Genuine and True: An Interview with Melissa Fraterrigo, Author of GLORY DAYS

Melissa Fraterrigo’s first novel in stories, Glory Days, captures the desperation and beauty of living in the hardscrabble Midwest. Populated by fathers and daughters, lovers and enemies, the living and the dead, these characters struggle to figure out what they want and how to get it, along with the complicated order of what they need to survive.

Fraterrigo is the author of dozens of short stories, nonfiction essays, and reviews. In 2014 she founded the Lafayette Writer’s Studio in Lafayette, Indiana, where she helps writers develop their voices, and brings together a vibrant writing community. I appreciate Melissa taking time out of her book’s busy tour to talk about regionalism, ghosts, and how her characters learned to check a heifer for pregnancy.

Your book is part of the Flyover Fiction Series from University of Nebraska Press, fiction focused on the Great Plains, “a region more clearly defined by what it is not than by what it is.” What are your thoughts on being labeled as a regional writer, both good and bad?

I have nothing but good thoughts to say about being labeled a regional author. In many of the books that I am drawn to place is as necessary as plot or character, and this applies to Glory Days as well. The novel is set in a small fictional town of Ingleside, Nebraska, populated by folks living during hard times. And while I didn’t grow up in a rural setting, I do feel most interested in the towns that reside between pastures, places that often are overlooked, and as such are even more deserving of our attention. Oftentimes these places aren’t glamorous, and some of the university and indie presses in the Midwest/Plains region, such as the University of Nebraska Press, are interested in examining this and are doing so unencumbered by huge advances or wide scale publicity.

Your writing has a real authority when it comes to the rural details, for instance how to check heifers for pregnancy. Is this something that comes from your past, research, or a combination?

I started the novel soon after returning to the Midwest after living for a year in Philadelphia. During that time my connection to nature was limited to the postage-stamp sized bits of grass where I would walk my dog. While I’ve spent most of my life in the Midwest, it wasn’t until we moved to Indiana that I felt a certain kinship with the fields of corn and beans. Landscape held a new allure. I don’t know if it was because I’d been without wide-open spaces for some time, but I do believe there is mystery and a sense of possibility in the back roads and hard-to-get-to places in “flyover country,” and these are places that appeal most to my imagination. That being said, I did have to work a bit to combine my interest in this region with research. Fortunately a good friend and her husband raise beef cattle and they welcomed me onto their farm and let me shadow them as they pregnancy-checked heifers and gave them their vaccinations. I was moved by how the cows blended seamlessly into the landscape, how vital this land became both for the welfare of these animals and for my friends’ livelihood. I followed this curiosity to develop the hardscrabble details of Ingleside and its people.

Reading Glory Days, I felt the form of a story cycle really fit the material. I’m curious how this book came about, and at what point you decided linked stories were the best way to tell the story of this town rather than individualized stories or a more traditional novel structure. What were some of the challenges to writing in this form?

Well, I really fell into the story cycle form by accident, and consider myself very fortunate. Glory Days actually came out of some very dark times of my own when I wasn’t writing and didn’t know if I ever would again. In the winter of 2011, someone very dear to me was diagnosed with cancer. I slept poorly and rather than tossing and turning, got up during the wee hours of the morning to read poetry and I began to appreciate how poets distill words to the most essential and employ images to reflect an emotional state.

Despite the fact I wasn’t writing, I would visit my public library twice a week. I used to converse with the same parking lot attendant and one day realized a few weeks had passed without seeing him. When I finally saw him I mentioned I had missed seeing him and he said that he had been south, burying his mother and sister, and suddenly I heard a line: “Gardner hears dogs scrambling up the trees after a squirrel or a neighbor’s cat, he tells himself, eager to be calmed. It’s not Teensy, he thinks. The same thing he’s been telling himself for months. Teensy doesn’t want anything to do with him. Isn’t the sort who craves revenge.” I hadn’t written prose in nearly a year and I had never heard full sentences before, but I knew enough to jot them down.

These sentences became the first few lines to “Teensy’s Daughter” a chapter that takes place about ¾ through the book. Once I finished it, I needed to figure out how Gardner finds himself on house arrest and why he’s afraid of Teensy and why the ghost of Luann will not leave him alone. So I was back to writing stories, only writing fiction during a time of uncertainty helped me be vulnerable on the page both through the use of language, which is lyrical, and through the structure of the book—the novel-in-stories format.

I can say that I chose the novel-in-stories format, but really it feels like the format chose me. With those first few paragraphs of “Teensy’s Daughter” I became acquainted with Teensy and Gardner and Luann, and then I had to work backwards to figure out the moments that occurred prior to this point in the book. Glory Days became a sort of jigsaw puzzle that required deep inquiry that was so darn much fun. I didn’t write it in a traditional novel form because I don’t know that it would have done this story justice.

As a reader, nothing makes me put a book down faster than when I have the sensation that the author is not interested in my impressions or meaning-making. My favorite books are those where I notice some “gaps” remain in the narrative and I think that the novel-in-stories form encourages the reader to participate in filling in some of the story. Glory Days spans about 20 years—in the first chapter Luann is about seven, the second chapter she is maybe a year or two older and by the third chapter she is an adolescent full of venom. What happens between the age of 10 and 16? It depends on the reader. A traditional novel would not offer this opportunity. In essence, the story cycle form facilitates a dialogue between reader and the text, and I wanted to be a part of that conversation.

One of my favorite stories from the collection is “Bait,” and it was fun as a reader to take the Luann from later stories and superimpose her over this younger version, to see how she’s grown and yet stayed the same, to engage in that conversation you mentioned above. In a linked collection like this, rather than a traditional novel, I’m more aware of the challenges a writer faces by not having transitional time between the stories, and how you must trust the reader to see how she hops from one moment to another. How did you decide what stories were stories, and what moments you could skip? Were there stories you wrote that you cut?

This is such a good question. I only wish I had a fantastic response to match it. I think the best any writer can do is honor the project before her and try to make decisions that align with her earliest vision and try not to be swayed by the doubts and insecurities that blossom alongside such a huge project. I’ve noticed throughout time that each of my projects has a very tangible nature to it. You can ask me what I know about the ending of a piece and it is unlikely that I would be able to give words to a conclusion, but I can feel it on a visceral level, and I take this approach into every stage of a project. I try and trust my intuition to guide me. I’m looking for what feels genuine and true. I see my job as trying to present an accurate portrayal of life—and I try to use that as a litmus for every decision, only rather than using a certain place in the text as my yardstick, I check in with how something feels in my gut. Does this strike me as true? I might read a section out loud to let another part of my body access the story—I try and bring myself as close as possible to the narrative so that in places we are inextricably combined.

That being said, yes there were stories that I cut. Two in particular come to mind. The first took place with Luann’s birthmother at the home for unwed mothers in Chicago where Luann was ultimately born. I simply didn’t believe it had a place in the book. Glory Days needed to remain in Ingleside, and Luann deserved to have center stage—her birthmother did not. I also had a much earlier story about Teensy and Gardner as boys, when most of Teensy’s family perished in the fire and he came to live with Gardner’s family. I was able to save bits and pieces of that and find a place for it in “Skin,” but the greater capsule of the piece felt unnecessary. I wanted to make sure that like a poet with his concise images and words, not a single scene was wasted. I wanted the book to be both lean and lyrical.

Supernatural elements such as ghosts and precognition are sprinkled throughout Glory Days. Benjamin Percy says in his craft book Thrill Me that “fantasy allows us truths that might otherwise be unavailable” and that “the weirdness somehow clarifies our everyday struggles.” That struck me as so true reading your book. Could you talk a bit about how the fantastical elements came to be in the stories?

Okay, now I’ve got to check out Thrill Me. I simply love that quote. It strikes me as so very true, especially in a book like Glory Days that has so many realistic moments yet also weaves in some magical realism. I’m thinking in particular of Fredonia the Great, a seer who is one of a long line of medicinal healers in Ingleside. One night as she is riding her bike she happens upon flurry of lights and activity. The police have found a missing girl along the riverbank, and when Fredonia leans down and places her hands on the girl, she experiences the girl’s final moments. Initally she is able to use these skills for good, but later she ends up exploiting this capability when she accepts a position at Glory Days. There she is paid to “lay hands” on guests to share news of their demise. So here we have a moment that is unbelievably painful—a young girl has washed up ashore—and Fredonia’s skills as a seer add a different dimension to what could just be a horrific discovery. By bringing her odd skills into this section we are able to appreciate the world of this story beyond something as horrible as a crime. Somehow her magic allows us to supercede the pain.

Do you have a favorite story in the book? Maybe that’s harder to pick in a series of stories where they belong so clearly to a longer whole, like trying to pick a favorite chapter in a novel, but I’m curious.

I am partial to “Surrounded,” a story that feels very much like the culmination of many elements of the book. In “Surrounded” Luann stands in a hunting cabin with Footer, waiting for the arrival of the police, sirens in the distance. She and Footer had been abducting children from the amusement park for more than a year at that point and the authorities are closing in on them. It is fall and as Luann awaits the police’s arrival, she thinks of her father, Teensy, and how they used to work the land. It’s a lovely story—one where we see Luann take some responsibility for how her relationship with Teensy became tainted and yet in the same short piece we see her attempt to rectify the decision to couple with Footer. In this piece she comes to terms with the fact that she regretted being with Footer. Here she tries to alter this long ago choice. I get a better glimpse of Luann’s core in this story and as a result I can see both who she wishes she were and maybe who she has always longed to be.

Any specific influences you’d like to give a shout-out to that helped shape the book?

Goodness—there are so many folks to thank from early readers such as Barbara Shoup and Catherine Grossman to Kathy Mayer. Of course there are several writers whose work helped fuel ideas and approaches in the book—Flannery O’Connor, Ann Pancake, Aimee Bender, Michelle Hoover, Breece D’J Pancake, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Daniel Woodrell and Kent Haruf, and the poets Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Diane Gilliam Fisher, to name a few.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me!

 

 

***

Erin Flanagan is the author of two short story collections published by the University of Nebraska Press: The Usual Mistakes (2005) and It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories (2013). Her fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review, The Missouri Review, The Connecticut Review, the Best New American Voices anthology series, and elsewhere. She’s held fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences, and this summer served as faculty at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.

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