Eden Robins is joining us today to talk about her novel, When Franny Stands Up. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Nothing is more dangerous than a woman with a showstopping joke.
Franny Steinberg knows there’s powerful magic in laughter. She’s witnessed it. With the men of Chicago off fighting WWII on distant shores, Franny has watched the women of the city taking charge of the war effort. But amidst the war bond sales and factory shifts, something surprising has emerged, something Franny could never have expected. A new marvel that has women flocking to comedy clubs across the nation: the Showstopper.
When Franny steps into Chicago’s Blue Moon comedy club, she realizes the power of a Showstopper—that specific magic sparked when an audience laughs so hard, they are momentarily transformed. And while each comedian’s Showstopper is different, they all have one thing in common: they only work on women.
After a traumatic flashback propels her onstage in a torn bridesmaid dress, Franny discovers her own Showstopper is something new. And suddenly she has the power to change everything…for herself, for her audience, and for the people who may need it most.
What’s Eden’s favorite bit?
I am not an efficient researcher for fiction. More often than not, I’m out here throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. When Franny Stands Up takes place in 1951 and draws heavily on my family history. So, when I called my great-aunt Suzy to ask her about her time in the Navy WAVES, I didn’t have any questions prepared, other than “What was it like to be in the Navy as a woman in the 1950s?” And though I loved Suzy dearly, I’m not sure we had ever talked on the phone, and we hadn’t seen one another in many years. I knew her as a tall, bawdy, hilarious woman with an easy laugh. She was very close to my grandma, her younger sister, who died abruptly 10 years ago. When I spoke with Suzy, she seemed reflective, sad, and a little regretful. Perhaps these are the conditions for unearthing secrets because she told me stories that she had never told anyone else.
Suzy had joined the Navy to escape a shitty early marriage and have an adventure, but she was shaking-nervous as she approached the bunkhouse at Great Lakes Training Center outside Chicago. When she threw open the door, the room was filled with giggling girls just like her, all of them buffing the floors with literal maxi pads strapped to their feet. If she was worried about a bunch of serious, uptight military types, she would find, instead, a room full of instant friends. After boot camp, she was sent to Florida, where she and her best friend/roommate would have nightly dance parties on the beach.
I was singularly focused on my book and pushed her for stories and details that would give it that spark of life. But this was her life she was generously reliving for me. She got quiet. She said, instead:
“My greatest regret in life is losing my one true love.”
Now, Suzy had been married to my uncle Robbie until the day he died. She was not talking about him. I shut my big mouth and waited.
While stationed in Florida, she dated a handsome pilot and fell in that kind of love where your heart unravels like a ball of yarn. The kind of love where you don’t feel like yourself, and you feel more like yourself than you ever have.
Then, one night, her pilot walked her best friend home. Suzy flew into a jealous rage, thinking they were seeing one another behind her back. They tried to convince her it was innocent, that he was just escorting her home, but Suzy was terrified of her unraveling heart, and she would not listen.
The next day, impetuously, she filed for a transfer.
Two days later, she was sent to Maryland, where she would meet her future husband, my uncle. She never saw her best friend or her pilot beau again.
If you believe that magic exists, perhaps you, like me, know it to be a fairly mundane power. An earthly energy that can transform your life in an instant. Secrets are this kind of magic. Even if – maybe especially if – the secrets are painful.
Many years later, Suzy tried to find her pilot, but couldn’t get his contact information. Meanwhile, within two hours, I had found him online. He had married late and died in 2006. I struggled with myself – should I tell her? Would the information give her peace or more turmoil? Ultimately, I decided to keep it to myself. This secret is mine now, and I don’t know if I did the right thing. Because not long after our call, her health deteriorated quickly, and she died.
I tell myself Suzy was able to release her secret from her body, and hopefully she was able to feel a little relief by doing so, a little lighter in death. This secret she gave me was a gift, and the best I can do is hold it and honor it.
Her story, however, is almost planetary in its gravity – too big and powerful for the story I was trying to tell. I couldn’t use it. But this is the way of research and novel-writing, and we become more spacious inside when we connect with people, whether or not every word can be crammed into a book.
What is released when we utter our secrets? What opens inside us and what is the impact on our listener? Our secrets shape us; they mold our inner world. This is also, I think, the power of stand-up comedy – it is magic unleashed on an audience, it is an art form that makes us see the world askew, and new.
The power of secrets informed how I shaped the magic in When Franny Stands Up, in the form of the comedians’ “Showstoppers” – a magic an audience experiences when they laugh at a comedian’s jokes, intimately connected to the painful secrets inside each individual comedian. Secrets they must access and mold into jokes to conjure a Showstopper in the first place.
Even though I didn’t use Suzy’s story – my favorite bit – I learned something important about the crackling power of secrets, of hidden inner darkness courageously spelunked. I learned about the real magic of seeing ourselves clearly and being honest. How comedy lets us tell and hear that truth with Dickinsonian “slant,” a bright spear of sunlight at the right time of day that can illuminate an entire room.
Eden Robins loves novels best, but they take forever so she also writes short stories and self-absorbed essays. She co-hosts a science podcast called No Such Thing As Boring with an actual scientist and produces a monthly live lit show in Chicago called Tuesday Funk. Previously, she sold sex toys, wrote jokes for Big Pharma, and once did a stand-up comedy set to an audience who didn’t boo. She lives in Chicago, has been to the bottom of the ocean, and will never go to space. WHEN FRANNY STANDS UP is her first novel.