Francine Witte’s poetry and fiction have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, Mid-American Review, Passages North, and many others. Her latest books are Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press,) The Way of the Wind (AdHoc fiction,) and (The Theory of Flesh.) Her chapbook, The Cake, The Smoke, The Moon (flash fiction) will be published by ELJ September, 2021. She lives in NYC.
Interview by Leonora Desar
So, we were talking a bit by email about writing and its elusive nature. Can you tell me a bit about that? About your relationship with craft and why we will Not. Go. There.
To me, the process of writing is a soap bubble. You love how it floats, reflects the light, dances through the air, but if you try to grab it, it pops. Poof! For me, I don’t like to think about HOW I write. I am often afraid if I try to analyze what I did in a particular story or poem, it would be like trying to grab at the bubble and it would disappear. Also, I don’t always know exactly what I did. I’m also often surprised when I read a review of my books, how people see things in them that I didn’t even realize I was doing. I like the idea of being surprised by what I do.
Since we are NOT going to discuss craft, we are going to discuss fun stuff. You live in Manhattan. Have you ever had a celebrity sighting? Al (Kratz) told me I should ask you about Bowie. And I told him that if you’d met Bowie, I’d die of envy, so be careful what you say.
In NYC, you are bound to see celebrities every now and then. My biggest thrill was walking up Madison Avenue and there was Paul McCartney walking towards me. I was aflutter for hours. I’ve also been in the same room as John Lennon and Yoko Ono. It was in the Oak Room at the Plaza. A group of my friends and I rented out a room for a New Year’s Eve party, and J and Y were there at breakfast. That was cool. But McCartney was better.
I never met Bowie, but I did see him in Concert at Madison Square Garden.
Oh, and really my biggest brush with fame was with Stan Lee. I worked as a receptionist at Marvel Comics and at Stan’s request, sat in for his vacationing secretary for two weeks. Nicest man ever.
And what is Manhattan like now? How does it feel post-COVID? You posted some photos on FB awhile back where it looked emptier, but not desolate. I wish I had a portal so I could visit you and we could shout at each other, from a more reasonable distance.
Manhattan is quieter for sure. But there is still activity. It will be back once people get vaccinated and things open up. That portal sounds awesome.
Technically this is not a craft question, or a process question, but it might be stepping a little close, so let me know if I should take it down a notch. Where do you write? Do you have a particular spot or a song that you listen to or a time of day? Do you wave to the ghost of Bowie across the street?
The where and when of my writing are very constant. I write nearly every day for a half hour. That’s it. After that, my creative mojo kind of disappears. A half hour doesn’t sound like much, but if you do it every day, it really adds up. I usually get up, have breakfast, exercise for half an hour and then write for half an hour. This usually takes me to lunch time. After lunch, I can do the less creative writerly things I do, such as reading other writers’ stories, reading for journals, submitting, correspondence, etc.) I do all of this on my laptop on my bed. I don’t work well at a desk.
If you could meet a celebrity, living or dead or in the in-between, who would it be? What would you ask them? You have thirty seconds. Go.
I’d like to meet James Dean. I’d ask him what it felt like to be him. So cool and all.
Let’s talk about seating charts. You wrote a magical story that was in Cobra Milk, where you made a seating chart of life events. Now I am going to ask you to do something more mundane. It’s the end of COVID, and you get an email: Dear Francine, this is not the time for introversion (sorry). I will pay you five million dollars to throw a dinner party, and I’ll throw in the food, too. The only thing YOU have to do is come up with the seating chart. So who will it be (living or dead or Bowie)?
Okay ten seats. Head of the table is me. Foot of the table is Shakespeare. On the right side, Seat one (next to me) is John Garfield, Seat two, Patty Duke, Seat three, Tennessee Williams, Seat four, Bette Davis, Left side: Seat one, Ernest Hemingway, Seat two, Sylvia Plath, Seat three, Edward G. Robinson, Seat four, Frances McDormand.
“Meta” originally appeared in The Cabinet of Heed, this past January, 2021.
Meta by Francine Witte
I am watching myself. From way over here.
Look at me. Ridiculous. I’m nothing but a bad Rom Com. I would walk out if I could.
This one’s name is Harry. Whatever. I’ll have to forget it soon enough.
You take my Mom, for example. She knew a good over when she saw it. First oof of another woman on my father’s collar and she was off like bam! Left the baked beans boiling in a pot.
Harry is giving me flowers. Look at me, softening, my shoulders relaxing, my sniffer going numb. I am watching how I don’t see him pull out his phone, texting texting. Who is he texting?
My mother told me not to look in the mirror. She said I wasn’t pretty and she didn’t want me telling this to myself every day. I asked her if I looked more like her or my father. You look like a heartache is all she said.
Soon after she said that, I saw myself in a store glass. It was only an outline, but enough to see that I didn’t look like a heartache, even though I wasn’t sure what that meant. I went inside the store. I bought my mother cigarettes like she asked and went home. I was going to tell her she was wrong about the heartache thing. I wanted to tell her. I would tell her. Someday I would watch myself tell her.
Even from here, I see how bored Harry is. I see myself sensing this and so I do what I always do. I ask and ask. He says nothing and nothing. I say I made blueberry pie. It’s your favorite, right? Harry going stabby and pushing the pie around the plate and then oops! Emergency. Gotta go, he says. Harry sells paper goods. I wonder what a paper emergency would be. The me I am watching is wondering that. The me over here knows better.
My Mom knew better. Not about my dad, though. Yes, she left him, left us, as soon as she saw the other woman on his collar but there was so much before. I saw it. Saw it when he drove me over to soccer practice and he leaned in too close to our coach, Miss Williams. And another time, and the time before that. My father never seeing how I was watching.
I watched my father die in the hospital. Car crash. Texting and took his eyes off the road. I called my mother to tell her. She had given me her number for emergencies. Your father’s death, she said, is not an emergency.
Harry is gone now. I look at the space he left behind. I look at how I smell the flowers and stroke the flowers waiting for them to come alive and give me love. I watch how patient I can be. I look at those flowers even as I wash the dishes, scrub blueberry off the dessert plates. I walk by the hallway mirror, quick glance at the tracks of mascara on my cheeks. Then even closer. I am watching myself watching myself. I hear my mother in my head, don’t look, don’t look, she is saying. I turn away and grab a bottle of wine.
It’s later that night and I watch myself sleeping. I look at the empty bottle of wine by my bed. I watch how I fell asleep in my clothes, my makeup still on. I look at how I’m clutching two of the carnations from the bouquet Harry left me. I get this way about the things men give me, that their touch is still on them, that their breath is still on them and how that is the only part of them I will ever really have.
My mother was right, I do look like a heartache.
I crawl into the bed next to myself. I listen to the drunken whisper of my own sleep. I crawl back into myself through a dream. A simple one about mothers and flowers and fathers and blueberry. When I wake in the morning, I won’t check my phone to see if Harry has called, but instead I will walk myself over to the mirror. I will look at myself now through my own eyes and when I start to shy from my reflection, I will turn my face forward, and hold it there if I have to in my own invisible hands.