, ghostwriter, and psychotherapist. An interviewer once claimed she also once was a psychic reader; but this was just a rumor, started by one of her characters

The Mole


(from Enchantment, Counterpoint Press, Best Books SF Chronicle 2012)



The Mole

He noticed the mole the only time they ever made love, a light blue mole, nestled on the inside of her thigh. It was delicate, translucent, and when he touched it, it felt fragile, like a mushroom.  He was an ear, nose and throat specialist, and hadn’t thought about moles in many years, but later, when they were sitting on his bed talking, it occurred to him that it might be cancerous. The mole was blue, and, from medical school, he remembered that blue moles were often malignant.  And so he looked at Sharon, sitting opposite him on his bed, wrapped in his shirt, her hair falling over to one side, wondering how to broach the subject.  She was a medical-technician–certainly she knew about such things and surely she’d be angry if he presumed she didn’t.  Also he had a feeling she didn’t like him very much:  She was a tall restrained woman of about twenty-eight, with a sense of smoldering inner heat he’d been unable to release, even for an instant.

“This is my kid,” he said, by way of entering into certain softness with her, a softness that might allow him to mention the mole.  He reached over to his bedside table and showed her a photograph of his son in his Little League   outfit.  “I’m divorced,” he said as he handed her the picture.  “My kid is eight.”
“Oh,” she said, lifting the picture, and looking at it without much interest.  “I guess I already knew that.”

After a while, she left, pausing by his collection of geodes, the only bright thing in his sparse apartment, and refusing his offer of a taxi.  He was glad he hadn’t mentioned the mole, but later, around midnight, he began to worry again.  He had never been interested in diseases of the skin—he preferred what was hidden, accessed through apertures and tunnels–but now he pulled out his old medical-school textbooks and looked at photographs of moles.  None of them looked like her mole: they seemed darker, larger, less fragile.  He went to bed reassured, yet the moment he woke up he remembered.  The mole was dark in his memory, almost black.

“For God’s sake,” said a dermatologist friend,  whom he’d cornered at the hospital, “she’s probably had it for ages, and if she’s a medical technician, she knows all about it.”  They were in the doctor’s lounge and he’d  told her the entire story.  “How old did you say she was? Twenty-eight?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t bother to ask.”

“You don’t know how old she was, but you noticed her mole—Dennis, you’re distraught. I bet you’ve been sleeping around too much.”  The friend laughed, and added: “It’s your divorce.  You should stay out of circulation for awhile.”

The conversation relieved him, but later that day, he went to the medical library.   Moles are like hieroglyphs, he thought, walking through the stacks like a sleuth–hard to decipher, crudely beautiful.  As soon as he opened the books (he did so secretly, with the sense of seeking forbidden knowledge) he felt sucked into a universe of moles.  Horribly, a small purple mole on the thigh of a young woman had turned out to be fatal, but eleven black moles on the back of a middle-aged man were benign. The more he looked at the pictures, the more Sharon’s mole changed shape and color in his memory.

“Did her mole have a hair on it?” his dermatologist friend asked,  when, for a second time, he cornered her at the hospital.  They were at the cafeteria, having coffee, and she looked at him with concern.

“I don’t remember. Why?”

“Because moles that have hairs on them are almost always benign.”

He closed his eyes. “I can’t remember.  It’s just a blur.”

“Why don’t you call her then?”

“She’d think I was stupid.”

“I think you’d live.”  She reached over and patted his hand.  He noticed that she was wearing an indigo scarf that looked lovely against her blond hair.  Also, she had a mole on the right side of her nose, a small brown mole  he hadn’t remembered seeing.

“Is that new?” he asked, touching it

“No, I’ve always had it.  Anyway, almost everyone in the world has a mole somewhere on their body. You, too, Dennis.”  And she touched a small brown spot on his wrist in a way that moved him.  He asked her to dinner, but she shook her head.  “You’ve just gotten divorced. Give it some time.”

It was too cold to walk home, so he took the subway, and as he stood there, being jostled with the others, he began to see  moles everywhere–erupting on faces, and on hands that weren’t wearing gloves.  Their owners seemed calm, impervious, yet as he looked at the moles,  he began to wonder if he had a moral obligation to speak to these people.  His small amount of knowledge felt like a burden and that night he dreamt about Sharon’s eyes staring past him towards a fixed and finite point–just like the eyes of certain terminally-ill patients who are able to see ahead to their very last moment in time. He woke in a sweat, and decided to call her, but the next day he changed his mind, and wrote her a letter instead.  He signed his full name–Dennis Gaviola–and he used plain white paper, not his doctor’s stationery:

Dear Sharon: I hope you won’t think me untoward if I mention to you that the other night I  happened to notice a mole on the inside of your thigh.  It was a small blue mole, and I only bother to write, because I know that blue moles can sometimes be dangerous. Although I’m sure you probably already know about it, I couldn’t walk around in good conscience without mentioning it to you. By the way, I really enjoyed meeting you and I hope we’ll see each other again.  Sincerely, Dennis Gaviola.

 He wasn’t sure about the phrase I hope you won’t think me untoward.  It had an oddly formal quality, and he decided to consult an old friend,  an editor, who lived in Boston.

“I think it’s ridiculous,”  the friend said, when he read him the letter on the phone. “For god’s sake, don’t ever send it.”

“But what if I took out that phrase?”

“It would still be ridiculous.”


“Because.  There’s nothing wrong with her. ”

His friend sounded remote, safe in a happy marriage.  “Terrible things can happen,” he continued, “but they’re never the things you worry about in advance.”

He didn’t mail the letter, but kept it by his bed, in its envelope, reading it over and over, trying to imagine that he was Sharon at the exact moment of opening it.   He always saw her reading the letter fully clothed, except for once, when she was wearing his shirt, and her reaction was always the same–contempt.  The letter became creased, began to look like a map, and twice he had to snatch it from his eight-year-old son.  Finally he stuck it in his dresser drawer, and read it only occasionally.   He never could decide about the phrase I hope you won’t think me untoward.

Later that spring he met, and had an affair with, a woman who had no moles.  Her name was Corazon Martinez, she was from Argentina, and an interpreter for the State Department.  He had vowed he would never mention moles in her presence, but one day, to his own amazement, he said to her: “You have no moles!” and she answered, solemnly: “I know.  I am completely unmarked.”  They were lying on her bed and Corazon sat up and looked at her skin as if trying to see it from a distance.

“Do you think moles are important?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” she said. “Very. They’re like keys to unknown cities. I’ve always wanted one.”

That night he came home and tore up his letter to Sharon, bit by bit, piece by piece. It was like tearing up a love letter, written to him by someone else.  When the letter was shredded, he burned it on the stove, and finally, mercifully, Sharon receded in his mind. He forgot about her, forgot about her mole, and was surprised when  he saw her on the subway, about eight months later near Christmastime. It hadn’t occurred to him that she would still exist, living an ordinary life, yet here she was opposite him, holding packages, wearing a dark blue coat–still with that smoldering sense of unavailable inner heat.  She was staring into space and looked abstractedly, quietly happy.

The instant he saw her he remembered her mole.  Indeed he had a graphic image of it, nestled on the inside of her thigh, a hidden eye, a secret pearl, surprising other lovers or–maybe she was married now–her husband.  Sharon didn’t  notice him, didn’t even look his way,  and when she came to her stop, he waited for her to disappear.  But as soon as the doors opened, he found himself racing to catch up with her.  He reached her at the top of the stairs.

“Are you okay?” he said,  when she turned to face him. “I’ve been meaning to call. I’ve been thinking about you.”

“Oh, I’m okay,” she said, smiling. “Even though I’ve been to hell and back.”

“Was it your mole?” he blurted out, “was there anything wrong with it?”  He looked at her eyes, and noticed, to his relief, that they didn’t look like the eyes of a terminally-ill person at all.  They were relaxed, somewhat dreamy, and seemed to stare ahead towards an indefinite, undefined point on the horizon.  Now they turned to him, puzzled.

“My mole?” she said. “Is that all you can ask me about after all these months? Jesus.  No.  I mean I’ve finally gotten my divorce.”

“I didn’t know you were married.”

“You didn’t ask.”

“But you didn’t tell me!”

She smiled again, wryly, that heat still locked inside of her, and then she walked away, leaving him over twenty blocks from home.  He began to walk–quickly, fiercely, with the sense of some new and unnamed burden, having nothing to do with her mole, or with anything else he would ever be able to decipher.







The Customs Station of the Imagination


reading to dogs

These dogs have been drafted into a story called Reading to Dogs. But before 
they agree to be in it, they question customs officials about what they will have to
declare and surrender if they are in the story. 

Often when I give a reading or teach,  people ask me: Where does your material
come from?

Questions from students are usually about material in general. These are the easiest questions to answer because everyone has their own access to the pneumatic tube of the imagination–that  free-box of innovative language and untold. I find it staring out the window or walking down a city street or seeing a headline. Everyone finds this free-box a little differently.

But this doesn’t explain the details of the stories: How did the trunk in a corner of one story become a main character in another?   What happened to make one character drop out of the story and another character start to write letters? And where did you get this character?   These are the questions people at readings want to know. And my most honest answer is that I can’t tell them.  


I’m sure that if a story were on a real map, I could walk into it and find any one one of the parts  and remember something about its origin. But these parts got to stay in the story only because they belonged to the whole.S cenes, phrases, characters, plots—nothing is safe from being thrown
in the landfill.

In one sense,  I’m relieved that I can’t answer the question. This partly comes from a sense that
once a story is written it’s best to not analyze it,  release it to the world, and not analyze it.  The imagination works on what we call reality and redefines it. 

And yet the demands on the imagination are rigorous. They come from the “real” world, from the
writer and  from a sense of the potential reader.  In fact, I have a definite sense of a customs station at the border of writing where I have to surrender what I think already know–about myself,  my life, and what I think fiction should and shouldn’t be.  Then I have to bring in elements that I think are part of the story and will probably change to suit the demands that the story itself beings to make. And once something gets through customs, 
I don’t want to drag it back across the border into a linear (and made-up) explanation about where it came from.

Strangely–or maybe not so strangely– I notice that concrete answers to this question are rarely  satisfying. So when I say:  “I got this idea from here and this image from there,” there’s often a  slight sense of deflation in the questioner. The answer is like going to the back of a puppet show and watching the strings. It doesn’t touch on the elusiveness of the imagination.

Recently I wrote a story called Reading to Dogs. The passage through customs was rigorous:All the The dogs wanted to be in the story.  But they didn’t want to surrender important aspects of  dog-ness, like smelling the history of sidewalks or hearing extraordinary sounds.  They reached a negotiation with customs that I never understood.  I simply was grateful for their exuberance and their presence.




Elizabeth Stark Powers: A Passport to the World of Writing

bettaEizabeth Stark Powers is a beacon and anchor for many writers.  She is the author of Shy Girl, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award. (She’s also finishing a complex and brilliant novel that I’ve been lucky to read in the early stages.)  In addition to writing, Elizabeth also has a unique coaching service called Book Writing World ( that works with writers through an ingenious combination of webinar and shared manuscripts. I was a guest on the webinar and came away impressed by Elizabeth’s insights and her deft ability with a group.  In addition to teaching, Elizabeth writes columns that are available to everybody. And even though I’ve published six books, I often go to them for solace becaEuse they remind me of what I often forget—namely that writing is hard and finishing is a priority.   I always come away with a phrase to remember:  For example: It is harder to think about writing than to write.  And Dialog is about rhythm.  Elizabeth was recently chosen to moderate the panel, Like Me/Unlike Me: Re-Imagining Women in Fiction at Pegasus on Shattuck in Berkeley on September 25th. (

Thaisa: Thanks so much for agreeing to an interview, Elizabeth.  I’ve read Book Writing World ( for a long time and I always look forward to your columns. You have a keen sense of what stops writers from writing and are able to articulate that in ways that are positive instead of punishing.   For example, in your column called Celebrated Chunks, Looking at a Writer’s Schedule ( you say that “meaningful work must have a daily goal that supersedes the overarching goal.” Can you elaborate on this?

Elizabeth:. The rush to the stable can stall progress, especially if the stable keeps ending up just out of reach. It’s the habit that matters for a writer, the daily dose you do, day in and day out, whether it’s any good, whether it contributes to bringing the project home. I don’t quite work this way myself, however. I am always aiming for the stable, but I am learning that if it’s up over another hill or out of sight around the corner, I still need to keep trotting.

Thaisa: That’s good advice. I know that I can get stalled by a novel that seems to be lagging yet write something short that I didn’t have in mind.  Also, you seem to know almost all the psychological hooks that writers use to hang themselves.  Were you always aware of them or did something specific get your attention?

Elizabeth: The combination of teaching and writing forces one to this awareness. Don’t you think so, Thaisa? I find I do my best teaching and my most sincere advising when I do it from my own edge, from the place where I am struggling. I guess I am intimately familiar with those hooks because on any given day I’m hanging from one or the other of them. When I sit down to write my newsletter, I have first to face the fact that to write about writing requires writing. Already I’m tangled on the hook, you see? So I start there—as my own bait I suppose, and see what I can reel in.

Thaisa:  You’re right—teaching and writing focus on awareness from either side of the woven cloth.  I noticed that you’re able to help many different writers, ranging from memoirists to writers of fantasy to writers of what we call “literary fiction.”  Do you find yourself leaning toward a particular genre?  For example, do you ever blur lines between what is considered “real” and “magically real” or “surreal?”

Elizabeth: My teaching and editing come from my deeper skill set as a reader. That is, I am a more experienced and advanced reader than I am a writer. And I am a gullible reader, too, which I think is the best kind for editing. You want to start out likely to fall for the characters, story and world, and from there find only what throws that gullible reader out of the tale. No need to hunt for writerly strategies or failings.

My first book started out with a whole magical twist, but I think the gender-bending (female-ish) hero was already magical to me and surreal to my grad school readers, so I ended up cutting the other magic, which was a bit more parlor-trick-y than substantial. But I was heavily under the influence of Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion—“I’m telling you stories. Trust me” and Laura Esquovil’s Like Water for Chocolate—the movie more than the book, in fact, because the visual presentation of the magical realism pinned it down so much more strikingly. To see the impossible is a form of ecstasy.

Thaisa:I’m a gullible reader, too, so that reassures me! I know that you’re finishing a new book because I was lucky enough to read one of the early drafts.  Has your writing changed since you wrote Shy Girl?

Elizabeth: Oh my gosh—I hope so! I have studied craft a lot more. My ideas about writing went, especially, into my latest editing pass. I cut so much interiority and “telling,” and went with trusting the reader to get the story from the experience of the characters. Having lived a lot longer and had my heart broken more, I have a better understanding of people. I have more faith in the beauty of a transparent sentence than a language-laden one, though I can still fall for preaching and density. There’s now a book-in-a-drawer, too. Actually, a couple. Every writer should have such a drawer, right? You realize that nothing is more precious than the habit of work itself

Thaisa:You and Angie have two boys who are almost the same age.  How do you work writing into your schedule?

Elizabeth: Yes, they are six now. I get up early—about 5:30—and meditate. I usually sneak a little reading in there, too. It’s my “quiet time.” My kids more or less know that if they wake up then, they can sit with me and meditate or read, too. Turns out, they love quiet time with me, better than all my blah, blah, blah. After I drop the kids off at school (or while Angie does), I head to a café to write. After lunch I do work for the business and some afternoons and evenings, I teach. I’ve heard that full-time working mothers now spend more time with their kids than stay-at-home moms did in the sixties, and I believe it. My kids only get an hour or two of screen time each week and only on the weekends, so either Angie or I am with them when they are not in school. Thank god for grandparents. And I will say that my income doubled when they started kindergarten. Before that, I did a lot of writing after they were asleep—when I myself was nearly asleep. It does cut off the censor, that receding consciousness . . .

Thaisa:Wow. When my kid was little, exhaustion was one of the weirder and less appealing of perks. Meanwhile  you’re going to moderate a panel about women as they’re portrayed in fiction at Pegasus Books on Shattuck tomorrow evening. .  Do you have any pre-panel thoughts that you want to share?

Elizabeth: I’m not sure I’ll go into this during the panel, but my perspective is that all gender is a fiction. It is created, partly through our own conscious effort (from plucking and dressing and adopting mannerisms to silencing ourselves in some ways and giving ourselves permission in others) and partly through the shaping social forces do to us. We are looking at the “likeability” of women in fiction, and this begs the question of whether women’s interiority is ever “likeable”? It may be that the move from object to subject is in itself objectionable. That sounds too sweeping, a bit rhetorical.

I have never thought much in terms of liking or not liking people, and I’m not sure that all my friends are tremendously likeable. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? What I mean, instead, is that it is not to likeability that I am drawn. And the things that do draw me—intelligence, a going against the grain, creativity—often prickle.

Claire Messud’s book, which was at the center of the controversy that renewed this topic, contains an intoxicating anger that, in the end, turns out to have a perfectly reasonable cause. That was almost disappointing, because I think the unharnessed rage of the protagonist about the limits placed on her by the world and also by forces like time and the ankle-brace of childhood was dangerous and compelling and more significant than the bruising of betrayal contained in the plot. On the other hand, if it moves her into the happy ending of a maelstrom of middle-aged creativity—fabulous. That’s a heroine we’ve seen still less than the angry and bitter one, and yet a common-enough and lovely creature in the real world. Many of them people in my classes!

Thaisa: What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I just want to add that having studied with you a couple of decades back and then having gotten to be in conversation with you from time to time, in person and as a reader, I am indebted to your own nuanced and wonderful thinking about writing. I quote you often—on the destruction of Tibetan sand drawings as a metaphor for publication; on the difference between understanding something and believing it. I am greatly looking forward to your blog!





Pointing Toward the Moon

One of my earliest memories are of  moments when I learned the words for things.  Especially when I was three. I  knew a lot of words and talked in sentences. But I was only three. So my world was a mix of words and nameless entities.

I  remember walking down the street in a lush midwestern summer.   My parents and I were going to the beach. The air was redolent with lilacs.   We passed a garden filled with roses, fresias, bluebells.  In the center was a huge piece of rough, grainy stone.

What’s that? I asked.

A birdbath, my mother answered.

All at once, the word birdbath wrapped around the stone, encasing it, like a cloak.  It was a transparent cloak that let me see through to the stone. And it was a skimpy cloak that didn’t cover the stone completely..  At times like these I understood what words did and didn’t do:  They allowed me to name what I was talking about.   They  allowed me to compare, so when I saw the birdbath on Hamlin Street, I could say that it was smaller. They even allowed me to write a story about a birdbath. But the wordbirdbath was never quite the thing I’d seen before it had a name.

I remember understanding this with several words–all of them nouns:


Wheat field.



At some point I knew words for almost every object in my world and stopped sensing that sliver of transition when  the word leapt toward the thing and the thing found its place in the world of words. I began to acquire what is known as a vocabulary.

But even though I forgot those moments, I think that these early experiences helped me understand the limits of language. Maybe this is why I studied linguistics, majored in philosophy, drowned in the dualisms of empiricists, and eventually found myself on an island with William Blake and Martin Heidegger (an unlikely pair, who probably would have fought while I gathered palm fronds and cracked coconuts).  And maybe this is why I bothered to read the postmodernists and have always loved Wallace Stevens

Most of all, it probably explains why, as a fiction writer,  I often feel like a journeyman with a humble set of tools.  Language is an unpredictable swinging door. It can bring us closer to experience or pull us farther away.  It only points toward the moon.  And except for those serendipitous passages and poems, in which language unites with rhythm, sound and the imagination, it never becomes the moon.

As must be apparent, I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about language.  But what I understand best are moments when I was small:   The summer garden. The stony object.   The word wrapping around it.

Time in Fiction



Time in fiction


Time is the dark horse of fiction.  Without a sense of unfolding, emergent time—time that is happening at the very moment of in the story–the reader remains outside the story, as one would stand on the banks of a river. Just as a character needs to convey the sense that they are moving through space and embodied, time needs convey a sense of immediacy.   It’s far easier to give a character embodiment because you can think of a character moving in space and assume time. But since time and space are simultaneous, we are deeply immersed in time, instantly at one with time. And time (for us and for characters) never occurs without a space.  So it’s hard to think of “time” as a singular element.

For this reason, much of the work you need to do to convey time consists of not depending on a voice that conveys timelessness, or thinly disguised attempts to fill the reader in.   Here, then, are some things not to do.


  1. Long narrative detail that is meant to provide the reader with facts.
  2. The use of flashbacks that interrupt the flow of the narrative.
  3. The use of flashbacks that are meant to give information and don’t convey the flow of time as it is happening in that moment.
  4. Expository or explaining dialogue—either between characters who are solidly in the story or characters who meet after not seeing each other and talk in paragraphs about what has happened since they last met.
  5. Sudden “memories” that overtake characters.


All of the above take the reader out of the time of the story and throw them on the

bank of the river.  There are, however, some things that do work—and I’m sure you can think of more.


  1. Trust that the facts will come out in the emergence of the narrative.   They often do—and the action of the characters or the momentum of the narrative arc will convey details that you thought you had to convey.
  2. Use a scene in present time that forces the characters to revisit the past: A trial, a missed reunion, opening a letter that’s not been opened on purpose.  In the movie The Angel’s Share this is handled beautifully when the main character has to have a discussion with someone he assaulted.  (This is a tradition in Scotland after one has served a jail term.)  In this discussion, we see elements of the protagonist’s past right in front of us.
  3. Get the reader to be curious about something, so the flow to the past satisfies a curiosity about the present and often some action in the present.  (Think of the reader swimming in the river, noticing something floating in the stream and reaching backwards to get it.)


There is an opportunity for timelessness in fiction.  This is when the voice of the narrative persona (the voice of the author of the story) emerges.  This can happen in third-person fiction but not often in first-person.  You’ll probably notice that many of the things to avoid in fiction involve relying on timelessness—which takes us out of the river of the story.  Among them are endless exposition and flashbacks without a sense of emerging right then. A good writer can find ways to ally the reader with the narrator so the segues between action and information, past and present, are seamless. Ben Marcus does it in his current story in The New Yorker)  (The Dark Arts by managing to stay close to the feelings of the character.  He has the advantage of telling an up-close third person story—i.e. one in which we stay with the feelings of one character and remember and see the world through his eyes. But there are other techniques—even in the first person—for example when the butler’s memories in Remains of the Day are tied to something that is deeply important to him at the moment. Perhaps one of the most challenging forms is an omniscient third person narrator who inhabits many different characters.  However, even in this form, you can use an up close approach every time you zero in on a character.  Or—as Jane Austen or Flannery O’Conner do—you can insert a brief narrative comment, never taking the reader out of the river but allowing them to rise above it for a miraculous instant, that is to know they are in a river.




The Failure of the Intended Story

There’s always a point in a story where the triggering idea (what makes me want to start a story)  falls flat. It’s time to improvise and  generate material within the story. At this point I can’t think of what to do.  There is a  wobbly line inside my head that says this is a viable story  and this wobby line intersects with a hidden line  (but much sturdier line) that saysthis not a viable story, but you can’t write in the first place.   I beat my h ead against the wall, and eventually, magically, improvisation happens.   In a sense, the failure of the intended story guarantees the success of the final story.

I told this to Yuki Zalcow ( when he interviewed me for The Rumpus

This intrigued Yuvi and eventually he added his own alchemy and made a video about the failure of the intended story.  Thanks Yuvi!

The Failure of the Intended Story (with Thaisa Frank) – YouTube

Thanks, Yuvi.


(The interview is at (

After the Book Tour


The publication of my last book made me tired. It was a special kind of tired because I was tired of myself–tried of hearing myself talk about a book I’d written and left behind. I was also tired of confusing the tired person who talked with  authority on what she’d written with someone who had no idea how she’d written it and no idea what she’d write next.


Georgia O’Keefe said I did my best work when no one knew what I was doing.

I’m sure this is true for all of you who write or paint or dance or write complex computer codes.  These are times when you aren’t required to remember who you were  or are.  There are times when you never have to  think about an audience. And there are times when you are all alone.

The artist, Philip Guston said: When I first go into the studio there are a lot of people in the room.  Slowly there are fewer and fewer.  Eventually, there’s only me.  And finally no one’s in the room.


Sometimes readings and book tours are fun.  They’re ornate masked balls, jubilant celebrations.  At these times I feel privy to a secret: The journey was never the point: It was always the destination.  And actually, I always knew. Except now I have proof. The party is happening.  And it’s so much more fun than the journey.

But then it turns out the arrival is over: You can’t arrive at the same destination forever.

During the celebrations,  I’ve explained that writing is a profession, a  mix of discipline and agift that comes from nowhere.   Suddenly it isn’t a profession and I don’t receive any gifts–not even a paragraph or a sentence. In a word, I am unemployed.

It’s easy to blame the sense of unemployment after a book on the hysteria of the times: Writers need a platform. There are debates about whether a Twitter following  creates an audience or is merely evidence of an established one.  There are e-books.  And the tragic loss of independent bookstores.

Yet I have a sense that many writers got tangled in self-promotion.  Dickens engorged his work  because he was paid by the word. At the Beatrix Potter Exhibit at J.P. Morgan, I was astonished to learn that she’d created a Peter Rabbit Doll. And even though Kafka wanted Max Brod to burn his manuscripts (he knew Max wouldn’t), he couldn’t wait to publish The Judgment.

Between books, and after the publicity that makes me tired of myself, I am uninspired, rudderless–wishing I had could join Doctors Without Borders or be an archeologist discovering goddesses from the Stone Age.  And I’m painfully aware that I can’t even work a cash register.


What happens to break this spell?  No writer ever completely knows  since the spell is ready to be broken before the writer is released. For me  it’s always a lucky accident–a phrase, a moment of play that eluded me, the sudden appearance of a title.


Often it’s finding fellow travelers.

This time I found two fellow travelers. The first was Mary Ruefle ( who wrote Madness, Rack and Honey. Mary Ruefle is an extraordinary poet with an extraordinary gift as an essayist who engages the reader in a conversation.  She is enthusiastic about sharing her mind and sees poetry everywhere —even in Victoria’s Secret ads–which are a seamless part of a rumination about how writing itself is a revelation of secrets.  When Mary Ruefle writes she is unpretentious and intimate. She also shares–unselfconsciously–how she feels about her essays at the moment of writing them.  I went into her workroom with her. And was reminded that writers all over the world are part of an invisible community.

The second fellow traveler I met was Karen J0y Fowler ( I’ve long enjoyed her work (The Jane Austen Club, Sarah Canary  and numerous short stories). And I was surprised when we met together at the same reading.  As soon as I met her, I sensed someone who thought about writing—even when she was out in the open marketplace. At one point, during dinner, she said she’d love to give a reading to dogs. I understood! I’d always wanted to read to dogs, too. But I’d never met anyone who said that out loud.  Soon I was writing a story called Reading to Dogs.

Thanks, then, to Mary Ruefle and Karen Joy Fowler.  Neither of them knew they were answering a call. And that’s the way it is with writing. Just as meetings between readers and writers are invisible, meetings with other writers are often invisible.  That’s the conundrum of the journey. It’s also the delight and mystery.