Vanessa Blakeslee's debut short story collection, Train Shots, was released in March, 2014 by Burrow Press. Her 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.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book has caused me to take stock of how I got where I am today, and ask a lot more questions of where I’m going, or want to go, in further exploring fictional worlds. I never would have guessed as a student back in 2003 that the little 2nd person writing exercise given by Susan Hubbard would end up as the opening of my first book. Also, I’ll admit I wasn’t truly prepared for how much time and energy authors have got to put for as one’s own publicist—hours and hours of email correspondence, updating social networking sites, guest blogging, and for many, squeezing this in among teaching duties. The irony being that I haven’t worked on my own fiction for so long now, that I’m starting to forget what it feels like to write. I just keep telling myself, as parents of infants often do, that this stage won’t last forever, and that I will get back to my waylaid imaginative projects soon enough.
On that note, my stories-in-progress have taken a more speculative bent in the tradition of Poe and Lovecraft. I’m eager to return to the page and see what comes of spinning spooky modern tales, and perhaps a dystopic novel.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I’ve always been a story junkie. To me there’s nothing more exhilarating than a narrative that blows your mind, shoots tingles down your spine and invades your dreams at night. For me, few other experiences come close to it other than traveling in an exotic country, and if you think about that, fiction is its own other country—invented worlds, time periods, all brought to life imaginatively, through the senses. Storytelling is the closest we come to time-travel or body-snatching; no other artistic medium, including film, is capable of that. Although I’m curious where virtual reality and gaming might go in the coming decades; still, like movies that’s a world supplied for you on a screen, somebody else’s illustrations of what a story’s setting and characters look like. Fiction offers a unique, democratic collaboration between author and reader.
As for poetry, I’ve always loved the rhythms of words and have always dabbled in verse. It’s a nice respite from the demands of prose, when you’ve been knocking out sentences and narrative arcs for so long in a novel project, say, that you just can’t bear to write another one. Non-fiction I overlooked for years, and I don’t know why—maybe I did myself a disservice by skipping Composition in college, courtesy of my AP fulfillment in high school. I just didn’t think I had anything to say in that medium. But the Internet has prompted such a resurgence of the essay form, and maybe that’s what piqued my interest—seeing how others were writing about revealing yet quotidian experiences. At first it felt like doing a striptease, casting off my trusty mask in the wings and writing unabashedly from life. But there’s a liberation in that, too—not having to invent a world, characters, and plotline. In some ways, writing nonfiction for me is a lot easier.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Copious notes, yes. I spend a tremendous amount in the pre-writing stage, asking broad “what if” questions of the premise, then more specific questions about the characters and plot as more of the storyline takes shape. I’ll write a chunk in my notebook, then go back to my notes and draw little diagrams, time lines and such—sometimes I’ll even work from calendars to keep the time frame straight, in a more dense Munro-like story that takes places over several weeks or months. As much as possible I like to figure out a piece’s restrictions before I sit down to draft, whether those restrictions are structural or springing from historical backdrop, location, season, etc. This greatly helps eliminate certain possibilities for where the story can go. I’ve heard some writers speak of this as figuring out the story’s “container” and that’s very apt. The process is nothing as rigid as outlining—think sticky tabs and notecards—but absolutely necessary. All of which can take anywhere from a couple of days preparation for a new short story, to weeks or longer for a novel. My experience with novels is that they brew in the subconscious for years before being born.
Then once I sit down to write, I draft fairly quickly. Lately my first drafts are of a much higher quality than they were, say, for much of my twenties. But they still need copious revision.
4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Both. I know if I’m working on a book from the beginning based on the vision in my head—how much I can see of the characters, significant moments occurring against a backdrop of time and place. In between I draft short pieces that are unrelated to one another, without anything bigger in mind—maybe some will end up in a collection. Maybe certain ones never will. That’s how Train Shots came together. I don’t worry about it.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy public presentations because I’ve always loved reading to others, from the time I was in elementary school and read to classmates and at home, to my younger sister. But I can’t say that these events affect my creative process much—other than as I’m reading aloud, I’m often making edits in my mind and have to tell myself to stop!
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
From an early age, the injustice of life has gotten under my skin. Life to me has never been black-and-white, but a paradoxical and maddening grey. I’d like to think that Andre Dubus and I are kindred spirits in that we both grew up among the common man, in lower- to middle-class environs, and therefore we can relate to a vast array of ordinary people in situations where the only available choices are difficult ones. I spent a great deal of my formative years in my parents’ diner in northeastern Pennsylvania, eavesdropping on conversations between waitresses and counter regulars: state troopers, truckers passing through the Poconos on Rt. 80, the colorful salesmen from Easton Packing and Sysco who’d come by for their orders every week. So I very much had an unusual window into the adult world that other kids my age weren’t privy to, although I had no concept of this at the time. There was always some calamity going on at the restaurant, and my father would come home with these stories—dishwashers ODing in the parking lot, waitresses whose husbands beat them up, old people having heart attacks during Sunday brunch. I wasn’t shielded from any of that. It doesn’t surprise me that those surroundings would have had a lasting effect on how I see the world.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The storyteller serves the tribe as we’ve always done—much like the shaman, we absorb what’s going on around us and then spend a lot of time alone, venturing ahead of the group, into the darkness. Through the images which arise in our subconscious, we capture a reflection of our culture at this point in time. Stories show us who we are and where we’re going, and that’s why the tribe—the public—will always eagerly look to storytellers and artists for the capital T truth, not politicians or pundits, or even religious leaders. As well-intentioned as some of them may be, they can’t separate themselves from their agendas. But not the writers. We have no agendas, and in many cases, no money or fame to gain, either! Just the urgent, pressing need to get our visions down on paper. Tell the story.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I find the process of working with an editor essential, and I’m lucky to have found a dedicated and talented one in Ryan Rivas of Burrow Press. Ryan’s philosophy is that assembling a story collection is a lot like putting together a music album, and he’s absolutely right – we left out certain stories not because they lacked merit, but because the ones chosen must speak to each other in a particular, resonating way. I’d describe the process as very hands-on; I absolutely loved the thorough scrutiny we both brought to the manuscript as a team. On my own, I’d never been able to come up with a satisfying order, and Ryan had a terrific eye—and ear, I might add—for which stories belonged where, a vision of the book as a living, breathing whole. Whereas I’d worked on the stories for so long on my own, I think I’d become too close to them. So I’d say I was ultimately surprised and thrilled by the finalized “playlist,” not to mention profoundly grateful.
I was also surprised by how heavily we edited, and even revised in some cases, certain stories. All of them had been published before, and it’s easy for emerging writers, I think, to assume that once a journal has published a story, there’s no more work to be done. Far from the case. This is the stage where you have the opportunity to refine and bring your work to the next level, so you’re really presenting your best—to zero-in on repeated diction and unwieldy syntax, to make sure the final notes of each story truly sing. We had a deadline, of course, but we took our time. I believe our efforts paid off.
As for the order, we probably considered twice as many stories than what ended up making the final cut. We eliminated ones that would contain beats or subject matter too similar to others, and sought a balance in narrative perspectives and moods, from light to dark. I recommend to anyone who is seriously putting together a collection to get together with a trusted writer friend or teacher and employ another pair of eyes, at least, to help you select and juggle the order—doing so would have saved me a lot of grief and time.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Put it away for a month or two, then dive back in”—from Andre Dubus III. It was winter, 2010. I had just finished the first draft of my novel and was in this sort of daze, which I now understand to be the post-partum funk of having just expended everything in your imaginative and emotional well. But I had no way of knowing at the time that this was normal; all I could think was, what’s wrong with me? Shouldn’t I hurry up and start revising? I staggered over to Rollins College, where the Winter with the Writers festival was happening. Andre was so gracious; he actually remembered me from when he’d visited Vermont College as a guest author a couple of years prior. When I shared with him my woes, how I didn’t know what to do now, the draft just sitting there, he proclaimed, “But how can you see it again when you’ve just written it? You can’t because it’s too soon. Put it away for a month, maybe two. Go write a short story. Then dive back in!” He wrote this in the front of my worn copy of House of Sand and Fog; for a long time I kept the book on my nightstand as a reminder. The universe never ceases to amaze me, how the right people show up at the right moment, with the exact words you need to hear. And that’s how I progressed through my novel—revising, putting the draft away, writing stories in between, then back to the novel again.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I really just love creative writing, all forms. And in a way, I regard a true master as someone who can produce quality work in all written mediums—some better than others, of course. But you reach a certain level where yes, you should be able to write a darn good sonnet, or a one-act play. I suppose that’s why I admire Margaret Atwood so much. She refuses to restrict herself to just novel-writing, although that’s the form in which she’s arguably the best. She’s published poetry, children’s books, lectures, stories—you name it. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that my poetry isn’t as strong as my prose, but I don’t think my publishing competent poetry now and then is hurting anyone. I hear so many fiction writers scoff if you mention writing poetry; they sort of look aghast and say, “Poetry? Oh, I could never!” Why not? It’s just another form. There’s a lot to be said for focus—for knowing where your strengths are and using them to their utmost. But to do this for a lifetime, I think you’ve got to find ways to keep yourself challenged and interested. I’ve written a couple of screenplays, a lousy one when I was an undergrad but then a second one I co-wrote in my twenties, which turned out decent. I could see myself working on scripts again; I love the great writing happening in TV today and that might be a wonderful experience, to collaborate on a show like that. Or write a stage play; I’ve never done that. Somehow in earning three literary degrees, I’ve never taken one single playwriting course. Who knows what the future holds?
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Oh my goodness, do I have one? Writing for me is an ingrained habit, not a discipline. I’ve always preferred to settle into my day, and usually spend my first hours with a cup of tea, answering emails, reading articles, and running errands. By the afternoon I’ve grown fed up by those things, and that drives me to my desk or notebook, where I’ll work uninterrupted for hours. I realize this is quite opposite from what so many writers I know practice—getting up and writing first thing, morning as a sacred time of day, etc. I’m more likely to look up and discover that it’s 2 a.m., and I had better get off the laptop as my eyes are watering.
I’ll add that whatever routine I might have shifts based on my teaching commitments, book promotion, and other life priorities. For instance, this semester I’m teaching bright and early at 8 a.m. several times a week, so my class comes first on those days and then I come home, answer emails and take care of what needed to be tweeted, posted, etc., then see what deadlines I have coming up for fellowship applications, book prizes, and the like. So right now that leaves little time for writing, but again, all of this is temporary. By the first week of May, classes will be over, I’ll be riding Amtrak up the East Coast on my book tour, and all of that will change. I foresee getting to write a lot this summer. I don’t worry too much when life creates demands that pull me away from writing, because those situations will eventually pass. And then I’ll write again.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
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.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Citrus and night-blooming jasmine. I’m a Floridian!
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
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.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
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.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to ride the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok. Writing-wise, I’d love to challenge myself more with form and lyricism—write a novel like Cloud Atlas or The Blind Assassin. Those novels blew me away.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Director or actor, in that order.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m lousy at most other jobs I’ve tried, with the exception of waiting tables and teaching. I get bored easily and relish routine, but one that inherently allows me to constantly change it up. So college teaching is just about perfect. While I’ve always excelled in the humanities, the few office stints I’ve had never lasted long, and reports from supervisors usually cited my competent but mediocre performance. So I’ve often joked that you don’t want to hire me, I’ll make a terrible employee—constantly preoccupied with my own imaginings and scheming for the next residency opportunity because my other great love is travel.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I loved Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam—she’s such an expert craftsman, and I thought she nailed the tone perfectly. Right now there’s so much dystopic literature on the market, and much of it falls short because the writer creates this world that is entirely dark and gritty, forgetting that even the bleakest circumstances have got to contain some light, and even if there is little hope, there’s got to be humor. There’s an absurdity, after all, in the fact that humanity has landed itself in this horrible apocalyptic situation. In her book on speculative fiction, she speaks to that—how every dystopia has got to contain a utopia somewhere within, and vice versa. Necessary for verisimilitude as well as dramatic tension, I think.
Last great film—let’s see, that would have to be Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece, The Great Dictator which I finally saw the other night.
20 - What are you currently working on?
This past year 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 as I mentioned earlier, 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.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;