Frances Lefkowitz ( is the author of  To Have Not, named one of five “Best Memoirs of 2010” by It’s a true story of growing up poor in San Francisco in the 1970s, getting a scholarship to an Ivy League college, and discovering what it really means to have and have not. Her fiction, essays, and articles have appeared in Tin HouseBlipSuperstition ReviewGlimmerTrain Stories, FictionThe Sun, Utne Reader, Whole LivingHealth, and more. She has earned special mentions twice for the Pushcart Prize and once for Best American Essays, among other honors. The book reviewer for Good Housekeeping, Frances lives and surfs in Northern California.

What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer…

Mentors: what a great idea. Where do I get one? What about a patron; can I have one of those, too?

What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?

I get up and walk around, turn the radio on or off, click onto Facebook, sniff my bottle of lemon essential oil, pull weeds…anything to break up my train of thought and introduce a new perspective, a new impulse. My challenge to myself right now is to write the unexpected, at every level, from plot and characters down to sentences and words. So I like to interrupt myself briefly, (3 to 10 minutes) to see where I veer to when I come back to the story.

Are there favorite writing exercises or prompts which you use regularly & will share?

Word prompts work really well for my particular brain. Give me a list of random words and I will turn it into a story. (In fact you do give me lists of random words, and I now have over 200 stories I’ve turned them into!) The process of creating story while working in every word is a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle and a bit like taking an acid trip. I now use word lists in many of the workshops I teach, including memoir and fiction. Students often balk but the words push them past their usual phrases and their usual way of thinking about things. “Perfume” was one of the words in a recent memoir-writing workshop, and it forced the students to find the perfume (or lack of it) in their childhoods. One remembered the perfume of whiskey on her stepfather’s breath. Another described her mother as “not the kind of mother who wore perfume.”  The key to making a good word list is to mix it up, using a variety of sounds, meanings, and lengths.

Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing?

Precise details, from clothing and scent to psychological motivation and emotional wounds, are what make characters believable. In creating them, I find there’s a back and forth between logic and intuition (or magic or Duende or whatever you want to call it). They reveal themselves as I write, but later, after I know them and see where they are going, I have more of a hand in shaping them and their actions.

What’s the best writer’s advice you ever got?

When submitting stories to publications, always keep several pieces in circulation, so when one comes back rejected, you still have the others keeping hope alive. Also, for the same reason, send that rejected one out immediately to another journal. This advice came from the wonderful Pamela Painter, who taught me fiction at Harvard’s night school. I continue to pass it in.

Please talk a bit about your recent memoir “To Have Not” – whatever you would like to say about the process of writing this, in any way you like.

The way I write, there’s not much difference between fiction and memoir, except that in fiction you have to make up the facts and in memoir they’re already there, but you have to recall them. Otherwise, you deal with the same issues: creating palpable characters with back stories that make them act the way they do; using sensory details to evoke setting and scenes; balancing narration and scene, showing and telling; carrying themes and threads forward in a way that is powerful but not obvious. Writing my memoir was like writing a novel—and I think and hope it reads like one, too.

What question would you most like to be asked about your writing life? (ask and answer it here!)

Any oddball habits, stuff that you usually don’t talk about in your writing life… that you will talk about?

When I’ve written something good, I read it to myself over and over. Sometimes I’m just so astonished at this thing that came out of me, and reading it not only gives me pleasure but also helps to convince me that I may be able to do it again. I guess it’s the mixture of pride and astonishment that parents must feel for their children.

What is next for you?

I am so happy to get back to fiction after so many years writing about myself. Since last June, I’ve been writing a story almost every day, and now that I have more than 200 of them, I’m starting to see if and how they might add up into, dare I say it, a novel.

The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at

  1. David James

    There seems to be a chemistry working between the interviewee and interviewer here. Ms. Lefkowitz, thanks for sharing your writing self with us. Ms. Pokrass, thanks for asking your probing questions.

  2. james claffey

    surely david means “poking” questions. yes, an insightful read. frances and i are on the same path with the short pieces. i’m not near 200 though.

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