Fran and Anya talk fiction, memoir, grief, alcoholism, more
Fran Dorf , author of the novel, "Saving Elijah" and Anya Yurchyshyn, author of the memoir, "My Dead Parents."
April 10, 2018, RJ Julia Booksellers, Madison, Connecticut
To watch video click below:
March Forth Summer Reading Salon Interview
"The Angel of Forgetting," presented August 1, 2016, at "The Lambs," New York City
INTERVIEW WITH FRAN DORF BY ERIC WEBB
Q: You're quite well established as a novelist, however this is your first foray into writing a full length play. What made you want to take the leap from the page to the stage?
A: Psychology and writing are my top two interests, and both are about mining, understanding, and illuminating true human stories we can all relate to. Whatever form my writing takes, I long ago realized that I write to understand and try to make sense of the chaos of life. When a story calls to me, I eventually have to find a way and a form to tell it. Writing is my addiction, my religion, and my solace, even though at times I’ve tried to run away from, beat over the head, and even murder my creative muse. As with all my creative endeavors, I didn’t actually become fully committed to and engaged in working in this form until I began doing it, studying it, immersing myself in it.
In a way, I backed in. In 2007, after a long period of muse-beating and a long absence from writing, I went back to school to finish a masters in social work. Once I got settled in the field, the creative muse seized me again with a new story—my own. I’d experienced a bout with breast cancer, and started working on a funny/tragic memoir, partly to try to make sense of the ridiculous amount of “tsuris” (misfortune) I’ve experienced. An agent said she thought I should turn the book into a “one woman show” (with me as the one woman!), so I started to work on a few scenes for the stage. This led me to a theatre workshop, where I found a creative community to engage with and discovered the collaborative process so unique to theatre. Writing had always been such a lonely profession, and it thrilled me to see what great actors and directors can bring. I began to read, study, and see plays in a serious way. All this helped me become comfortable enough with the form to listen to the call of a story that had been nagging at me for years. “The Angel of Forgetting” is my second full length play; I’m also working on two others.
Q: What have you found to be the expected or unexpected challenges in writing for the stage?
A: Interesting question. Not surprisingly given my interest in human psychology, my novels, published and unpublished, have always been mostly about human beings in conflict with their inner demons. I think this is true to some degree about my plays so far. In a novel, dialogue, action and description can help the reader understand the psychological motivations of your characters, but you also have the tool of interior monologue. On the stage, you don’t have interior monologue unless you make a theatrical conceit of it. Instead, you have dialogue, action, and subtext as interpreted by the actors. I’ve been told by my editors and others that I have a flair for natural sounding dialogue. If that’s true, it comes from good listening and observation skills, and an atunement to the contrast between what people say and what they actually might be feeling and thinking inside. Both come out of being a student of psychology. Trying to dramatize inner lives on the stage has been a real but fascinating challenge, and I love watching actors find the subtext.
I tend to overwrite and then cut, but writing for the stage requires a real willingness to “let go of your darlings” in the cutting process. This has been a challenge. I’ve also been unexpectedly challenged by having to separate helpful from unhelpful feedback, and by receiving feedback that at first seems unhelpful, but which on further analysis proves very helpful.
Q: Your piece deals with very personal and universal issues regarding cultural identity, grief and coming to terms with your family history - what attracted you to this kind of story? Is there any personal connection to this story?
A: My three-year-old son, Michael, died in 1994, a few months after my second novel was published in paperback. Grief left me unable to fulfill a multi-book contract with Dutton, and it took years before I could even think about writing again. Eventually I wrote “Saving Elijah,” a novel almost wholly inspired by my loss, even though it features a ghost as a main character. I’ve come to believe that writing is healing for anyone, professional writer or not, and I know that the process of writing that novel saved my life. Every creative project I’ve undertaken since has been either directly or indirectly informed by the subject of grief. Before the loss of my son, I wouldn’t have gone near it.
“The Angel of Forgetting” comes to a large extent out of my interactions with bereaved people in clinical and other settings, and in their and my own interactions with psychics. A seed came just after my last novel was published. I was invited to a party at my agent’s home, and among her guests was another client, a famous psychic medium who’d just published a bestselling book. This woman made a beeline for me, and, uninvited, said, “I see a little boy standing next to you, he wants you to know that….” Well, I was still pretty raw, and to tell the truth, highly offended. There was my book on the coffee table next to hers. It was obvious my agent had told her about my son and my loss; perhaps she’d even read the book, which would have told her all she needed to know to pretend she knew about my little boy from supernatural sources. As I later learned from my research, she was attempting what’s called a “a hot read.” Another time, I sat with a large group of bereaved parents listening to a psychic, and found myself amazed that what I mostly saw were cheesy manipulative tricks, while it appeared that most in the audience were completely convinced he’d made contact with their dead children, and found comfort in his steady stream of fast-talking banter. I thought this dichotomy of reaction would be interesting to explore in a play. He also kept saying, “My mother thinks I’m crazy.” Perhaps she does. And there was a chance to explore some fascinating family dynamics.
Among the other issues “The Angel of Forgetting” takes up are cultural identity, the immigrant experience, and the effect of trauma. As a way of further answering this question, I have to say that I think fiction is a soup whose ingredients are anything the writer has seen, heard, experienced, invented, imagined, read, learned, or dreamed. A fictional play is no different. You cook up your chosen ingredients using the tools of the format, and once it’s all cooked, the only thing that’s really important is how it tastes.
Q: The lines that define reality and spirituality are blurred and transcended throughout this piece - is this a sensibility that you find yourself playing with often? How do you imagine this piece being translated to the stage?
A: Yes, over and over. I am a religious skeptic by nature and yet all my novels and this play incorporate supernatural elements. I did have one truly transcendent experience in my life (related to the creative process), and the power of that one experience is undeniable. I’m very interested in point of view, and I like to explore how different people react to the same event, particularly an event that seems supernatural to some. It’s kind of a Rashomon thing. It seems I like to ask the question: “Is this person crazy, or is she/he seeing what she thinks she’s seeing?” And then I come at the question from different points of view.
I think I’d like to see the realistic set as described, but I’m not married to that. I recently saw “Dry Powder” at the Public Theatre, and thought it was tremendously effective, at least partly because the set was so spare and unrealistic: shiny blue boxes the actors worked around, all rearranged with prescribed precision during the scene changes. It might be interesting to play up the supernatural elements of “The Angel of Forgetting” on the stage with scrims and/or special audio and visual effects, but I think the play could be done effectively with a minimum of special effects. I have a vague idea that I’d like to see old sepia photographs projected onto the set, rippling across the stage, perhaps accompanying some of the forays into memory and dreams. These are all conversations I’d love to have with artistic collaborators who are as drawn to the piece as I am.
Q: Chagall's painting "Over Vitebsk" plays greatly into this story - do you often find inspiration in other artistic forms? Did this piece inspire the action, or was it found after the genesis of the story?
A: One of my unpublished novels, called Provenance, revolved around a painting, and I drew inspiration from Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck’s recent banjo cover of the song “Railroad” when recently working with a partner on a teleplay adaptation of my novel, “Saving Elijah.” However, this is the first time another artistic form, a painting, has been so integral.
I don’t make outlines. I seem to write scene by scene, beginning with only a germ of an idea, and usually with a scene and characters drawn intuitively out of my subconscious, or perhaps my gut. If the first scene or scenes seem compelling, I write more scenes, tweaking the characters as I go, and eventually fleshing out a plot. I rewrite constantly; most work undergoes many drafts, although often those first scenes remain largely as they were originally conceived, though their position might change. But I think plot always comes out of character and situation, rather than the other way around.
I looked back at the first draft of this piece to determine the answer to this question. I did follow the method outlined above. The play was originally called “American Psychic.” The first scene I wrote—with the psychic at work and actors planted in the audience—was the scene that currently opens the play, and this scene remains almost as conceived, in its original place. The second scene I wrote was the one with the African American home health aide, and in a first draft of this scene the painting was already there, so it must be part of the inspiration. I’ve always loved Chagall’s work, partly because it reminds me of dream, and dreams were a subject I wanted to explore here. I also subscribe to John Gardner’s idea of the “fictive dream,” that fiction does its job by creating and maintaining a dream state for the reader, and I think this may be even more true for an audience, due to the immediacy of response. Moment by moment, you can see and feel whether the audience is immersed in the fictional dream you’ve created.
Q: Why do stories matter to you?
A: As I said before, I’ve always been drawn to the call of story. I think our stories make us who we are, and that we share stories to bring out our compassion and common humanity. I have tried in this play to grapple with the idea that only by acknowledging our common humanity will we be able to save ourselves and our planet.
Q: One last question I have to ask: what's your favorite play (or playwright) and why?
A: One? No way. I don’t suppose it’s surprising that “Angels in America” is at the top of my list. Some other favorites are works that show raw emotion, get deep into point of view, and dramatize inner demons, such as “’night, Mother,” “God of Carnage,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe.” I played Inez in a college production of “No Exit” and I find that a fascinating idea and a fascinating play. I think “Cabaret” is a brilliant musical play. I love Tennessee Williams, David Ives, some of Neil Labute’s work. I’ve not seen Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer winner, Disgraced, but just from reading the text recently, I have to say I thought it was just brilliant, honest, and culturally important.
I’ve found there can be a real difference between reading a play and seeing it in full production. Sometimes a play may not grab me in text, but when you see it in production, it’s just wow! I’m particularly anxious to have the chance to collaborate with other artists who will bring their own ideas to “The Angel of Forgetting,” in order to bring the play to full “wow!” in a production on the stage.
Fran's play, The Angel of Forgetting, was read on August 1st as part of the 2016 Summer Reading Salon.