Laurie Frankel is the author of four novels, including the New York Times bestselling This Is How It Always Is. Frankel’s most recent novel, One, Two, Three, originally published in June of 2021, was a New York Times Editor’s Choice Book and an Indie Next pick. In BookPage, reviewer Alice Cary calls One, Two, Three “a thought-provoking allegory about corporate greed, environmental activism, parent-child relationships and the bonds and betrayals of sisterly love.” One, Two, Three will be released in paperback in June of 2022. Undaunted by writing about difficult topics, Frankel drills down to the heart of matters familial and societal, making readers feel both seen and challenged. Her personal essays have appeared widely, including pieces in The Guardian, The New York Times’ Modern Love column, and Literary Hub. Frankel writes full-time in Seattle, Washington, where she lives with her husband and daughter.
Former Literary Mama Profiles Editor Kelsey Madges conversed with Frankel via email about the ways One, Two, Three differed from her previous novels, how to find hope in a difficult world, where stories come from, and where they might lead us.
Kelsey Madges: There is an obvious connection between One, Two, Three and the Flint water crisis that became national news in 2016. Was that crisis the beginning of this story? If not, what motivated you to write about this small town being devastated by contaminated water?
Laurie Frankel: The crisis in Flint was definitely one of the things that started me down the path that led to this novel, so I’m thrilled that connection was apparent to you as you read. Also in early 2016, I read a New York Times Magazine piece about a town much smaller than Flint, downstream from a chemical plant in West Virginia. The plant had been polluting the town’s water, and the article described the class-action lawsuit the citizens of that town had been engaged in for over two decades. So yeah, I started reading about these crises and looking into the connections, and I couldn’t stop thinking about them. But when I decided to do a deep dive on research, I found it took little more than picking up a newspaper every morning. While the particulars vary enormously, these kinds of crises and environmental catastrophes and polluting policies are, unfortunately, happening all over the country and all over the world.
KM: There is some wordplay in the names you chose for the places and people in One, Two, Three; the name of the town (Bourne) and the name of Nathan’s son (River) being two examples. Did those names come to you as you wrote or did you have them decided from the beginning?
LF: Ooh, I’m thrilled you noticed that too. I spend a long time at the beginning of a book project choosing names, less for wordplay (though I do love wordplay) but more so that you’ll be able to remember who everyone is. It’s a peeve of mine as a reader when I can’t keep track of characters or remember who’s who, so I try to vary the names as widely as possible and give you some kind of mnemonic device to hang on to. That said, River’s name was just really good character development for his parents who are just that oblivious and unaffected by all the pain and trauma they caused [when their family’s chemical plant was the source of environmental poisoning in Bourne].
KM: It is difficult for me to imagine the extensive research you must have undertaken in writing One, Two, Three. There are medical technicalities, small town life, and politics, to name a few of the nuances explored in this novel. Where did you begin with your research? How much of that work came before the plot?
LF: Oh yes. Lots and lots and lots of research. For me, the big picture stuff—the stuff you talked about in question one, for instance—comes at the beginning of a project, but the bulk of the research I don’t know I need until I get there, so I do that research as I write. This isn’t a particularly efficient approach unfortunately, but I often just can’t see what I’ll need to know until I need to know it. And research can be a nice break from drafting and editing (and, especially, vice versa).
KM: This novel is the first in which you tell the story from three distinct points of view. How did this make the work of writing different from the work on your previous novels?
LF: Much harder. Much, much harder. At first all three of these girls sounded like me. I used to be a teenage girl, but it’s been thirty years, so I knew that was no good. As I edited, they started to sound more like teenagers, but they all sounded alike, and I knew that was no good either. I wanted you to be able to turn to a random page in this book and instantly know who was narrating, and though these girls have much in common, they also navigate the world very differently from one another, so it was important that they each have their own distinct voice. . . which they eventually did, a few hundred rounds of edits later.
KM: Throughout the novel there is a tension between what has happened in the past and what is possible in the future. The Mitchell daughters find ways to pick up the battle their mother has been fighting their entire lives. While all is not perfect, in the end, you manage to leave readers feeling hopeful. With all the battles raging in the world today, where do you find hope?
LF: Such a good question. One answer is I find hope in the books I read which tend to take the long view, which turn bad news into lessons learned, which often are hopeful in the face of terrible odds. This is one of the ways literature is better than real life, one of the reasons I always have a book in my hands, and certainly the reason I try to write books that tackle serious issues but leave readers feeling hopeful, so I’m delighted you found it so. I find hope, too, in my daughter, and all our daughters, which is also a thread that runs through the book. I think the girls coming up today are going to go forth and kick so much ass! And I find their conviction that they can and must and will fix the world inspiring.
KM: I loved the image of the dam as a metaphor for what holds us back, what diverts potential. What’s an obstacle you’ve overcome and who, or what, helped you chip away at it?
LF: Thank you! That’s exactly the question I hope readers are asking themselves at the end of this book. What is the dam in your life, and what can you do about it? So it’s only fair that you’ve asked me this very question. Though my answer is a little meta, I must admit that the book itself was quite an obstacle to overcome. It was the most challenging and structurally ambitious novel I’ve written, and it was a mess for a long, long time before it got good. My husband, my agent, and my editor all worked tirelessly—as they always do—to help make this book much, much better than it was when I finished the first draft.
KM: Many writers also have “day jobs.” How did you know the time was right to make the shift from the academic world to writing full time? How did you continue to make room for your writing after becoming a mother?
LF: This is not only a great question, it’s also a really important one. I was teaching full time when I wrote all of my first and most of my second novel. Publishing is an often-brutal, unpredictable, sometimes-unfair business, so I’m very grateful I’m not trying to eat off it. Selling books is stressful enough without having to worry you’ll go hungry if they don’t sell well. As you note though, balancing writing and work is one thing; balancing writing and work and motherhood is another thing entirely. When one of those had to go, I was lucky to be in a position to be able to promote my hobby—novel-writing—to my day job. But I am always careful to remind students I am married to a software engineer and had a decade-plus of full-time work that meant I didn’t have to make a living being an artist right away.
KM: Parent-child relationships feature heavily in several of your novels. How is your writing informed by your role as a mother? How is it informed by your experiences as a daughter?
LF: I find motherhood relentless and all-encompassing, which sometimes is just exhausting but often is also inspirational—full of awe and wonder and perspective and surprise and therefore good to write about. Parenting is one of those things that many people do, but no two people do the same way, and I find many aspects of motherhood to be quite different than purported, which also makes for good writing fodder. I’m very close with my parents and with my kid (and they’re very close with one another) which, among other things, means I write from a safe space, the gift of which cannot be overstated.
KM: You hinted, in the acknowledgments, that you are working on a new novel. Is there anything you’re willing to share about that project? If not, will you tell me how you got so good at making soup?
LF: I’ll tell you both! I don’t know everything there is to know about the new project myself other than it’s coming together slowly, in part because it’s just going to be one of those books, apparently, but in part because I began it in March 2020. About a week into it, of course, my kid came home from school and didn’t go back for a year-and-a-half, and the drop off in productivity was precipitous to say the least. It’s a novel about adoption, a topic near and dear to my heart and about which I think the conventional wisdom is often wrong, so I’ve got lots to say.
And I think anyone can get good at making soup because you start with an onion and then just keep adding whatever you can find in your fridge and pantry until it tastes good. This is also how I write novels, by the way. Soup is forgiving and adaptable and flexible, which I try to be myself, though, as far as mantras go, I worry it might be strange to walk around thinking I must be more like my soup. Still, I think it’s a worthy goal!