Rebekah Frumkin, Author of THE COMEDOWN, on Setting & Writing across Differences (Interview Part 2 of 3)
At AWP 2018 in Tampa, I was honored to meet novelist Rebekah Frumkin. Her debut, The Comedown, was published by Henry Holt in April, and is available for purchase wherever books are sold.
After our first meeting, I was further honored to sit down and have an in-depth craft conversation with Frumkin. We had a lot to discuss, so our conversation will be split into three posts.
JH: I’d like to speak a bit about physical setting in The Comedown because your characters live in a lot of towns in the U.S. A lot of it takes place in the Midwest around Ohio and Chicago, there are some brief mentions of Los Angeles and New York, and then of course one whole branch of a family lives in and around Central and North Florida.
Have you spent a great deal of time in the towns and areas featured in your book? If not, how did you learn about them?
RF: Well, I spent a great deal of time in Chicago. I’m from the area at least, and now am living in the city itself. So, Chicago, really don’t need to dig into the stacks of the resource library, I don’t need to research a lot online, I don’t need to interview people.
So, the decision to set the book in Cleveland. I mean, I have a couple of friends who live in Ohio, some of them near Cleveland. I started talking to them and found out fascinating details about the city itself.
I loved the opportunity to do research. Cleveland presented itself as this complex, fascinating city. They have a lot of industry (former and current), and then you have the area around Parma that’s like the big, white working class to whom everyone has pinned the guilt for Trump’s election.
"When you write across difference, you have to stay in your lane, too. You can’t tell stories that aren’t yours to tell."
And then you also have the same red-lining and block-busting that went on in Chicago, too, where you have a marginalized and underserved black population living in the city. You have the race riots that happened in the sixties. I mean, these events alone don’t make [Cleveland] unique, they don’t serve to distinguish the city in any way, but everything together makes for a fascinating picture, a tapestry into which I can weave my characters and their lives.
So, I wanted to flex my journalism muscles, and I did. I visited Cleveland for about two weeks and went all over and interviewed as many people as I possibly could. I stayed with two different friends and explored the city.
For whatever reason, it was what I wanted to do for my first novel. I wanted my first novel to be an act of reportage, to have that quality in some way.
So, that was the story behind Cleveland, and then, Florida… Florida interested me because I have Jewish aunts who moved from New York City to Florida who were not necessarily a part of that first wave of Jewish migrants to the city -- (Pauses) -- by which I mean Miami.
JH: (Laughs.) It’s the only one we really have. I get it. It’s cool.
RF: But they [her aunts] were definitely -- they weren’t not part of the trend, you know? They were doing the same kind of thing. I was just spellbound by the idea of the Jewish people in Florida. Jews in Florida, what does that mean? That’s something we’re not used to as a people. That’s not a climate we understand.
You also have the fascinating mixture of Jewish people coming there [Miami], and you also have a strong Cuban population. And these people are, for very different reasons, defecting from very different places. I didn’t really address the historic Cuban population as much as I would have liked to in my book, but it seemed to me to be an interesting place to situate some of these characters who are dealing with, actually grappling with, their Judaism.
And the idea of a big Orthodox shul in Florida is, like, whoa to me. And I didn’t know much about Orthodox shuls in Florida, so [instead of researching,] what I wanted to do is get a little bit surreal, a little bit out there.
JH: I love how the story [of the Orthodox temple] changes for different characters. You’ve got the almost mythic temple becoming this opulent thing overnight, and then you have, I think it’s one character’s second wife remembering the cheesecloth [separation wall], and just how dowdy the ceiling is and all of that.
RF: Thank you. Yeah, because the temple has this ever-shifting quality. I almost said chameleon-like, but that’s not right because it’s not adapting to anything. Again, it’s variegated depending upon whomever is inside. So, you can be inside and have this religious experience, or you can be inside and think, ‘Oh my god, when can I go home?’ Actualizing that, you know, there’s an element of -- I don’t even know if it’s magical realism, but there’s an element of magic in that, but that experience in and of itself is very commonplace. You know, when I’ve been in religious structures I’ve had that experience.
JH: So, in many cases, you had the chance to visit these cities. You had family who lived in different places. What advice do you have for those writers who, due to financial, physical, or other circumstances, are unable to travel for research or may not have access to people who live in different areas? Something a lot of writing blogs I’ve come across say -- they tend to use the very pithy “Well, Google Maps exists for a reason. You can Google these things.” But I just wondered if there was anything else that could supplement that or be better than following the little Street View guy around.
RF: Yeah. (Laughs.) I’ve tried to do that before with not much luck.
I would try to make friends online with people in those places. I learned a whole lot about Cleveland from people online who lived there and had lived there, even before I visited.
JH: That’s true. It’s a sense of authenticity from, well, secondhand experience for you but firsthand experience from those relaying it.
"Try to make friends online with people in those places."
RF: Right. Honestly, and I’m going to get grandiose here, there’s nothing you can’t write about. For instance, if you’re a person who has a certain degree of privilege, say you’re a cishet man and you’d like to write about the experience of a woman, you can do that. You can do that, but you better fucking consult with women. You better be talking to women.
My opinion -- probably informed by my privilege, probably informed by other things -- but my opinion is that literally any writer can write about any experience or any place whether they’ve been there or not, whether they’ve lived it or not, but [they have to] go in with the mind of a journalist, seeking only the truth. And they have to do so empathetically. Okay? Not some fictional, objective truth, but a patchwork of truth, where each square is one perspective that you’ve learned about or learned from. If you can hold all of those perspectives in your head at once, then you’re doing great.
That’s what I think. Because it’s really classist to tell people that you have to travel to write about it, that you have to have access to these resources, it’s really fucking classist.
When you write across difference, you have to stay in your lane, too. You can’t tell stories that aren’t yours to tell. A white writer can write characters of color, but can’t write as if she’s an authority on the experience of being a person of color in America. It’s a fine line to walk, but it’s walkable with the right amount of introspection and restraint.
JH: Thank you. Great answer. So, obviously you did a whole lot of research -- and, I mean, research is just one facet of crafting a novel, one that we’ve been drilling down into -- but of all the patchwork of information and themes and characters and plot, how did you make sure that you weren’t info-dumping at any point? The temptation for some writers to show off must be huge, but your details, like Caleb’s use of fianchetto in his chess strategy, are hyperspecific in a way that evokes narrative verisimilitude, not the writer’s ego.
RF: I think my answer to this question is going to presume that I haven’t info-dumped, and I’ve already been accused by some reviewers of info-dumping.
JH: Oh. I don’t think you did. I’m coming down staunchly on the side of, “You gave me just the information I needed to know.”
RF: I-- thank you! But, you know, it’s exciting to learn about a topic, and the temptation to demonstrate one’s knowledge is almost irresistible because you want to put it in the book, because you want to feel capable and you want to feel intelligent.
I think that listening to the character is pretty crucial in those moments. So, for instance, if Natasha is really perseverating and she’s really worried about her sons and the way that she expresses that worry is by attempting to write an academic paper about “Bartleby the Scrivener” [Melville’s short story], then she’s going to think about Bartleby and about his characteristics.
As she’s doing that, we’re not intended to be learning about Bartleby, that isn’t what the reader is intended to internalize. The reader should internalize, “Oh, she’s anxious. She’s anxious [and I know that] because she’s thinking about her [Melville] obsession.”
So that moment of “info-dumping” is serving to undergird a plot point or a change in a character’s aspect.
You know, with Netta [an artist character, who is Natasha’s son’s romantic partner], she’s going to be thinking about her artwork when she moves into an activist role. In the novel, she thinks, “My mother is kind of abusive and also I want to uplift these women who are like me and who look like me, and I’m going to try and express myself in this way.” And so then, her expertise in that area [art], and my expertise that I’m falsifying in this effort to write about her, is going to be a lot more transparent, right? And it’s going to be transparent not just for transparency’s sake, but for Netta’s sake.