Travel, Gina Frangello says, has always been a “major force” in her life. She’s worked in London, lived in Amsterdam. She met her husband at a train station in Avignon, France at four in the morning. Frangello draws energy and inspiration from the kind of travel that frightens some: independent, no itinerary, no family-style resorts. But while writing A Life in Men, Frangello’s life was decidedly more rooted. In 2001, she became a mother, and by 2007, when she started A Life in Men, she was also teaching in UC-Riverside’s low-residency MFA program, had co-founded Other Voices Books, was the fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown and the Sunday editor at the Rumpus. All of the work and family meant the decade between 2000 and 2010 was 10 years, Frangello explains, of “nesting.”
She spent three years writing the book and another year revising. At nearly 500 pages and covering territory as far-flung as Greece, she thought she was finished. But then she was awarded a Summer Literary Seminars month-long trip to Kenya. It was travel without her family, in 110-degree heat, with “cockroaches on the sides of the walls.” “It took me back in a way that I think was a little bit of a creative explosion,” Frangello says. “I came back completely determined to rewrite the book.”
A Life in Men tells the story of friendship between two women, one chronically ill, the other free-spirited, and of how the ties between them unraveled. It was inspired by someone Frangello once knew. “The initial desire was to write about a chronically ill traveler based on the fact that I had lived when I was in London with a woman who had cystic fibrosis,” Frangello says. “After she died, I hadn’t seen her in years, but she had been so inspirational to me—she was really interesting and irreverent and adventurous; she died while she was living in Jordan—I was inspired by that and wanted to write about what it means to try to live as big a life as possible in a limited amount of time. We all really have a limited amount of time, but people don’t think of it that way.”
But the original version of the book, the pre-Kenya version, was “much more of a novel in stories.” Two of Frangello’s short stories from the early 1990s, which had never fully come to life, worked their way into the novel—one set in London, where Frangello had lived, and one about two girls in Greece who find themselves in a dangerous position. “I ended up weaving all three things together, giving the protagonist cystic fibrosis.”
But after that month in Kenya, Frangello changed the book again. She played with structure, interweaving locations and time, making the book less chronological, and also amped up the role of the free-spirited friend, Nix. When she left for Kenya, Frangello thought she had a finished book ready to shop around. Then, nearly 500 pages of revision and just a couple of months later, she got a new agent and sold the book almost immediately.
Though the book is inspired by a real woman, Frangello says it’s as much about herself as it is about anyone else. “Ultimately the inspiration for the novel was a person who I didn’t really know all that well,” she says. “I had known her pretty intensely for a period of time when we were maybe 20 years old. She inspired the novel but there was no way to base a character out of the real events of her life. In the end, in order to access the character, in many ways I had to go very deeply into myself.” Though Frangello does not suffer from cystic fibrosis, she has had chronic illnesses in the past, as well as lifelong struggles with asthma and other breathing issues. The places her protagonist Mary visits were largely those Frangello had visited. “It became really personal,” Frangello says. “Not necessarily in terms of plot, but psychologically, the ways a traveling life affects you, or what these particular places had meant to me.”
And though A Life in Men became a personal story, Frangello, who has also written short memoir pieces, was relieved to work beneath the guise of fiction. “I feel like fiction is a place of enormous emotional honesty because you don’t censor yourself,” she says. “You don’t think, ‘What is my mother going to think?’ ”
Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer and freelance journalist living in Austin, Texas. Her stories have been published in Parcel and Twelve Stories, and she was the 2012 – 2013 L.D. and LaVerne Harrell Clark Writer-in-Residence at Texas State University, where she earned her MFA.