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An Interview with E.R. Frank

By HOLLY ATKINS
Published February 16, 2004

photo
E.R. Frank

The term "fast-paced" applies not only to the novels of author E.R. "Emily" Frank, but also to her life. Work for the 35-year-old Frank is split between seeing clients in her Manhattan psychotherapy practice and writing realistic fiction for young adults that earns high praise from teens and critics alike.

Life Is Funny, Frank's debut novel, was awarded the Teen People Book Club NEXT Award and appeared on the American Library Association's list of Quick Picks in 2000. Rosie O'Donnell recently bought the film rights to her second novel, America, and last year Frank delivered Friction to teen readers eager for more of the "real stuff" that has become this author's hallmark.

Atkins: I wonder about your dual careers of psychotherapist and writer. Do books play a role in your work as a therapist? Are the characters in your books based on people with whom you've worked?

Frank: All of my characters are complete fiction. Having said that, though, I should add that Life Is Funny and America were inspired and compelled by my experiences working in prisons, day treatment centers, alternatives to incarceration programs, a middle school and an outpatient mental health clinic in Brooklyn. The characters in those books are not based on any one person, but still, I can say that I've met or worked with dozens of Erics over the years, and dozens of Keishas and Americas, etc. . . . Friction was not so connected to my adult social-work experiences, but emerged out of my general interest in human development and human behavior, and by the coming-of-age stories of myself, peers and some clients with whom I've worked.

Each year, I visit a school in Red Bank, N.J. There, groups of students have been given one of my books to read. After they've had a chance to read the book, I facilitate short-term groups for two weeks to a month. We use the books as a jumping-off point to discuss issues the kids grapple with in their lives: sexuality, drugs and alcohol, violence, race, ethnicity, relationships, family and so on.

Atkins: All three of your books are written in the first person - such a powerful way to help the reader feel an immediate connection with the main character. In Life Is Funny you speak in the voice of 11 different teens. How do you do this, and so well?

Frank: You know, I just naturally went to first person in all three of my books. Something I've always believed about myself and my writing is that the one talent I have is "voice." If I'm around people who have an idiosyncratic way of speaking, I "hear" it immediately, am taken with it and find myself using it or writing it. I've had to work hard at the craft of writing and storytelling in all sorts of other areas, but "voice" just comes to me easily. So after spending time with a lot of teens, I can pick up the way they talk. Something in my mind not only allows me to move back and forth between voices, but also thoroughly enjoy doing so. I suspect this is also related to my work as a therapist in that I'm so interested in and delighted by tapping into the unique voices of others.

Atkins: Phrases such as "unsparingly honest" and "savagely honest" have been used to describe your work. While certainly responsible for your tremendous popularity among teen readers, it seems this quality of honesty sets up young-adult authors to face censorship issues. In fact, Life Is Funny is currently under review in Pasco County for possible removal from public high school libraries.

Frank: I'm glad that "unsparing" and "savage" are used to describe the honesty I hope I've conveyed in my books, and I'm glad that such honesty is one aspect of literature that makes it popular to teens. But, I must admit, I'm also aware that sex, drugs and violence seem interesting to most people; sometimes I wonder how popular my books would be, had I deleted all the foul language and edited out the sex! I wasn't aware that Pasco County was thinking about removing (my book) from high school libraries. Life is funny, indeed. My feeling about literature and art and this country is that we can all say whatever we want in whatever we want to, as long as our expressions are not, in and of themselves, a tool with which to carry out imminent physical harm to others. (I'm thinking about terrorism, here, and the possibility that certain verbal communications are potentially commands to commit acts of violence, which I'm not truly worried about but must consider.)

In any case, this freedom of expression is a wonderful thing. So. If an equitably representative group of educators, parents, students and taxpayers in Pasco County have read (Life Is Funny) in its entirety, discussed it with one another and have decided that it will not benefit local high school students to have access to it from local high school libraries, then so be it. I have no beef with that. If, however, a few people in that county have read bits of (my book) and, without formal process and discussion with the community, yank it off the high school shelves, I find that to be reactionary, insulting and a shame. Even, if the latter scenario is the case, I wouldn't lose sleep over it. That's just not the kind of the thing I stew over.

Atkins: "America is a boy who gets lost easy and is not worth the trouble of finding." In your novel, America, this is what the main character imagines is written in his file at the mental health center. The words seem to resonate, though, beyond the description of one boy. Is there a bigger author's message in these sentences?

Frank: When I wrote America, I was writing one boy's story and was not conscious of some greater message. However, after it was completed, it became clear that the part of me who is outraged by how children are treated in our child-welfare and criminal justice systems and by how we continue to neglect assisting and educating adults who need help parenting, was slyly at work in the writing of that book as well. I never write with some political agenda or moral message. I find that approaching literature that way tends to result in a boring and annoying read. I just write from the character(s) within. But I imagine that for many readers, it would be difficult to read America without thinking about larger issues: love, attachment, betrayal, neglect, abuse, survival, our social systems, inequality, etc. If readers do come away from that novel with thoughts of those issues, this is a bonus, from my point of view, but was not planned.

Atkins: Friction deals with the familiar topic of the destructive power of gossip, but also the often-taboo subject of sexual abuse. What do you hope teen readers will take away from this book?

Frank: I didn't write Friction with an agenda, and so I didn't intend for readers to come away from that book with any particular message or lesson. As you've probably picked up by now, what's most important to me is that readers are moved or touched in some way and that when they finish a book, they feel they've been transported into the world of the characters for a short while. Having said that, it seems that many "issues" are indeed embedded in the novel, and now that it's finished, I guess there are a few ideas I find of interest in it and hope readers will find of interest as well: How the older we grow, the more we realize very little is black and white; how what's gray in our lives is so difficult to bear; how the truth eludes us, even when we have the best of intentions; how we are swayed by the confidence of others and by the power of a group; how we end up hurting most the people we may love the best; and how powerful love - all kinds of love, and evil - all kinds of evil, can be. How's that for a few issues? Atkins: When can readers expect a fourth book from E.R. Frank?

Frank: I hope that readers can expect a fourth book by E.R. Frank next year, but no guarantees! I can tell you that a short story called Cousins is currently slated to appear in the magazine for young adults called Rush Hour for fall 2004.

Read a good book? Tell us about it

"We're Talkin' Books Here!" wants you to tell us what you like to read. E-mail us your reviews, including title and author and why you like the book, your first and last name, age, grade and school, to hollysatkins@yahoo.com

Or send them to Holly Atkins, c/o Southside Fundamental Middle School, 1701 10th St. S, St. Petersburg, FL, 33705. Please note: We cannot consider your review for publication without ALL the information above.

[Last modified February 13, 2004, 14:23:00]

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