An Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee, by Celia Johnson
March 3, 2014
There isn’t one unifying factor to tie together the stories in Vanessa Blakeslee’s Train Shots, and therein lies its appeal. Each story is its own universe, a vivid and sometimes graphic arena, where characters deal with break-ups, violence, suicide, and more. Blakeslee, a Slice alum, doesn’t shy away from the gritty underbelly of life, though she also pinpoints in dark moments elements of hope. I spoke to Blakeslee about her superb endings (you’ll carry them with you), her disparate subject matter, and her creative process.
A train driver who hits a woman on the tracks, a mother dealing with a violent son, a man who has lost his lung… Your stories are broad-spanning, and yet you offer intimate details about each character. Which characters do you feel closest to in this collection, and which were the most difficult to capture?
The characters I felt closest to while writing the stories were the narrator in “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” the pop icon protagonist in “Princess of Pop,” as well as the female heroines in “The Sponge Diver” and “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” I also felt close to P.T., the engineer in “Train Shots.” While all of the characters I just cited are female with the exception of P.T., I wouldn’t say that sharing the same gender has as much to do with the “closeness” you’re referring to—rather, it’s a certain emotional terrain that we occupy, or that those characters spring from. I have lived, in brief spurts, the isolating experience of being an expat “caught between countries.” I have been in romantic relationships with varying degrees of power dynamics, for good and for ill. As fiction writers we talk a lot about what we “reveal and conceal” on the page, and I’m fascinated by how relationships operate that way, too – how much of privacy contains secrecy, and when does secrecy cross over into deception?
The character of Margot in “The Lung” I found a bit slippery to capture at first, because I see her as so different from me. She’s very much the strong, no-nonsense woman I aspire to be; perhaps, in recent years I’ve made strides toward becoming more like her. The troubled Ethan was often hairy to handle in scene – figuring out exactly what his objectives were, and where his motivations were coming from. Same thing with Jono, the love interest in “The Sponge Diver.” In revision, it became apparent that the story’s quiet power lay in the potential to make both of the characters responsible for their relationship’s demise, but getting that to happen, pinpointing and rendering vivid those tiny moments of miscommunication and masquerade that build to bring it down, was tricky.
And while my life is a far-cry from that of a celebrity or train engineer, in emotional terms we’re not so different. That’s what I aim to do in my fiction – illuminate how we all struggle with loneliness and disenchantment even when we are “living the dream,” whatever that dream is, and often especially after we achieve expertise or status. Doubt, despair, feeling like a fraud, whether in our vocation or in our efforts to love others – I don’t think any of us escapes our time on this planet without grappling with these things. At what point does the despair become too much? P.T. wonders in “Train Shots” – a poignant and worthwhile question, one which echoes back to the protagonist’s crisis in “Princess of Pop.”
Some of your stories venture into dark territory, whether it’s outright violence or laws broken. Harper Lee once said of investigating murder with Truman Capote for his book, In Cold Blood, “It was deep calling to deep.” What are you drawn to in these darker tales?
A short story is so compressed that what you’re writing about has got to have high stakes. One of my instructors at Vermont College, Douglas Glover, once wrote in his feedback letter to me, “Where are the great stories of love and death?” That changed everything for me about how I chose material to write about. Unusual, intriguing subject matter that deals with life-or-death stakes often treads into darkness. At the same time, readers can grow weary of material that’s too bleak, which is why I love dark humor so much. Margaret Atwood is so very good at this; even in her dystopian trilogy, she doesn’t miss an opportunity for humor. Which is also true-to-life and could perhaps be an unsung testament of verisimilitude; Holocaust survivors often recounted how even in the camps, they found ways to laugh; indeed, if humans didn’t, how would we survive anything?
Perhaps for me it’s also a fascination with the Other. I love nothing more for life to be roses and sunshine—for everyone to be well-fed and humming along in harmony. I’ve never been pulled over; I hope to never have to spend a night in jail. But through fiction I can explore these experiences, along with the nagging question of why? Why do some people find themselves in the most harrowing of situations? And how might they get out of them? Why do some people succeed in their attempts, and others fail?
Lately my interest in the dark side has lured me to Poe and speculative fiction, rather than the gritty social realism, quirkiness and black humor that runs through Train Shots. I expect my next collection to be quite different. Not fantastical in the vein of Karen Russell, per se, but more imaginative and strange in the tradition of the tale.
Many of your endings, without offering a sudden twist, still manage to cast the entire story in new light. And so I wonder about your creative process. Do your endings typically emerge while you are still working on the rest of the story or arrive later on?
I find that I change the original endings about fifty percent of the time. Endings are so important because the image, phrase, or action you’re leaving the reader with casts back over the entire story; unity, coherence and resonance all depend on that final chord. I really strive on that first pass to nail it like a gymnast, and when an ending arises naturally the way titles sometimes do, that’s really nice. “Clock In,” “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” “Princess of Pop,” “Barbeque Rabbit,” “Uninvited Guests,” and “The Lung” all contain their original endings. But endings have also got to possess a certain lyrical quality; you want the final note of your story to sing. So you’ve got to tinker there to get the words right, as Hemingway famously said. Sometimes the action falls a little short; writing a first draft can be so exhilarating and exhausting, I think we have the tendency to sense the ending on the horizon and rush to meet it, or shoot past it. Sometimes the ending isn’t quite right because what comes before doesn’t add up yet; then you have to more substantially revise. That was the case for “Hospice of the Au Pair,” “The Sponge Diver,” and “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” Whereas “Train Shots” had a whole extra scene that carried the story on a few beats too long; again, an example of overshooting your mark. In the editorial phase, we simply cut that scene while preserving the lyrical note.
I revise significantly but I’m not an obsessive re-writer. I’m not one of these writers who revises a piece a hundred times, or claims to. I’d much prefer to get the story as right as possible on the first draft, mining deeply as I go, than have to go back again and again. Of course, I still end up going back multiple times, but not a hundred. I am suspicious of writers who claim to revise that much—that they are either bragging, exaggerating, or outright lying. A hundred times? Come on. Maybe a few dozen. Maybe fifty. But a hundred? Or maybe they are in fact overhauling and scrutinizing to this extent, and I’m not, and my work suffers for it. But I find that I lose interest in pieces too quickly and much prefer to go on to something new. When I’m insatiably curious about something, I love nothing more than to plunge in, collect my pearls, surface and go on to the next.
What does your work space look like?
Do you have any creative quirks?
In terms of writing, I move around a lot—sometimes I write for days or weeks on the same spot on the couch. Then suddenly I’ll find myself sick of being indoors and spend way too much money on chai lattes and scones at nearby coffee shops. Before starting a new project or diving into a major rewrite, I’ve got to clean my workspace if not the entire condo. I can go for days, happily holed up, a stockpile of food in the fridge, and not see anyone, just work, work, work. For a long stretch during the writing of my novel, which is set in Colombia, I wore a Peruvian poncho, listened to classical Spanish guitar music nonstop, and ate lots of arepas, beans and rice. I love costumes; sometimes my boyfriend and I will host themed board game nights like Lord of the Rings Monopoly where we dress up like the characters. Is this what you mean by quirky? For me I’ve just never stopped living life as I did when I was eight-years-old. Only now I teach and make a meager living that way.
Are you inspired by any particular writers or masters of other fields?
For short stories, my go-to authors include Poe, Chekhov, Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, O’Connor, Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore, to name a few. My foreign writer friends claim that no one can match the North Americans for mastery of the short form, so I’m afraid I’ve stuck rather close to home in that realm. For novels, Tolstoy and Atwood. For craft, John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction” and Douglas Glover’s “Attack of the Copula Spiders” I find myself returning to again and again. I harbor a geeky desire to complete all the exercises at the back of the Gardner book.
International writers often inspire me to approach language and form in new and surprising ways. Irish writer Kevin Barry’s novel, City of Bohane, which won the IMPAC award, completely blew my mind in its mastery of lyricism, suspenseful storytelling, and fresh, compelling characters; also delightful and engaging was Lovestar by Iceland’s Andri Snaer Magnason, for different reasons. Recently I read The Ninth by Hungarian novelist Ferenc Barnas, which reminded me how the European writers conceive and approach the long form in astoundingly different ways than we do.
I’m constantly inspired by artists in other fields—the visual artists, composers, filmmakers and the like that I meet at colonies and residencies, or among creative circles in Orlando. When I was immersed in Middle Eastern dance, I found my fellow dancers in the company and instructors incredibly inspiring, and still do. Certain directors, screenwriters, and character actors inspire me—the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, for example—the actors who really know how to inhabit a character. In music, I love groups like Sigur Ros and Lady Gaga—artists who conjure up a whole imaginary, sometimes mythical landscape, beyond the lyrics and notes. That’s vision, when the work exhibits a certain emotional depth and scope. One that’s mysterious, bigger than the mere instrument of the artist and fueled by the subconscious.
What are you working on now? Do you plan to stick with short stories?
For the past several months I’ve been revising stories for the second collection that I mentioned, and plan to draft several new ones. In between I’ve been working on essays, book reviews and yes, the occasional poem. Lately I’ve been drawn to speculative and dystopian fiction, and hope to write a futuristic novel—although not until the book promo for Train Shots dies down, because the new novel project requires research and a trip or two. My agent is currently shopping my first novel, so with luck that will get picked up soon.
Vanessa Blakeslee’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Vanessa earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida.
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She is also a writer, most recently of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway.