Interview with Patti Frazee


_Patti Frazee’s novel,_ Cirkus, _was published by Alyson Press last month. See her website at for more information. This interview is reprinted from the June 2006 issue of_ Minnesota Literature.

*ML:* What in the world gave you the idea for _Cirkus_?

*Frazee:* I was taking a playwriting class at Hamline with Judith Katz, and we had this assignment where we were supposed to write a series of monologues where two characters had a shared experience, but they had different perspectives on what that experience was. I started wondering: What if two characters shared a dream? The night before class, I dreamed that a pair of conjoined twins were having a dream, and one of the twins was telling me the dream while I watched it unfold. When I got up in the morning I quickly wrote up the dream as the twin had related it to me: the twins were being raped by a circus ringmaster. I wrote a monologue for the other twin, for the opposing view, in which she romanticizes this whole experience—to her the ringmaster was a lover who came to visit them in the middle of the night. Judith told me to stay with the project. I spent about a year and a half making it into a play, and then I took Mary Rockcastle’s advanced fiction class at Hamline and tried it as a chapter, and it became clear that this story was meant to be a book, it wasn’t going to work,
logistically, as a play.

*ML:* Who was your favorite character?

*Frazee:* Mariana was really the most intriguing and fun character to write. I always had compassion for her, but sometimes she was so mean, and so conniving. It all came from her hurt. I wanted her to be complex.

*ML:* You did a lot of research for this book, partly on Mariana’s Gypsy, or Romany, background.

*Frazee:* When I was growing up in Fremont, Nebraska, the Gypsies used to come through once a year, out at the lakes. They’d camp out and come into town and go to the grocery store, and it would be a seriously big DEAL that the Gypsies were in town. It was totally, “The Gypsies are here! The Gypsies are here!” I was cashiering at a grocery store, and I was told, “Don’t let them distract you. Just focus on counting the money out. Don’t let them interrupt you—that’s one of their tricks!” I was always fascinated by them. I don’t know why I thought that Mariana was a Romany woman, but I wanted to write that Romany side as respectfully as I could. That’s why I did a lot of research. I feel like I am still learning about the culture. I did throw some magical realism into her character, and I struggled with it, at times, because I didn’t want Mariana to be a stereotype. I talked to a Native American author about writing about people of color, and trying not to make use of someone’s culture or stereotypes about that culture. She told me that if I had written a fully developed character, that was all I needed to do to be respectful to this person’s background. People might get upset about it, but I’ve done my job as a writer, and I can’t worry about it anymore.

*ML:* How did your other research affect the work?

*Frazee:* I did research at the Circus World Museum at Baraboo, Wisconsin. When I talked to them about Mariana, who is the Gypsy fortuneteller, they assured me that having a Gypsy fortuneteller in a 1900 circus would be unheard of, unless it was a really, really sleazy circus. Gypsies were the outcasts of the circus world. So I was afraid that I would have to scrap Mariana—I just felt like she was a Gypsy, I didn’t want to take that away from her. And then I thought, why am I racking my brains over this? I’m going to give this problem to Mariana. And so in the book, Mariana gets moved from the circus tent to the side show, and you get to see her play that out.

Also, they told me that in the 1900s there wasn’t any ringmaster. There was just a manager, who stood to the side and kept things moving. At that point in my writing process, I had this ringmaster character who had no name, and he was this dark character who was not really very developed—he was just this one-dimensional, evil man, like a shadow. The minute I found out there could be no ringmaster, I had to let that character go, and I created this character Jakub, and made him the manager of the circus. Jakub became a full character, multidimensional and capable of changing the story.

*ML:* _Cirkus_ is a book largely set in Nebraska—do you feel like a Midwestern writer?

*Frazee:* I definitely have my Midwestern roots. I don’t think I’ll ever write too much that is set outside Nebraska. It was such a part of my life, and my inner struggle. It still is. There’s nothing like a Nebraska sunset, to me. But I have a love/hate relationship with it. Had it been a different cultural climate, I might have stayed. I did read Willa Cather while I was working on _Cirkus_, just because she was writing in the time I set the circus. And I definitely can relate to her, as a person. Here’s this fiery woman, who wore men’s suits to classes at the University of Nebraska in her freshman year. There are pictures of her, and she was very butch! So was her girlfriend, who also dressed as a man. I definitely relate to her as a lesbian author.

*ML:* _Cirkus_ was published by Alyson Book, a self-described publisher of books of interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered readers. Do you feel like this is going to be limiting in terms of your readership?

*Frazee:* One of the goals that Alyson has is that this is going to be a cross-marketed book—it’s not just a gay and lesbian book or a book written by a lesbian. It’s a book that speaks to being human, and so they are definitely not marketing it as gay and lesbian fiction, they’re trying to reach a broader market. Alyson was the best press to go with. Some of the rejections we got with the other houses said that they loved the book, but they didn’t know how to market it, they didn’t know what to do with it. Alyson was thrilled, because they’d been looking for a mass market book. They saw it as an opportunity, where other publishers saw it as a problem.

*ML:* Are you working on a new project?

*Frazee:* Yes! The new project is titled Out of Harmony. It’s a coming-of -age/coming-out story set in the fictitious town of Harmony, Nebraska. The narrator is Alison Bouchard, who is looking back on a time of her life where she began to question her sexual identity. As a teenager, Alison escapes her poor Midwestern life by creating stories… stories that include how her family lives in the Garden District in New Orleans, stories about a long-lost relative who leaves France to find freedom in New Orleans. All the while, the teenage Alison is brought back to reality by a new friend, Jude, a girl who has left her home to live on the streets rather than suffer the abuse inflicted by her father.

*ML:* Does the reality of being a writer live up to your expectations?

*Frazee:* It’s more than I thought it was going to be. When you dream of being a writer, you don’t think about the extra stuff that comes with it. I like teaching, for example, and I love doing public readings. I’ve been able to put my theater background to use, and my administrative skills. The writing gave this self-confidence that I’d never experienced in my life, not even in my theater work. I think it’s because I am finally doing the right thing. It’s better than I ever expected.

_Lucy Vilankulu lives in Linden Hills, where there are bunnies in the backyard, and unfortunately for the bunnies, a hawk. She is editor of_ Minnesota Literature.