Interview: Author Elizabeth Bales Frank — The Mistress of the House of Books

After I finished reading the latest novel by Elizabeth Bales Frank, Censorettes, I instantly felt the need to pick her brain and discover more about the author as well as the story. Elizabeth was kind enough to give me a bit of her time last week, on Censorette ‘s publication day, no less! Keep reading to learn more about the author, the history behind her novel, and her advice to aspiring writers.

Molli: Tell me a bit about yourself.

Elizabeth Bales Frank: Well, this is my second published novel, and my first one was published probably before you were born, it was just such a long time ago! I’ve been writing ever since then. I make my living as a researcher in a law firm, I’ve worked in law firms for a really long time, doing various things. I learned about this story when I went to visit an attorney friend who had moved to Bermuda to work in reinsurance. She was at work all the time and it rains a lot in Bermuda.

M: I’ve never been there!

EF: Well, it is a rock in the middle of the ocean so it does attract bad weather! And so I was just looking for something to do and I saw a couple of lines in the guide book about the Princess Hotel, where the Censorettes worked, and that just sparked the idea of what it would be like to be in paradise while the world outside is basically on fire.

M: So, that was actually my next question: why the Censorettes? You kind of explained just now how you were introduced to them. But I had never heard of them before. And, I’m very interested in that period in history, in World War II history, I’ve taken several classes on it at school and everything, and I have never once heard of the Censorettes.

EF: Well, you’re not alone. I wrote to the Imperial War Museum when I was early on in research and said, “Hey, what do ya got?” And they had never heard of them. There was one letter, or a typewritten account, by a Censorette. He had to dig for it. And he said, “Well, we have somebody who worked for the censorship.” I said, “Great, can I have a copy of that?” He said, “Sure, come over.” And I was like, “Well I’m in New York, you’re in London.” But, because I’ve worked in law firms, we had a London office at the firm, and I asked someone there, “Do you know anybody I could pay to do it?” She said, “Oh, I’ll send my husband he loves that place.”

So that really helped, but there was nothing. And then as I started the ten years of researching, somebody at the Bermuda Royal Gazette, a reporter, started to write articles [about the Censorettes]…with the aim of writing a non-fiction book about the Censorettes. So I got a little bit more information. But there isn’t very much.

M: So, you spent ten years researching for this?

EF: Researching and rewriting and revising and submitting to agents who asked me to revise. Yeah, it was a long slog.

M: So, apart from the obvious historical things in the novel, is everything else fiction? Or, did you hear stories about things that happened on the island when the women were there?

EF: Well, the “Brooklyn Joe,” the Joe K Case, is real. And, a Censorette was murdered. It was quite different than what happens in the book because I didn’t want to infringe on that real victim’s privacy. But, that’s basically all I knew.

When I was researching I did find this LIFE Magazine article, it’s on the cover, about the United States Military in Bermuda [during WWII]. In real life, they [the Censorettes and the men] would have never been allowed to socialize as they did in the novel, but when I saw that the military had been there then that was an opportunity for interaction and romance and that kind of thing.

M: Now that we’ve covered the novel, what are you currently reading?

EF: I’m currently reading a collection of criticism and essays by Penelope Fitzgerald, who I’m a big fan of. And, of course, I have to be reading two things! I’m also reading a collection of Katherine Mansfield short stories.

M: What is your favorite book of all time? Or, who is your favorite author?

EF: I might have to go with the author. And, I think it’s Hilary Mantel. Because when I’m reading her I tend to say to the page, “Who told you you could write like this? I mean, where did you discover that you could just…do this?”

M: What’s your favorite piece by her? I’ve never read her work!

EF: Oh really?

M: If you had to recommend one book by her what would it be?

M: I’ll have to check that out. As MHOB is focused on female writers and intersectional feminism, I have to ask: do you consider yourself a feminist?

EF: Yes. I guess because I have been since I was 12 years old and I asked my stepmother if I could have a subscription to Ms. magazine. I just never understood why I was supposed to be subordinate because of my gender. And, I was pretty surprised at how feminist the book turned out to be.

I did an interview with this delightful woman who runs a cooking show called the Blue and Yellow Kitchen, where she cooks a recipe inspired by a book while she talks to the author about the book. So she made Bermudian fish chowder, and she said something like, “I think one of the themes in the book is like, are men really necessary?” And I just sort of laughed. I didn’t mean it to be quite that extreme, but the fact of the matter is, they [the Censorettes] would have been dismissed over and over. And, all of the tiny, tiny pieces of information that I found out about the Censorettes, never failed to mention how they had shapely legs. That they were selected because they had neat ankles.

I don’t go to protests because I’m asthmatic and if they ever sprayed any sort of tear gas it would be fatal. But, as far as reading, yeah, I look like a rabid feminist if you look at my bookcase.

M: Now, I’m going to ask you something a bit selfishly, but I think our readers would also be interested in your response: what advice do you have for an aspiring writer? And, talk to me a bit about what it’s like to be published.

EF: I guess I shouldn’t say anything like, “Find something else to do,” haha!

M: I know, I know, that’s what I read in Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and what I’ve heard from basically every writer I’ve spoken to. But, seriously, I do want to hear what you think!

EF: Well, Isak Dinesen said, “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” And, I just think that’s steller.

The advice is just to start writing. I don’t have an MFA, because I got published very, very young. And some MFA programs would say to me, “why do you want to do this? You’re already ahead of the game. Oh, we’re in a game? I didn’t know that!” It has been important to me in the last decade to go to conferences and retreats and just be around other writers who know what you’re going through.

So it’s really just read a lot and write a lot. I know it’s a boring answer but it’s the answer.

Right now, I love doing this kind of thing, and meeting people, doing virtual reads. Actually, with the pandemic, I’m doing a lot of things that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do before. I mean, I can’t do a reading at my local bookshop because it’s not open. But, I am hoping that this dies down soon and I can get back to work. Because I just want to be writing. It’s very exciting, just to make things up.

Originally published at https://www.themistressofbooks.com on November 18, 2020.

Musings on feminism, books, and human connections.

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