Tuesday, February 28th: she treads softly
Tuesday, March 7th: Dwell in Possibility
Wednesday, March 8th: BookNAround
Friday, March 10th: A Bookish Way of Life
Monday, March 13th: Back Porchervations
Tuesday, March 14th: Readaholic Zone
Wednesday, March 15th: Good Girl Gone Redneck
Thursday, March 16th: Wining Wife
Monday, March 20th: Books and Bindings
Tuesday, March 21st: Eliot’s Eats
Wednesday, March 22nd: Patricia’s Wisdom
Monday, March 27th: Art Books Coffee
Q & A with Joan Frank ~ All the News I Need
Joan Frank was born to New Yorkers in Phoenix, Arizona, and has lived in Hawaii, Paris, and San Francisco. She studied fiction with Thaisa Frank (no relation) at UC Berkeley, and took her MFA in Fiction at Warren Wilson College's MFA Program for Writers. She is the author of four novels, two story collections, and a book of collected essays called BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO: A WRITING LIFE. A MacDowell Colony Fellow, recipient of many grants and awards, and frequent book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and lecture. She lives in the North Bay Area of California with her husband, playwright Bob Duxbury. Visit Joan at www.
Q. Why this book now?
A. The only answer a writer can probably give in good conscience is, "Why not now?" Or even more truthfully, echoing the wonderful line from the film Shakespeare in Love, "It's a mystery!" Most writers kind of crawl and stumble along, trying to figure out what is happening while they are doing it. A lot of readers assume that writers have a recipe they just whip out, and the rest is a matter of following instructions. Not so, in my experience. You can study craft and craft choices—you do this passionately, all your life. But the actual process (and what sets it rolling) couldn't be more mysterious. You try to be attentive, not too attached, alert, gently eager. You make yourself a vessel, in the words of the great Carson McCullers, and trust the mystery to eventually make something known to you. That sounds like pagan worship, but there it is. I had the first line of ALL THE NEWS written down for a long time, before one day I looked at it and thought, "Who is speaking?" And the inside of Ollie's head began to flood my own, and the story began to pay itself out like a thread teased from a gob of wool. Whenever this happens the writer's holding her breath so as not to scare away the story that's shyly coming into view.
Q. Tell us some weird secret about this novel.
A. I'll tell you two. Actually, one-and-a-half. First, ALL THE NEWS was originally titled YOU'VE GOT THE SAME PANTS TO GET HAPPY IN, which, if you've read the book, you'll understand is a fairly significant little adage. I loved the title, but nobody else did. So my husband helped me brainstorm. We were hiking in the woods calling out possibilities to each other, and suddenly, bless him, he blurted ALL THE NEWS I NEED. It was perfect at several levels, not least its tie-in to the novel's passion for music. I'll always owe him for this. To me, titles are the trickiest business on earth. They have to hint at the nature of the book's heart but not give away anything; they should not strain for cleverness or awesomeness but also not be flaccid, stuffy, or boring. And they should have a music, a sound that's pleasing and easy to remember. Second weird secret—or half of one: older readers will recognize a kind of cultural code built into the characters' names. I'm saying no more.
Q. What is ALL THE NEWS really about?
A. I love to tell people that ALL THE NEWS is about "sex, love, travel, and mortality," and to follow that comment with "all the cherries on the slot machine, right?" This usually gets a laugh.
Q. Why should a reader care?
A. No shoulds. Only do and did. (Of course if do not/did not happens to be the case, I'll have to swallow hard.) My hunch is, readers will recognize something of themselves in the lives simmering up from the pages. Ollie and Fran tell their truths from inside the stewpot. And as readers experience that telling, I dare imagine they will feel—Oh, yes, I know that feeling so well, and what a relief to hear it said the way you did. At the same time, there's an actual story to keep track of. And because I have deep fondness for the story, and for Fran and Ollie, I dare believe that readers will pretty quickly begin to feel the same fondness, and—if I am lucky—will want to know what happens.
Q. Was it hard to say goodbye?
A. God, yes. But here's a confession. Fran and Ollie and to a slightly more remote degree, Kirk, live on in me. Sometimes I like to remind my husband (usually to illustrate a point) of something one or the other has said. "As Ollie Gaffney once noted..." As if they were longtime, close, but also quasi-celebrity friends. It may sound really strange, but in my heart and mind, they are!
Q. So what about getting old, which is clearly one of this novel's chew-bones? What's the deal?
A. The deal is that aging is a mother. In the words of world-weary bartender Brian Dennehy to a sad, sidelined cocktail waitress in the Bo Derek film, Ten: "There's nothing fair about it." The subject is what a lot of pronouncement-makers sniffily call "old news." But truth is—across the board—when it happens to you it is news. Then the great existential questions start marching in. Existential, married to Zen: "So there it is. What're you gonna do about it?" ALL THE NEWS means to quietly suggest a couple of possibilities in answer to that question.
Q. Would you have changed anything about the novel's depiction of American travel, in the wake of the (2015-2016) Paris and Belgium attacks?
A. It's hard, in the wake of those attacks, to revisit being inside the making of the novel, though certainly plenty of other violence and horrible trouble were going on at the time—as they always are, everywhere. And when I was writing it, of course, 9/11 had happened. It's tough to second-guess my own thinking, but if I could teleport back to that time of making I might have asked Ollie to consider the obvious potential of terrorism. (Fran would only have snorted and stomped ahead.) The odd thing is, Ollie's greatest fear is not of known menace so much as an amorphous unknown, which has more to do with his psychic make-up. I do believe that Ollie's perceptions, once he finally gets to France, underscore the great revelation of most travel: that most people in the world are busy with dailiness, struggling to care for themselves and their families. There's great decency among and between us. That's news, too.
Q. Please talk a little about music, which figures large in ALL THE NEWS.
A. In her glittering essay collection, The Ancient Shore, Shirley Hazzard called the subject of Place "the impenetrable phenomenon, which no one, to my knowledge, has ever explained." That exquisite summary also applies to music, which a wise writer I know called "the first language." I'm an awed student of music, not as a performer but as a clumsy acolyte. I am in thrall to its limitless color, shape, nuance, its power to enter human emotions with shocking accuracy, to express our lives better than most of us could dream of. I've read many thousands of words about music, yet it's rare to find any that even begin to fairly do the job—that is, convey the experience. Music seems to me the purest, most final art form, one which both poses and answers questions in ways utterly unavailable to words or any other media—therefore also the most ephemeral, the most elusive. This presents, you can imagine, a strange predicament for a writer. Writing well about music seems to me one of the most difficult problems of craft. Few other forms go straight into the veins so distilled, so unadulterated. Few other effects of art, as physical and emotional and intellectual consequence, are so instant— also so malleable, so porous, so yielding of more each time you revisit. Being able to listen strikes me, alongside reading, as one of the greatest privileges of being alive. While I understand that music can be harnessed for horrible purposes, that it can (often does) manipulate and in fact lie (pianist Jeremy Denk writes about this), my devotion's unswayed. The late, incomparable (author and editor) William Maxwell said to (author and teacher) Charles Baxter, "If Schubert were ever to come back to Earth, he could come into my house and take anything."
Q. What hope do you hold for us, in our short time here? What even matters? What does fiction owe these concerns?
A. After the sudden, recent loss of my younger sister, to whom I dedicate this novel—it seemed very clear to me that what finally most mattered was what love humans can manage for each other, and our efforts to help each other. Fundamental mortal safety and civil rights are extensions of that. Art matters desperately, too—but from where I now sit, better have that first set of elements in place (or be striving to wrest them into place) if you can. Bring any crazed or misanthropic genius to the awards podium—or to heaven's gate to register for entry—and often the first thing she or he will do is pay tribute to people she or he loves. Not always, but damned often.
Fiction's job is more complicated. It can't editorialize. If it does, it becomes an infomercial. If fiction's being true to its purpose, it needs simply to show, portray, be a wide, clear, seamless pane of glass. We all fall short of that, to some degree. We can hope to fall short artfully.
Q. Any final thought?
A. In the words of a dear friend, a writer who is aging with grace, curiosity, and wit: "Have some fun, honey."
ALL THE NEWS I NEED: A NOVEL
About the Book
ALL THE NEWS I NEED chronicles the journey of two troubled, contentious friends: Frances Ferguson is a lonely, sharp-tongued, wine country widow. Oliver Gaffney, a painfully shy gay man and friend of Fran's late husband, lives out equally lonely days in San Francisco. When Fran insists the two travel together to France, their funny, sad odyssey—its bittersweet resolution—suggest what elements, within our reach, can help us save ourselves...somewhere toward the end.
I was in thrall to these sentences, their music, their compassion and truth and disarming humility. ALL THE NEWS I NEED succeeds in so many ways: humor, pathos, place, intellect—and always back to the plain-old, humbly enchanting truth. — Sam Michel, author of Strange Cowboy
1. Ezra Pound famously called literature "news that stays news." What may be some of the possible interpretations of the "news" in the novel's title.
2. After reading this novel and then revisiting the epigraphs that open it (Annie Dillard, Jane Cooper), do you view those quotes differently?
3. What might this novel suggest, finally, about the challenges of aging, and of finding (or re-creating) love and meaning? How might the aging process actively force those issues?
4. Though you may not share their personalities or their exact circumstances—are there elements of Fran and Ollie that you recognize—or perhaps anticipate—in yourself?
5. How do Fran's and Ollie's travels in France, and responses to that experience, compare with your own thoughts about travel? Do you agree with Ollie's creeping awareness, once arrived there, that though he had feared "menace" abroad—"he himself may pose that menace, or perhaps a kind of bitter taunt, in the eyes of those he sees?"
6. A great deal of thinking in this novel centers around music: its mystery, its meanings, its effects, and (especially for Fran) its absolute necessity. ("It's the only thing that makes sense anymore," she tells Ollie.) Do you agree? How does music wind up playing a part in both Fran's and Ollie's evolutions?
7. Fran talks to Ollie in Paris about her changing (waning) vision of herself as a sexual being, with the surprise of certain unforeseen advantages that this altered vision has brought. At the same time, she wants Ollie to find a new lover. Does this reflect a double standard on Fran's part, or something else?
8. When Hugo Summerfield arrives in Ollie's life, what element of Hugo's own personality do you discern that saves him from being dragged down by Ollie's melancholia?
9. After hearing Ollie's sad history, Hugo tells him, "Everyone, sooner or later, has an Ennis." Do you agree?
10. What does this novel suggest about the definition of friendship, or of love between friends, and about what friendship may be able to do for people entering the final thirds of their lives? Might friendship eclipse conventional romantic love, or marriage, in this novel's view?
11. When we learn, early on, of Fran's late husband Kirk fondly quoting his British mother's adage, You've got the same pants to get happy in—did that message's gist strike you as sound? Does it eventually find its way into Fran's and Ollie's respective stories?
About the Author
Joan Frank was born to New Yorkers in Phoenix, Arizona, and has lived in Hawaii, Paris, and San Francisco. She is the author of five prior books of fiction and a book of collected essays about the writing life, a MacDowell Colony Fellow, recipient of many grants and awards, and frequent book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and lecture. She lives in the North Bay Area of California with her husband, playwright Bob Duxbury. Visit Joan at www.joanfrank.org.