(The Seattle Public Library is hosting a write-in on Monday, November 24th from 5 to 8 pm. Gabriela Frank will be on hand to answer questions, offer writing advice, or talk about her experiences as a public novelist. The event is free. Find the rest of Frank's public writing schedule on the library's site.)
- The Stranger
- Gabriela Denise Frank at her public writing station at the Central Library downtown.
For all of November, Gabriela Denise Frank is writing a novel while sitting on a couch in a living room carved out of the third floor of the Central Library downtown in an installation titled "A Novel Performance." Boxed in by a set of stanchions, Frank sits on a couch, typing on a laptop and occasionally referring to the sheaf of papers spread all around her. Above her head is a large screen displaying everything she types into her document. Aside from that one outward-facing element, it’s a homey setup with a lamp, an ottoman, a tasteful rug, and an end table decorated with a pot of bright orange flowers. Despite the large white headphones she’s wearing—parts of the novel have been written to Yo Yo Ma tracks—library patrons want to intrude, to ask her what the hell she’s doing there. One woman looked at the setup and asked Frank, outright, “why are you so special?” Sometimes they have advice: One guy told her to look into learning how to type on a more efficient Dvorak keyboard layout.
Frank says most people are pretty polite, although she was heckled by a gaggle of middle-school boys a while back. (Every time she started a new paragraph, the boys indicated the screen behind her head and called out, “You’re not indenting!”) But just as we’re getting started with our conversation, right in the middle of explaining to me that she wanted to create this writing installation as a way to “connect with other people,” a woman walks up to the stanchions and starts talking to Frank.
“Excuse me, I have a question,” the woman says.
“I’m Gabriela,” Frank offers. She’s done this before.
“What is the most recent book you have written?”
The woman absorbs the answer and continues on. “Are you from Seattle?”
“I’m not,” Frank says. “I’m from Detroit.”
“I’m on the east coast quite a bit,” the woman says, sounding disappointed. “So I don’t do much in Detroit at all. What brings you to Seattle?”
“I live here,” Frank says.
“Ohhhh,” the woman says. “I’m a Washington native. My name is Andrea. I come here for the author readings that they have here.” Andrea lists a few authors she’s seen at the library, including Tavis Smiley. She asks Frank, “how long you gonna be here?”
“I’m here to the end of this month.”
Something in this answer pleases Andrea. “Ohhh, OK. What are they celebrating here?”
“This is a special installation for the month,” Frank says. “If you wanted to stop by on Mondays, I have open hours.”
“See, I don’t do Mondays,” Andrea says. “That’s my Bible study. Are you here Thursdays?”
“I am here on Thursdays,” Frank confirms.
“OK. It was good to meet you. Enjoy!” Andrea walks away.
Without a pause, Frank turns back to me and picks up where she left off. “I realize that writers tend to be very quiet, shy people. I have that side, too,” she says. She reads me a quote from YA novelist John Green off her phone: “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don't want to make eye contact while doing it." Frank says she read that quote “and I thought,” with a horrified tone in her voice, “no!”
- Gabriela Denise Frank
- This is Frank's concept sketch for the installation. Except for the platform, which was quickly scrapped, the final installation closely resembles her original vision. (Click to enlarge.)
“This book I’m writing now I had originally intended as a memoir,” Frank says. The notes come from two years of preparation for the writing of that aborted book, and she’s wrestled them into an outline for the novel, which is titled The Year of the Tiger. It’s set in contemporary Seattle (Bertha, the gigantic tunneling machine currently sulking underneath the city, is a repeating theme in the book) and involves travel to Bogota and New Zealand. Just before I interrupted her, Frank reached page 90 of her manuscript, which is written in single-spaced, 12-point type. She’s already close to meeting NaNoWriMo’s goal of 50,000 words written in November, and she expects to finish the draft, which she expects to be 75,000 words, by the end of the month. Except for a few changes at home, she's written the whole thing sitting in her makeshift living room in the middle of the library.
Frank says the NaNoWriMo process “feels very brutalist to me.” She describes the experience in a monotone, “Sentence. Sentence. Sentence. You write for three hours. You go to bed. You get up. You go to work. You come here and write for three hours. You can’t stop.” As a person who normally revises and re-revises her text, the process of just laying down words with the philosophy that she’ll fix it in rewrite is a new one for Frank. “I’m less afraid of that blank page than of the first ugly draft,” she admits, but she thinks the process is “really going to make me be a different writer.”
Writing in public is making her a different writer, too. Frank was writing “a romantic scene,” as people were standing at the stanchions, reading the draft as it appeared right over her head. She says “if I was at home, I’d be writing all kinds of stuff, but I had to edit.” At home, she went back into the draft and added sexier language, but as she was writing it under observation, “I couldn’t use that language in front of strange people.” The process is “not comfortable,” but she’s pleased with the way it’s gone so far—especially in the way children have responded to her. She’s seen the lights go on in the eyes of younger children as they realize for the first time that books are written by people, and that means they could write books too, if they wanted.
The experience, too, has “changed my whole opinion about the library’s position in the community,” and not just because SPL has been so accommodating to her project. Frank has watched the way staff has interacted with the library’s patrons. “They just feel like such unsung heroes to me. They’re not just librarians, they’re fighting on the front of social justice and social work. It makes this place to me so much more important than I thought it ever was.” She was so inspired that she “changed one of my characters into a librarian in honor of them.”
Does Frank have any advice for anyone who’s writing a novel this month, but who feels as though they’ll never make it? “I’d encourage those people to go to the Seattle NaNoWriMo site and find people to write with,” she says. The library is hosting a few more NaNoWriMo events before the end of the month, too. In general, when it comes to the lonely pursuit of writing, Frank says, “camaraderie and support are your best chance for success.”