Thaisa Frank Lectures on Surrealism in Writing

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Author: Cordelia Kenney

Surrealist author Thaisa Frank gave a reading from her debut novel “Heidegger’s Glasses” this past Monday as part of the Remsen Bird series, offering a glimpse into her mystical, transcendental imagination. Frank, who usually works on “experimental surrealist short story fiction,” divulged part of the creative process involved in writing her latest work, which has been picked up for translation in 10 countries. In what The New York Times describes as a “tantalizing sense of indirection,” Frank explores a little known aspect of the Third Reich’s Final Solution. Germany’s fascination with the occult and the Third Reich’s plan to convince the outside world that the camps were enjoyable by forcing prisoners to write letters to their relatives converge in “Heidegger’s Glasses.”

“My what-if was what if it was decided that these letters were to be answered so that the Final Solution was not exposed?” she said. Although World War II elicits cultural scrutiny across the globe, Frank uses the uniquely literate prisoners as one of the primary elements for “Heidegger’s Glasses.”

“Holocausts are still happening, but something about World War II is very interesting — both the victims and the perpetrators kept a lot of records,” she said. “It’s one of the few cases in which there is documentation on both sides.” The historical profundity of the Holocaust was only a piece of her inspiration, however; imagination is largely the focus of her visionary work.

In her soft-spoken, somewhat ethereal way, Frank described how she knew only the title, the last three lines and a scene in the middle of the book when she began working on it. “I usually start with a title, or a key image, or an idea, and I go from there,” she said. “I did not want to write a novel, but something about World War II haunted me. In some ways, the Holocaust has the suspense of a novel — there was this tension between how quickly the Allies were winning and how Germany was tightening the screws.”

In what seems to have been a gradual accumulation of past experiences and inspirations, Frank formed the building blocks for her story by reflecting on her older works and recurring vivid images. “Fallout from memories, dreams and works of other writers spark something inside of you,” she said.

She described this percolation of ideas and unconscious signals, including an image of people writing to the dead, as sticking with her. “It’s not the pearls, but the way they are strung together,” she said.  “For me, I start with the pearls and eventually the string will fall into place.”

Frank does not consider her work historical fiction, either, since it does not describe the minute details of the period. “I’m much more interested in the imagination and enjoy making things up,” she said. The writing process was more about trusting her imagination; she consulted dates after, rather than during, her writing.

“The imagination reaches far beyond our knowledge,” she continued. “With surrealism, it’s just one weird thing placed into an ordinary world, which has to cope with it. Surrealism actually portrays reality really well. It’s a situation that’s ever so slightly weird — it sheds light on the absurdity we all experience.”

When asked about how she decided to be a surrealist writer, she explained that style is not a matter of choice, but rather a cultivation of different influences. “Do I choose my material or does it choose me? With surrealism, you’re taking something real and putting it in a what-if context. For some reason, I am drawn to it, and not all of my writing is surrealist. Most writers don’t choose a way to write — it chooses them.”

Frank also discussed the transition from imaginative flow to a more objective editing in her process. “I’m bumping around in the dark, and at some point something emerges and tells me what I have to do with it — the rational comes in,” she said.

She wrote her first story at eight years old and, although she initially did not want to be a writer,  said, “I now consider that first story  as when I was born.” Writing, Frank described, allowed for a connection to a much larger world outside of herself and her familiarities.   

In “Heidegger’s Glasses,” otherworldly images, including an artificial overhead sky, converge with elements of romance, including a section titled “Black Forest,” which is reminiscent of fairy-tale lore. “I’m very drawn to the fairy-tale element,” Frank said. “It grabbed me from an early age. I loved to daydream and imagine. I need to stare into space and have at least an hour a day of nothing.”

Frank already has several other projects in the works: a collection of short stories due out next spring as well as another novel to be released in the fall of next year. “I work years ahead of myself,” she said. “I have too many ideas . . . but it’s about getting the pearls together.”

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