Author’s Note: AI was not used in the making of this fictional trove of altered photos, letters, collages and drawings.
Frail Sister by Karen Green is a fictional history of a missing woman’s life told through unreal artifacts so convincingly created that the reader is consumed by empathy.
It was published in 2018 by Siglio Press, which specializes in art-driven literary fiction and poetry. Publisher Lisa Pearson has an uncanny eye and attuned ear for off-center work, and Siglio has built a bridge between traditional and experimental books that are timely and timeless. (I’m featuring a title from 2018 because books should not be forgotten just because the launch date has passed and publishers are onto their next list.)
Green’s story is as disturbing as it is compelling: A child, Constance Gale, is put to work with her sister, performing as musical prodigies during the Great Depression. As a teenager, she escapes from her impoverished life by joining the USO and touring a ravaged Italy during World War II. Men— “some kind, some nefarious, some an ineluctable cocktail” —write to Constance, smitten by her stage persona. Letters to and from Constance expose not only the mundane reality of war but also the relentless brutality. “After the war,” the book details, “she returns to an unsparing life in New York City in which the violence persists and her ghosts multiply.”
This is the artist/writer’s second book (the first, Bough Down, is a memoir about grief). Frail Sister originated in her search for a long-vanished Aunt Constance, who Green knew only from a few family photos and keepsakes. Finding almost no trace of her, Green instead invented, appropriated and altered artifacts. Then she constructed an elliptical, arresting narrative: “What becomes of a woman whose talent, ambition and appetite defy what the world expects of her? How does she disappear?”
Green imagines for her aunt a childhood in which she is “bold, reckless, perspicacious, mischievous; an adolescence ripe with desire and scarred by violation and loss; and an adulthood in which she strives to sing above the din.”
In this well-crafted marriage of epistolary and visual fiction, the book design is essential to the story. I asked Green to talk about how she devised the format and orchestrated the materials that make it real.
Why did you decide to tell this fictionalized story of two sisters in this scrap box manner?
I’m not sure I know what a “scrap box” is or like the messy sound of it, but I think I understand what you are asking, and it’s probably the perfect descriptor. I did want the reader to feel like they had stumbled upon an old suitcase in granny’s attic and had to piece together the life story of a long-lost relative. I have a continued fascination with the art/literature intersection (Siglio’s specialty) and with how archival materials tell a story, so trying to collage a narrative arc seemed like an interesting challenge at the time.
It all looks so random and yet the narrative holds together. Was the continuity difficult to do? Did you ever find you were getting lost in the bramble of word and picture?
Thanks for the “holds together” comment. The continuity issue was a nightmare, especially after I decided the entire manuscript would be hand-typed. At some point, I pretty much knew what would happen in the story, but if I wanted to make the smallest edit on a page that had already been typed, say, on top of a vintage photograph, I would have to scrape off the typewriter ink with a pin or find a new photograph that illuminated the text in the same way. I got more and more careful about committing type to picture; I learned to make copies of the really good stuff and save making the final until I was pretty sure the text would be permanent. I also had a restriction on the number of pages, so I was trying to tell the story within those limitations. So, yes, there was a lot of getting lost for the four years I worked on it, but I do like working with constraints—I like the process of distilling the hell out of something.
I’m curious to know if you worked from a conventional manuscript and then translated passages into your visual language?
I believe it started as a semi-conventional manuscript … I usually start by writing longhand, then type it out multiple times, editing as I go. (The initial inspiration was, however, visual—a couple of photographs and a letter from WW2.) Although by the time I finished the book, it wasn’t on a computer at all, it was spread out on the floor in sections. I was working from printed pages of prose chunks and massive amounts of sheet music, photographs, ephemera.
Who are the girls in the photos?
Many of the photos are photos of my aunt, who disappeared before I was born. Originally, I had hoped to find out what really happened to her, going so far as hiring a private investigator, who only complicated matters. I had to let go of finding the “facts,” which in biographies are only as truthful as the people who talk to the biographer, anyway, and just start bringing her back to life as best as I could. Some of the photos of her I found at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in the Italian USO folders—that was thrilling. I also found a couple of her on eBay with the heading, “pretty lady singing in Italy, 1940s.”
I presume it took you considerable time to acquire the images you wanted. Where else did you find them, and how long did it take?
I just kept scrounging—the library, eBay, thrift stores, antique stores. One of the best resources I found was an antique store in Northern California that had a secret “War Museum” in the basement, complete with manikins in regalia. Very unnerving, but it’s where I found the ration books, some of the blank period stationary, as well as some really extraordinary photographs.
Tell me a little about the relationship of these two sisters. The cover photo is such an allure. And what is their relationship to mouse?
The photograph is of my mother and aunt. I’m glad you think it’s alluring. I do, too, although it’s also, I think, a bit creepy/beautiful in a Sally Mann kind of way. In the book, Connie, the narrator, is in constant dialogue with her sister, who remains unnamed and unresponsive throughout. This is a fictional account, but it is also the best I could do with the real relationship between the two, who were so close in childhood but who lost track of each other, or claimed to, in the post-war years. Whatever the case, they couldn’t help each other.
Mouse is their evil brother who embodies every animal-torturing, cat-calling, gun-toting Harvey W. who ever slithered over the earth. Honestly I had hoped I would find my aunt or at least her offspring and be able to give that knowledge to my mother at the end of her life, but the more I found out, the more I realized this fictional account would not have a happy or tidy ending, just as its parallel narrative didn’t. It became a story about all the Jane Does I researched, and how early trauma and lack of agency (I can’t think of another way to say it here) grooms them for and presages their disappearances: wrapped in old rugs and thrown off bridges, dumped in the desert, hospitalized for hysteria or, if they’re luckier, just married to jerks and silenced more benignly. (Oh dear, this may be a strident note to end on, ha!)
I have been writing professionally for over 20 years and have a deep understanding of the psychological and emotional elements that affect people. I’m an experienced ghostwriter and editor, as well as an award-winning author of five novels.