It’s taken me a couple days to get this up because the little foster boy who my partner and I had for a while has suddenly popped back up in our life–we’ve got him full-time for the rest of the summer. And between her working full-time and me trying to write, things have been a little crazy! But I guess that’s the name of the game when working with/loving hurting little boys: just love ’em up when you’ve got ’em and let it go when you don’t.
Anywho, I have a treat for you all today. When I was a teen, I absently started reading a book in a bookstore, and then I could not put it down. But I was poor and I couldn’t afford to buy it, so I snuck into that bookstore every day for a week to finish it. That book was The Folk Keeper by Franny Billingsley. It is one of my all-time favorite books, and she is now one of my all-time favorite authors. She has also written an outrageously funny and warm-hearted picture book–Big Bad Bunny. And most recently her novel Chime has come out to critical acclaim. (You can read my review of it here.)
I had the good fortune to meet Franny at Vermont College of Fine Arts where she is now a faculty member, and I can say that she is as lovely a person as she is a writer.
Her books often deal with tough but lovable characters who have survived/are surviving adversity, so she graciously agreed to this interview about Chime, the writing life, and writing for hurting kids. Her thoughts are very illuminating and relate back to the conversation we’ve been having recently about victim characters and passivity. The interview was conducted via email. Enjoy!
Me: Why do you think kids need stories? Can you remember any time when a particular story made a big difference in your life?
Franny: I think we need stories because life is chaotic; it often seems to operate without meaning: Why, for instance, do bad things happen to good people? But stories impose order on the chaos; they bring meaning to life. (Which is why, in my opinion, art doesn’t imitate life.) A resonant story often poses challenges for the protagonist that line up with that character’s inner life–his or her wounds, needs, dreams. The protagonist has the opportunity to confront and (we hope) change his or her inner life in confronting the outer obstacles. I love that about fiction.
Me: It took you several years to write this book (which I tell myself whenever I feel particularly stumped in my writing, so thank you!) Can you talk a little bit about your process? Were there ever times when you felt blocked or had trouble working on it?
Franny: I felt horribly blocked for years. I realize now, in retrospect, that it was because I didn’t understand Briony’s inner life, her wound. Initially, I conceived of the novel as a changeling story: Briony’s sibling (then a brother) is stolen by the fairies and it is her job to find her way into fairyland (a sinister and dangerous place) and rescue him. I think the reason I was so blocked is because there was no true protagonist. The brother wasn’t the protagonist: He was passive; he gets rescued. But neither was Briony a true protagonist. Sure she’s brave, she marches into fairyland and rescues her brother. But so what? Sheer heroism has no meaning if there’s no context to give it color and meaning. If, say, Briony’s never afraid of anything, “heroism” has no meaning. How can you be a hero if you’re not scared? But if Briony’s afraid of dark places and fairyland is just such a place . . . ah, well then we’re getting somewhere. It was only when I took the story out of fairyland and set it in a swamp that I was able to line up the internal and external stories. I can’t quite figure out why the swamp was the setting that made it work, but once switched to the swamp, the novel sprang to life.
Me: You write such deliciously real, intriguing, and ultimately loveable characters. But they aren’t “nice.” I love that, and I think it sums up most abused children who end up having enough resiliency to survive. Can you talk a little bit about where you get these characters and why you pick them?
Franny: I think it’s because I love characters like that, myself. Characters like Gilly Hopkins and Harriet the Spy–loveable but not nice. They stick with me, they feel real. And I suppose one of the things that resonates with me is that I can understand their wounds. Gilly’s mother put her in the foster system; Harriet’s parents are wealthy but pay no attention to her. Gilly and Harriet live in very different worlds, but in some way, their wounds are similar. Most of us have these wounds if we choose to recognize them. It is quite an extraordinary parent, or set of parents, who/that can bring a child to adulthood without that child having certain damaging beliefs about himself or herself, whether it be that she ought to be ashamed of what she says and does, or that the bad things that happen are her fault and she has to rush to the rescue, or . . . or . . . So, in any event, stories with these protagonists feel “true”; they resonate with me.
Me: When I was a child growing up in Florida, I was always up a tree, or running around wild, so when I read Chime I felt very close to Briony as the “wolf girl.” Were you ever a wolf girl or a wild child?
Franny: Oh yes, I was always outside, running around, whether it be with a pack of imaginary horses, or making a house for myself beneath a tree, or running barefoot in the rain . . .
Me: The stepmother in Chime is almost (well, besides the magic, I guess) a classic case of an emotionally abusive caregiver—she basically makes Briony believe that she is evil and must hide herself. In turn, the father in his absence is an enabler. How did you come up with these characters, and did it pain you at all to write them?
Franny: It took me a long time to come up with these characters. Over the years it took to write Chime, I edged toward understanding Briony’s situation. I think that I knew first that Briony’s dad was emotionally unavailable; later, the stepmother piece came to me. Although my childhood was nothing like Briony’s, I was able to give Briony my own childhood wound, which involved growing up believing certain dark things about myself. I took that experience and cranked it up for dramatic and emotional resonance. And it pains me to say that I felt no pain whatsoever in the writing of these characters.
Me: Briony uses dissociation to cope with the events surrounding her stepmother’s death. Dissociation and suppression are common reactions to trauma, especially during childhood when the trauma is associated with one of the primary attachment figures. The structure of Chime seems to be about Briony’s struggle to remember what she has dissociated–at least, it starts with her being unwilling to tell her story, and more or less ends with her remembering. Can you talk a little bit about the structure? Did you know all along that Briony suppresses her involvement in her stepmother’s death, or was that something that you figured out later in the process?
Franny: I didn’t know until right toward the end that Briony had suppressed the memory of the events surrounding her stepmother’s death. In fact, I only came to understand the role Briony played in the stepmother’s death toward the end of writing the novel. I have no perspective on why it took so long. I just had to write my way into understanding.