Interview with Betsy Phillips, author of “Frank”6 min read
Stephanie Jacob: When we first start reading “Frank” there is a sense of normalcy. But in a few paragraphs we are given our first indication that this story is far from normal. “I could drive on out of here and be so far gone by the time he got back he’d never be able to find me.” I don’t say nothing. If she runs, I’ll have to bring her back. She can’t be hid enough that I can’t find her.” Can you describe how the idea for the story was developed? Do you begin with a basic idea for a plot or begin with a character that begs to be written?
Betsy Phillips: “Frank” started simply enough. I wanted to try to write from the perspective of a man, to spend some time imagining what it would be like to have a male body, just to see if I could write about an experience I’ll never have and have it seem plausible. I didn’t expect to write more than the scene of Frank teaching the woman to drive–that was actually the thing that begged to be written, her sitting behind the wheel, the sun catching the fine hairs on her legs, Frank just watching her, not sure what to make of her.–but then I realized, as much as Frank wanted to be okay and normal, there was something not quite right about him. Why, for instance, was he speaking in the present tense? I had to keep writing to see what it was that was so strange about him, and to figure out what Frank was doing on that ranch. I was about halfway through my first draft when I realized he was a zombie, that the doc was like Wade Davis, who wrote The Serpent and the Rainbow, if Wade Davis had gone bad (It’s really a wonder Wade Davis hasn’t gone bad, if you think about it. The line between “How does that guy create a zombie?” and “How do I create a zombie?” has got to be very thin and the temptation to cross it pretty strong once you know how to do it.).
So, once I figured out that Frank was a zombie, it seemed obvious that he, even if he didn’t know it, was the one in need of rescuing. That made it clear who was there to do the rescuing. And that’s how the story came to be.
SJ: “Frank” is a layered and complex story that leaves readers wanting more. Have you ever written short fiction and later decided to bring back the characters for a longer piece.
BP: Thanks. I do hope people like the story.
I’ve written some about the Devil in short stories and he plays a major role in the manuscript I’m working on, but I’m not sure that counts, since he’s always, in part, just who the other characters need him to be.
As for Frank, I do wonder how a person moves on from that. If he became more like his old self again, would he consider himself to be a kidnapper and murderer? Even if, intellectually, he understood that he was under the Doc’s control, how does a person with a conscience live with the terrible things he’s done? Of course, these aren’t questions unique to ex-zombie henchmen, but part of what makes fantasy and horror work is that it lets you shine a light into one part of the truth without getting bogged down by the other parts. We can wonder about how Frank might come out of this because we’re not in fear of him maybe continuing to kill actual women or worried about whether he should be in prison.
SJ: My favorite line is, “Our memories are like our own private ghosts,” she says. “We’re all haunted by our lives. By the past.” I think everyone can identify with the idea that our ghosts are ever present. Do you think Frank will ever be free from his past?
BP: I hope not. Part of what makes what the doc has done to Frank so horrible, I think, is that he’s stolen his past from him. When we meet Frank, he’s got no history before being pulled out of his grave that he can count on. Everything from who he is to why he’s there to the fact that he has a family he needs to wire part of his paycheck to is all made up, lies the doc told him to cover up what had been done to him and taken from him.
The past can be a terrible place, but it’s yours, you know? You need it to know who you are. I think that, as terrible as what Frank has done and what he’s been through is, he would not want to be free of it, because being freed of his past is what led him to these circumstances.
SJ: “Frank” is a dark, macabre story that readers will find unsettling. Underneath the darkness is an emotional love story with a character willing to sacrifice everything to regain that love. What do you hope readers take away from this story?
BP: I hope readers will take from “Frank” a lesson about the perils of a career in academia–not only is there massive student loan debt, but you have creepy colleagues, travel to hot and uncomfortable places, the necessity of rescuing your husband from zombification, and the possibility that you might kill him. Is it really worth it? Ha, no. I don’t really think “Frank” has some great moral. I just hope it’s the kind of story that sticks with people.
I don’t think what Frank’s wife does is really that unusual. Well, it’s unusual that she gets to do it, but what person with a spouse suffering from, say, Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia, doesn’t fantasize about the ways she might relieve her loved one’s condition? And if it were as simple as three magic beans and a little mortal danger? A lot of people would risk that.
On the one hand, Frank and his wife are in really unusual circumstances. None of us are ever going to try to rescue our husbands from zombie-henchmanship. But we all have to face the prospect of living with things we wish we hadn’t done. And many of us are going to have to live with a loved one whose personality changes and whose memory goes. I think that’s part of what makes this such a sad story. It’s not so hard to imagine yourself in similar circumstances.
SJ: How long have you been writing on a professional level? What appeals to you about short fiction?
BP: Well, that depends on your definition of “professional” doesn’t it? I had a piece of fiction appear in Qarrtsiluni last year and I self-published a book of made-up ghost stories about Nashville called A City of Ghosts which some of my friends and most of my family really liked. But in terms of submitting my work and having it make its way through the slush pile and result in a check? I’ve been writing fiction professionally since you guys decided to publish “Frank.” So, that’s very exciting!
The Nashville Scene pays me to blog for them, though, so I’ve been writing professionally in that context for a couple of years now.
What appeals to me about short fiction is that you can get to the heart of the matter quickly. Also, I like that I, as a writer, get to put a lot of trust in my readers. In a novel, I would spell out exactly how we got to this place and why. But, with a short piece, I trust that you will see the fragments I’ve left and fill in the spaces. That delights me, getting to write something that requires your creative collaboration as a reader. I hope that’s an enjoyable experience for the reader as well.
SJ: For future readers of “Frank”, sum up what to expect in one sentence.
BP: An evil doctor’s zombie henchman teaches a woman to drive stick.
SJ: Thanks for being such a great guest! Where can we go to learn more about you and your works?
BP: Thanks for having me. This whole thing has been a real delight. To learn more about me, you can go to my blog, Tiny Cat Pants (www.tinycatpants.com) or follow me on Twitter @auntb.