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Thursday, February 3, 2011

An Interview with Acclaimed Writer, Thaisa Frank

by Lorinda Toledo

Thaisa Frank is a critically acclaimed writer with a gift for surrealist prose and poetry. Her recent novel, Heidegger’s Glasses, has been called "a tour de force whose imagery haunts the reader long after the final page is turned,” by Jim Moret of the Huffington Post. Thaisa also co-authored the celebrated book, Finding Your Writer's Voice with Dorothy Wall.

Her short stories have garnered numerous awards and landed on the Bestseller List of the San Francisco Chronicle. She also teaches in the MFA programs at San Francisco State, the University of San Francisco and UC
Berkeley. You can study with her at the Writing Pad Ojai Retreat on March 25-27! You can also watch a videotaped interview of Thaisa here.

We had asked Thaisa a few questions about writing craft, her books, and teaching style:

1. Why did you want to write the book, Heidegger’s Glasses? Were you drawn to the material in some way?

What sparked me to write Heidegger's Glasses was somebody telling me at a party that Heidegger had had a revelation about his eyeglasses. So I thought 'Wow, Heidegger's Glasses, that's a great title!' I'm pretty title-driven. I often just know something is going to be a story or a book by its title. And then the title is like a pinata made of iron and I just beat it and beat it and beat it until something comes out.

2. You have traveled extensively throughout Europe. How have your travels influenced your writing?
I think traveling in France probably had something to do with my interest in imaginary countries, which I have written about because France is an amazing country. France is very little, but it has all these provinces and every single one of them is different. There's a different dialect, different architecture, different weather, different cheeses and different wines. And it is like an imaginary sort of journey because you plop into a different world. You can be in Alsace, which is very much like Normandy and slightly Germanic, but then you can be in Provence, which is sort of like Ancient Rome. So I think that sense of variety has really had an influence.

3. How would you describe your teaching style?
It really depends on how seasoned the writer is, what they're working on, and how far along their piece is. With a really polished story, it's fine to do line edits. But a lot of my teaching style is encouraging people to forget about what they should write and just write. I try to get people to leap into imagination and stay away from literality. I have various writing exercises to get my students excited about the imagination. Lastly, I try to teach them the difference between between an anecdote and a story. I could tell you an anecdote about my crazy family of origin. But a story manages to find a universal element in that anecdote so people who didn't come from a crazy family can relate, so the story elevates. The difference between anecdote and story is perhaps one of the most important things that a writer can know. Just because I feel terrible that my dog died when I was twelve, it doesn't mean that people who don't know me will feel terrible. I have to get them to feel.

4. You co-wrote a book that focuses on helping a writer find one’s own voice. Why is it important to find one’s voice?
Everyone has a voice. Everyone has had a moment at a party, for example, when you're "on" in a certain way: when suddenly you have worked the room, everyone in the room is looking at you, and you're interesting to people. That's the beginning of your voice. Usually when a writer finds their voice, there's an element of surprise and mystery. Getting voice on a page is often really hard. The only thing that you can do is find the kind of writing exercises that work for you, that help you write the kinds of things you want to write. And if you do that and keep the lengths short, I promise that you will write something whole.

5. Your book, Finding Your Writer's Voice, has a chapter called “Making The Journal Dangerous.” How do you make a journal “dangerous?”
Most of us think of a journal as writing about what we know rather than discovering what we don't know. If I were to tell you about my day today, I could tell you that I got up this morning at my publicist's house, we had a coffee, we waited for Marilyn to pick me up -- and it could go on and on like that. But if I just sort of drift and let my mind go back to the day, what I remember literally is Julia saying, 'Which coffee cup would you like?' and looking in a cabinet and seeing so many coffee cups, differently shaped, different objects, some from Germany (where she was born) and choosing one that said 'chocolat.' If I write all those details down, I'll begin to have a lexicon of things that interest me and things that bring me close to myself.

6. Who are your favorite writers? Who inspires you?
I've always loved poetry. Wallace Stevens, Yates, William Stafford, Celan. I was also very influenced by As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, which I read when I was about 13. I didn't know he was a white male supremacist. I was just sitting on my bed, and it reached my soul. I think that might have been the moment when I thought, 'I want to do this for other people.' Kafka was probably the writer that made me realize that I could trust surrealism the most. Recently, I have loved Remainder by Tom McCarthy. I tend to like writers with strong voices.

I can't wait to learn more from Thaisa at the Writing Pad Ojai Retreat! What could be better than a whole weekend studying with Thaisa at a beautiful ecosanctuary? If you are interested in reserving a coveted space before it's full, contact or call 323-333-2954.

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