writer interview with Emily Franklin
Opal Literary: Discuss your journey to becoming a writer, including any tips for those considering it as a career path. Emily Franklin: I started writing at a very young age, publishing my first poem in high school. When I arrived at Sarah Lawrence College, I worked with Tom Lux who helped guide me in my college years. I always thought I would become a poet – after I graduated, I started at Columbia for my MFA. However, right before classes started, I felt that I needed to go out and experience life so I didn’t end up writing about students and writing classes. I also felt the MFA program was limiting in that I wanted to write screenplays and try short stories. I had a series of jobs: teacher, construction worker, cook. Then I went back for my MA at Dartmouth. The main advice I have is to keep going. And to separate the act of writing from the business of publishing. One feeds the soul and the other can suck the life right out of it. I scraped together freelance jobs and always wrote on the side. Opal: When I was a teenager, I read several YA books that I still think about and arguably shaped who I am today. Why did you become interested in writing YA books and were there any authors/titles specifically that have inspired you? Emily: After my first novel was published (Liner Notes, for adults), an editor at Penguin asked me if I had ever considered writing for a teenage audience. My experience is that whenever anybody approaches you about ideas that could lead to a job, you say yes, so I pitched a young adult series. I also am very much in touch with my former teenage self and I’m now a parent to four young adults. Writing for the YA audience is important and can provide solace and insight for both teenage readers and adults alike. Opal: You write poetry, YA novels, and adult short story collections (and recipes!) -- seemingly disparate genres. How do you switch from each mode of writing to the other? What tips do you have for other writers who wish to transcend one genre? Emily: As I mentioned, I started off writing poetry. When I returned to graduate school I felt I didn't want to only write poetry – I turned to screenplays and short stories. And once I had an idea for a novel, I sort of left poetry behind. A few years ago, I began to notice lines or ideas for poems popping up again, so I wrote them down. Then there were more and I wrote those down too. Soon enough I had a whole collection. In terms of writing in multiple genres, I don’t know any other way. Some ideas come to me and they are obviously short stories. Other times I have to tease out whether a novel is a Young Adult story or better as a teen TV series pilot. My next novel is set in Boston in the late 1800s and based on the life of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Turning back to poetry has been wonderful. I love expressing the feeling in a poem in as few words as possible, paying attention to line breaks and each word in a way that is much more difficult in a 400-page novel. There is great solace to be found in poetry, and this is a perfect time for both comfort and action. Opal: Your work has been described as making ordinary things seem extraordinary. Talk about your interest in the everyday/mundanity and why it can be such a rich topic for writers. Emily: I have never been someone who dreams of other worlds. This planet and the people here hold all the magic and cruelty and beauty and wonder I could ever need for inspiration. When Alice Munro first started writing short stories, a Canadian paper wrote a profile on her with a headline that read something along the lines of “housewife finds time for short stories.” For so long women have been marginalized as domestic writers, when in fact almost everyone’s life is centered on the domestic and the ordinary. I’ve always felt that writers who can describe daily objects as beautiful and significant in their ordinariness are doing the reader a service. The story does not have to contain high concept situations in order to be meaningful or gripping. I think I strive to find the extraordinary in a seemingly normal situation or in people who are ordinary coming together under extraordinary circumstances. Opal: Talk about how your identity, specifically as a Jewish woman, informs and enriches your work. Emily: I am interested in identity – cultural, religious, familial. In my poems, I am writing from where I am now, which is four decades of being a daughter and a sister, a couple of decades as a mother, a few more as a married person. In those roles it is easy to leave behind the prior self, to somehow become the role of mother but forget who else is in there. And then – ideally – the kids grow and are shared with the world, and then they're out there in it… and who are you now? I come from a family of examiners: I was taught to look deeply at the world, its inhabitants both lovely and cruel, and to dig deep into who I am, who I want to be, and how to put good back into the world. So I think my poems reflect the seriousness with which I take my roles, and perhaps I’m asking the reader to consider the role of the poem in their lives, too. One of my favorite parts of Judaism is the deep-rooted rituals which are often so ingrained we might not think of them as being Jewish, but which upon reflection are easily identifiable. I write about this in the poem “How the Jews Say Good-Bye,” which is really about how Passover dinners or family brunches have all this time to unfold, but then the goodbye is the longest part. Everyone all bundled up, holding leftovers, but only now engaging in the conversation we wanted to have earlier. A mix of humor and sadness, which is also part of Judaism. Another part of Judaism I'm grateful for is the life-death cycle – the ceremonies, the circles, the warmth and matter-of-factness. “The Passover Table” (and another poem called “A Cure for Grief”) was a way to write about the gatherings around the table as a way to not only celebrate the holidays and remember our collective pasts, but also the losses (or gains) a family might have within a given year. The poems speak to the continual presence of the past in my life, in my Jewish life. In order to fully understand the now and to improve the future, the past is crucial. Opal: As fellow Sarah Lawrence alumnae, we'd love to hear about your experience as an undergraduate there. You also later went to Dartmouth for your MA -- can you compare the experiences and give any advice for writers wishing to apply to MFA/MA programs? Emily: SLC was an important part of my writing journey. Aside from Tom, I worked with Kimiko Hahn, Mark Doty, and others who really helped me look at my work with a critical eye. My nephew, also a writer, was just accepted to SLC for this fall and I am excited for his path there. Obviously, Dartmouth and Sarah Lawrence are far apart in terms of the feel, setting, and social structure. I went to Dartmouth because I wanted the rural setting that helped my writing life to be a part of my daily routine, and also because of its similarities with Sarah Lawrence in terms of one-on-one access to professors. The student loans for graduate programs were significant, and I think there are more options now for funded creative writing PhD’s or low-residency programs to help those who have jobs and families. I do not think a graduate degree is necessary for writing and publishing, but the sense of community and time spent on task can be important. Opal: You also have a recipe blog called The Well-Cooked Life. What have been your favorite things to bake/cook during the pandemic? Emily: My Well-Cooked Life blog is static (the recipes are still accessible), but as I used to be a chef and had a memoir/cookbook published a while ago, I do return to cooking mainly to provide others with comfort and help. The pandemic has re-invigorated my deep and abiding love for fried rice. I am a fan of Nishiki brand. I make a big pot of it so I can then crisp it up in the skillet with vegetables and any bits of leftover things we have along with eggs from my uncle’s farm. Makes for a very nice lunch or dinner and stretches the budget.