Thaisa Frank’s debut novel, Heidegger’s Glasses, recently released by Counterpoint Press, takes place toward the end of World War II in an underground compound of scribes: translators responsible for answering letters written to those eventually killed in the concentration camps. In this Author Q&A, Frank touches on her journey to author—starting with her first short story at the age of eight—and offers advice for writers of novels, as well as short stories. Hint: “Trust your voice,” she says.
The author of three collections of fiction, including A Brief History of Camouflage and Sleeping in Velvet (both with Black Sparrow Press, now acquired by David Godine), Frank also co-authored a work of nonfiction, Finding Your Writers Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction, which is taught in MFA programs. She has taught in the graduate programs at San Francisco State and the University of San Francisco, and been on the staff of various summer writing workshops.
Frank will be reading from Heidegger’s Glasses at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd, W. Hollywood., at 7 pm on Tuesday, December 14. A special after-party will follow at the Mediterranean restaurant PI on Sunset, right next door to Book Soup. Complimentary appetizers and cash bar.
What inspired you to first start writing?
The way writing connected me to the world inspired me to first start writing. I wrote my first story when I was eight, sitting on a bed tucked into a window in a house my parents were renting in Southern California. The story—about a boy who had gone for a bike ride and took home a nest of abandoned baby birds in the basket of his bike—wasn’t that remarkable. But the act of writing it was. For the first time I felt connected to a universe much larger than my family. It wasn’t exactly as though the story was channeled; but there was a sense that I was its vehicle. And it freed me from identifying my origins with my family—an unusually unhappy family. I didn’t really want to become a writer. I knew it was a hard profession and both of my parents wanted to be writers and had complicated feelings about literature. But it turned out I was a writer-animal, in spite of my attempts to be a philosopher-animal, a logician-animal, and a therapist-animal.
How did the idea/concept for Heidegger’s Glasses come about?
On a superficial level, the idea came about at a party when someone told me that the philosopher Martin Heidegger had had a revelation about his own glasses. I’m often title-driven, and when I heard the story I thought, “Wow! Heidegger’s Glasses. That’s a great title.” And when I feel that way, I’m a little like a stubborn kid with a metal piñata, believing that if I just hit the piñata long enough a story will fall out. And of course it finally did. What was interesting about the novel was that when I got the galleys, I found 16 pages I had written many years before about people writing letters to the dead in an underground mine in Germany. Those 16 pages were the DNA for the entire novel. So it must have been incubating for all those years.
What was your process for writing it? Researching it?
Flaubert said, “It’s not the pearls, it’s the way they’re strung together.” I tend to get the pearls first and figure out the strings later. I had scenes for Heidegger’s Glasses, including a major scene in the middle. And I knew the very last lines of the story. At some point, after enough pearls were strung together, I created a plan, a plot, or a narrative arc. And I did research only after I knew what the story was. I found it fascinating that the story—conceived by someone who knew about WWII but was very fuzzy on sequences, dates, and details—coincided with the research. In a sense, I felt the way I felt when I was eight—namely that the imagination has phalanges that reach far out into the world and knows far more about the world than it knows it knows.
What was your favorite part of writing Heidegger’s Glasses? The greatest challenge?
I loved writing about the underground mine, and all the writing that looked at characters in stages of disillusionment so great, they seemed as enchanted as anyone in a fairy tale. And because Heidegger built a hut in the Black Forest, and because the Reich believed in the occult, the story sometimes took on a fairy tale element, bringing me back to the fascination I felt when I was very small and heard the words “Once upon a time…” By far the greatest challenge in the novel was when I wrote about a particular character—and a person of principle—having to murder someone to save other people. It was easier to write about mass atrocities, because they applied to groups. But when I had to write about a particular character—a character I liked—I was brought close to the fact that killing someone is a strangely intimate experience.
In what way was writing a novel similar to/different from your short story writing?
I write short stories by assembling pearls—key scenes, phrases, images. But somehow the way the stories are strung together seemed effortless. They arrange themselves. They fall into place. Getting a novel to fall into place didn’t just happen. There were numerous loose ends to tie up. Sometimes I forgot the names of things I would remember in a short story—games of solitaire, for instance, or how often someone rescued people in the Resistance. Whereas short stories fluff up in the air (I’m reminded of a cottonwood tree from my childhood that sent cotton sailing all over the alley), novels (at least the way I write them) are like pieces of metal that fit into very specific formations.
What are some of the biggest mistakes new fiction writers face?
I think that unseasoned fiction writers don’t trust their voice—who you are and how you express that artistically. Without question, fiction writers need to read. But each writer’s voice is as unique as a thumbprint. This unique quality doesn’t just apply to the voice of the line but extends to the voice of the whole story. All of us learn writing by imitating other writers. But what we usually end up imitating is style and voice is the fire that gives rise to style, but not rise to a unique vision of the world. You can imitate faithfully.
But at some point you’ll end up producing a pale template of another writer’s story. Henry James once said (of someone else’s story!) “I like it except for the whole thing.” You want readers to like the whole thing. And if you trust your voice, you’ll eventually find the way you discover a story that no one else but you could have written.
Trust your voice.
Create a careful filtering system for feedback. (Remember that it’s the socialized person who listens to feedback, not the writer in the alchemical boiler room who actually will do the work.)
If you must go to MFA programs look at them the way you’d look at a microcosm of the publishing world. You may make some friends. You may find another writer (or a teacher) who will be helpful. But writing is a unique act of audacity, a radical stance that helps people uses their imaginations in a way they have never used them and open their eyes to things they’ve never seen. Only you can give that to the reader.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I wish I knew that I was going to publish. I wish I’d had faith in myself.
Tags: A Brief History of Camouflage Author Q&A Concentration Camps Counterpoint Press Debra Eckerling Fiction Finding Your Writers Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction Heidegger’s Glasses Novel Short Stories Sleeping in Velvet Thaisa Frank World War II Write On! Online