Family is Family: An Interview with Laurie Frankel

The unexpected twists of family life are fertile ground for the Seattle author.

  • September 15, 2017
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

Seattle author Laurie Frankel likes to send her characters on unanticipated journeys through childrearing and growing up. For her first novel, 2010’s The Atlas of Love, she cast three women in the role of triple parents to a baby boy. Goodbye For Now (2013) allows a bereaved woman to press on through life with a computer simulacrum of her dead grandmother.

Frankel’s latest book is This Is How It Always Is, about a family who realizes that one of their five young boys is in fact a transgender girl, and struggles with how to disclose her gender to the world — or whether they even should. Frankel and her husband are parents to a transgender daughter, whose gender identity became evident as Frankel worked on the novel. Although her daughter hasn’t read the new book yet — and likely won’t for some years, since it’s not geared for children — Frankel says she loves the idea of acting as a spark for her mother’s work.

“She can’t understand why I would ever write fiction about anything but her — because she’s nine, and she thinks she’s very fascinating.”

In addition to her novels, Frankel has written widely as an essayist, both for major publications and on her own blog. While crafting her early books, she taught at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. She’ll read a new short work Oct. 6 as part of Bedtime Stories Seattle, Humanities Washington’s annual fundraising dinner.


Humanities Washington: Your novels so far seem to focus on unexpected family dynamics. What attracts you to that?

Laurie Frankel: People ask a lot, “What is your fiction?” Because it’s not genre fiction — I feel like it’s just fiction. But more meaningful than the thread about nontraditional families is, what does “family” mean? I think the answer to that is, family is family, and you’re stuck with it. The answer isn’t yes or no, the answer’s always going to be yes. The question is “How?” You know you are going to meet these challenges, you’re just going to have to figure out how. And that to me is a very interesting question for a novel, an interesting question for fiction. I also believe, to the tips of my toes, that the wider we define family, the broader we make that definition, the better the world is for everyone. That’s how I end up writing about these other ways to make a family that are also family. If there were a rulebook, you could say, “I’ve encountered this, now I turn to page 315 and do this thing.” But that’s not how it works.

You mention genre, and Goodbye For Now uses a science fiction premise to get at a family story. Were you thinking of it in terms of genre?

I wasn’t, and to me, it did not feel like science fiction, although it did win the Pacific Northwest Endeavour Award for fantasy and science fiction — which is interesting, since in the years since that happened, it isn’t science fiction anymore. People are actually implementing this kind of technology. It was science fiction when I made it up, and it has become less so in the intervening years. I thought about it, and I played out all the scenarios, because that’s what you do when you write a book. When I pitched the idea to my agent, she said, “Oh my God, why would anyone ever want to do that?” And I thought, there you go, that’s the book. Her gut reaction was the opposite, and I think that’s what made it an interesting topic. The book functions as a warning: If we could, should we? The world seems to have answered that question in the intervening years with a resounding yes.

I also believe, to the tips of my toes, that the wider we define family, the broader we make that definition, the better the world is for everyone.

For This Is How It Always Is, did you have to think twice before writing a book drawn from this part of your family life?

Not twice — more like two million times, I would say. When I came up with the idea for the book, it wasn’t clear to me that it was going to have very much overlap with my own situation, which was developing at the time. It’s hard to think about how a book is going to be received or marketed or anything like that when you’re writing it, but then when we sold it, that was the primary question: how publishers were going to protect her privacy, and her privacy twenty years from now. The book is really entirely fictional — it is completely, completely made up. I think that when she reads it in a number of years, she and I will be the ones who see that most of all, because it’s really not about her. The kid in the book is older than mine, and was especially so when I was writing this a couple of years ago. Much of the drama of the book comes from the fact that that kid is not out, and mine is very, very out.

Did you feel like you were speaking to a political moment with this novel?

I anticipated that it was going to arrive at the other political moment. This book came out three days after the inauguration, and my agent, my editors, my publisher, everyone was absolutely certain Hillary was going to win that election and the world was going to be a kinder, gentler place. Then it did not happen. We talked briefly about pushing back the publication date. That’s how tense we were about it. Then there was a lot of now-more-than-ever talk — “We need this book now more than ever.” I don’t know if I believe that. It was also true the book was going to be controversial anyway, and has been met with some vitriol. But I have heard from a ton of people who’ve written, “Thank you for this book, because I thought I was the only one.” It feels like not enough. It feels a little bit like what I should be doing is writing a novel a month, because things feel desperate. Push has come to shove.

What can you tell us about your Bedtime Stores contribution?

I have written the short story — in fact, it was due today, so I sent it off very late last night. I think I’ll probably tinker with it to the very end. The theme is “Beacon in the Night,” and indeed it touches upon that idea from the angle of mental health care, and how to approach the world with mental health challenges. It is about an ex-teacher, although it is not about me — it is totally made up. It also has Hamlet in it.

Frankel will be reading an original short story as part of Humanities Washington’s Bedtime Stories fundraiser in Seattle on October 6. Tickets and more information is available here.

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