Writing and teaching seem to go hand in hand for many writers. This Montreal based writer/teacher has written her whole life, professionally since 1993 and has three books published (two she wrote and one she’s edited). Stories to Hide from Your Mother (what a great title) is a collection of dark tantalizing short stories “that tell ugly and uncomfortable truths about love, sex, death and cannibalism with a wry smile.” One of the stories, Some Distinguishing Mark, was adapted by the highly successful TV series Bliss. Tess Fragoulis second book Ariadne’s Dream was nominated for the 2003 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. And The Goodtime Girl will soon be in our grasp. Until then, please savour the voice of Tess Fragoulis.
Moe: Looking back was there something in particular that helped you to decide to become a writer? Did you choose it or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer? Were you a good writer as a child? Teenager? Etc.
Tess Fragoulis: I began writing in first grade, without reason or encouragement, simply because I already loved books and stories. I don’t know that I was a good writer as a child, nor would I want to put that kind of judgement onto something so pure and spontaneous, simply something I did to pass the time. If anything, it just proves writing was a natural form of expression for me. I don’t remember drawing or colouring so much, but I memorized stories, nursery rhymes, and eventually, I suppose, tried it on my own. Does that mean the profession chose me? Not necessarily. Just that I always had an interest. It was perhaps always in me. I spent the first half of my life not paying attention to it. It wasn’t until my early twenties it occurred to me I might like to try to write in a more disciplined manner, with a goal. Before that there was no goal, and no real ego about the activity. If anything helped me decide to be a writer, it was lack of real, ongoing interest in anything else (though I am known for being interested in things for brief, intense, periods). And a certain penchant for pleasing myself.
Moe: What inspires you?
Tess Fragoulis: Music, films, a strong image, pervasive memories, sometimes my dreams. Sometimes one small detail can nag at me for a long time, or a series of ideas will brew for a while until eventually they have to be put somewhere if only to leave me alone.
Moe: Every writer has a method that works for them. Most of them vary like the wind while some seem to follow a pattern similar to other writers. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Tess Fragoulis: When I am on a long project, like a novel, I need to work at least 3 hours a day on it or I lose the momentum, the thread, and the courage. I am an afternoon writer, so I like to be at my desk by 1pm. It may seem quite compact and flexible as a schedule, but I need to know I have the whole day free in order to have the energy for those three hours. It requires intense focus. The rest of the day I am either preparing for it, or recovering from it. I am often envious of the male writers who claimed to work 9 hours a day. I figure that was because their wives or mistresses were taking care of all the mundane details of life. Or perhaps they were just moving commas around all day. 3 hours produces a lot of good work. After that, my brain is tired.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Tess Fragoulis: Each book is different, but my novels have taken between 4-6 years. I’m not sure if it makes me fast of slow. These have been big works, 300-400 pages, so the labour of getting all those words, all the story in order is not to be underestimated. Ariadne’s Dream was written from beginning to end, and then revised. The Goodtime Girl was written in segments, not necessarily in order, and I did stop to revise along the way, to sharpen the language. But I think it is better to have the whole work and then to see what it needs, otherwise you are already eliminating paths you might have usefully followed. At a certain stage, pretty far in, I will ask someone to have a look at the work. Usually because I have stared at it so long I no longer know what sort of impact it will have on someone reading it for the first time.
Moe: When you have your idea and sit down to write is any thought given to the genre and type of readers you’ll have?
Tess Fragoulis: I write literary fiction, so the easy answer is I write for an audience that likes literary fiction–like me. Actually, I am my own audience for the most part. Writing stories gives me the opportunity to both tell and read the story no one else is providing for me. My thought is that maybe there is someone else out there like me who will also like it.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Tess Fragoulis: I have done both, but I am more into letting the story develop as it progresses. I never know what the ending is, for instance, until I get close to writing the end. It keeps it interesting for me, surprising. With the historical novel I’ve been working on for the past few years, however, it was important to have some sort of plan because there were so many other variables involved than just characters and my imagination. I needed to rein the story in, and to give myself some sort of map to follow–though I still did not know the end until I got there.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Tess Fragoulis: With my first book, there was no research. With my second, I was relying very much on memories of places I’d been, but somewhere along the way I returned to the scene of the crime, so to speak, to pick up more fine details. I also had to do some research into mythology, since it was central to the story. My third book required a few years of research because I was entering historical territory. And I did feel the need to go to the places my characters would have gone to, even though these places were completely different some 85 years later. It did not seem possible to just rely on other people’s accounts. I had to walk the walk.
Moe: How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters? Where do your characters come from? Where do you draw the line?
Tess Fragoulis: Because it is my brain creating the narrative, the world of my characters, their experiences and interrelations, very much of me, my ideas, my beliefs and fetishes end up in my writing. This is especially true in my first two books, which have some autobiographical elements as starting points. But even in my historical novel, so much of my point of view has gone into the various characters, it would be wrong to say I wasn’t present in them as well. As for where my characters come from, life most definitely, but from a curiosity about certain types of people who I’ve never met as well. In the historical piece, I needed to figure out what it would be like to be a woman of a certain class in 1920s Greece singing for gangsters to survive. As for a line, there is none. Because I am writing fiction, even a real person goes through a transformation and becomes someone else on the page.
Moe: Writers often go on about writer’s block. Do you ever suffer from it and what measures do you take to get past it?
Tess Fragoulis: I have suffered from writer’s block, and I’ve come to see it as a natural part of the whole process of writing. When in a period of blockage, I try to either be patient and let it pass (freaking out about it only makes it worse), or participate in some other creative activity (improv exercises have worked in the past, for instance), or do some freewriting just to keep pen to paper until a better, more focused moment comes.
Moe: When someone reads one of your books for the first time, what do you hope they gain, feel or experience?
Tess Fragoulis: I hope they are swept away and delighted, disturbed and moved. I was told my first two books are prescribed by bibliotherapists, so perhaps there is some sort of recognition that helps a reader with her own issues. I really hope to take them to places they have not been, and to have them experience my characters, and subsequently their own emotions deeply. I am not a writer for politeness or half-measures. If you read me you must be willing to go all the way. I hope that’s what happens.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Tess Fragoulis: I have learned that books have their own path and their own timing, which I have no control over. They sometimes end up in the right places, sometimes make a splash at the beginning, and sometimes are “discovered” 5 years later. They have a better expiry date than milk.
I have learned, unfortunately, it is not necessarily quality or originality that gets the attention. There are many other factors at work in publishing decisions, and there are indeed flavours of the month.
I have also learned that the writing process, the secret relationship an author has with the book before it goes public, is far more satisfying than the reception of the finished product–no matter what the reception is. A published book is already the past for a writer.
Moe: How do you handle fan mail? What kinds of things do fans write to you about?
Tess Fragoulis: Well, I haven’t received a lot of fan mail, to tell the truth. A few emails now and then, praising whatever it is they have related to the most. Sometimes they ask favours of me or advice on their writing. I did have one correspondent who was in jail, who wanted a pen pal to tell his stories to. I am more likely to meet my readers at readings. I think correspondence is falling out of fashion. I don’t remember the last time I wrote a letter to one of my favourite authors, for instance.
Moe: What’s your latest book about? Where did you get the idea and how did you let the idea evolve?
Tess Fragoulis: My latest book is about Music, Drugs, and War. It is the historical novel I keep mentioning, and it is the story of a young woman who loses everything because of war, even her homeland, and must reinvent herself on the mean streets of another city.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Tess Fragoulis:I am a big fan of magic realism. I like lyrical prose. And I like writers who do not pull their punches. I have also become quite a fan of non-fiction these days. Jenny Diski is currently one of my favourite authors.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Tess Fragoulis: I love music, dancing, socializing, and shopping for vintage clothing. I obviously read a great deal, and I walk a lot with my dog. I’m a big talker, and I like to listen to other people’s stories. Sometimes I like to lounge around and do absolutely nothing but watch a movie or chat on the phone.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Tess Fragoulis: Be your own toughest critic. Obsessively read the authors you love. Learn to be patient because this is a very slow business. Keep at it, daily if possible. Don’t send out anything you are not absolutely happy with.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Tess Fragoulis: I always thought I would be a psychologist, and took some steps towards that in the past. I might also involve myself in the music industry.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Tess Fragoulis: Tyrannosaurus Rex–because I like the rhythm. My least favourite is poignant.
Originally published 3/14/2006 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.