Thaisa Frank

thaisa frank redroom blog To read more of Thaisa’s thoughts/writings, visit her blog on Redroom


Barnes and Live Event Online Interview
with Thaisa Frank welcomed Thaisa Frank, author of SLEEPING IN VELVET

Moderator: Welcome, Thaisa Frank, and thanks for joining us this evening. How are you enjoying New York?

Thaisa: I’m enjoying New York as much as I can on a tour that leaves me only three days here.  I used to live here and when I did live here, I was a psychotherapist. It seems to me it should have been the other way around: i.e. I should have been a psychotherapist in California and a writer in New York.  In any case, New York is my favorite city, much to the consternation of many Californians, ex-New Yorkers among them.  I’ve been able to manage a few great walks from the Village to the lower East side on this tour and realize that I’ve always walked more here than I do in California, which is filled with hiking trails.

Jared Nash from Ancram, New York: What is the origin of your first name? It is unique and beautiful.

Thaisa: Thank you. My name is a long story. My mother was the daughter of a renegade Chassid and my father was the son of a prominent Presbyterian theologian. His relatives fought in the Revolution and had a family tree, which enticed my mother, who still felt out of place in America, like her father.  Before I was born, she spent hours poring over it, and finally chose the name of a great-great-great-great-grandmother who lived in the South.  It was hard to pronounce and flummoxed grade-school teachers, who subjected me to mortifying questions about it at the beginning of the year. So when I came to California, the State of the Great Name Changes, I decided to change my name. I chose “Thaisa” because it means “to tie” or “to bond” in Greek. Unlike my first name, I love answering questions about it.

Mark from New York: What is it about creative writing that is so attractive to you?
Thaisa: I don’t know. I’m not even sure it’s attractive to me. In some sense I feel that I don’t have a choice about doing it.  Nonetheless, there’s nothing more exciting than the first beginnings of a story and finishing it and discovering the shape.  Middles are deplorable.
Bridget Chase from Boulder, CO:  I love your writing. Everyone should know about you. Where did you meet all these characters?

Thaisa: Thanks, Bridget.  In truth, I only meet my characters after my story starts. Usually what starts my story is a phrase, or a title that intrigues me, or an image, or a glimpse of a situation.  Then I discover that this triggering element (a phrase from Richard Hugo) isn’t enough to sustain the story and in the failure of the intended story, the real story bubbles up. And then the characters appear and are part of the generative element (thank you again, Richard Hugo).  Often what interests me most is the relationship between characters: It’s like a third person in the room, waiting for a chance to speak.  I often feel that my characters step up to the plate and meet me. I’m very grateful to them for showing up, even when I don’t want to, and doing the hard work.
Denise Cantiello from Port Jefferson, Long Island:  Your stories are like poems. Do you write poetry? Do you read it?

Thaisa: Thanks for comparing my stories to poetry. I want the language itself to drive the story and this is a balancing act, because the characters have to create the narrative arc.  I always listen to voice, as though I’m composing music. And I read a lot of poetry: Wallace Stevens was the first literary voice that spoke to me. I also read a lot of Yeats and Celan and Stafford and some of the postmodernists.  As for writing poetry—I do that secretly.  It’s sort of the outback for me.
One of your students from SF State:  Just wanted to say that this woman is a fabulous wrier for anyone who doesn’t know her and that she has a great things to teach us all about writing creatively. Thank you, Thaisa, and good luck with the new book!
Thaisa:  Hello, mysterious student. You know I must have told you that anonymity has to be banished if you’re going to be a writer! But I’ll start searching for you later and thank you here for saying such nice things about my writing and my teaching.

Michael T. from Los Angeles: Your new book is wonderful and I thought I’d tell you that first. I was wondering: Your characters are into very contemporary things, like piercings, the Internet, and other things—how do you do your research? Are you in touch with all these modern conveniences and trends? Did you hang out in particular places to find character traits? Thank you.
Thaisa: Thanks, Michael T. And it’s a great question.  I can unpack it into three answers.
First, as reclusive as I can be and as much as I often don’t participate in trends, I always seem to know what’s happening out there. I don’t know how I know. It’s some kind of attunement to the zeitgeist or—as the woman in a story in VELVET would say, “the crest.”  Second, I hang out on the Whole Earth Lectronic Link (the WELL), where I’m host of the Writers Conference. I visit other conferences there and sometimes a subject grabs me and I download everything that anyone has written.  (That’s why I have about 20 pages about piercings!)  Last, I know people in your city—Los Angeles. It’s a great place to hang out and learn things and I’m sure I’ve met some of my characters there, even if I don’t look for them deliberately.  People are very vivid to me in Los Angeles: You can sort of breathe them in.  Thanks again for a great question.

Kielty Gallagher from Gambler, Ohio: I see you went to Oberlin—I’m currently a senior at Kenyon. Did you enjoy your time there? How was the English department for you?

Thaisa: Hi there, Kelly. I loved Oberlin for its students.  I majored in philosophy, so I didn’t have much to do with the English department. I thought I was going to get an advanced degree in philosophy of science until William Blake straightened me out.  As for English departments in general—and perhaps this is just a personal bias—I don’t think they help writers very much because so much of their work is interpretative.  I think most writers start their work in a very non-reductionistic mode. I was lucky to work privately with a poet named David Young. 
Mark from NYC: I’m personally a staunch supporter of short fiction as the greatest test, and the greatest achievement of ay fiction writer that pulls it off. I find it hard to write a really good short story, but when you read one, you just know you are meeting a really good writer. Do you agree with me?

Thaisa: It’s hard for me to say that because short fiction is what I do and I’m too far inside the short story to be objective. But when I think of THE DWARF (Par Lagerqvist), or Flaubert, or Chekhov, who wrote long stories, I admire a work that has unity and can sustain voice over a long duration. (The novel still eludes me, although an idea has been chasing me for years and is catching up with me.) In any case, I’m delighted that you’re a supporter of very short stories. Short fiction often makes the reader wake up. It has a radical element of surprise. And we need a lot more readers as we end this curious century and go into the next one.
GMarss from the office: I’ve got to say the your book has more poignant first lines than any other collection of prose I’ve read in a long time. You forced me to stay up late reading because I couldn’t pass up whatever the next first line was :). How do you do it? Do you believe in essential openings in stories?

Thaisa: Thanks, GMarss. Actually, I think most of what writers say about their work is like a fishing story. Half of it happens underneath the surface and the writer makes up the other half. So I’m a little suspicious of what I’m about to say(!) : Nonetheless, there was a time when I did read a lot of opening lines to stories because I knew that they mattered and was interested in how writers did that. All the openings were different and I couldn’t create a formula or translate anything into good openings of my own.  But at some point I began to understand that if I trusted a first line, the next line would follow.  Of course now and then, there’s a last line I trust and I have to work backwards.
Marcus from 75th St: Your stories for the most part are very short in SLEEPING IN VELVET. I’m wondering why you chose to do it this way—or, to rephrase that, what sets the short story apart from any other piece of fiction?

Thaisa: I don’t choose to write very short stories. My voice made the choice for me. I think of voice as being both a composer and a series of instruments: The instruments are the individual words.  The composer shapes the whole story. When the composer knows a story is finished, I concede.  I don’t mean to imply that this is a mysterious or mystical process: It’s very hard work to get to that place.  But voice is a kind of bedrock.  I also have a kinesthetic sense of when a story is done—as though a little world is set in motion.  It’s like trying to get a toy electric train to work:  It’s not working, the kid you’re setting it up for is impatient, and then suddenly the train begins to run around the tracks.
Jenna from Vermont:  You said the short story had freedom and limitation. What do you see as the limitations?

Thaisa: That’s a great question. I think the short story asks a writer to accomplish a lot in very little time. It’s like an urgent letter. You have to assume absolute authority and get your reader to take a leap of imagination with you.  Longer fiction can get away with less economy.  The short story doesn’t have this forgiveness.
Brian Connelly from Duke University:  Thaisa, what is the writing process like for you? Do you have a routine?

Thaisa: It took a long time to understand how that worked for me, Brian. I think the writer is like a very elusive animal, and one has to observe its habits.  I’m a sprinter rather than a marathon runner, so I don’t always write every day. I can think about a book for a couple of years, write a few stories, and then work around the clock for three weeks and take another month for revision. The act of writing is a kind of working-through the story that has been inside for perhaps longer than one knows. Some of the work is pure sweat and craft. But it’s also fallout of many things, including what is happening in the writer’s live and mulling over the story.

Brian Connelly from Duke University:
 Can you say a little more about that?

Thaisa:  In a sense the most important thing I can say is that I discovered lot of what I thought about writing was immaterial.  There was a writer in the alchemical boiler room who made decisions for me. Stories that were scraps on my desk for years and grew into stories very slowly were impossible to distinguish from stories I wrote in one sitting.  A story idea that started as a title was just as interesting as one that started with an image.

Meg A. from New Brunswick: What got you started on your writing career?

Thaisa: Writing got me started. When I wrote my first story as a kid, I felt connected to myself and the world outside me in a way I’d never felt before. I was eight, and I didn’t want to be a writer. I always knew writing was a hard profession. And I never had romantic ideas about it because I knew it was hard work.   It was past college and some graduate school when I surrendered to the importance of this connection. So writing itself came long before I decided to make it a career.

Hannah from Atlanta: Do you agree with me that short story writers have more creative license than novelists do? I feel perfectly satisfied at the end of a short story if I find myself saying “Huh?” But I would never accept that from a novel. There are different freedoms with stories. Do you agree?

Thaisa: An interesting analysis, Hannah. I think both forms have freedoms and limitations. Short stories have much more freedom with regard to time: They work with epiphanic moments and have to deliver the promise made to the reader in the first paragraph. They don’t carry a fictitious freight car of linear time or and cause and effect. So if you get it right and eventually understand and deliver your promise, you have a better chance of getting the reader to feel satisfied at the end. And this is why it’s okay to say “Huh?” and feel satisfied. But the novel is a slave to linear time and the novelist can get mangled in stilted notions of cause and effect. This is why many novels sag in the middle and don’t always keep promises at the end. On the other hand, a short story can’t meander the way a novel can and a good novelist can take you on a journey that transcends time. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN did that. Indeed, in my opinion, time was a silent character.

Moderator: Thank you once again for being with us, Thaisa. Is there anything you want to say before we close?

Thaisa: Well this process of readers being kind enough to ask a writer about their work and writers being very willing to talk about it is eternal. And I enjoyed intersecting the process in this part of eternity. These were great questions. And it’s a luxury to get a chance to write on a book tour. Thanks to all of you.