As someone who has found a way to marry her two professional passions, writing and social work, E.R. Frank considers herself pretty lucky. And in fact, for her one would not be possible without the other. From a young age, Frank enjoyed writing because it was a way to express herself and make sense of the world; as a social worker helping some of New York City's neediest, she uses writing as both a release and a tool to better understand her patients.
But as real as her debut YA novel Life Is Funny (DK Ink/Jackson) seems, Frank makes it clear that the book is "absolutely a work of fiction." It is probably her command of the language in which it is written, that of the vernacular of contemporary Brooklyn teenagers, that makes her book seem like nonfiction, which the author takes as a compliment. "It's language I've heard now for 10 years, so I didn't need anyone to help me make the book sound real; it's something I'm comfortable with," she says.
Indeed, it might also be something in her blood. Frank was born into a family of voracious readers in Richmond, Va., and spent much of her childhood around her grandfather Gerold Frank, the journalist who wrote The Boston Strangler, An American Death and Judy, among others. "When I was very young, it was because of him that I realized that a writing career was a possibility," she says, adding, "sadly, he died two months before I sold my book."
Frank started writing Life Is Funny in 1996 after taking a writing course with instructor Bunny Gable at the New School in New York City. "I didn't write it with a YA audience in mind; in fact, I didn't have any particular audience in mind when I started," she says. She completed the work two years later, and on the advice of several writer friends decided the first step should be to find an agent. She did, in 1998, when Charlotte Sheedy took her on after reading another of Frank's manuscripts, and immediately submitted Life Is Funny to Dick Jackson. One day, while at home working, Frank answered the phone to hear Jackson on the other end. "He immediately started editing the book with me right then, during our first conversation," she recalls. "It was like a dream come true. I felt honored to be working with him."
So began the editing process, which continued without the two ever meeting face-to-face, since Jackson was located on the West Coast and Frank in Brooklyn. But that fact didn't pose much difficulty anyway, since relatively little was changed from Frank's original manuscript, save for rearranging the order of the characters' stories, and in some cases modifying the ages of certain characters.
Frank's current schedule is designed to devote two days a week to writing and three to social work, an arrangement that works well for her. She has just completed a rough draft of her next novel, which she hasn't even shown to her agent yet. Though it remains under wraps for the most part, she d s reveal that the plot is along the same lines as Life Is Funny, quickly interjecting, "I can't say much about it because I'm a firm believer in jinxes!"
Since the release of Life Is Funny, Frank has continued writing and practicing social work--and has recently begun some book-related activities, like a reading she did for 100 Brooklyn librarians, which she says she enjoyed very much. And she will be doing her first book signing at next month's American Library Association conference in Chicago. Frank's hope is that her book will be helpful in broaching some of the difficult issues it deals with. "For schools and social-work agencies that want to use it, I think the book could be a jumping-off point to help kids start to talk about addiction, violence, family situations, sexuality and diversity."
Asked what her fantasy writing situation would be, Frank again seems fairly lucky, since it so closely resembles reality. She would like to still write two days a week and devote three to social work. However, if she had her way, she would have more freedom to provide services on a sliding-fee scale and do more pro bono work. But still, she couldn't imagine one without the other. And the best thing about this whole experience? "I used to say, 'I'm a social worker and I write, ' " she says. "But now I say very firmly, 'I'm a social worker and a writer.' "