Sydney Reilly, nearly 16, is reluctantly spending the summer in a San Francisco beach-side mansion with her mother, Lila, a once famous actress whose star has dimmed, and Lila’s latest boyfriend, Jake, a realtor-turned-art dealer who is both charismatic and controlling. Each chapter of Girl, Unframed opens with an excerpt from an evidence list, suggesting criminal stakes to the story, but Caletti keeps tensions high and readers guessing as to the crime, the victim and the perpetrator until the very end.
Can you talk about the unique structure of Girl, Unframed?
The format of the book is, very literally, Sydney speaking to someone else. I thought her story would be most powerfully told using her own voice, confessional and intimate. The first person limits you to what a character has observed or overheard, but that sense of being a witness felt right. Keeping each line as conversational as possible meant reading a lot of it aloud as I went along.
I loved the pieces of evidence included at the beginning of each chapter. Was that element always a part of the book?
I’ve used chapter headings in other books—facts about the heart in A Heart in a Body in the World, quotes from a fictional research book in The Nature of Jade, true stories about seeds in The Last Forever. I love the interplay between the “real” world and what’s happening in the book—the way the bits of information add layers of meaning, as well as suspense and humor. With Girl, Unframed, I was maybe three or so chapters in when I decided to add the evidence. This time, it was less about metaphors and meaning and more about adding unease and questions, mostly the biggest question: What happened that night?
Did any real-life events inform the story?
This book was the biggest, strangest, most uneasy merging of truth and my subconscious—more so than anything I’ve written. Girl, Unframed is loosely based on a true story: the murder of Johnny Stompanato, the husband of actress Lana Turner, by Lana’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, in 1958. What actually happened that night is still a mystery. Lana’s daughter was a teen at the time, and Lana, who was one of the biggest Hollywood stars back then, was a sex symbol/femme fatale. I’d kept an article about it in my “book ideas” file for years, and finally, the need to write it rose to the surface.
But it was only after I started writing that I realized why Lana’s news clip had been in my file all those years, and why I made the creative choices I did. The story of Girl, Unframed has connections to my own family history I hadn’t been consciously aware of when I began. Both sides of my family have ties to San Francisco, but on my mother’s side, right during Lana’s time, there was criminal activity, dangerous relationships—and intergenerational trauma and narcissistic beauty, too. Writing can be weirdly and uncomfortably insistent like that.
The relationship between Sydney and Lila is central to Girl, Unframed. How does it change over the course of the book, and why? What drew you to explore a relationship like theirs?
I wanted to explore familial trauma, internalized misogyny and the way that people who are objectified can go on to treat others like objects. And as with all of my books, I was drawn to those themes out of a need to understand how they have played out in my own life. In my family history, going back many generations, ideas of beauty as currency, beauty as power, beauty as the only thing you had to wield in the world led to a nest of complications with sometimes dark ramifications. Many women and their daughters (and sons!) deal with the effects of this legacy. I hope readers will understand that objectification can come from many—and sometimes unexpected—people, and for very complicated reasons. Sydney eventually has to set her own firm boundary.
Your last book, A Heart in a Body in the World, was about a young woman who was literally and figuratively running away from a tragedy in her past. Girl, Unframed is, in many ways, about a girl who’s increasingly afraid of what her future might hold. How did you work to make what Sydney eventually experiences feel both inevitable and surprising?
I like to write from a place of emotional truth, and I also try to be as accurate as possible about the psychology of my characters, in terms of how different personality types commonly relate to the world and other people. The truth is, when you’re in a relationship with someone like Sydney’s mom in real life, their actions do feel both inevitable and surprising. I think everyone has encountered this—that certain person who does something shocking, and, because of your history with them, you think, “Of course she would do that!” but also, “Wow, how could she do that?” I tried to give the reader their own history with Sydney’s mom, so they’d experience this, too.
I wanted Sydney, especially as a young woman, to recognize that she was already large, and larger still after the things she survives.
Sydney imagines some life-changing “IT” that’s going to mark the beginning of her adult life. Do you remember feeling this way as a teen?
Oh, I definitely remember feeling that way. It’s such a great feeling—expansive and hopeful, the knowledge that your whole life is stretched in front of you, and that maybe something is about to magically arrive to make you different and somehow larger. I wanted to show the evolution of that feeling, how the world can bang it up and bruise it, but the best “IT,” your own personal power, is there all along. I wanted Sydney, especially as a young woman, to recognize that she was already large, and larger still after the things she survives.
Something Sydney begins to navigate and confront in this book is the tension between the shame and pride she feels when others sexualize or objectify her. What advice would you give someone who is navigating these complicated emotions?
This is so hard. I’m not sure if I have even resolved those feelings myself. But I would want to tell them that their body and the decisions they make about their body are theirs. Whole, and beautiful, and theirs.
I loved the way the novel uses real works of art to prompt Sydney’s evolving perspective on how women are both objectified and commodified. Did writing Girl, Unframed change the way you look at or think about art, or about particular works of art?
I love art and art history, and so I was already familiar with many of the paintings and the backgrounds of the artists I mention. I did learn new details, though. I often still think about a fact about Willem de Kooning that I mention in the book: When he was painting women, he’d often start with the mouth. He’d cut a woman’s lips from a cigarette ad in a magazine, and then paste them on a canvas and paint around them. He didn’t know why he did it. But it’s haunting to me, the way the mouth was such a problem for him.
Girl, Unframed name-drops so many well-known artists. Who are some of your favorite visual artists? Did you uncover any new favorites as you worked on the book?
I have a longtime fondness for the dream-like stories of Marc Chagall and a weakness for any of David Hockney’s modern art swimming pools. I also really love architecture, as well as huge, bold installation-type art like Yayoi Kusama’s, or especially, the moment-in-time experiences, like Cai Guo-Qiang’s explosion events, or Agnès Varda’s and JR’s huge documentary photos, or Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s wrapped landmarks. I did discover Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party while researching the book. It’s considered to be the first epic feminist artwork.
Good dogs deserve a place in my books, even if they’re not the greatest readers.
I enjoyed the novel’s San Francisco setting, and I think readers will enjoy the opportunity to discover its quirks and beauty spots through Sydney’s eyes. Did you visit there to research the book? Were you familiar with the city before you began writing? What are some of your favorite things to do, see or experience there?
San Francisco is deep in my DNA, as I mentioned. My dad’s grandparents actually fled the 1906 fire that came after the earthquake, carrying only their wedding photo, similar to the wedding photo in Girl, Unframed. My parents both grew up in the city, and later, the Bay Area, where I also spent my early childhood until we moved to Seattle. We took many, many trips back, too, so, yes, I was already familiar with it. From the criminal history of my relatives on the waterfront, to my mother’s childhood memories of the Sutro Baths, there are family stories everywhere in and around the city.
I love many of the places in the book: the beaches, the Cliff House, Camera Obscura, the waterfront. As a kid, I was fascinated with Alcatraz. Also, some favorite places not in the book: The Palace of Fine Arts, Little Italy (lots of dinners there), and Fort Point, a fort from the 1800s, basically right under the bridge, where you can still climb around the old creepy structures and get all windblown and feel the force of the sea smashing against rocks.
One of the funniest—and most emotional—aspects of the novel is Sydney’s growing relationship with Max, Jake’s long-suffering dog. Does Max have any real-life inspirations?
I just love dogs, and I’m grateful for them. They’re so real and funny and understanding and tolerant. They are never bothered by our bad singing, horrible fashion choices, mistakes and failings. They stand by. I think pets often get forgotten in fiction, when they’re such important “people” in our lives. Max in Girl, Unframed gets his name from my beloved, sweet, “I do everything 100%, including love you” grand-dog, Max. But he gets his largeness and wildness and steadiness from our now-gone beloved beast, Tucker. He was the big guy I would rest my head on. Good dogs deserve a place in my books, even if they’re not the greatest readers.
The canine inspirations for Max: Deb Caletti’s dogs, Max (on the left) and Tucker.
Author photo © Susan Doupe.