By Jeff Vasishta
If Ian Frazier were in a buddy movie, he would play both the straight guy and the comedic nit wit. His non-fiction books Travels In Siberia and Great Plains are both tour de forces in travel writing. It is his comic persona, however, that he has mined to uproarious effect with his latest offering, The Cursing Mommy’s Book Of Days (published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), his debut novel. It’s based on his popular Shouts And Murmurs character in the New Yorker magazine, where he has been a staff writer for twenty years. The Cursing Mommy character follows the daily boozy tribulations of a stay-at-home mom of two boys who possesses the vocabulary of a sailor and the liver of Keith Richards.
In a Q&A session at the New School, the 61-year-old former Brooklynite, who now calls Montclair, New Jersey, home, sat down to talk about The Cursing Mommy’s Book Of Days.
JV: How did you come up with this crazy character?
Frazier: My wife was driving with these little girls in the back seat who were Mormons and very well brought up and something happened in the road and my wife said, “Shit, gaddam!” The little girl said to my daughter, “Lauren, your mommy cursed.” Just from that we started talking about the “Cursing Mommy” and I did a short piece in a newsletter and I just started writing more of them. My editor at the New Yorker saw it and thought it was funny so I wrote one and they bought it. My first one broke by a long margin the record for the greatest amount of curse words on a page.
How did writing a novel differ from non-fiction?
It was more like a performance. I regarded it as improvisational theater. With a non-fiction book you have notes and something you’re going to talk about. To promote Siberia I went on the Steven Colbert show and I’d never done that before. I was very up for doing his show in terms of adrenaline and fear. It was really fun. I thought I’d like to do something like that in writing rather than having notes and a place I want to go, so it was more like improvisation
I’ve heard novelists say that there is one thing they concentrate on. For me there is one phrase, “A client of Larry’s.” There’s something about that phrase, the guy’s client. This book is based on the mother of a friend of mine who would say things like, “Oh we out with a client of Don’s and we all got drunk.” I kept hoping that the voice would suggest things.
Did you have any real life inspiration?
All this stuff really happened. I live in New Jersey, I have two kids, I have two sisters. I never heard my grandmothers come close to swearing. My mother would say damn and hell. My sisters and I and many women I know talk like the cursing mom. They wouldn’t restrain themselves from saying the F-word. My sister was making a pie for me and she came over and said “I was making a pie and the recipe was on the the f-ing bottle and once I filled it I couldn’t do the rest of the recipe.” You should write down things that kids say and keep a list because a lot of being a parent is an incredible drag.
Did you have an audience in mind?
My wife is in a book group and I think that book group is one of the greatest things in town. I really like it but I don’t participate, it’s just for women. They would say, “God, you should do a cursing mommy book.” I also got a letter from someone who read a Cursing Mommy piece in the New Yorker and said that they said it was the first time they’ve laughed in two years, since they were widowed. It was a heartfelt letter.
Did you rewrite much?
I did not rewrite it much, but I had a plot line and my wife read it. She reads a lot of mysteries and she said, “this plot line is terrible.” Originally I had gypsies coming in. I stepped back from it. What I don’t want this to be is something that could be senseless and gypsies could be senseless. So I went back and changed it.
This is your first fiction book but you’ve written a lot of non-fiction. Have you previously tried to write fiction?
I really wanted to write fiction to begin with and I tried. The thing that I found tough about fiction is that I’m embarrassed by plot, thinking about what happens to the character. It’s a modernist thing. That’s why I tend to rely on voice. If you look at great modernist works like Ulysees, there’s no real plot, the guy’s walking around Dublin. What’s the plot? What’s the plot of Remembrance Of Things Past? Plot is not a big feature of modernism. With non-fiction you have the plot already. Whatever is happening out there in the world, that’s the plot. If you take a trip to Siberia, there’s the plot. You start here and end up there. Late in my life as a writer, I realize that plot is a tough thing. I had no idea it would freak me out as much as it does.
Ian Frazier will be appearing at the NYU Bookstore, 726 Broadway (btw. Waverly & Washington Place) on Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 6:30 p.m., as part of a “Secrets of Book Publishing” panel with authors Patty Marx, Susan Shapiro and New Yorker Shouts & Murmurs editor Susan Morrison.
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