In her latest book, A Life in Men, Gina Frangello tells the story of two women who are friends for life, even when life is cut short. Her characters struggle to balance the quality of life against its very limited quantity, facing trauma and terminal illness without giving up their determination to chase the things that make life worth living — exotic travel, adventure, sex, love, and self-discovery. Frangello, a mother of three and a former therapist, has lived a lot in common with her characters, and writes them so well they seem to have lives all their own.
For people who haven't read this book, how would you describe it?
Gina Frangello: A Life in Men centers on a young woman traveler, Mary, who has cystic fibrosis and is trying to live her life on as large a canvas as possible in limited time. The novel takes place over 13 years, is framed by the Lockerbie Disaster and 9/11, and is set in 10 countries. The focus, however, is mostly on the relationships that shape Mary — from her best childhood girlfriend, Nix, to several lovers, her half-brother, her husband, her father. I would say on a broad level that the novel is about the way the individual and the global intersect, in terms of how we deal with mortality, violence, sex, secrets, the ghosts of our pasts, and above all, many forms of intimacy.
Your book opens with Nix trying to help Mary dispense with her virginity before cystic fibrosis prevents her from missing out on one of life's great pleasures. And both women have a range of sexual experiences throughout the book. As a mother of three kids, what can you tell other mom-writers who want to write about sex?
GF: Well, first off, I'm not really sure how our culture has arrived at the mutually exclusive relationship between Motherhood and Sexuality, especially since in most cases, women become mothers by having sex. The subtext here is that once a woman has children, any openness she may have about sexuality would somehow be either a bad influence on her children, or be direly embarrassing to them. I reject that assumption. I think sex is one of the great universal truths of life. It is something almost all adult human beings on the planet do, and those few who don't do it have complex stories behind why they don't. Only something like eating or sleeping could be as universal as sex, and yet so many writers, particularly in the literary fiction domain, treat sex like an embarrassing, sloppily drunk uncle everyone should ignore and pretend not to notice, for fear of somehow making things worse. Writers fear making mistakes when writing about sex — getting drafted into Salon's "Bad Sex Awards" or something — yet, there are few things that more of us already "know about" when sitting down to write. I mean, I had to research cystic fibrosis like crazy, but I did not have to "research" what it is to experience desire, or to have sex out of loneliness, or to lie to someone you're sleeping with, or to struggle with the ways illness and sex intersect. I have two daughters, only six years younger than Mary and Nix are at the onset of the novel, and when they reach an age where they are traveling alone, I hope they feel less secrecy and shame surrounding things like the risks of going off alone with a strange man. I also hope they understand that they are not the first generation to experience lust, or romantic conflict, or loss. I hope they understand that men and women can at times struggle immensely with power dynamics and violence between them, and yet that most men are not, of course, violent or "other," but are fundamentally the same emotional animal as women, equally voracious for connection and intimacy, and painfully thwarted in both by many factors including their own demons. Sex is not only an amazing vehicle for character development; it's also one of the great eternal motivators of the human species. What honestly amazes me is that not all writers explore its terrain more. How can anyone resist?
Nix and Mary have a complex friendship that is divided in life by trauma, yet endures beyond death. This turbulent devotion — do you think it's unique to female friendships?
GF: Well, it is perhaps somewhat unique to highly intense relationships formed at a certain age, many of which are female friendships, because young women tend to be more emotionally open, their friendships more exclusive and intimate, maybe, than many male buddies of the same age group. But I think this kind of dynamic can exist in dyads of any gender configuration. I think when you bond with someone very passionately at a young age, before you are fully formed, before you each know who you will become, there are inevitable growing pains and yet also almost familial bonds that can surpass most made later in life, when people have become… more formal and civilized and reasonable — ha! When you become friends with someone at the age at which you're starting to separate from your family of origin and individuate, it's like all your energies can be directed onto that person, like that person contains a world, and every complex emotion the world offers. Later, people compartmentalize more. A woman may have children, a husband, other mom-friends, old college friends, friends from work, etc.; the world becomes a more diffuse place, and we all wear more hats. In a sense our emotional energies become more spread out. When we are, say, 14, your best girlfriend may be almost your entire world. You talk every day at school, then on the phone, then go out together on weekends. You tell each other every single thing, and may think you have all the same opinions and goals and beliefs. Then, invariably, one of you starts to… change. Life begins to knock you both around. Many youthful friendships don't last — those that do have withstood immense turbulence, and can reach a point where they are essential and unbreakable. I have been lucky enough to have friendships like that, with both genders, actually. They have been equally wild and worthy rides.
How about Mary and Nix? What brought these women to life for you? Was there a friendship or experience that breathed life into them and kept them alive as you wrote?
GF: Strangely, when I first conceptualized the novel I didn't even know that Nix would be in it. I originally imagined it being about Mary and her experiences as a woman traveler with cystic fibrosis studying abroad in London, and then not coming home but continuing on as a traveler.
What changed it for me was a trip I had taken with one of my very best friends, Amy. We had an experience that wasn't as dark but was very similar to the one Mary and Nix have in the book, which involved meeting these two bizarre airline pilots on a trip to Mykonos, going off with them and then ending up quasi-kidnapped by them.
Oh my god! What happened?
GF: We were literally rescued by some American men, just like what happens to Mary and Nix, only it all happened without going to the extent of where it ends up going for Nix. But it could have easily gone there. And we were very afraid of it. They basically had refused to take us back to our hotel, our little pension in town. They had taken us to the one guy's villa, and we were like, What the fuck? Are we going to end up buried under the house? How the hell are we going to get out of here? We don't know where we are. We don't speak the language. And we were just terrified.
Yes, that sounds a lot like the book! How did you get away?
GF: They were hungry, so they took us to a strange, middle-of-nowhere place for dinner, intending to bring us back to the villa afterward. While we were there, a group of American men wandered in. I yelled a fake name and threw my arms around one of the guys, acting like we knew them from home. We stayed with them and blew off the two crazy guys. We got back to our place the next day.
In the book Mary and Nix are still pursued by these men. Were you free?
GF: Well, the next day those two American guys got on a ferry and left. Amy and I were still on Mykonos. We went out to dinner with a couple of gay guys who we had befriended our first day there, and they said to us, "What the hell's with those four men over there staring at you guys?"
We turned around and it was the two kidnapper guys and two of their friends. And they proceeded to stalk us bar to bar and back to our rented room, but we had changed rooms, luckily, because our shower had flooded, so they were waiting in the wrong place, around the corner – until we left Mykonos the next day, just like what happens in the novel.
That's terrifying! And it's representative of the extremes of the male characters in your book, from these kidnappers — really dark male characters — to a heroic prince charming, and everyone in between. But you've written them so they're nuanced enough to defy the stereotypes that might trap them otherwise.
GF: Well, thank you so much. It means so much to me when people feel that the characters are wide-ranging but also convincing. I had never written so many male point of view characters for one project before. So that was really an important part of the book to me.
The character Kenneth is a great example. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, he rescues Mary when she has a violent, bloody coughing fit on the Tube in London. He gets her the codeine cough syrup she so desperately needs, and then proceeds to shoot up heroin lying next to her on the floor. I was so struck by the juxtaposition of their two diseases, side by side, and so moved by the profound intimacy that emerges between them.
GF: Intimacy was exactly what I feel between those two characters. He and Mary have this experience they've shared that makes them understand each other on a certain core level that they aren't talking about with other people. Kenneth would know plenty of other addicts. But Mary, herself, doesn't encounter a lot of people who have cystic fibrosis, a disease that both defines her and doesn't define her. She's both ashamed of it and not ashamed of it.
It was interesting to me to juxtapose those two things in terms of the way it helped them recognize and understand each other. Kenneth is a guy who's been feeling used up and doomed and almost as if he did have a terminal illness since probably his 20s. He's been an addict for a long time and on the run from things he's done wrong, from his guilt, from his shame. Yet he still has more years to rectify these things, or to have a different life than Mary, who can't make that choice. So their situations are similar and yet not necessarily similar. And they each find different ways of looking at their own situations from seeing where the other is.
I'm curious about your decision to make cystic fibrosis a part of your book, and your ability to make the details of living with the disease so believable. How did you acquire all this knowledge?
GF: I lived with a woman who had cystic fibrosis when I was in college. We lived together for only a semester in London and I was inspired and fascinated by how little she was permitting her really, really hard-core physical needs to limit the choices that she was making in her life. She had just come from Athens when I met her, and continued to travel for the rest of her life. She died at 30, while living in Jordan studying cultural anthropology and studying the Bedouins. She lived a lot in the United States but she just kept traveling.
I was really fascinated by that. I guess I've had just enough physical illness in my life – nothing terminal or probably worthy of dramatizing – but enough to understand how we can allow it to limit us unbelievably both physically and psychology. But here's someone who's born with cystic fibrosis and there's no prospect that she's going to somehow not have it and get to live some alternate life. This is her one chance. And the choice is whether to live a really small life or to live a larger life.
I was really interested in the way that this woman that I knew had chosen simply not to live a small life. So I knew I wanted Mary to have cystic fibrosis. But the interesting thing, of course, is that in 1968 when I was born, and when Mary was born, the average life expectancy for cystic fibrosis was 23. By the time I started writing the novel, when I was 40, I didn't know anyone with cystic fibrosis; most people my age who had the condition were dead. And I was not having a lot of luck finding adults who I could really share the book with or talk with about it.
I did talk with some people who had children with cystic fibrosis and they were very knowledgeable medically but not knowledgeable about what things had been like in, say, 1990. So I did a lot of research online and in books. And as I was writing things really started to explode in terms of the blogging community.
So you could read about how people experience the disease now, as opposed to when your friend had it.
GF: Yes, people are living much longer, sometimes with heart-lung transplants even eradicating their illness. The C.F. blogging community is very vibrant, not just in terms of comparing treatments and medications but also on more emotional levels, too, supporting and inspiring one another. This information became progressively more accessible as I was writing the book. So that turned out to be very helpful.
But it's only now that the book is out that I've started talking with people in the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Since writing the book, I have finally met an adult who's actually a writer who has cystic fibrosis. So things like that have only started to happen now that the book is out, which is really exciting for me and I've been thrilled. I gave part of the advance to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. I also want to work with them to try to get the book into the hands of people who have C.F. without them having to buy it.
Oh that's great!
GF: I've been hoping to find an organization that might be willing to help my publisher and me to donate a certain number of the books, to help facilitate that. So we have been working on trying to liaison with adult care centers because, obviously, as you know, the book has adult content.
Sure. I'm curious, too, about the fact that Mary is diagnosed when she's 17, which is rare, right?
GF: Yes, extremely rare. I purposely wanted to give Mary an incredibly rare genetic mutation — not what you would consider typical C.F., because I knew that, as someone who doesn't have cystic fibrosis, I was going to make mistakes. No matter how much I researched, no matter how much I read, there'd be something that someone with C.F. would read and think, "Yeah, that's completely not right." I wanted people to be able to suspend disbelief and just go with it, even if it wasn't their experience or the experience of their friend with C.F.. So, Mary has a functioning pancreas, which is the case for about 10 percent of people with cystic fibrosis. She also, therefore, she does not present in a typical way – like, she doesn't need to take enzymes with her food.
And so she presents in a way in which persistent low-grade lung troubles when she was younger could be misdiagnosed. And so she's treated for things like asthma and recurring bronchitis and all these different things but not identified as being C.F. until she lands in the hospital with her first really major lung infection in high school. And that's when she finally gets diagnosed.
So I had read about a few people who were not diagnosed until high school. But it is incredibly rare. Most people are diagnosed as infants.
Mary's health seems to have a direct correlation to the quality of her relationships. Naturally, her most nurturing love is with a pulmonologist! Yet he's not the one who makes her feel the most alive. Mary seems driven toward something that's riskier because it's more invigorating — even when it puts a wedge between her and Nix. Can you talk about their tendency to risk-taking, especially as women in a sea of male characters?
GF: think it's a really core question for Mary. The crux of her emotional life is those two pole points between risk – bordering on possible self-destruction – versus safety and trying to have a normal life. Both things are very, very real for her at different times of her life.
For example, at the time Mary leaves Kenya, she obviously wants nothing more in the world than to move back to the United States, fall in love with a very normal man and have a baby. She's trying to have as normal a life as she can, to experience as much of sort of typical adult existence while she's still living.
But through a variety of disappointments – obviously, of course, one doesn't usually snap their fingers, fall in love and get married – by the time she does get married certain difficulties arise. She is marginalized from that idea of what the typical life and the typical goals for people of her age bracket often are. And she's had this taste of travel and adventure and risk and she loved it! As she progresses in her disease, while common sense would indicate that you would play it safer and safer and safer the sicker you get, for Mary the sicker she gets the more she realizes that the time is running out. How do you want to spend that remaining time? Do you want to spend it in rural New Hampshire on an oxygen machine or do you want to go to Morocco and have an adventure?
Which is a question that the book puts to all of us, really, in the sense that we're all terminal whether we have C.F. or not: How are you going to spend your time?
GF: It's certainly my intention. I feel that way very acutely, that it's this bizarre middle class, educated, American assumption that somehow we're all entitled to be in perfect health and die at 85. And that that's just one of the biggest bullshit myths. That's crazy.
But if you're living by that myth, you're going to make very different choices than if you're feeling an urgency of life with a terminal disease. And almost everybody knows plenty of people, of course, their own age, who have died. And these people were not usually born with something like cystic fibrosis where everyone knew what to expect, more or less.
About a month after I sold this book, my friend Kathy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, stage 3C, and died within four months. We had been friends since high school. She had been perfectly healthy. She'd never been sick a day in her life.
I'm always sickly. The running joke with us was that she was going to marry my husband when I kicked the bucket because I was always in the hospital. And no! It was a less extreme version than Mary and Nix, obviously, but you don't know how this ride's going to turn out.
How does your past as a therapist influence your writing? And how did you transition from being a therapist to being a writer?
GF: I was the first person in my family to leave the state and go away to college. I was on a ton of loans, grants. My parents were below the poverty line. I had been writing – you know, shitty novels on butcher-block paper – since I was 10 years old. I've been writing my entire life. But it never occurred to me to be a writer as a career because that was something you would do if you were some rich kid and mom was paying your rent.
So I was going to get my Ph.D. in psychology, open a private practice, take care of my parents and pay off my loans and all of that. I worked my first year at a battered women's agency, seeing individual clients, running groups, a bit of everything. I took people to get restraining orders against their abusive husbands. I took them for their food stamps. My second year, when I was getting my Master's, I started a women's wellness center in a hospital in Windsor, Vt., which is like a prison town. My third year I was worked for a foster care agency, running groups with teenage girls who had been taken out of their homes for really severe sexual abuse. I practiced for about three and a half years.
While I was doing all that I continued to write. And then I started writing a novel. I became so obsessed with it that I stopped sleeping and started calling in sick to work all the time. And I just – I couldn't do anything else.
I was in my first year of marriage and my husband and I were planning to move back to Chicago. And he said, Why don't you just take a break. We're still young. I was in my 20s. Why don't you just go back to school and get a Master's in creative writing, and study, and you can pursue this and see what happens. And then when you're done, after you've kind of gotten it out of your system (we both thought I'd get it out of my system) then go back to being a therapist. And so that was the big master game plan.
And so I went to the University of Illinois, Chicago, to the Program for Writers to get my MFA and instead I started working at Other Voices literary magazine, I got a TA-ship. I ended up going on into the Ph.D. program. I started teaching elsewhere. I wrote another novel. I never went back to being a therapist and I just stayed in this world.
It's almost like your husband was saying that getting a master's in creative writing would be therapeutic for you, a therapist.
GF: Yes, absolutely. I think we both thought that. My husband had his first real job as a post-doc at University of Chicago. For the first time we were making more than like $16,000 a year. And so it was like, oh, why don't you just do this fun thing and give yourself a little indulgence before we both settle down to real careers?
Yeah, no, I never went back.
And do you feel like the sort of skills or insights you learned as a therapist help you shed a more realistic light on your characters? Do you ever find yourself going back to the tools that you had from those years to draw things out of your characters?
GF: I get asked that question a lot. And I think that maybe it would be ridiculous to say no. I'm sure that it does inform me. But the real answer to me is that a certain type of person usually goes into the idea of wanting to be a therapist to begin with. Usually you're already a voracious watcher of people and you have an over-analytical spinning mind, and you're constantly seeing the world as an emotional chessboard where you're constantly trying to figure everything and everybody out. And that's why you would ever want to go be a therapist and spend your time listening to other people's problems because you find people so fascinating. I think it's a very particular disposition. Certainly it hones that disposition and you learn certain things about other people's experiences. I had never lived in a small East Coast prison town before and I learned a lot of things about people. But I think often the two things are just quite similar.
One of the same reasons I became a therapist was also one of my early compulsions as a writer: I grew up in a neighborhood where there was a lot of violence against women. It still impacts my writing, but most of my early writing was very, very concerned with those issues. I think it has to do with who you are in your own background probably more than what you read in any psych book.
Terrorism is an important part of A Life in Men. What did you draw on to make these events personal?
GF: I arrived in London to study abroad my junior year about two weeks after the Lockerbie disaster. Anybody who showed up in London at that point was basically coming across a city bereaved. A lot of people had lost people. It was like if you had shown up in New York shortly after 9/11.
I had grown up in a place where a lot of kids I had gone to school with had been murdered, and there was a lot of violence, gang violence, mob violence, etc. I thought, England is quaint. Everyone drinks tea. No one has a gun. And instead I showed up and people are mourning students who were killed in Lockerbie. People having to evacuate the pub because there's a bomb threat. I think it was a moment of opening my eyes to the fact that the world is a violent place. I had arrived, this Midwestern American, who had grown up in a very urban, somewhat violent neighborhood. But I had no concept of terrorism.
I think the beginning of my waking up was showing up in London post-Lockerbie and at a time when IRA terrorism was still a really big pressing thing.
So I knew right away, when I thought about Nix, that it would be Nix's death that had given Mary the impetus to understand that everyone's time is limited and that we don't know how we're going to meet our end. And no one knows how much time they have. And I thought it would be interesting for Nix's death not to come from her own body, as if she had suddenly got an illness too that hadn't been with her since birth or something.
How did you decide to have Nix narrate this book from beyond the grave?
GF: Well, I wanted to have a very roving point of view; an editorial omniscient point of view so that I could go in and out of different characters' minds – the way, say, Milan Kundera, who is one of my favorite writers, does. All his books are editorial omniscient. And he, the author, has authorial consciousness and ultimate authority. He will step in and pronounce things and tell you what's real as opposed to what the characters think. And then he'll tell you what the characters think.
So, initially I thought, OK, I want everyone's point of view. I am the authorial conscious and I'm going to go in and out of people's minds and then occasionally weave my own perspective in. And then I realized I didn't want it to be me! I didn't want to be the one pulling the strings.
The only way to avoid that was to create a device of some sort where someone else is pulling the strings. I like the idea that Nix could speak to what everybody was thinking the way, say, I as a narrator – authorial narrator – could, and that she also would have knowledge of the future. She would have insider perspective because she knew many of the people. I basically just decided she was a better author of the book than I was.
And then I also liked the whole idea that we never find out where she is. The book doesn't reveal anything to the reader about what it means to be dead. Is it just a storytelling device or is she somewhere? The novel itself wrestles with so many questions of death and also faith – different religious traditions and what have you – that I like the idea of there being a character in the vast beyond but never finding out anything about what it was like there.
I also like that maybe Heaven is a writing desk.
GF: Yes, exactly.
Julie Greicius is a writer and editor based in California.