Tottenville Review

Interview with Margaux Fragoso

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Fragoso plumbs the depths of the human condition with her first book, Tiger, Tiger. It has stopped people in their tracks; readers have been outraged by the portrayal of a perpetrator, a pedophile. She has shown us, through the eyes of her child-self, how human a pedophile truly is.

Seven-year-old Margaux Fragoso first encounters fifty-one-year-old Peter Curran on a hot, summer day at the community pool. Lured into his exotic world of pets and gardens, the reader is taken on a journey, one that scrutinizes the psyche of both victim and perpetrator. So starts the slow seduction of a little girl by this man.

Told without a veil separating the reader from the story, Fragoso’s language is tantalizing and visceral. Undoubtedly painful, inherently suspenseful, and convincing, this gut-wrenching memoir promises a story of a woman who succesfully reclaims her life.

–Krystal Anada Sital

INTERVIEWER

As a poet and fiction writer, how did you decide to write a memoir?

MARGAUX FRAGOSO

I think I came to it in the way other writers do; it’s just natural for the writer to want to examine her own self and life. In the past most writers published their autobiographies as fiction and now it’s the opposite. I found that writing your autobiography frees your mind to become immersed in fictional work. All writers still have the choice whether to publish their autobiography as memoir or fiction: it’s a personal decision. If you publish a book as a memoir, it gives people with similar experiences the chance to relate on a deeper level. But there are all kinds of personal factors for writers to consider. Writing a memoir for revenge is a bad idea on a personal level but it’s also artistically unwise because good art is always fair.

Memoir has got to be the most delicate genre in the sense that it has the greatest potential to hurt real-life people. It can also do society immense good because we can learn from true stories. All these things have to be weighed in when deciding how to publish an autobiography and it’s also important to remember that portraying undisguised real people unfavorably in novels can also lead to feuds, lawsuits, or at the very least, hurt feelings. In both genres it’s an important practice to thoroughly disguise any characters that are based on real people when you work on the final version that’s about to be published. Because once it’s out there as a book, you have absolutely no control. The good news is you get a lot of chances. You go through five or six rounds of edits in the pre-publication stage. It was a year-and-a-half’s worth of time between signing the contract for Tiger, Tiger and seeing it come out in print.

INTERVIEWER

How long did it take you to write Tiger, Tiger?

MARGAUX FRAGOSO

It took me eight years, on and off. I was working on other projects in between. I did a rough draft first, and later on, I worked with an outline. I studied the structure of other books. I used my own journals and photos to be as accurate as I could; also, I took walks in the areas where I’d grown up both to write down details and to evoke memories. Memories don’t come in order so I wrote a rough initial draft with many of the events out of order. Later, I sat with the early draft in front of me and worked on another draft. I decided that the structure I would choose was to begin at the end so the reader is curious to find out how it all happened. I remember I was up at four in the morning writing that prologue; to me, that time is great for writing. It’s like the witching hour. Some readers wonder if Tiger, Tiger must have been terribly painful for me to write; actually working on it was a joy.  Living something and writing something aren’t the same thing. There’s immense pleasure found in just telling the truth and making art out of something, anything, even negative life events.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said that memories do not come in order. As a memoir writer myself, I agree wholeheartedly. What was your process like in Tiger, Tiger when it came to ordering the narrative? Did you find yourself leaning more to chronology or representing memories in association to one another?

MARGAUX FRAGOSO

Memories tend to come in association to one another so I’ve found it’s important to write a rough first draft and then structure it later. I started my book at the end: meaning all the the major events had already happened. I was 22 in the prologue. Chapter 1 was me at six with my family before my life was irrevocably altered by a random meeting at a swimming pool. With the exception of the prologue, I made it so the narrative’s events proceeded in a chronological fashion. I thought this was the most compelling way to tell my particular story because I basically go from an innocent, imaginative child to a severely depressed and isolated teenager. It’s important for the narrative to show that dramatic progression and the linear narrative worked well for that purpose.

INTERVIEWER

How did you envision this book in the beginning? And in the end was it drastically different from its roots?

MARGAUX FRAGOSO

Beginning the story at the end was an intentional structural decision that I made in a later draft of my memoir. My hope was that the reader wants to find out how this could possibly happen and keeps reading in order to answer that question. I myself wanted the answer. If the reader keeps going, then we’re on a journey together to figure that out.

As far as having a specific vision when I started the first draft, the reality is I had no idea what I was doing. I was completely clueless. When I was a kid, I used to play The Legend of Zelda, which is a very frustrating Nintendo game. It takes hours to figure out even where the worlds are located, then more hours to tease out how to defeat the enemies in those realms. Writing is kind of like that game. It takes a lot of patience and a certain amount of recklessness, because you have to be willing to spend a lot of time making mistakes and not getting paid to make them. So I guess if you are the type who can spend hours playing challenging video games and not earn money or praise for all that time you just put in, then you have the innate ability to spend hours cracking the code of your novel or memoir.

INTERVIEWER

Throughout Tiger Tiger I noticed that you employed a myriad of fictional elements—namely plot.

MARGAUX FRAGOSO

I believe plot exists naturally within a person’s life and it just takes time to figure out what the themes and conflicts are. Sometimes you have to do a lot of throwaway writing in order to find it. I tossed out hundreds of expendable pages. I remember reading about Buddhist monks who for weeks create elaborate and beautiful works of art called mandalas and then they dump them in the water, basically destroying them. For the monks, it’s not a nihilistic gesture; it’s a philosophical statement about the impermanence of everything in life.

As a writer, sometimes you have to discard beautiful writing in addition to bad writing. In the end, it’s about the way the memoir or novel functions as a whole. Sometimes writing that is cut out can be saved and used for something else and  other times it can’t. But you have to write a great deal and then you have to be willing to dump a lot of it too.

There’s just no way to go about it and be perfect and keep everything you create. And sometimes it’s within the cuts, that the real art, the important themes and the overall plot begins to actually show itself. But I think cutting is a fine art and most beginning writers need advice from wise, experienced mentors, because they won’t know what’s good and what’s expendable. The ending in Tiger, Tiger almost ended up on the cutting room floor. I thought my mentor wouldn’t like it and when I sent it to him, he thought it was one of the best parts. Now I’m in agreement when back then I didn’t have a clue. So I’m glad I stayed my hand.

INTERVIEWER

Your father’s character—simultaneously intense and comical—emerges mostly through dialogue.

MARGAUX FRAGOSO

Poppa—I looked up to him, down on him, loved and hated him and in the end, he’s a person like me.  Your parents are always hard to write about, because you want to have them exist constantly in relation to you, when in reality they exist in a million other contexts that are separate from you.

My father’s rants can be disturbing, but they are also sometimes darkly humorous. I paced them so they break up some of the harsher aspects of the narrative.  There were so many scenes of him speaking that I actually had to cut some of his dialogue out for the final copy. I think dialogue can be a natural way to bring across a character, but not the only way. Other characters, like Ines, or the boys—they don’t speak a lot—but I could characterize them through their actions and physical descriptions. I remember someone told me Peter needed a full physical description but that my father’s character, since he was so lively on the page, actually didn’t need it as much. But in my first draft my father was undeveloped. I had a lot of anger towards him and my writing reflected that. To me demonizing someone is not artistic nor is it fair or true to life. You have to show the good and the bad.

INTERVIEWER

I find the father’s character fascinating. Did you have a difficult time putting him on the page? Did you have a hard time doing so with any other characters?

MARGAUX FRAGOSO

My father was probably the easiest character, because he’s so outspoken. My mother is very mysterious in her own way so she was harder.  But I think little things like her Fact Book and her love of romantic tragedies help show her personality and at the same time, those details for me reflect many themes and central conflicts in the book. My mother had an album called Sunshine and one day, I found it, and began to sob. A little detail like my mom compulsively listening to Sunshine, which is a real-life chronicle of a very young mother who is dying of cancer, says a lot about who my mother was and what her troubles were. In a first draft, I might have just used adjectives to describe my mother. Natural, organic details like the Sunshine album are much more effective.

Anyway, with memoir, it’s easier to tell the truth than to figure out a way to represent something in a socially acceptable way. If I’d wanted to represent Peter in a way that was completely socially okay and would get me in no hot water at all, I’d have had to make him out to be a total monster. I remember in an interview I was asked once if I realized that not making him monstrous could be very offensive to many people. The unabridged truth is naturally just very upsetting because people aren’t used to it. Some critics have thought I wasn’t openly judgmental enough of the people in the book, especially Peter. But I’m an artist, not a prosecutor. I’m not writing a manifesto; memoir is subjective. My feeling is that writers should give readers the freedom to think for themselves and form their own opinions. Readers take what they need from the works of art that exist around them.

INTERVIEWER

Can you talk a little about your next project? Is it fiction, nonfiction, or poetry?

MARGAUX FRAGOSO

It’s a novel that has to do with the Manson crime that occurred in the sixties while also exploring a fictional hate crime that’s occurred in the present day. I’m of the opinion that identity is imperfect and inconsistent, and the novel explores that idea. I just recently started working on my second draft; in my mind, the fun part comes after you already have something to work with, however rough that something may be. Granted, most everyone’s initial writing isn’t that good, even for those writers who have more experience. Writing is like any other sport: you just have to practice a lot and sometimes you’ll play well and sometimes you won’t. Compared to athletes and other performers, writers are pretty lucky because if you write really badly one day, you can just hit “delete” and nobody’s the wiser.

 

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