Rebekah Frumkin, Author of THE COMEDOWN, on Sharing Personal Experiences in Fiction (Interview Part 3 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 is split into three posts.
JH: We’ve been speaking a lot about research, and we’re going to switch tacks a bit for these last two questions. Earlier you made a salient point about essays being about very personal information or heavy interviewing and novels being a bit different. Speaking of personal experience, how do you toe the line of what to include from personal experience from your life or the lives of those that you know in your fiction?
RF: So this is something I tend to evangelize about, which is, I am so wary of how the publishing industry preys upon the vulnerability of women and the trauma that women experience. It seems like everyone is always searching for the next Sylvia Plath.
I have a lot of friends who write beautifully about some very deep and private subjects. I have one friend who published this gorgeous memoir called The Glass Eye, Jeannie Vanasco. She writes beautifully about her past trauma, her situation living with mental illness, her relationship with her deceased father, how all of that is going on in her life.
Well, in Jeannie’s case, this is someone who is in control of the narrative. She is in control of what’s being shared and what she wants to share, and you’re along for the ride. So, she’s resisting that publishing tendency to cull female pain and glamorize it and lay it out neatly for readers who maybe haven’t experienced that.
Then there’s, I don’t remember her name, but she wrote probably one of the most viral personal essays of all time for Jezebel. [At the time of this interview, the article has gotten almost 569,000 hits.] It just went nuts. And it was about how she did not know her birth father and when she met him, she fell in love with him and she slept with him. So, it was a really intense Elektra story.
It stresses me out just to talk about it because she presented this story to Jezebel -- I mean, supposedly the editors spoke with her and warned her, “Hey, this is going to be pretty big” -- and it was huge and then she was not lucky placing pieces after that. That’s someone who was not in control of her narrative.
But it’s hard, right? Because the risk of oversharing question is a femme-associated question.
JH: No, you’re absolutely right. I probably wouldn’t have even thought to ask you that if, you know, I were interviewing you and you were a male-identifying writer.
RF: And it’s not even on you. It’s just how we’re taught to connect with one another and the way that femme-presenting stories are modulated.
So, to answer that question, I would say I walk the line by trying to be as like the Jeannies [referring to Vanasco] as possible and going in clear-eyed. And I write a lot about mental illness. I wrote about drugs, I wrote about being arrested, I wrote about all kinds of things. And this always comes with the disclaimer that there’s a nice cushion between me and that, and that cushion is whiteness, but I still did share things that made me feel vulnerable.
[That said,] every single time I was like, “I know that I’m going to write this essay, and I know why, and I intend to share it because it is meaningful to share,” as opposed to letting a hungry-for-clicks editor steer me.
JH: I’m glad you made that point. Lately I’ve been having a lot of conversations with writers I respect, and I feel like there’s such an emphasis in creative communities right now on productivity. It’s this very shortsighted productivity, not thinking of the long game, but thinking, “Hey, if I can write an essay and it can go viral, then that’s the best thing that can happen to me.” Maybe that’s true in the next six months, but is it true in the next six years? Or sixty years?
RF: Oh, totally. And growing up I remember thinking, like, “Wow, people who win the National Book Award… that’s amazing. Maybe that’ll happen to me on my fifth book, when I’m older. Or I’ll get nominated on my fifth book.”
And then I’m in this kind of hothouse environment, I’m surrounded by my friends who are brilliant, and they’re achieving really well, and suddenly I’m thinking -- with nobody putting this on me, “Oh, I’ve got to be long-listed for these five prizes for my debut, or I’m bad!”
It’s nuts. I used to think, “I just hope that I publish the book and get some good reviews for the book, and do another book.”
But I think the hothouse stuff and the internet and social media… I remember the other day I was talking to a friend, and he didn’t make a[n awards] list, and a couple of our friends did. I remember walking away from this whole list thing like, “God, I can’t imagine Theodore Dreiser logging onto Twitter and being like, ‘Agh! I didn’t make the Barnes & Noble Discovery list!’”
Everything [nowadays] is like “Am I good, am I bad? Am I good, am I bad?”
JH: So, long story short: don’t focus on that, focus more on [writing] from a craft perspective and from a truthful perspective of if you want to share this information. Use that rather than this ice-water panic that sets in when you see people publishing and you’re not.
RF: I think that it is true that when you’re able to disengage, being with the writing and being in the writing is what makes everything feel better.
"Being with the writing and being in the writing is what makes everything feel better."
JH: Wow. Thank you for that. I think that answers everything that I wanted to know about personal experience in fiction, so thank you so much. I’m just going to throw out one more question, which is, Are there any questions you haven’t been asked by an interviewer yet that you wish we would ask? If so, what is it?
RF: Um, well, I guess I wish more interviewers would ask what I’m feeling vulnerable about or what I’m feeling scared about. I recently had this essay for Catapult about jealousy in the literary world and writing under capitalism. People were responding and saying, “I’m glad you wrote this. It’s very honest. I have had these feelings, too.”
So, it might be nice if in an interview where someone is being very elevated and honored for their accomplishments maybe that person could say, like, “The thing I’m always worried about is being very small in the world.” That’s actually my fear. I worry about being small.
You know, the question should be, “What are you most scared of, and what are you most excited about?” Because I’d say I’m most scared of being small, and by that I mean having minimal impact, not necessarily not winning all the hothouse stuff, but not getting the airtime that I feel my message deserves.
What I’m excited about is connecting with people who’ve read my book and care about my book and have been very thoughtful in their reading of my book. So, connecting with those people and being able to have conversations that are meaningful to both of us. That’s what I want, that’s what I look forward to.
JH: Awesome. I like that. And I feel privileged because obviously getting to meet people doesn’t always mean an hour-long Skype conversation, so I feel really privileged for the use of your time. Thank you, Rebekah, for taking the time to speak with me.
RF: Thank you.
Rebekah Frumkin’s debut novel, THE COMEDOWN, is now available in indie bookshops and wherever books are sold.