BookView Interview with Author Frances Terry Fischer

Welcome to BookView Interview, a conversation series where BookView talks to authors.

Recently, we interviewed Frances Terry Fischer, about her writing and her debut memoir, My Northeast Passage – Hope, Hassles and Danes (read the review here).

Frances Terry Fischer moved to Denmark in 1973 from Tucson, Arizona, with an M.A. in literature from the University of Arizona. She has worked at many jobs, among them teaching English to Danes and Danish to immigrants. Favorite: project manager for Denmark’s Europe House, where she co-wrote a study book about the EU. Last: head of communications at the local volunteer/self-help center. Still writing and translating, with articles and short stories published in Danish, but her book debut is also her literary debut in her native language. Frances lives in Svendborg with her Danish husband. She has four children and four grandchildren.

Find out more at frantfischer.com.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Will you comment on my character if I recall a few fibs to get me out of trouble? I was good at that. Of course, I’ve always been a word person and a talker, bossy too. I couldn’t have been more than five when half a dozen of us kids were talking about our favorite potatoes once after Christmas and I corrected “um … the real squishy ones” with “that’s mashed potatoes” in a tone that indicated I didn’t believe she just said that, and the others clearly felt they better make like they knew that too – whew! I’m sure I got a bit of a rush.

What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

Have we got 3 hours for this one? It’s every writer’s treasure trove, isn’t it? Favorite books and authors, starting way back when you first learn to read. I thought it was so cool that the author of The Secret Garden, my favorite childhood book, was named Frances. I got that one from my mother and later both T.H. White and Mary Stewart’s wonderful Arthurian legend books. I did the same with my daughter with the same result, even though our reading habits have diverged a good bit since then. But really gratifying to get started at home.

My names, there’s a Terry too – Pratchett. Besides being a brilliant humorist and thinker-upper of plots, Pratchett has no illusions about the failings and foibles of humankind, but he is always benevolent; there are really no villains in his books and actually, I try to emulate that. His endless curiosity led him to collaborate on several books of science fiction that I haven’t read because Pratchett on his own invented the Discworld and I go there again and again. He also writes about writing in A Slip of the Keyboard and I nodded agreement all the way through, but nothing beats visiting the Discworld. Up there in the literary oversoul – I love to imagine it – Shakespeare shakes with soulbelly laughs when Sean Ogg, the witch’s son, delivers his version of Henry V’s speech to the troops, and ends it with, “Um … please?” I am also a loyal Shakespeare fan and that makes it even better when Terry Pratchett works him in or “rips him off” or whatever you want to call it. It’s completely brilliant.

Harold Bloom writes about writing too, but mostly about reading – the title How to Read and Why leaves you in no doubt and it’s brilliant, as is his book Shakespeare – the Invention of the Modern. I love books about books and ideas as much as I love novels.

And back to novels, Toni Morrison not only moves me, she wrings my heart – mine and several million others. You can never ever tell yourself, “Oh, it’s just a novel”, when you read her historical fiction and you just can’t forget it. I mean, talk about raising consciousness and just through seemingly simple reactions, such as when an old woman who’s almost bent double after a whole life enslaved suddenly feels her back straighten up, with no effort from her and completely unexpected because she did not think she could feel anymore; it just happens as she passes from a slave state into a free state. That scene – early on in Beloved – is simply unforgettable, even though I can’t remember the old woman’s name here and now.  

A.S. Byatt’s book Possession inspired me too, very strongly, but purely for writing, because she constructed this fantastic literary mystery, so even if she couldn’t quite pull off the Robert Browning-style poetry, I thought how I would totally love to write such a thing, literature about literature and life and even some pointed comments on academics – but her other books have never interested me.

Maeve Binchy and Anne Tyler are more, I don’t know, recognizable? They read like you know the people and some of them might even remind you of yourself and it looks so easy. Uh huh. I think at first Anne Tyler was referred to as a housewife who writes. Do you believe it? And do you think it was positively meant? Exactly because she makes it look easy and I know how hard that is, writers know.   

Virginia Woolf kind of belongs here, too. You know, her subjects are the near people, places and things in her own world; I imagine her prose sounds just as she talked. It is earthbound, tender, beautifully phrased, truly a stream of consciousness. Every writer needs A Room of One’s Own, how much more so back then when women were not encouraged to find their voice. I guess my favorite is her last book, Between the Acts.

And I will just mention Selma Lagerlöf, who is Swedish and in fact the first woman to win the Nobel Prize way back in 1909. I had some humble good fun ‘adapting’ her short story The Holy Night as a Christmas play for third graders. One of my major successes. Selma Lagerlöf writes both short stories – legends, she called them – plus longer novels, serious tone. Her writing moves me in much the same way as Virginia Woolf. I only discovered her after several years in Denmark, when my Danish was good enough to read her in a language close to the original. What a gift. So I will stop there or you won’t even make it home for dinner.

Who and what ultimately inspired you to write your memoir?

What a good question. I think I started just because I can’t not write, always scribbling away on something or other, and then it was also a kind of diary or morning pages or whatever. When I moved to Denmark letters were like my diary, because I’ve never kept one but always thought I wanted to – only not enough to actually do it, obviously. I wrote reams of letters, but then I sent them away. I also use writing, mainly short stories, to process conflicts or … I don’t know … feelings of guilt or ambivalence, very often family-related, so I guess it just grew from that and then kept following me and finally I could not let it go until it was finished. Also – sappy as it sounds – there’s a whole lot of love in there, both to Denmark and Thomas and of course our family, but no less my American friends who stayed so loyal even when they didn’t really get what in the world I was up to and where my head might be. It just took on a life of its own and that is absolutely not original, but a book will do that, you know. It’s amazing. Then I saw Atmosphere’s call for manuscripts and off it went and here we are. Completely amazing – author debut at 3/4 century.

What do you find challenging about the memoir genre that you don’t struggle with when you write short stories? Do you prefer one genre over the other?

Well, exactly that it IS memoir. You know, back in 1929 Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward, Angel and it was a huge hit that we all had to read at the uni – I loved it – but the sequel’s called You Can’t Go Home Again and there it is. I guess it can also be tempting to edit your memories, maybe make yourself look better, but I didn’t feel that was a problem – hope not, anyway. It was really that there are no villains in my memoir, even though of course there are people who don’t agree and relationships that don’t work out, but I would be terribly sorry if any of the characters felt hurt or negatively exposed or slighted because that wouldn’t be fair. That said, a memoir is a true story – so hit the balance as best you can. You might leave something and someone out – you have to, no? I was amazed mine grew to over 400 pages, but I really tried to tell the straight story and I’m quite sure all memoirists do.

So short stories in that way are both easier and harder, because you have to think up a good story with convincing characters but it can be whatever you want it to be. Some of the scenes in My Northeast Passage are almost short stories on their own and I am thinking of a “sequel” that will keep a couple of the same characters but in a fictional frame, with episodic, loosely-related short stories under the same umbrella. That sounds like pots of fun to me. Every memoir writer I have ever seen interviewed – including Knausgaard, who rambled on and on and on through 6 volumes – says they are now really looking forward to getting out of their own head and writing about something else. So – I have written one and only memoir, now it’s back to stories for fun and challenge.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a writer?

Hmmm – maybe now just the purely physical-geographical challenge of living in one country but writing for another, so to speak. I don’t think I would ever feel like a ‘real’ author until I wrote a book in my native language that came out in my native country. Maybe there will be a Danish version but that’s irrelevant. I love Denmark, as anyone who has read My Northeast Passage will know, but my citizenship is on my US passport.

 After the writing’s finished, how do you judge the quality of your work?

Yes, how? Probably because I’ve been at it so long, but definitely also because friends and writing group and US women’s club have been so generous to read and give good comments over the years. And not least because I’m a reader who by now can judge what’s good and not so good about other writers and can bring that into my own writing. I guess. It’s still a good question. I can’t give a proper answer – sorry.

Has this memoir changed drastically as you created it?

Oh yes! Or rather – it has become a memoir. Of course, my own story – both as me and as an American in Europe – was always the framework, but it was off in 16 other directions. I wrote a “first chapter” where I’m a tourist and meet someone very like my husband, only we’re the same age, fall in love but lose touch and then I try to find him again when I move to Denmark. That’s how I meet – only telephoning – a charming older man who becomes a kind of touchstone in times of doubt or resignation and I become a bridge to a happy memory from his past. All great fun to write, but ultimately I am not at all sure it would have worked in the story. Maybe if I write that fictive “sequel” I will give him another chance.

Which scene or chapter in the book is your favorite? Why?

Surprisingly, I think it’s the beginning. I didn’t expect that. But I guess exactly because such strong feelings were involved, a whole new reality with no guidelines, lots of possibilities but also loss and sorrow all mixed together – I could feel the whole spectrum and it seemed convincing. Of course, I couldn’t judge that as I wrote – only in the finished story.

How did you decide on this title?

Really hard to say; it was about the fifth compromise. Other titles I’d had in mind were either misleading or just cryptic. This is in no way poetic or literary, but the reader knows what’s up. And that’s it.

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