An Interview with Gabriela Frank, "Shifting Gears"

What do you find appealing about the essay form? How does it compare to writing fiction? 

I love the sense of journey and discovery inherent in modern-day essays and, to be honest, the voyeurism. I love that essays open up worlds that we would never otherwise know in an intimate way. Essays afford a glimpse, albeit a curated one, into someone else’s mind. They are the literary equivalent of a stranger tugging at your sleeve, whispering, “Let me tell you a story of how this experience changed my life...” 

With essays, you don’t only get plot and character but philosophy, perspective, history, motive, emotion, all braided together. Two people can experience the same event, but each will have a distinct account of what he or she believes is true based on upbringing, perspective, prior experiences, biases, and the unique mind that they bring. Yet, through writing and reflection, personal experiences can be universally beneficial. How often do we read essays and feel relieved? Essays make us feel less alone in the world.

That aspect of reflection is a powerful draw for me, both as a reader and a writer. Done well, essays are like therapy. A good essayist is brutally honest in assessing her motivations and responses to what life throws at her—this is phase one—but she has to dig deeper to discover how her beliefs have changed and what it all means. The essayist is both detective and artist. The process of writing helps her learn about herself and the world, and she offers these lessons up for readers to do the same.

I find that the psychology of essay writing is deeply embedded in my fiction. I recently published a story inspired by a bad neighbor situation; it could have been an essay, I suppose—what I learned about myself from living in fear at home—but I loved the idea of taking the situation out of real life in order to make an uncomfortable situation into something bigger. For me, essays are about distilling big ideas or feelings into fine, crystalline realizations whereas fiction takes everyday moments and makes something big, messy and entertaining out of them.

Which writer/body of work has informed your writing and/or inspired you? 

As someone who writes fiction and essay, my heroes come from both worlds. I’m a huge fan of Anthony Doerr, who excels at both forms; he is both meticulous and generous with his characters and his storytelling. I love Jeannette Walls and Rebecca Solnit for their ability to translate personal experience into compelling narratives, but also because they write beautiful prose. David Sedaris can be so pitch-perfect. I admire his ability to make readers laugh and cry in the same piece. I’d love to be as funny a writer as he is. Italo Calvino inspires me with his magic realism and sense of place in works like “Invisible Cities” and “Marcovaldo.”

Growing up, I was a voracious reader of John Steinbeck, Judy Blume, E. B. White, Stephen King, Shakespeare and Chaucer. They are very different writers obviously, but they all understand humanity, or at least, how to write it. The depth and complexity of their characters instilled in me a desire look very closely at people, to work from the inside out. I find that, both in fiction and essay, my characters' backstory and motivation sometimes drives my work more than plot. In effect, their humanity becomes the plot.