Frances Grote’s first short story collection, Death, Madness and a Mess of Dogs, was released today. She was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her debut collection and her work in general. Allow me to start by introducing her…
Frances is a psychologist with an MBA, a mother of four, and an award-winning author of memoir and short fiction. She supports her writing habit with a day job in the biotech industry, where she is a leading authority on the creation of supplier partnerships. When she finally figured out she was never going to achieve her goal of having an organized house – or, for that matter, an organized life — she traded in housework for writing some of those stories she was always talking about. Publishers Weekly called her first book, Fire In The Henhouse, “a novel brewing with tension, lightened by warm humor.” Her new short story collection expands on some of those same themes.
Thank you for being here today. You just published your first short story collection. Could you tell us a bit about Death, Madness and a Mess of Dogs?
I suspect many writers have an experience similar to mine, where they start out thinking they’re writing about a particular subject or character or topic, only to find that their work ends up somewhere very different than what they were expecting. This is certainly true of the stories in this collection. Some of them are humorous, some fall into the category often labeled “contemporary fiction”, some are genre, and a few simply defy categorization. As I was working on them I didn’t have a specific unifying theme in mind. But once the collection was done it became clear to me they’re all about variations on love and how the realities (or in some cases fantasies) of experience skew love without changing its fundamental nature.
Family seems to be a common theme across your stories – the relationship between husbands and wives, mothers and children, brothers and sisters. Did you consciously set out to explore family relationships through the lens of various genres, or was it a happy accident as you played with the tropes of SF, historical fiction, fantasy, slipstream, and contemporary fiction (to name a few)?
Though I didn’t intentionally focus on family as a theme, I am intensely fascinated by human beings and the inevitable wackiness of our behavior. I observe other people as they go about their everyday lives with the same kind of gawking, magnetized curiosity that other people experience at the scene of an accident. I became a psychologist because, when I was young and naïve enough to believe such things were possible, I was convinced I would be able to someday figure out “Why” – what makes us act and react the way we do? And then one day, I did, at least to my own satisfaction. And the answer is, we do what we do because that’s the way human beings are. We can learn, we can change, but at the end of the day our best intentions evaporate when we bounce into or off of the unexpected. Portraying the variations on that theme is what enchants me about writing and family is one of the most rich, treacherous environments for getting bounced around, a natural place to set some characters up and see what happens.
You’ve also published a novel, Fire in the Henhouse. Could you talk about that a bit? It’s set in the fictional town of Dooleysburg, PA, but loosely based on Doylestown, PA. If you don’t mind saying, how much truth is mixed in with your fiction? Are there real people who inspired the characters in your book?
No question that the charming quirkiness of Doylestown inspired me to finally get off my duff and start writing fiction. There are all kinds of things about the town, where I’m lucky enough to be based part of the time, that inspire flights of fancy. I did a signing at a book club an hour or so west of there, and the members had rented a van and taken a field trip to Doylestown to see how many of the settings in the book they could find. And there were certain events, some of them very disturbing, inspired by tragic events that were narrowly averted while I was writing the book. But when it comes to creating characters, I’m not so much inspired by real people as I am by isolated observations – the way a couple sits in a tavern, physically at the same table but mentally in different universes; the unabashed pride of someone nearly too old to walk parading down Main Street on Memorial Day in a uniform that clearly lives in the attic the rest of the year – my imagination grabs those details and just takes off with them.
In 2010, you and your husband launched Rule Bender Press. Could you talk a bit about your experience running a micropress? What are some of the challenges? The rewards? Did anything surprise you about the publishing business? Do you have any advice for those thinking of getting into the publishing business?
The biggest piece of advice I have for anyone considering getting into the publishing business is don’t do it unless you feel passionate about it. Well, maybe I shouldn’t be so dogmatic – I do believe not only that everyone has a story (at least one) to tell, but that we have no business judging each other’s stories. Every living person is entitled to her or his voice, and if letting everyone have access to the means to publish their own stories is a mechanism for ensuring we can all get heard, I am enthusiastically in favor of that.
But my husband and I see our micropress as a serious business endeavor. And for anyone who wants to treat publishing that way, be prepared to invest the time and money needed to get it right. There were two things that surprised me quite a bit when we decided to get serious about publishing. The first was that while it’s difficult to break into the infrastructure, there are lots of generous people out there who willingly share expertise, tips, and advice, and much of what the “big guys” know can be scaled down to be very useful for small start-up presses. The second thing, which was kind of disappointing, is that there’s an assumption that publishing “outsiders” deliver substandard quality. Because Rule Bender Press is small, we outsource many of the services larger houses might have on staff. But we only work with established professionals. From my perspective, “small” is often an enabler of quality, not its opponent.
Anyone thinking about starting a publishing business – as opposed to self-publishing, which really does have a different focus and different requirements – should be prepared to invest time, brainpower and money. You can self-publish pretty successfully using many of the free or low-cost tools that are available now, but if your publishing endeavor is going to be a real business you’ll need to treat it like one. That doesn’t mean you’ll need to spend a fortune, but if you’re going to be successfully representing the work you produce, you’ll need to “buy a ticket onto the industry bus”. This means having a budget for professional editors, designers and promotion; attending industry conferences, and putting time into networking. (Not social networking, which has gotten so competitive in terms of grabbing people’s attention, but real networking, where you walk around and shake people’s hands and pretend you’re always that charming.)
And the rewards? I can honestly say that nothing I’ve done professionally has come close to the satisfaction I feel when somebody reaches out to me because they want to tell me what they felt about something Rule Bender Press published. It still feels like a gut punch every time somebody posts a negative comment, and I suppose it always will, but that is nothing compared to the sheer pleasure when a reader talks to me about something we produced as if the characters are someone they know, or tells me something wonderful the book made them feel. I have so many favorite stories readers have shared with me — one told me when she finished Fire In The Henhouse, she went to sleep hugging the book, and another told me he almost got in trouble with his wife until he showed her his dog-eared copy because she didn’t believe him when he said he was in his office reading – it turns out he’d never finished an entire book before. You can’t beat stories like that for giving you a reason to keep going.
What other projects do you have coming up that you want people to know about?
Thanks for asking! I’m currently working on a novel that’s the most challenging thing I’ve written yet because the story itself is so emotionally difficult for me – it’s about a woman who has to find her voice and stand up a controlling, manipulative husband in order to, essentially, stay alive. Like many writers, I begin to live my characters’ lives internally, and I have to find ways to keep my mental distance enough to be fair to all the parties in this story. To me, there’s no point in writing a character, any character, if s/he isn’t sympathetic to some degree. I have to love my villains as well as my heroines. But of course, if you’ve read Death, Madness and a Mess of Dogs, you already know that.
Thank you for stopping by!
Thank you for inviting me!