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Santa Rosa author follows her obsessions with travel, aging in 2 new books

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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.

Q. You dedicated one essay to the concept of the hotel. Why did that catch your imagination?

A. The hotel is a good microcosm for the whole idea of travel. There’s exoticism and deep sexual overtones. There’s an idea of “what happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas.” There’s an idea it’s an adventure where I will be more at liberty to be naughty.

But it, too, ends up being finite. ... That was so painfully visible to me in Puerto Vallarta, where we took our little boy, and the hotel ended up feeling like a prison. It’s a reality that inverts. It’s “ooh la la, beauty, perfect.” And suddenly, it’s as big as a sock, and you’re trapped.

Q. In the heart of the book, you go back to your childhood home of Phoenix and come to grips with your mother’s death. In another essay, you return to Berlin after 22 years and process the loss of your younger sister while watching a time travel exhibit about the history of the Earth. Were those essays difficult to write?

A. Both were very hard to write. The Phoenix one was so hard that I thought I would burst into flames. I had to force myself to finish it, just to see where it would take me. I was glad when it was done. I hoped to God that anybody would care. With retro exploration, it’s easy to lose a reader. It’s such a volcanic torrent of feeling. But I decided to take that risk.

One reason you write without knowing where you’re going is so you’ll find out what you need to know. And I found in that journey that I understood that if a baby is sleeping in the room where the writer’s mother died, then you are handed a physical way of knowing how life carries itself on. And there is something deeply comforting about that.

And in the same way, looking at that odd, German time machine, you understand yourself physically to be part of that limitless unfolding of time and beings. There’s something soothing about that as well.

Everyone has to live inside the loneliness of their bereavement for the rest of their lives. Nobody can live inside it with them.

Q. The very last essay is similar, where you are driving home and have an epiphany while listening to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

A. I think it must have been some kind of Zen grace that fell briefly into my little car and my head. In that time, I understood that human suffering is part of the pageant, and if you step back from it, a stillness comes over because you understand yourself to be part of something incalculably vast and unknowable.

Q. Why did you decide to write in the novella form?

A. The novella form is a terrific form where you start with something that you’re not sure if it’s a short story or a novel, and it seems to be telling you that it’s a novella. ... It could just cover a single day, but it sinks deeper than a short story can, but not as deep as a novel could.

To me, it’s having the best of both worlds, and I love that.

Q. What links these four novellas together?

A. They all have to do with my own driving obsessions — time, mortality, the mystery of human existence.

How are we supposed to live, given this mystery of our small tenure on Earth? It’s an old question that literature asks. It really can’t be answered, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try.

One more thing you might notice is that there’s a paradox inherent in them. Although I write this work to try to know and be known, the way I conceive them is kind of Chekhovian. People talk past one another and act inside themselves. So someone says, “The sky is blue,” and the other says, “Yes, on Thursday.” There’s something tragic-comic about that. That people miss each other utterly.

Q. An example would be the couple expecting a baby who end up growing apart from their quirky friend?

A. I think that story is very sweet. It’s one of the most hopeful, the most positive, because the people in it love each other, but they stumble a lot. When we live long enough, we see this happen again and again. People look past each other into other identities, and it’s nobody’s fault.

Q The last essay in the book takes place in Bodega Bay. Why do you enjoy setting books in Sonoma County?

A The North Bay is a landscape I use again and again. It’s beautiful, and it has character. It makes me very happy to describe and appropriate it right and left.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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