Michael Frank, WHAT IS MISSING

Michael Frank, WHAT IS MISSING

Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Michael Frank who’s the author of What Is Missing: A Novel. His memoir, The Mighty Franks, was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, one of The Telegraph‘s and The New Statesman‘s best books of 2017, and the winner of the 2018 JQ Wingate Literary Prize. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and many other publications. He was a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times Book Review for almost ten years. He currently lives with his family in New York City and Liguria, Italy.

Welcome, Michael. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Michael Frank: Thank you, Zibby, for having me. I’m delighted.

Zibby: What Is Missing, your novel which is also missing an I on the cover, tell me about what this book is about and why the I is missing.

Michael: What Is Missing, that’s a good place to start. The title comes from a poem by Mark Strand. “Wherever I go, I am what is missing” is the line. I’ll confess that I came to the title rather late in the book, only realizing after I’d chosen it how many things are in fact missing in this story. In a few words, it’s a triangle. It’s a father, a son, and a woman. The woman is Costanza Ansaldo, half-American, half-Italian translator who is fairly recently widowed. Her husband was a leading American novelist who lives not far from where we’re taping this wonderful podcast. With Morton, her husband, she tried to have a baby and wasn’t successful. In her life, she’s gone back and forth trying to decide whether she should become a mother. When we first meet her, she seems to have resolved her mind against becoming a parent. When we meet her, she is also meeting a young man called Andrew Weissman in Florence, Italy, in a pensione where they’re staying. He’s a seventeen-year-old photographer, sensitive, troubled with something he feels not quite right between him and his father. Then she meets his father, Henry Weissman, who is a physician who specializes in, of all things, reproductive medicine.

As these relationships coalesce in this triangle, the novel which opens in Florence transfers here to New York to the Upper East Side and then concludes again in Liguria. In the course of it, Costanza, in forming a primary relationship with Henry, reawakens her longing to have a baby. In the process of trying to have one, she undergoes treatment for infertility. We come to see that the first missing thing in this book is this longed for, yearned for unborn child, but it’s not the only thing. I think that there are several missing elements. Sometimes they’re people, like the dead of the Shoah because Henry’s father, Andrew’s grandfather, is a survivor of Auschwitz. There is the dead husband, the famous writer of Costanza’s husband. There’s her father who committed suicide. There’s her mother who is remote and difficult, comes on scene later in the novel. There are also less obvious missing elements. They tend to be connections between people, the fathers and sons in this book across three generations, the brothers. There’s Henry’s ex-wife. There are the pictures on the walls that she took away when she moved out of their Lexington Avenue apartment. I was very interested in this idea of negative space driving us, negative space pushing people through their lives, whether it’s something that is lost as an object, something that is unborn like a child, something that is forgotten like a memory, or something that is withheld like some key information.

Zibby: Very interesting. Did you have anything to do with the missing I?

Michael: I might have originally proposed it. Alex Murda , who designed this beautiful cover, got what the book was about. The cover is missing color. It’s missing the I. There’s a drawing by a French artist called which is missing the face, but it’s clearly the body of a woman lost in thought. Costanza loses herself in thought quite a bit in this novel.

Zibby: My daughter was trying to reenact, “How exactly do you think this person is sitting? What’s going on?” I’m like, “You try it. I’ll try it.” It’s a beautiful cover. I don’t mean to belabor it, but it’s really neat. Did you have another working title the whole time? Or was there no title?

Michael: There were a number of titles which I’m not going to reveal to you today because they’ve been so roundly rejected, several of them by my brother who is also a writer and a teacher. He writes novel for middle-grade readers and young adults. He’s very liberal with his use of the red pen, starting with the title and then moving through the manuscript. I’ve learned to take it because I think it’s his great chance as a younger brother to express all that pent-up aggression and hostility that he has for his older brother. He got rid of several of the titles along the way.

Zibby: Wow, I don’t know if I would listen to my brother.

Michael: That’s another podcast.

Zibby: Yeah, that’s another podcast. There are so many ways into writing a novel. One interesting thing that you wrote in the novel — I don’t know if this is actually the way you do it. Costanza is a translator. You wrote, “When Costanza wrote a story, she always began by thinking about the setting, then the people, then what happened to the people in that setting. Before she could imagine, she had to visualize everything from the carpet to the lighting to the view out the window. She approached her translations in the same way. She always mapped out the locations in the book first.” I was wondering, is that how you approach it? Is that how you approached this book?

Michael: Typically, I need to see a place in order to inhabit it and then inhabit it with language. I knew I wanted to start the book in Florence, somewhere I had lived in my twenties and which has been a very central place in my imagination and in my heart ever since, as has the whole country of Italy for various reasons. Quite honestly, I had an image of a woman walking away. That became Costanza. Her walking away, in a sense, pervades the whole book because she’s often somewhat difficult to understand by the people around her. She’s difficult to understand even to herself. That idea that you don’t always read someone because they have their back turned toward you, whether it’s actual or figurative, is another missing element that compelled me. I wanted to discover who she was and why she would do some of the things she does in this book. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I tried. That’s the role of the novelist, is not to have answers, but to pose questions and to do his or her best to try to find stories that will answer them.

Zibby: Your ability to create a sense of place, it’s unbelievable, and the characters too. As I said that to you, I feel like I would recognize them walking in the room. You can see yourself in Henry’s apartment. You can see all of it. Everything is so visual. That’s why when I read this line I was like, ah, see? He must be doing this because I have the floor plan of the whole apartment in my head now.

Michael: It’s funny. My memoir, which was published a couple of years ago also by FSG and called The Mighty Franks, was translated in a number of languages. One of them was Danish. I met my translator in Copenhagen. We had a wonderful conversation. He told me that in order to translate any book, he needs this kind of visual specificity to the degree that he will google settings, enlarge them to see if a writer has a character walking down the street, was he or she more likely to have walked on the right side or the left side? For his own sense of owning a space mentally and linguistically, he needs to see it. I thought that really resonated because I do pretty much the same thing. In fact, the memoir, though it’s not overtly spelled out in this way, is structured very much around, each section around a room, a house, or place. That was really my way in. I think that’s very true of a story about childhood because we’re very tuned to our settings, to where we live as children, probably more so than we are as adults. Certainly for me, I would recreate, for example, really well into my adulthood, the apartment of my dead grandmothers who lived together. I would revisit it wall by wall, I think as a way of trying to bring them back, kind of grieving, if you will, longing for what is missing.

Zibby: You had an essay you published with the translator and how it was almost creepy how he knew so much about you for your memoir. You’re like, “I’ve walked your exact route to that tree.”

Michael: You saw that? I know. I have to say, at first I was a bit put off by it. It felt stalkerish. I think I said that in that essay.

Zibby: Yeah, that’s what you said.

Michael: I’ve come to cherish that encounter very much because it’s also just simply the joy of knowing that you’ve been read so closely, that your words have been paid attention to with such detail. I guess he earned a little stalker-ish-ing-ness, if you will. He earns the right to be a stalker.

Zibby: Speaking of your past articles, when I uncovered your Time magazine piece — it was called “What almost four years in the land of infertility taught me about waiting” — I immediately wondered, is this where — because your book, What Is Missing, is probably the most literary interpretation of infertility ever. It goes into detail, less science than experience of it, and in such a beautiful way. If you can make giving yourself a shot beautiful, it’s a literary quality to all of it. You wrote, “The next time my wife and I walked through the door of that fertility clinic, we might as well have been moving to a new country, one where we ended up living for almost four years. It was a country with its own language, its own calendar, its own leadership, its own climate — well, emotional climate — and its own sense of time. People often send reports from the land of infertility, but I wasn’t prepared for the agony of living through these cycles of treatment where waiting is consistently broken down to slow, painful, fractal-like interludes of sub-waiting. It’s not just your body you hand over to complete strangers, but your mind too.” That was beautiful. I feel like you took that and made it into a whole novel. Is that what happened?

Michael: In fact, yes. I have talked about this, so I don’t mind sharing with you that my wife and I had considerable difficulty conceiving our daughter over many years. As often when I find myself in uncomfortable, painful, anxious, or just unpleasant situations, I pay attention. I find that, for me, is the best way to navigate unhappiness, let’s say. I paid a lot of attention to what we went through. I made notes. I thought, even at the time, this is a place to set a story. I think it’s my way of maybe also detaching and thinking I’m here doing research, not I’m here gambling on the future of a possible family, which is what you’re really doing. You can feel your heart breaking over and over again individually, as a couple, as you long for this thing that is missing. I tucked that away. Through these years, I paid attention. I read. I read, of course, about the science. I talked to other people. Going through infertility treatment and infertility experiences is a little bit, I like to say, like grief. Until you’ve grieved, you can’t really talk to other people about grief.

Until you’ve gone through something like infertility treatment, it’s very difficult, I’m not saying impossible, but very difficult to speak profoundly and honestly and with compassion to other people who’ve gone through it. You can’t speak to your siblings who are having their children so easily or your parents who had you without a problem. Most of your friends, it never even registers on them because it’s just so remote from their experience. These are people who have spent their lives trying not to get pregnant. Then they stop and they get pregnant. They have their families. They move forward to the next life challenges. There are you stuck in this limbo not knowing what’s going to come, not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s not as though you walk through the doors of those clinics, they give you their treatment and boom, done. You’re full of raised hopes and disappointment, physical discomfort, challenges individually and to the marriage, the couple. I thought, this is really rich material for a novel. This book is not, I should say, autobiographical in any sense. It’s very personal, which I think is different. I gave to these characters and I gave to this story, what I had lived and what we had lived together. I did my best anyway.

Zibby: I was thinking, not to put a gender spin of, how do you write from a woman’s perspective as a man, but Costanza’s cycle when she went through her first round in IVF — I’m not, hopefully, giving anything away — was so vivid. The effect of the drugs, the effect physically, her waiting, her stress, the things she noticed about her body, it was so almost graphic. Yet, you’re a man writing it. How did you do that? Is it all from observing and imagining yourself in that situation?

Michael: Here’s the thing, Zibby. If you are married, and if you are married to a woman, you’re living with someone who is living these vivid experiences right alongside you. I think you have to be utterly blind or automatonic, closed off, not to notice what’s going on.

Zibby: I would argue there are many men who could be right next to a woman experiencing this and not be able to even observe or imagine the interior life that she was feeling, not a wonderful writer. That person’s not writing a book.

Michael: As a writer, how can you live in the company of a woman going through an experience like this and not speculate? Your job as a writer or your calling, if I can say that, your nature as a writer is to wonder what other people are feeling and thinking. I’ve done that since I was a child. Observing both settings and people and the dynamics between people, starting in my rather complicated family and moving outward, has been the way I’ve conducted my life, navigated my life and my experience. Yeah, I paid very close attention. Trust me, if I hadn’t been, I think my wife would’ve made it abundantly clear because she’s not a wilting daisy of a personality. She made very clear how difficult this experience was. And there were waiting rooms full of other women. I looked at them. What can I say? I studied them. I talked to the nurses. I asked the doctors. I was very curious. Again, I’m sure in a psychological setting, one could diagnosis this as some weird defensive, self-protective toolkit that I was drawing on, but it is what I do, or what I try to do.

Zibby: It’s a great toolkit to have because you end up helping other people.

Michael: I don’t really think there has been, or to my knowledge there hasn’t been, another literary novel that takes on this particular topic. The book is about so many other things. It’s about family structures. It’s about, how do you build a family? It’s about difficulty between fathers and sons. I have a friend, my friend Sarah Boxer who’s a writer and critic in DC, that says this is the man’s novel. It’s not the woman’s novel. She reads it very differently. People find different ways in because it’s told from multiple points of view that shift. Part of the way I kept it, I hope, dynamic was moving among these different characters. There are the B-line characters, the grandfather, Costanza’s mother, Andrew’s brother, briefly also Henry’s ex-wife. There’s the dead writer and his secretary. All of these people in this somewhat kaleidoscopic way come in and move their chips of color through the story. Central, of course, is Costanza and her quest.

Zibby: I didn’t mean to say this is only about infertility. It’s just one of the many storylines.

Michael: No, and I’m very happy for it to be recognized as that, absolutely.

Zibby: The last question about infertility, because I really am wondering this, a doctor reports in the book that he can tell from the outside who’s ultimately going to be successful in infertility treatments by their attitude, by something intangible that over time he recognizes as what somehow will lead to success. Is that what a doctor told you?

Michael: I think someone said that to us. I’m not sure it was doctor or a nurse. I thought at the time, this is absolute nonsense. I still think it’s absolute nonsense. If they knew that, I’m sure they could bottle it and share that attitude or train people in that attitude. It is not about a state of mind. In fact, one of the most destructive things that happens humanly to people going through infertility treatment is that the world around them, those people who haven’t gone through it, offer up these bromides or this unsolicited advice. “Just go away for a weekend. Just calm down. Just have a romantic dinner. Just meditate. Just take this vitamin. Just wear loose clothing. Just go to the gym.” I’m so sorry, it’s just not like that.

Zibby: Okay, I was glad to hear that. Tell me more about your writing process. Did you outline the story first? I know we talked about setting. Did you outline the plot? Did you go deep first into the characters? Then where exactly — let me picture where you were when you were sitting and writing this book.

Michael: I work at home. I live in Greenwich Village. I am very fortunate to have a room of my own, an important thing for someone who likes to shut himself up in a room with the doors closed for many, many hours. This book took a lot of time and took quite a lot out of me, I will say. It may have had to do with the infertility theme. It may have had to do with the fact that I don’t think I knew quite what I was doing when I set off. I don’t know that many writers do. Those who do say they know absolutely from the beginning, I think are not being a hundred percent truthful. In my case though, I had started this book before the memoir. I had written an enormous number of pages, like twice what ended up being used. As I felt my way into the story, I wrangled with Costanza. I wrangled with Henry. He does things that I don’t always like. That’s a very strange relationship to be in with an imagined character whom you might not want to sit down to dinner with regularly, but who might fascinate you and might serve a purpose narratively, psychologically, and thematically. I wanted to figure him out. Andrew, I had to figure him out. I was once a seventeen-turning-eighteen-year-old boy. I was not unlike Andrew, but I wasn’t Andrew. It took a lot of writing, a lot of going down certain paths, coming to forks, making the wrong choice, and then losing a month of work out the door.

I knew having this relationship of a triangle at the center of the book, that I would want to be twisting that triangle, so turning it on its three different sides through the story. That was as much structure as I had. The more I wrote, the more I discovered I need to know more. I need to know the parents. I need to know the brother. I need to know the apartments. I need to know the medical office. I followed Henry for several months through his work life. Then eventually, I got rid of all that material, but I knew it. It was under my knowledge of him. Sometimes I work that way. Sometimes I don’t. It was like improvising as an actor, maybe, or rehearsing and then thinking, okay, I have this under my belt. Now let me move forward to the essence of the story. I always have readers. I have three good friends and my younger brother who read. Of course, I have my wonderful editor Eileen Smith who early on pointed certain things out that it took me a while to hear and even a longer while to implement. This book was a bit of a puzzle. Eventually, it slimmed down. It became more dramatic, I think. It became the best version of itself, but it took a lot of time.

Zibby: I know you used to do a lot of book reviews for the Los Angeles Times. Did you feel like your time reviewing other books and thinking about them so critically helped you craft this?

Michael: I’ve been a passionate reader since I was a child. That was probably one of the most intense reading periods of my adulthood because I was reading two books a month, which to you who read five a week would seem like nothing.

Zibby: I don’t read five a week.

Michael: To read them and figure out what you want to say about them and then write it and then like what you’ve written takes a bit of time. Sure, I learned a lot about how I think things work best and things work less well. I remember Philip Roth had said once at one point that the writing profession is the only one in which you don’t accumulate any worthwhile experience, which I think was a little bit overdramatic. What he was saying, as I took it, was that every book, every project is like starting over. It’s not just the blank page, but it has its own vocabulary that you have to master. It has its own needs, its own exigencies. You have no idea what they are when you start off because the book does take you in different directions. Often, where you begin is not even where you end up beginning, that kind of thing. You learn a certain amount, but a lot of it has to be figured out along the way. I think that’s the most candid response to that question.

Zibby: This experience now that the book is out there, does it make you want to write another book? Are you already working on another novel?

Michael: Yes, of course. I’m working on a couple of things. I’ve always written short stories. I treat myself to a short story, another very difficult form, in between longer projects. I have two things underway at the moment. The second one is a novel that is going to be pretty ambitious. It’s interesting that we started out today talking about place because it’s going to be a multigenerational novel set in the same street, the same house. It had been the house of the grandparents, the children, and the grandchildren over time, which is something that fascinates me, how the container of a family can keep going as the people come and go, as lives are remade, as people die, and as people are born. More proximately, I’m working on a book that is going to be a kind of hybrid, a strange animal in which I’m going to tell the story of a most remarkable woman I met four years ago called Stella Levy. Stella is a ninety-six-year-old survivor of the Jewish community of the Island of Rhodes. Have you ever heard about the story of the Jews of Rhodes?

Zibby: I haven’t.

Michael: It’s interesting few people have. I hadn’t before. I met her because I was researching another Italian story set during the war years, which is a period of particular interest to me.

Zibby: Did you have family in the Holocaust?

Michael: I had none. I had no connection. I have no Italian in me, plenty of Jews. It’s just an interesting puzzle that I’ve always wanted to work at, which is what was it like to be Jewish in Italy, and particularly during the war years? Stella is Italian because Rhodes was a possession of Italy, won in 1912 in the Italo-Turkish War, one of the wars that was going on as the Ottoman Empire was breaking apart. From 1912 until World War II, the island where there was a community of Jews who lived in the Judaea — there were 1,700 or so of them — underwent a major transformation. They had been there since antiquity, but more proximately since the expulsion from Spain. They were Spanish speaking. They had cohabited in a multiculturally successful way, in terms that we use today but no one would’ve used then, with Greeks, with Turks, with ancient Greeks, with the knights, with eventually the Italians.

Stella was a young, intellectually curious, and ambitious child. She used to keep a suitcase packed because she wanted to go off to university more than anything. She expected that to be her fate and her dream, her destiny. She was the youngest in the family. In fact, her firstborn oldest brother had already left the island before she was born. She never met him until after the war. She, at ninety-six, has one of the most remarkable memories known to man. She can tell you everything from what they ate, to what they wore, to what they read, to what they talked about, to what their interrelationships work. As you can imagine, 1,700 of them living within the ancient walls of the same storied place have a lot of interrelationships. I went to see her four years ago. She needed help, as it turned out, to adjust a little something she was writing. I asked her if she’d ever really properly told her story. For various reasons, she hadn’t. She’s not been one of those survivors who has been public about her experience. We started to talk about it, both centrally her life before the war and then of course through the horrible things that happened when in 1944, very late in the war, the entire community was packed up and sent on the longest physical journey from Rhodes to Auschwitz, and the longest temporal journey, fourteen or so days, by train and boat to the very unhappy fate.

This book is going to be an account of her story. It’s an account of our friendship as it’s developed through some roadblocks over these years. It’s about listening to people’s stories. It’s about the difficulty of both transmitting and accepting a story and translating one, since our conversations are in Italian. Also, they’re across other barriers, generational. They’re across a barrier of gender, of sensibility. It’s also going to be a portrait of old age because she has one of the most interesting old ages I have ever seen. I am completely compelled by how one goes on living with connection and depth, with awakeness, with purpose. Stella’s secret, I think, has been — of course, she’s blessed with physical well-being and this incredible memory, but she has curiosity. That curiosity allows her to connect with people. It allows her to read and study, to try to figure out how her life unfolded the way it did, how the life of her people, her parents, her community, unfolded the way that it did. It’s been one of the most profound encounters of my life. I want to make a book out of it. That’s what I’m doing.

Zibby: Now I want to read it. Good pitch.

Michael: Thank you. I’ll come back.

Zibby: I’m kind of sad to even be close to the end of this conversation because I’ve been trying to analyze why I feel so close to your characters and why I’m sad that now I’ve finished the book. The book is closed. Now this interview’s going to be over. I’m going to miss them. I feel like they’re actual people. I can smell Costanza making her pesto and all the rest. Are you going to ever do anything else with these characters? Will this be a film? Would you do this as a play, maybe? I could see it on stage.

Michael: There’s been a nibble of interest already. It’s early. I would love to see it as a movie. The timeframe of the novel is, in actual time, a little bit more than a year, or maybe a year and a half. It has a fairly clear three-act structure. I think it would lend itself beautifully to a movie. It’s an incredible role for an actress of around forty. We are gifted with a number of really talented, amazingly talented women out there. Of course, my daughter sees Timothy as the young man. All of those girls of a certain age are obsessed with Timothy.

Zibby: How old is your daughter?

Michael: Fourteen now. I would love to see it have new life in another genre, absolutely. It’s funny. I had a letter from a friend, a fellow writer who said, “I actually wanted a sequel,” which I thought was such a funny thing because it is not, at least, in my head at the moment to write a sequel. It’s a great sign when you speculate about the future of a character or several characters. For me, whether in biography or in fiction, when you come to that last page and you’re still hungry, it can only be positive.

Zibby: It’s a testament to, also, how you ended it. I was like, oh, come on!

Michael: It does have a dramatic ending, but let’s not reveal that.

Zibby: I’m not going to say a word. I won’t say a word. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Michael: Read. Read and read and read some more. Then find yourself a community of like-minded people, friends or classmates if that’s right, with whom you can share your work. It’s important to be open to outside perspectives on what you’ve done. Really, a lot of writing is about getting distance, almost like a painter stepping back. Writing also requires some stepping back to see, am I doing what I think I’m doing? There’s that moment where you feel, I’ve written a masterpiece. Of course, it’s very short-lived in my case. You’ve written something. It comes out of you. You feel like you’ve licked it. There’s a kind of relief when you come to the end of a long project, but the end is only the beginning. So much of the really important work is done in revisiting, revising, nuancing, trimming, adding, shaping.

Zibby: Not to put words in your mouth, but thinking about how you wrote so much more than you ended up using and you said, “A whole month of my life, I tossed out,” I don’t think you did. I think that writers shouldn’t think that just because they don’t use those pages, the time was wasted.

Michael: I try to tell myself that.

Zibby: I think it’s true, though. It’s part of it.

Michael: I think you have to accept that it’s not a factory. You’re not going to have, at the end of the day, a box of widgets that then can go into the world. Half those widgets, you made learning how to make the other half, I think is the right attitude. It can be somewhat depressing when you wake up the next day and you look at twenty or thirty pages and you think, who wrote this garbage? Or maybe it’s not garbage, but this really isn’t where the story wants to be right now.

Zibby: Maybe we should make trash cans and on the outside say, “This is just part of the process.”

Michael: Something like that, exactly.

Zibby: Something like that where when you throw away the pages you know that, actually, it makes the story better.

Michael: I love that idea.

Zibby: Okay, I’ll do that after I make my umbrellas and the other fifty-seven things I want to make. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Michael: Zibby, it’s been wonderful. Thank you for having me.

Michael Frank, WHAT IS MISSING