Santa Rosa author follows her obsessions with travel, aging in 2 new books
For award-winning author Joan Frank of Santa Rosa, writing an essay is a lot like going on a trip.
“I love the essay form, because it’s what E. B. White called ‘taking a walk,’?” she said. “You don’t know where you’re going, but you’re setting out to find out what you think.”
Frank didn’t begin to publish until she was about 40. Now she has an impressive oeuvre to her name, including four novels, two short story collections, three books of essays and the new collection of novellas. Although yet to be published by a major house, her works have earned nearly 50 grants, honors and awards.
Taking a trip, it turns out, is the subject of her newest book of essays, “Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place” (University of New Mexico Press, 2020). The wry and emotionally powerful book, which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, hits book shelves this month and has garnered glowing praise from Kirkus Review and others.
“Frank’s rich, imagery-driven prose lends immediacy to her observations,” Publishers Weekly said. “This is a perfect book for readers to take on their travels, even if they’re only going as far as the armchair.”
Meanwhile, Frank’s latest work of fiction - a quartet of novellas entitled “Where You’re All Going” (Sarabande Books, 2020) - was also released this month. A Booklist review called it “lustrous, moving and life-affirming,” while Buzzfeed News included it in its list of “15 Small Press Books to Kick off Your 2020 Reading Season.”“Witty and humane, Frank taps the riches of the novella form as she writes of loneliness, friendship, loss and the filaments of intimacy that connect us through time,” the Buzzfeed review said.
We spoke with Frank, who lives in Santa Rosa with her husband, playwright and retired SRJC professor Bob Duxbury, before she set off on a series of book tours across the country, including a stop at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in San Antonio, Texas, where she will be speaking.
Here is an edited version of the interview, starting with her latest book of essays:
Q. Your last book of essays, “Because You Have To: A Writing Life,” was a natural subject for you. Why did you choose to write about travel and place this time?
A. My husband is an insatiable traveler. At first, I would be delighted with taking a leave from my job and going to be with him when he had a semester abroad in Paris or Florence. ... But then, growing older, I noticed I was less delighted. I began to see the dark sides and the cracks, the difficulties, the strivings and the terrible need of people everywhere to make lives. As I began to see that patina of exotic glamour peel away, I began to see the more human story.
Most writers have no skin. We’re hypersensitive to the human pageant and striving and need. And that’s almost hyperemphasized in travel elsewhere. ... All this was brooding and boiling in me, and I would use essays as a palate cleanser between the heavy lifting of fiction. Essays are much easier for me to swim around in.
So these essays were a great relief to me to help me understand the world and myself better, especially as I age.
Q. Reviewers have described your voice in these essays as alternately “cranky” and “irreverent.” How did that feel?
A. It was heaven to be cranky. In the essay, you have perfect freedom to be as loutish as you want. It was good to say, “This emperor is naked” and “By the way, I don’t love this.”
That’s a way of saying, get ready ladies and gents. It’s not a Frommer’s guide or even Rick Steves. He pulls a treacly veneer over things. I’d love to have him to dinner and get him drunk. It would be so delicious. We’d be hearing the outtakes and the bloopers and his real opinion.
Travel really is physically demanding, and you don’t notice it while you’re young, but later you do. Spiritually, it’s difficult because you can’t play some good Samaritan. Instead, you are much more conscious of American bullying and myopia, and you don’t want to represent that.
Q. Despite the challenges, why do you think people continue to travel?
A. Somewhere in one of the essays - or in the prologue - I tell people, you may have been told by visitors about what the place where you live is all about. What that’s about is a longing for control, and that’s about being afraid of being ambushed by the unknown.
That brings us full circle to why people travel. They want to have adventure without the usual control, but what I see is that control is still paramount. And I don’t exempt myself. I want to feel safe. So there’s a tightrope we walk between safety and control on one hand and newness on the other. The young are much more willing to embrace newness.