Miriam Frank: ‘Reading sharpened my understanding of human behaviour’

Brought to Book Q&A: Author of ‘My Innocent Absence’ on the texts which inspired her during her nomadic life

Miriam Frank: ‘Much of today’s writing appears to be celebrity related and follows fashions, relying on the expertise of others and writing to a learnt formula, rather than through the direct experience and observation of life.’

Miriam Frank is the author of My Innocent Absence: Tales from a Nomadic Life (Arcadia Books), an exploration of identity, belonging and relationships, following two generations of repeated uprooting across the 20th century and five continents.

She was born in Barcelona and grew up in France, Mexico and New Zealand where she graduated in medicine. Back in Europe, she specialised in anaesthesia and was appointed consultant and senior lecturer at the Royal London Hospital. Since her retirement from medicine, she has translated literary works by Latin American and Spanish authors, and now dedicates her time to her own writing. The Unfinished Portrait, the sequel to her first book, is scheduled for publication this year. miriam-frank.com What was the first book to make an impression on you?

I was an avid reader as a child, and I remember my first book at the age of two - having just arrived in Collioure, across the border from Spain, to escape Franco - which taught me to read in my then language, Spanish, with ese oso usa seso (that bear uses his brain) next to a picture of a gypsy with a bear.

The next book I vividly recall and loved was given to me by my mostly absent father in the midst of the German occupation in Vichy France - from both of which we were constantly on the move! - a charmingly illustrated French children’s book, from the famous Père Castor series of those years, called Perlette, about the wonderful adventures in the life of a drop of water...


What was your favourite book as a child?

There were many, at different stages of my childhood, as we changed countries and languages seeking a place of safety. From Perlette in France, I went on to be entranced by a poetic Spanish book about a donkey , Platero y Yo, and the Grimm and Andersen's fairy stories, in Mexico, followed by Dickens and D H Lawrence during my adolescent years in New Zealand.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Usually the latest one I am reading, at present Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy which gives such an atmospheric and fascinating insight into an area and history of the world previously little known to me.

What is your favourite quotation?

DH Lawrence: “One can no longer say, I’m a stranger everywhere, but only ‘everywhere I’m at home’.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Anna Karenina

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Maybe Joyce Cary, who wrote Mister Johnson and The Horse's Mouth among his many works. He was, with good reason, greatly revered and admired during his lifetime, but he appears to have fallen into obscurity.

Which do you prefer - ebooks or the traditional print version?

I like to feel the book in my hand, smell the printed paper, and touch the texture of the pages as I turn them.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

The Complete Works of Shakespeare

Where and how do you write?

Sitting with the computer on my lap and a broad stretch of the Thames and ever changing skies before me in my eighth floor flat in central London; or at my desk in front of the window listening to the nightingales in the dark night outside my small house in Italy; or again at my round dining room table next to the chalky white, thick-walled arch in my Cycladic island house in the Aegean. They are all tranquil, if diverse, spots which unclutter the mind and make way for the creative process involved when I write.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Not any one single book, but Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I read at a young age, gave me a great deal to think about in the way fiction serves history and reality.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

I have researched the world during my mother’s formative years and her youth between the two World Wars, the ideological and political upheaval and its reflection and expression in the arts and music which touched and affected her and her family’s and close friends’ lives, more specifically in Berlin, London, Barcelona and Paris, and then also the political and artistic ambience in Mexico with its large influx of refugees from war-torn Europe in the 1940s. I wove all this into the background of my latest book, The Unfinished Portrait, which is the sequel of my first, My Innocent Absence. This last, in contrast, was written entirely from memory, which was made up of my vivid recollections of a life of continual moves and displacement across countries, cultures, languages and ways of life.

What book influenced you the most?

Difficult to pin it down to one book, maybe Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, Sartre’s trilogy or Andre Gide’s The Fruits of the Earth; I also adored percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry and admired George Orwell’s human insights and vision.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

It so depends on my friend’s child! A book I would imagine they would enjoy according to their interests and stage of development.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

A book on advanced mathematics for children that the author, a Catalan pedagogue and family friend, presented me with at one of the many occasions his and my familes, both refugees from the wars in Europe, met in Mexico.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Live life, experience it to the full, and learn to observe it down to its every detail. Give vent to and develop your original voice, perception and intelligence, which is the most important thing you can offer as a writer.

What weight do you give reviews?

They are as good in each case as its reviewer.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

Into difficult times that would require some lateral creative thinking to offer something the digital industry cannot compete with.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

Much of today’s writing appears to be celebrity related and follows fashions, relying on the expertise of others and writing to a learnt formula, rather than through the direct experience and observation of life. This may well result in an enchanting, beautifully worded piece of literature, which has little to say.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

It has sharpened my insights and understanding of human behaviour, its contradictions, ambiguities, inconsistencies; its cruelty as well as its capacity for infinite compassion; its tragedy and its humour.

What has being a writer taught you?

To observe more closely and in greater depth our complex and fascinating relationship with language, in addition to a more detailed examination of the world around us, including life, relationships, society and nature.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Italo Calvino, Oscar Wilde, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri, who, if they were able to transcend the different eras they lived in, by the same token I would expect them to overcome any linguistic differences between them, and come up with either an exceptional unforgettable conversation and exchange of ideas, or each be so intensely drawn to their own world that they would give away little.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

Though I cannot pinpoint the scene, it would surely be by Spike Milligan.

What is your favourite word?

Maybe the Greek word “vlepo” - the physical act of seeing and feeling through one’s senses carried through into mindful awareness and understanding.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

Christopher Colombus, whose many mysteries would be fascinating to try and decipher, and with regard to his courage, curiosity, determination and vision which set him out to discover new routes, whether to what he thought was the old world, or, unknowingly, to an entirely new one.

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